I never thought my favourite part of a Hironobu Sakaguchi game would be the battle system, especially since Final Fantasy and Lost Odyssey are renown for their compelling stories and dramatic character arcs. But in The Last Story, the combat was not just the best part of the game. It represented a refreshing evolution of fighting in JRPGs.
The Final Story
I still remembering playing the very first Final Fantasy and falling in love with the game's narrative. Most JRPGs in the NES period had limited stories, often involving saving princesses and killing an obvious villain. In Final Fantasy, Garland, the weak boss your party defeats at the beginning of the game, has created a time loop to try to escape his death. He comes back near the end to reveals that he's the ultimate villain as Chaos incarnate, propelling the four elemental bosses forward from the past. It was a surreal moment to realise this was all the result of a perpetual cycle of conflict.
Since then, I've been hooked. I've played most of the main games in the Final Fantasy series as well as the Mistwalker titles by Sakaguchi. I loved Lost Odyssey, enjoyed aspects of Blue Dragon, and couldn't wait to get my hands on The Last Story.
The narrative of The Last Story has its share of twists and is broken into chapters like a novel. The land is seized by a blight and a group of mercenaries get caught in an epic struggle. One of those hired guns is the main protagonist, Zael, a genuinely likable character with a tragic past (I'm so happy that Mistwalker skipped the JRPG trope of a sulky and broody hero, or the blank canvas template that is supposed to make them easier to identify with). Zael and his friend, Dagran, dream of becoming knights to escape their impoverished roots. Along the way, they bump into a princess who wants to break free of an arranged marriage and find her independence, then have to fight their way against an invasion of a bunch of Ganon-looking creatures called the Gurak, all before realising they're part of an alien encounter with an extraterrestrial being called "The Outsider."
The appearance of a superpowered alien may seem out of place as the early chapters have a strong fantasy background. But Mistwalker and Sakaguchi originally wrote The Last Story with a science fiction setting in mind before shifting gears based on feedback from Nintendo. The SF elements are still present, as it's this alien "Outsider" who grants Zael his special powers. And for the most part, the combination works (even the original Final Fantasy had a science fiction element with its time travel). Once the head of Lazulis Island, Count Arganan, realises how strong Zael is, opportunities open up as their fate begins to change.
The relationships Zael forms with his companions are the best part of the game. His fellow mercenaries, Syrenne and Lowell often steal their scenes, their humour and sarcastic banter giving levity to the game as they tease both Zael and one another. I also really liked Zael's relationship with the princess, Calista. There's a scene at the Stargazers' Tower between two as they share their dreams, their hopes, and even their past tribulations. It might be a little cheesy, but this is the best kind of cheese. I was rooting for them to get together as their attraction isn't forced, but rather, develops organically as the political upheavals brings them closer together.
When I finished the game, I enjoyed the experienced, but I wasn't blown away with the story like I'd hoped to be. Thinking back on the JRPG series I've loved, from Phantasy Star to Final Fantasy and Persona, to even more action oriented ones like Vagrant Story, Grandia II, and the recent Nier: Automata with its brilliant WTF moments, all of them had fantastic plots that kept me hooked. The Last Story had a good story, but even Sakaguchi stated his intent was to innovate on the gameplay rather than the narrative.
Fortunately, the gameplay is excellent.
Almost every Final Fantasy game takes risks with the battle systems. FFII had an innovative, but flawed, levelling up system based on usage. FFIII introduced jobs. FFIV brought about the ATB system (though it was V that actually introduced the meter). Even FFVIII had the complicated mix of drawing, guardian forces, and junctions that tried to revamp the battle system.
In The Last Story, combat is an addictive mix off MMORPG styled fights, a Gears of War type cover mechanic, and a modernised active battle system (ATB). Flow is important as you only control Zael during battle, though you can give commands to the other five characters. It's almost as though you've become a conductor in a symphony of violence, revoling around the concepts of chaos and order. Much of the geography can be interacted with, which is important for the cover system as well as placement of the characters. The magic system has spell casters creating circles where the elemental properties have an effect. Say Calista casts heal, then a white circle will appear around her. Zael has to enter the circle for it to affect him. Unfortunately, if an enemy attacks while the magicians are preparing to cast, it will disrupt the spell.
That's where the Gathering command comes into play. After you initiate the power (which is granted to Zael by the Outsider), all the enemies focus their attack on Zael. That means the other spell casters are free to prepare their magic. Zael can parry, retaliate, and use burst attacks that accumulate during Gathering mode to paralyse foes. You can also use Zael's "gale" move to diffuse the effects of a magic circle to the other members, having essentially the effect of a Cure All vs. a single Cure. The battles become like a chess match, but all the pieces are in constant motion at a frenetic pace. I relished the combat.
While the game isn't hard, if you try to brute force your way through, you'll get killed, even with five lives.
The boss battle in the Gurak Warship is an example of a battle you can't just button mash your way through. The Muruk has a continual guard from his shell which makes him impervious to most attacks as he rolls around, smashing everything in his way. He also fires needle-like spines at everyone, paralyzing your entire party. Calista has to create a "holy" spell to protect against paralysis, which Zael has to diffuse so that it spreads to the entire party. Everytime the Muruk fires his spines, he becomes dizzy for a short moment. As long as you've created a barrier around yourself with the Holy spell, you can exploit its temporary frailty to ride on top of it and attack its soft underbelly. If you hadn't cast the holy in time, everyone would be paralysed and the Muruk would recover before beginning its attack again.
Many of the key confrontations mix up the rules so that an approach that worked previously would fail in the next. In a fight against a persistent group of doppelgangers, the enemy mimics your appearance and actions. You have to turn off the automatic attacks as it's the one battle where you can actually hurt your party members. Careful planning and strategic enemy attacks are vital because the doppelgangers can heal themselves. I died here more than any other part of the game because I thought I could overpower the enemy, but instead, only ended up killing my own team members. You have to micromanage your party and focus on strategically taking out the enemy healers first.
A one-on-one fight with the head of the knights, General Ashtar, takes away the team and focuses on gathering, guard counters, and vertical slices. Quick time events come into play and the sequence in the Tower of Trials tests both Zael and the player's familiarity with the controls. Zael can also use his crossbow to launch arrows with status effects that can shift the tide of the battle.
Nebirous, a vampire type enemy, is invincible unless you fire a silver arrow into him, at which point, you can order your party to smash him to pieces. You can also launch bananas to make your enemies slip, making them vulnerable to attack. Surprisingly, this works against one of the final bosses and makes for a hilarious, but satisfying, battle plan.
In my playthrough of The Last Story, the best story moments came during battles when, as a team, I discovered a new way to overcome a difficult enemy. It was about unexpected moments in combat, a funny exchange with Syrenne, a part of the environment that reveals a new way to defeat a previously unstoppable legion of enemies. For example, in the first part of the battle against the final Cocoon boss, it can only be defeated by knocking down the column he jumps on top of. In the second part of the fight, Zael can cut down a massive sword hanging on the ceiling to take it out for massive damage.
I've been wondering a lot about what makes a good JRPG after playing Xenoblade Chronicles X last year. It was a fantastic game, but had a story that I didn't enjoy as much the gameplay. While I liked the story in The Last Story more than XBX, it was the combat that kept me coming back. I felt sad the quest ended, not so much because the story was coming to a close, but because I knew I'd missing fighting alongside my compatriots.
In many ways, The Last Story both pays tribute to Final Fantasy while evolving on the original's formula. And while Sakaguchi has stated he doesn't like to make sequels (which is why almost every FF was different), I hope there are many more iterations of The Last Story in the vein of Final Fantasy. It'd be incredible to see the ways the team could experiment, improve, and ultimately transcend the game's "last" status to become as timeless as the "final" one.