Returning the JRPG to glory?
Throughout the nineties, Nintendo of Europe’s reluctance to bring over RPG classics such as Chrono Trigger and Earthbound was something many fans simply had to deal with. The fact that these games had already been translated into English for their US releases meant importing these more niche titles was fairly common for the genre’s enthusiasts. Within the last few years however the European division has been more than pulling its weight in terms of localising games that may not be the most mainstream of hits in the west. Many games have either skipped the Americans entirely such as Disaster: Day of Crisis and Another Code R. Others like last year’s excellent Xenoblade Chronicles and now The Last Story will see a release in Europe months ahead of our friends across the Atlantic.The Last Story is the latest game from Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, and his first game with a director credit since 1992’s Final Fantasy V. Players will follow a gang of mercenaries, led by Zael who dreams of one day becoming a knight. Upon entering Lazulis Island’s capital city they are recruited by its leader, Count Arganan, to provide extra security for his daughter’s engagement ceremony. Needless to say, things take a turn for worse as the Gurak race, sworn enemy of man, invade and predictably nab Lady Callista, catapulting Zael and his gang into a much larger conflict.The game is presented in a chapter format, presenting a variety of different scenarios while maintaining a focus on pushing the story forward. General gameplay is broadly split into two different aspects, depending on where the action is taking place. If exploring the central town, players are given freedom to wander around and explore in order to find various side quests or purchase items from vendors before progressing further into the game. The other main aspect is the more linear dungeons-crawling aspect as Zael and his party fight their way past various enemies to their goal.Unlike many JRPGs the combat system in The Last Story isn’t menu based. The combat system here is fast, fluid and simple as with the default control set-up the left analogue stick does most of the work. Basic attacks are performed by simply pushing the stick in the direction of a given enemy and Zael will slash away in a similar fashion to Too Human. There’s also the ability to block and roll away from attacks. The core mechanics for basic combat do work quite well, but some may find it difficult to dodge with the default controls as the A button doubles up as the heavy attack and dodge commands, making it occasionally awkward getting out of trouble. For those who don’t trust the analogue stick combat there’s the option to use the ‘hard’ controls, which also brings the added challenge of having your attacks do less damage than the default options. The advanced controls use a more traditional button set-up which does tend to lead towards simply button mashing for most of the regular enemies, so personally I opted for the default controls.The game slowly introduces more mechanics for Zael to make use of, all of which have their uses in combat. There’s a cover system similar to a Gears of War game in which the player can hide from enemies to unleash surprise attacks or use the crossbow to deal chip damage and lure opponents away from their group. Early on Zael obtains a strange power called ‘Gathering’ which has a few functions while active such as being able to draw enemy attention away from the rest of the party, regenerate health upon successful attacks and revive fallen party members. Later a power gauge is introduced that fills up over time allowing Zael to use his gale force to spread the other party member’s magic circle effects throughout the area and dispel enemy magic.There is no direct control over the other party members, although to be honest it isn’t really needed. The NPC members will act depending on the battle creating healing and elemental damage circles which encourage the player to work with them rather than going solo against the next horde of enemies. At the start of most battles the game offers an overhead perspective of the battlefield allowing players to survey the environment and what enemies they are up against, along with some advice from other party members. There is a first person command option that allows you to order party members to attack certain groups of enemies or destroy environmental structures to take out certain out-of-reach attackers.The battle system overall is great, and definitely a much more engaging experience than the constant clicking through menus found in the likes of Final Fantasy XIII-2. Unlike a lot of other JRPGs the level you are in comparison to an enemy may not be the deciding factor in succeeding as it is quite possible with the effective use of Zael and his party’s abilities to take on higher levelled opponents and still come out on top. Luck is also not as much of an issue as with other RPGs as the game encourages using various different strategies rather than relying on a roll of the dice.The simplicity of the battle system is part of Mistwalker’s much more streamlined approach to RPG games. Although some players may be disappointed with the lack of skill-trees or any real control over how the skills of their characters are developed, as any abilities are automatically learned at specific levels, that’s not to say they can’t customise their party. There are constant loot drops in the form of weapons and armour which can be equipped to a compatible party member. To save players the time of assigning the best armour and weapon to each character, there is an auto-equip for either a player or the whole party which will assign the equipment to each character giving the best stats. There’s also a dye system in which you can customise the appearance of each party member, choosing the colour of their armour and what pieces are visible in game. Although only cosmetic changes, it’s a welcome addition for those who might want some consistency within their characters.Although the main focus of the game is the central story, there are many sub-quests to be found throughout the main city. However, finding these tasks can be a little bit of a pain as there is no knowing where to find them beyond walking around and talking to every NPC which can get a little irritating. For the most part sub quests are usually fetching something for someone as they need stock for their store or need to find their lost cat. The menial tasks that are on offer generally aren’t too interesting but can offer some decent rewards for the player.The main narrative of The Last Story is quite restrained when compared to other recent titles from Japan, which is quite welcome but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There are still frequent lengthy cut scenes which went on a lot longer than I would have preferred, although not nearly to the same degree as Final Fantasy XIII-2. There’s also some infuriating lack of character development early on in the game as Zael gains his gathering ability, in which he simply accepts his new power and revives his recently killed comrade, with no questioning of his new power as Shulk does in Xenoblade Chronicles. Although the story isn’t particularly amazing, most of the characters found in the game are a lot more grounded and likeable than the most stereotypical anime characters found in a lot of JRPGs. Apart from Zael, who whimpers around a lot, the cast are all quite upbeat and likeable. They add a much lighter atmosphere which is welcome as far too many games, JRPG or not, have the tendency to make all the characters scowling miseries, taking the plot far too seriously. Although there are some darker moments as the story progresses, it’s all in the adventure genre spirit and never bogs down the core atmosphere.Beyond the main story there are a few worthy modes to keep players coming back for more. Although the sub quests found throughout can be a little repetitive there are more interesting activities to participate in. Upon returning to the city between missions, it’s possible to select a party and do battle with another team in the arena to gain better equipment and more money, with the challenge ramping up with each visit. There are also some repeatable dungeons to get loot that perhaps you may have missed the first time around. These are both much more fun ways to level up your gang of mercenaries rather than just using the summon circles found throughout the game.There are two multiplayer modes also included, competitive and co-operative. The co-op mode will pit up to six players against a boss in order to gain rare equipment whilst the versus modes are the standard deathmatch and team deathmatch. Teaming up with other players to take down a tough opponent is very enjoyable as there’s not as much need to worry about the other party members, it’s just a shame the lack of communication can make it difficult rallying less experienced players together. While this mode won’t take on Monster Hunter Tri as the go-to Wii online co-op game it is more suited for a quick play as there’s not as much wasting time preparing for a game as Capcom’s beast slaying adventures. The deathmatch modes are both frantic and fun as the player unlocks various characters to play as including the enemy types found throughout the single player campaign and will likely be most players’ main reason to keep coming back to the game.The Last Story is one of the Wii’s best-looking games featuring detailed, well designed characters and wonderfully designed environments. Unfortunately, there are many frame-rate issues that crop up constantly as the player walks through the city or is engaging in combat. It’s a shame that these issues are present, but the frame-rate never drops to the point where it becomes unplayable, it’s just uneven a lot of the time. There are some nice animation touches found throughout normal gameplay as it’s possible for Zael to bump his head on signs and gracefully flip over other party members in the midst of battle. The pre-rendered cinematics on display here are nicely done as they aren’t as dramatic a shift in graphics as some other titles but obviously the budget wasn’t in place to re-animate and lip-sync the English voices, unfortunately.Sakaguchi’s long-time music collaborator, Nobuo Uematsu does a superb job with the elegant yet epic score throughout the game. Like Xenoblade Chronicles and later this year Pandora’s Tower, the localisation of this title has been handled mainly in the UK, giving a much different vocal flavour than the usual anime-dub stagey quality of many other Japanese RPGs. The voice acting is much more natural and is quite charming with most British regional dialects making each cast member unique.The Last Story is an excellent attempt at re-thinking the JRPG formula with an intuitive, exciting combat mechanic and less emphasis on annoying anime teen-angst and overlong cut-scenes re-iterating the same plot points over and over again. Those expecting another Xenoblade Chronicles will likely be initially disappointed with the lack of a truly free world to run around or character skills to mess around with, but The Last Story isn’t trying to be a game like that. Rather, it is a more focused experience and while certain aspects like the plot aren’t much different to JRPG staples, the gaming experience is. Many may have abandoned the Wii, but with this game, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Xenoblade Chronicles and the upcoming Pandora’s Tower, Nintendo are making sure the core gamer has their fill before the Wii U comes along later this year. Just because the game isn’t on the HD consoles doesn’t mean that The Last Story isn’t a much more fun and engaging experience than Final Fantasy XIII-2, despite its glossy visuals.
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