Pros:Exciting combat, great presentation.
Cons:Generic story, poorly handled wall-running.
For a game with the word “story” in the title, little effort has been put into plotting the Japanese action/role-playing game The Last Story. If you have played a JRPG before, you will know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, who will play the role of traitor and who that runaway young woman being hunted by castle guards will turn out to be. If you are surprised by a single moment in the game, then you just haven’t played that many role-playing games.
But if you’ve played a lot of role-playing games, you’ll agree that the lackluster story is more than compensated for by the exciting combat, lively locations, and engaging dialogue.
Published by: Xseed Games, Nintendo
For ages: 13 and Up
Release Date: August 14, 2012
The Premise: Nice Mercenaries, Medieval Monsters
The Last Story involves a band of mercenaries living in the bustling medieval capital city of a great empire. While brave and valiant warriors, they are looked down upon by both commoners and royalty, and their dream is to become knights of the Empire, successful and respected. Their goal appears within reach when they are offered the chance to provide extra security at a royal wedding between the ruler’s niece and a well-born but thoroughly unsavory nobleman.
This easy job is interrupted by an invasion from an empire across the sea. Thus begins a grand adventure of sailing the high seas, fighting armies and giant monsters, and, for a few participants, falling in love.
Combat: Fast Action with a Glimmer of Strategy
The Last Story is typical of a new breed of JRPG that has tossed aside turn-based strategy in favor of frenetic action. Battles are fun and fast-paced; your avatar will run, dodge, and jump over enemies for a back attack.
There are also spell circles, cast by friend and foe, that can heal or burn or freeze. Zael can use a whirlwind to scatter these effects around the room. You can also scatter these by running up a wall and jumping down, but it was never clear which walls Zael could run up and the feature was implemented so poorly that I generally ignored it.
Your avatar will usually be Zael, a typically blonde and youthful JRPG hero who acquires a “gathering” ability which, when activated, lures enemies towards him. This is risky, but it is necessary to allow other party members to fight and cast spells in peace. In gathering mode you can leap out from a hiding place for a powerful sword attack or block blows until you have stored up energy that you can then expel in all directions. You can also command your party, asking one of them to shoot crumbling pillars to bring walls down on enemies or instructing them each in what spells to use against what enemies. This is especially useful in battles against bosses like a giant spider or a flying dragon, as even though your companions will yell out helpful advice like “you need to fire a spell at that magical wall,” they won’t take their own advice without your say-so, and will even do dumb things like cast fire spells against monsters that thrive on fire.
Surviving battles is rarely difficult. Everyone in the party can be revived five times if they fall in combat; Zael will revive on his own, but he must bring the others back to life by touching them while in gathering mode. This doesn’t mean you’ll never see a “game over” screen – some bosses can kill you five times in two minutes if you’re not careful – but it is rare.
Presentation: Great Looks, Cute Extras and Minor Flaws
When you are not killing monsters in underground caverns and crumbling buildings you can wander the capitol city, chatting with and helping its residents, or upgrading new weapons you acquire in your travels. The game includes some features uncommon for an RPG. You can make money by buying and selling items; I bought a few bottles of wine on a ship and later sold them for twice what I’d paid. There is even a mini dating sim in which answering women’s flirtatious questions correctly will cause them to wait for you at a bar; if you visit they will scream as though you are a rock star.
The game has a few technical oddities. Party members sometimes block your way and cannot be moved (I once had to reload a checkpoint because I couldn’t get past them). The narrative scenes are an inconsistent mix of traditional cut scenes, in-game conversations; sometimes you must push a button at the end of each sentence, other times the scene spools out on its own. While walking through dungeons your companions will have fairly entertaining conversations, but walk through a door or trigger a cut scene and the current conversation will be clumsily cut off in mid sentence.
In spite of its quirks, I was thoroughly entertained by The Last Story for the thirty hours it took me to complete it. The game looks great for a Wii game, the music is gorgeous (it’s scored by the guy who did most of the Final Fantasy games), the city with its markets and bars and town squares feels alive and convincing, and there are some imaginative sequences, including one in a haunted house and another involving an enemy that causes hallucinations.
The Plot: Well Paced and Utterly Forgettable
The game’s story, though unoriginal, moves briskly, only faltering at those times when the author overestimates how involved the player is in that story. There are moments towards the end where characters will have emotional revelations that seem to come out of left field. Like a lot of games, The Last Story assumes that if two characters fall in love, or someone expresses regret, that we will automatically be moved even if we have little knowledge of the people involved. Outside of Syrenne, a loud, hard-drinking girl who was refreshingly outsized among her low-key companions, I never had strong feelings about anyone in the game.
While The Last Story fails dismally in making you care about its cast, it is more effective in its sweeping condemnation of war. The game contains a super weapon that ended a war but is still bleeding the planet (echoes of Hiroshima), while the most affecting moment in the game is a dark scene in which Zael experiences childhood flashback’s of soldiers destroying his village while watching present-day soldiers abuse the enemy civilians he has helped conquer.
Unlike the vast and open ended Xenoblade Chronicles, which also came out this year, The Last Story offers a rather linear and contained experience. While it is obvious to the player how the story is going to go, it is less obvious to Zael, and players will be repeatedly asked to say “yes” whenever Zael is asked to make a bad decision. If you’re going to give players a yes/no question, you should allow for different results from each answer rather than forcing the answer. I’m not saying Zael should not make those dumb decisions – there would be no story without them – I just don’t see why the game insists on my complicity.The Verdict: A First-Rate JRPG with a Second-Rate Story
When I told my non-game-playing friend Suzanne about the runaway woman and the deadly super-weapon and the obvious bad guys, she said it sounded like fun. And of course it is. These elements turn up in so many games precisely because they are fun. The Last Story offers adventure and romance, good guys and bad guys, fun banter and goofy touches like a banana arrow used in practical jokes. But as fun as the game is, a more apt title would be, The Least Story.