In 1987, a young director by the name of Hironobu Sakaguchi was charged with making a game for his small game company, Square. Up until this point the company had had moderate success with racing and platforming games, but it was clear to all that Sakaguchi's game was likely to be his -- if not the company's -- final project. And as he had always wanted to make a fantasy game along the lines of Ultima and Wizardry, he named the game Final Fantasy.
Ironically, the title ended up not only revitalising the company but also spawning one of the best-selling series of all time. Now 25 years later, Sakaguchi has returned to that mindset, once again working as if he was making his final game. But can this new game recreate his success of old, or will The Last Story live up to its name?
The Last Story follows Zael, an orphan mercenary who dreams of becoming a knight. When he and his fellow mercenaries come to Lazulis Island, a profitable trading port on the edge of a sprawling empire, they find themselves thrust into the middle of an ancient mystery even as a long-banished foe returns from across the seas.
While the plot comes complete with all the common JRPG tropes -- dungeons, damsels in distress, prison escapes, pirates, love stories, haunted houses and, of course, sewer levels -- it's the way The Last Story is told that makes it unique. Unlike most RPGs, The Last Story is far more a character-driven narrative, than a plot-driven one. This means that the story is less about moving towards a goal (e.g., saving the world) and more about seeing how the characters change, grow, and act when thrown into complex situations. Thus, it becomes a far more intimate adventure than most, where you are meant to care on an emotional level about Lazulis Island and its inhabitants just as much as your party members.
Another unique plot element is that The Last Story produces an actual love story. Often Japanese tales of romance finish with the characters finally admitting they love each other -- as if that's the end of the story. The Last Story, on the other hand, crafts a love story where the question of romantic attraction is answered early on, and all that keeps them apart are the societal obstacles that the two fight to overcome. In other words, it presents a true romantic epic instead of a series of love triangles strung together through misunderstandings and teenage angst.
The story itself is told through a series of 44 chapters that take about 30 hours to complete. While long stretches of the game are linear, every few chapters you a presented with a hub of some sort -- most commonly Lazulis City. From these hubs, you can embark upon a myriad of sidequests, backtrack to previous areas, or just explore the city and castle. It is even possible to do many chapters out of order or even skip them entirely (though you'll be doing yourself a great disservice if you do).
THE LAST STORY
Developer: Mistwalker / AQ Interactive
Platforms: Nintendo Wii
Released: January 27, 2011 (Japan), February 23, 2012 (PAL), June 19, 2012 (US)
Type of game: A Japanese RPG with action-RPG elements.
What I played: The entire 44-episode story and all side quests I could find along the way (approx. 30 hours). I also beat every boss in the online co-op mode and played several matches of the online versus multiplayer.
My Two Favourite Things
- Seeing an actual love story in a video game instead of two angsty teens lusting after each other in a relationship that doesn't even begin until the final credits roll.
- A combat system that was neither turn-based nor MMORPG-like and was an enjoyable experience to just simply play.
My Two Least-Favourite Things
- Wasted Potential. The multiplayer could have been expanded into so much more than just a tacked-on afterthought.
- That it ever ended.
Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes
- "The best Final Fantasy in a decade!" -Richard Eisenbeis, Kotaku.com
- "The next evolutionary leap for JRPGs." -Richard Eisenbeis, Kotaku.com
The Last Story goes for a battle system more inspired by action-RPGs than turn-based or MMORPG-styled systems. Battles take place in real-time but combat is not controlled by pushing a designated attack button. Rather, you attack by tilting the thumbstick in the direction of your target. This allows you to combat multiple enemies at once -- and even interrupt them mid-attack.
As movement and attacking use the same thumbstick, movement while in combat becomes tied to the block button: so when blocking, the thumbstick once again controls movement. And while this takes a while to get used to, soon enough it's second nature. For anyone who prefers to have a standard attack button layout, though, that control scheme is available in the options menu.
The game also implements both a cover-based and "gathering" system. The cover mechanic is used for creating ambushes or sneaking through areas to get a better tactical position, while the gathering system can be used for tanking or kiting enemies.
As your party size includes up to six members, you will rarely find yourself alone. Party members are either melee or magic-based with your usual player character, Zael, being one of the former. Mage members fire a ball of magic that creates a residual circle of magic around its point of impact. While standing in one of these circles, melee weapons gain the circle's element, boosting their attack. Moreover, Zael has an attack that disperses magic circles -- buffing the party or debuffing the enemies. Knowing whether to disperse a magic circle or not, as well as remembering each circle's effect, is the key to combat in The Last Story.
Oddly enough, The Last Story also sports an FPS mode. Not only can Zael's crossbow be utilised to shoot enemies, it can also be used to point out targets and discover hidden doors. Occasionally it's even used in lieu of QTEs, giving you a chance to spot incoming danger and react before it arrives.
But even though The Last Story gives you so many options in battle, it's actually quite simple in practice. The majority of encounters will provide little challenge once you get used to the battle systems, especially since your party members have a maximum of two spells to manage. In addition, there is more than a little hand-holding as the game suggests strategies for winning before each battle. Even in the hardest encounters in the game you have very little chance of dying -- though this is more due to the fact that each character has five lives rather than anything else.
Overall, the combat is a fun, frantic breath of fresh air. The Last Story does its best to use varying terrain, different party combinations, and changing objectives to keep battle fresh and enjoyable. It's a great base for future games to build on and gives an excellent alternative to turn-based and MMORPG-style systems. And for those who just can't get enough of it, there are even versus and coop online multiplayer modes where you can test your skills amongst like-minded players.
The graphics are the best of any non-first party title in the Wii's library, though it's not without its drawbacks. There is some slowdown in some of the game's most hectic battles and the environmental colour palette sticks closely to the grays, greens, and browns expected in a medieval world. But these problems are easy to overlook. What's not, are the voices.
The British cast of The Last Story is all over the place. Some characters -- especially the highborn knights -- sound perfectly attuned to a medieval fantasy setting while some of your party members are cringe-worthy with nearly every line they speak. Luckily, the Nobuo Uematsu-penned score never seems out of place, with the theme song being particularly noteworthy.
The Last Story is an excellent game and truly the Wii's swansong. The story is emotionally complex with interesting characters, the combat is fast and engaging, and the world it creates is just a pleasure to visit. Though not without its share of problems, it is an excellent base on which to build an entirely new type of JRPG. So if the idea of an old-school Final Fantasy with modern gameplay appeals to you, then it's time to dust off the Wii one final time and experience a Sakaguchi story that is far too fantastic to be the last.