I love JRPGs. Playing Final Fantasy VIII opened a new world to gaming that was previously restricted to platformers and puzzle games. But as I get older and more jaded, I can’t help but notice that the more things change, the more things stay the same. I’m impressed by the snazzy new battle system, but all the JRPG tropes plaguing this genre which is dying with Western audiences are present and accounted for.
One of the main selling points for Final Fantasy veterans like myself are the big names slapped on the front of the package. Hironobu Sakaguchi, old Final Fantasy executive producer, and renowned composer Nobuo Uematsu, reunited for this project. As usual, Nobuo does not disappoint. I’m planning on downloading this soundtrack sometime soon. There are a handful of memorable tracks I’d love to have on my iPod.
The main positive of The Last Story is the fresh, engaging battle system… for the first half of the game or so. I’ll do my best to explain the highlights. It’s one of those games that feels fun and quick to pick up at first, but five hours into the game when you’re still getting battle tutorials it’s like, “Oh, wow, there’s a lot more to this than I thought.” Which is okay, but then it turns into annoying, gimmicky fights later on that get old when you have limited control of your ally AI actions.
In The Last Story, you’ll be playing as a ragtag band of mercenaries, joined by a magic-centric noblewoman. The main character is Zael, a swordsman with a crossbow, who you’ll take control of most of the game. There are small missions when he isn’t present and someone else will head the party. Otherwise, you’re stuck with Zael because he’s the main character, and therefore granted special powers and issues the commands even though he isn’t the merc’s leader. The Last Story is an action-RPG. Player characters and enemies are free to wander the battle area as they see fit. Controlling Zael’s basic physical attacks is as simple as approaching an enemy. There are weird stealth elements weaved into the battle system. Zael can hide behind pillars and around corners to slash at enemies for extra damage, or shoot an arrow to draw their attention. There’s also an ability called Vertical Slash. I hated using it because it requires running against a wall for about five seconds before he decides to run up and perform the move. And that’s IF you’re actually running against a wall and not some other flat vertical surface like a pillar. Those are no nos, silly me.
Zael doesn’t have any magic spells, per se, but he has special abilities to add some flavor. He obtains the Gathering ability early on. This performs a few necessary functions in battle. The most noteworthy of them is the ability to revive fallen party members. Here’s where the battles play a bit differently from most other games I’ve played. There are no usable battle items. None. So, there’s no worrying about consumable pools of magic or anything like that. How does one revive fallen party members, you ask? For each fight, all the characters have 5 expendable lives each. When they go down, they’ll automatically revive after a set amount of time. It feels like forever, but I’m sure it’s more like 10-15 seconds. If you’re in a hurry for your healer or DPSer to wake up, Zael can revive them with a touch if Gathering is active. Pretty handy. If the main character loses all 5 lives, it is a Game Over. If you happen to get a Game Over, do not fret. Manual saves and checkpoint saves are abundant so you won’t lose much progress.
Another unique ability is the “Gale” skill. This creates a fascinating element to battles I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. The party mages only have two spells a piece. Doesn’t sound like a lot, I know, but check this out: Every spell is cast as a circle on the floor, so it has an area of effect. Heal circles are a white circle on the ground that the characters must stand in to heal, for example. BUT every spell also has a secondary effect that triggers when Zael uses the Gale ability inside of it. When the Recover spell gets dissolved, it heals and removes negative status effects for all characters. When Yurick’s Fire circle is active, that element is added to any of your physical attackers standing inside of it. When dissolved, it lowers enemy defense. I found this unique twists to typical action-RPGs an awesome breath of fresh air.
Until the boss fights roll around. Then the lack of control over the AI characters gets frustrating. The only time Zael can issue commands to party members is when a certain segmented bar is full. Not a big deal when leveling or fighting trash. Boss fights are an entirely different story. There always seems to be one specific spell or ability that has to be performed in order to do any damage to the boss. Calista will be all, “Zael, use my barrier!” without bothering to cast the damn spell herself. You’d think that between only having TWO spells to cast the AI could be bothered to use the right one on it’s own. But it refuses, so you have to go through the command option whenever the bar is full to tell them to do it, only to turn around and use Gale to trigger the madatory diffusion effect. By the way, Gale uses one segment of the SAME bar that must be filled to issue a command.
See where I’m going with this?
This process made tricky and end game bosses really annoying. If only there were a way to preset the AI. I would’ve been happy with just being able to tell the mages to favor offensive or defensive. Guess the developers couldn’t have been bothered with that. All but one of the characters favor either magic or physical. But Lowell, the only party member who isn’t particularly better at either, has one magic command and one physical command. What the AI had Lowell doing at any given point is anyone’s guess. I just gave him the best sword available after equipping my physical attackers and hoped for the best.
One of my RPG pet peeves is what I like to call “party raping.” Being party raped means the game is constantly throwing certain party members in and out of the party, leading to frustration when I get to like certain characters but don’t determine when I actually get to use them. The Last Story constantly does this. In fact, it never doesn’t do it. Unless you’re fighting in the optional Arena, you will never choose who participates in the active fights. This didn’t annoy me as much as I thought it would for two reasons:
1.) You’re always given access to non-active character’s equipment screens, so you can take back that awesome sword that isn’t being used whenever you want. Even during battle.
2.) Character customization in this game is so shallow that there isn’t much to miss out on. The game will hook you up with whatever mage (AKA- spell du jour) that you need for the gimmicky boss fight. I learned to be happy with that.
The equipment menu is not very involved either. Each character can wear one chest piece and one leg piece. Armor and greaves. Keeping it simple. All armor can be dyed when you collect the proper mats, in case you’re getting bored with the default templates. There’s even a couple side quests that will give you invisible dye upon completion. That’s right. Invisible dye. Nothing like shamelessly exploiting pixels to satisfy those rogue “I wonder what Syrenne’s bra looks like” thoughts.
Throughout the game you’ll pick up items which can be used to level equipment up to +9, depending. First you’ll only need moola, then gnome copper, then gnome silver, then gnome gold, for example. As you progress, the necessary items for upgrading become more and more rare. I only had maxed armor for Zael by the end. I had better luck with the weapons, but they capped at +5. As weapons and armor level, they gain extra perks which is nice. I had Zael equipped with weapons that had a Death on hit percent chance, and it procced a lot! No complaints there.
Acquiring mats for upgrading and such is typical RPG fare. Treasure chests and enemy drops. The trick in Last Story is that every drop is random. I’m not entirely sure how it works, but when a chest is opened or an enemy drops something, a reel quickly cycles through a list that looks something like random piece of armor, or random arrow type, or random weapon. I felt like I got quite a bit of rares out of this. Oh, and enemies also drop permanent stat boosts! While traveling dungeons, sewers and whatnot, Zael and his companions stumble upon summoning circles. Triggering the Gathering ability on these summon circles makes enemies pop. I loved this method of grinding for a game with no random encounters. I spent a good half hour or so at each summoning circle, leveling and picking up stat boosts at the same time!
I used to play JRPGs for the story. Not anymore. The Last Story really solidified that for me. It’s really a conglomeration of predictable and recycled plot points with medieval fantasy elements thrown in. For example: The very first time Zael meets the game’s love interest, I was having childhood flashbacks from watching Disney’s Aladdin. Remember when Aladdin meets Jasmine in the market place and she’s all, “What? I have to pay for this apple?” …Yeah. The same exact thing happens in this game. I was in shock. Then they run away from the guards together? A huh. I’d eat my own shoe if the writers of this game were hooked to a polygraph and said they’d never seen Disney’s classic Aladdin movie. Then there’s the typical cheesiness of characters apparently being on the brink of death so they can spout some heart-wrenching sentiments, yet five minutes later they’re remarkably better and fighting alongside you in battle. Stuff like this just makes me roll my eyes.
The characters are mostly cookie cutter stereotypes, if you can fathom that. I couldn’t help but like Syrenne, the rough-around-the-edges lush with a hot accent. As it turns out, she and Lowell (the playboy) have some kind of history together, but you’ll never know what it is unless you do the easy-to-miss side quest. I missed it, naturally, so I really know nothing about either of them from before the game began. The rest of the playable characters do get fleshed out histories, which I appreciate.
While I’m talking about the way the story is written, I have another retrospective thought to throw out there. Not only are side quests easy to miss, but so are complete chapters! Imagine, complete chapters can just be ignored. Can you imagine reading a book and having multiple chapters with content not required in order to get the complete story? What would we consider those in a video game? Oh I know… side quests! I’m not entirely sure how they figured what was considered a “Chapter” compared to a “Side Quest” but it’s got me scratching my head. Pretty sure if I handed in a manuscript and there were entire chapters that weren’t necessary the editor would shred and burn them.
The actual side quests are very easy to miss. Somewhere along the line I was under the impression it was getting to be normal and expected for NPCs with available quests to have some sort of indicator above their heads. But after playing this game and Lightning Returns, I’m coming to the realization that this is not the case. I’m good at speaking with NPCs my first go ’round of a city, but I can never remember where they are when it comes time to turn the quests in. Plus there’s no quest log in the main menu to remind me of the quests. Not good for someone like me who sometimes only gets to play on the weekends. And my memory is crap. All in all, I didn’t get many side quests done. I did season 1 of the arena multiple times. I repeated the fights in season 2 a couple of times, but when the gamblers outside offered me the same lowly rewards they did for the easier fights, I stopped bothering.
I also found about 90% of the scenery to be bland and boring. Kind of depressing, considering how short the game is for a JRPG. There is only one main city, a castle, and a handful of other areas to explore throughout the game. I appreciate games not padding hours just because. That actually drives me nuts. But with such a limited scope, I can’t believe they had the nerve to bring me back to the starting dungeon near the end of the game. I really didn’t need to see that boring Reptid cave again, thanks. I’ll take that pitch black room before the final boss fight as their pivotal moment of creativity.
Oh, the final boss fight. The plot is so predictable, if you didn’t see this one coming then I’m going to assume you skipped over the cutscenes. Actually, you don’t skip cutscenes, you fast-forward through them which is funny because letting the button go prematurely makes the cutscene play out with no audio. But the character’s justification for everything is just plain stupid. Like most of the story. I hate this boss fight because I died about three times. Every death was at the final form. For a game so generous with checkpoints, I find it weird there weren’t any between the boss forms. Don’t bother trying to kill the final boss if your levels aren’t in the mid-60’s. I was level 62, died three times, reloaded my last save (because you’re blocked off from just turning around into the next room where the summon circle is) and grinded until 66. Then I killed the boss with relative ease.
Was I rewarded with a happy ending and credits? Not right away. For some reason there are FOUR epilogue chapters to complete after the final boss fight to actually see the ending. Completely unnecessary and anti-climatic. I killed the final boss, okay? Give me my happy ending, staff roll, and ask me if I want to save my file for a New Game+. Why on earth should I have to do another boring dungeon with a spider boss fight to see something that could just happen after the narrator does the whole, “Here’s everyone rebuilding Lazulis castle for the THIRD time. But hey, Zael and his friends are legends and stuff.” The end. That might’ve been this game’s one go at padding gameplay hours. My only guess is that they were like, “Oh no, gamers can beat this RPG in only 20-something hours… we better add some crap!”
There is also online multiplayer, but with Nintendo turning off online support for Wii and DS, I suppose I won’t ever get around to checking it out.
I know this post comes off as a rant, but I did like this game and can picture myself playing it again down the road. Like Xenoblade Chronicles (which is definitely a superior game), it is a breath of fresh air from the rest of the wii offerings. If you want to give this game a shot, I only advise you disregard the title and don’t think about the story very much. I think the few paragraphs I wrote about The Last Story in this blog was more effort than the writers put into writing this “story” themselves.
But at least I can make my character’s armor invisible.