Lost among this week's barrage of awesome new video games is The Last Story, a role-playing game that's slipped pretty damn far under gamers' radars considering it was designed and directed by the man who created Final Fantasy.
You might be tempted to ignore this one. It's for Wii. You probably haven't touched yours in a while. Maybe it's in the closet, collecting dust with your Ninja Turtle action figures. Maybe you still haven't finished Xenoblade (it's hella long). Maybe you're playing Darksiders II or Papo & Yo or waiting on the new Mario game. Maybe you were just going to let this one pass by.
Don't. The Last Story is one of the best role-playing games you can get on a console today -- and one of the best I've played in years.
Maybe it's the effort. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the infamously mustachioed ex-Square maestro responsible for shaping the childhood of anyone who grew up with games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, spent almost a year-and-a-half building the combat system for The Last Story. He and his team looked at Japanese games. They looked at Western games. They prototyped. They tweaked. And Sakaguchi, directing his first game since Final Fantasy V almost two decades ago, didn't leave the lab until he had forged a set of systems he was proud to play.
The resulting product is sort of a hybrid between the best of Japanese and Western game design, a combat system that blends first-person shooting, stealth, strategy, and hack-and-slash action. In theory, it sounds silly. In practice, it's transcendent.
See, what makes The Last Story special is that it takes you to a battlefield and says, "Hey, you're on a battlefield!" Fights are frantic and chaotic, almost the medieval version of a Western shooter like Gears of War or Call of Duty (minus the guns and ridiculous bro chatter). You control Zael, a Genuine Hero and member of a charming group of mercenaries who fight together in groups of four or five. They're not your average RPG troupe; as your party moves through dungeons and caverns, they will manoeuvre around like a battle-hardened team, hiding behind pillars and flanking doorways as you sneak through enemy fortresses and mystical forests.
In combat, they'll all do their own thing, leaving you alone to control Zael. No complaints here. Zael is a monster-disemboweling wrecking ball equipped with a sword for slashing, a crossbow for first-person sniping, and special skills like an ultra-powerful sneak attack and an attention-drawing tank move that can also revive allies. You can bark orders at your party -- especially helpful if you want them to cast spells -- but you'll mostly be focused on your own action.
(Important note: If you play The Last Story, be sure to go into the options and change "Attack Type" from Automatic to Manual. This changes your modus operandi from "run at an enemy and watch your character automatically swing his sword" to "run at an enemy and swing your character's sword." In other words, this turns it into an actual video game. I can't imagine enjoying the combat without this switch.)
Every battle is scripted. There are no random encounters. Battlefields are constructed in deliberate, careful fashion, breakable environments and all. So whether you're running away from soldiers in the narrow alleys of a crowded city or sneaking behind rocks to get in proper position to snipe a bunch of giant ogres before you get smashed, it'll feel like every moment was crafted just for you. There are no filler battles. This is a game that respects your time.
There's variety, too. Your team might start off near a hedge maze, right behind a group of nasty skeleton warriors who don't know you're there. You can foolishly charge in and try to take them all out with swords and spells. Or you could sneak around corners of the maze, carefully sniping each one individually, baiting it closer to you so you can smack it down without alerting its allies.
Another battle might drop you right into the middle of a chaotic brawl. You won't even have time to enter first-person mode and pull out your crossbow. You'll just have to fight.
And then there are the bosses. Oh, the bosses. I won't spoil any of them, but they're remarkably fun to take down. Almost Zelda-like. OK, if you absolutely insist, I'll spoil one: One particularly devious fight pits you against a group of doppelgangers who take the shapes of your party members. During this devious fight, you'll also be able to attack your actual party members. In the frenzy, it can be awfully hard to tell which doppelgangers are actually your friends, who you will accidentally attack. Often. Get ready to be yelled at. A lot.
"This all sounds great," you might be saying. "What's the downside?" Well, like Xenoblade before it, The Last Story is a game saddled by its system. It's too pretty for the Wii. You might find yourself hamstrung by technical issues. Sometimes it'll take a second or two before a cut-scene starts. The lag is occasionally infuriating. The camera is an unforgivable mess.
This is all offset by the wonderful localisation, the excellent British voice acting, the lovely music (composed by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu), the thoroughly interesting characters, the love story that doesn't treat you like a child, and the plot that takes itself seriously but not too seriously.
An RPG is successful when it resonates with your emotions, when it makes you feel like you're somewhere else, someone else, something else. Whether the characters are adventuring through an exciting new world or just fighting to protect their city, whether the game is turn-based or grid-based or non-stop high-octane action, what matters is that it makes you feel something extraordinary.
The Last Story is pretty damn good at that.