"Too Familiar While Attempting To Be Different."
Note: Multiplayer was one aspect I could not try out as of this writing. The review and score reflect solely off the single player portion.
Operation Rainfall’s purpose was to bring a few RPG’s over to the US, which were not scheduled to be released here in the first place. Not only did the widely acclaimed Xenoblade Chronicles see the light of day here, but Operation Rainfall also poured it on just enough to get The Last Story a US release. Co-developed by Mistwalker (who was not only founded by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, but had a hand in previous releases such as Blue Dragon and the somewhat under-appreciated Lost Odyssey), The Last Story was supposed to have introduced a more involving way of battling enemies, along with provide a story that would linger in the minds of gamers. To its credit, certain portions of that description were indeed correct, though it seems that The Last Story introduced a myriad of smaller issues as well.
One of the centerpieces to The Last Story is the aforementioned combat system. A blend of real time action, a cover system and some morsels of stealth, there’s quite a sense of freedom in how players can take on each enemy that stands ahead of them. The unorthodox auto attack structure requires players to hold the direction the enemy is in relation to the player (while next to them of course), though in truth, it does feel like a somewhat evolution over the standards that the genre has seen for a long while now. Throughout the game, new aspects to the battle engine are unlocked, and this is where some frustration sets in.
Throughout the 25 hour adventure (it doesn’t feel like a short game at all), notifications will pop up that there’s a tutorial for a new move or new formation learned. While it always feels like there’s more to learn, I got these almost right up to the final portion of the game. About halfway through the adventure, players will be able to somewhat dictate what their teammates can do. Yes, The Last Story is one of those RPG’s that focuses upon primarily controlling one character, with commands being set to the rest of the party. The way the combat flows however, this isn’t really an issue, as combat can be entertaining once the ball starts rolling. The issues are a bit deeper in though.
There’s little to no attack variations to unlock, either in special melee attacks, or especially magical expertise. With a roster of a little over a half dozen main characters (and up to six can be in your group at once, though it happens way too infrequently), each character has their own niche. Zael, the main lead and controllable character for 95% of the game, is your stereotypical melee character, Yurick is a fire centric character, Lowell is ice focused with some melee thrown in, Mirania is the resident healer, and so on. By the time players reach the end of the game, they will only have three different commands that can be given (once Zael is able to, halfway through) – one or two magic/CQC related attacks, and one power attack that requires a full Spirit Gauge (which is, like most other things, unlocked much farther into the game). There’s absolutely no variation to be found. Zael can use a skill that can “diffuse” these spells, which leave an area of effect behind upon the location they were dispatched, and enhance the potency of them, but it really doesn’t help with how meager the offensive offerings are here. All of this in mind as well, the difficulty hardly ever raises above average, making even the final boss battle seem like a joke. I died maybe four times total throughout my playthrough.
There are even designated “grind spots” which are activated when Zael turns on his Gathering power (without spoiling much, a power Zael wields near the beginning of the game, and used primarily to obtain aggro on every enemy in battle) that replace most every random encounter in the game, outside story dictated battles. Even if players don’t make a pit stop to work on leveling their party up, battles are still elementary enough, with experience gain high enough to just pass them by and not even farm regent drops from the minions that spawn from them.
It’s not just spell and attack variations that lack; throughout most of the game, armor and weapon diversity doesn’t really exist. While the second and third acts will start to produce some more weapon variation in both looks and bonuses, armor never changes. Merchants all just about useless when it comes to any sort of desire to purchase an upgrade, with the only really useful shops to be found being item/armor upgrading (if the player has the regents). There are a half dozen versions of chest and leg armor, giving a focus upon physical damage absorption, magic resistance, a mix of both and so on. Each piece can be upgraded multiple times, enhancing the potency of its physical and magical resistance. Only through upgrading each piece of armor will the look change, which is a pretty putrid looking thing to begin with, however there are no bonuses to anything else when upgraded, which is mostly handled by gaining a new level or picking up a drop that permanently boosts a certain stat for Zael or the party. No accessories to equip, no miscellaneous pieces of armor to outfit other parts of the body, etc. It’s a streamline take on the micromanagement that can occasionally overwhelm those playing a game within the genre, but it’s almost a bit too simplified. On top of that, the regents needed to upgrade armor or weapons are so few and far between that players will be lucky if they have two characters with +9 armor, unless some considerable time is spent at those designated spawn spots. Weapons start to become a bit more diversified starting around the second act, but they are nothing special in the least.
With regards to the audio/video package, Mistwalker pushed the latter to quite an extent in certain areas, while the former retains a familiar feel. Famed Final Fantasy composer Nobio Uematsu had his hand at composing the music within The Last Story. For the most part, the feel of each song matches the mood, though it seems as if a number of tracks were used quite a bit more often than I would have liked. There are tinges of familiarity with certain songs too, especially the one heard around Lazilus City, which has a few moments that sound vaguely familiar to something heard in Final Fantasy VI. They’re all quality compositions though, as to be expected. The rest of the audio package is serviceable. There are moments when the voice acting is a bit cringe worthy in terms of line delivery, but it doesn’t overly impact the immersion.
In terms of a Nintendo Wii title, The Last Story‘s visuals does have its moments of glory here and there, though Mistwalker’s ambition might have got the best of them at times. Xenoblade Chronicles was able to work both a visual treat and scope into one package, and created one of the best looking titles on the system. The Last Story tries pushing the boundary in places where it should have conceded. Animations come off without a hitch (sans the laughably bad walk cycles every so often), and certain areas of the game (such as Lazilus City) have their moments of impressive detail, but there are bouts of slowdown here and there. It’s more prevalent while running through the hustle and bustle of copy and pasted character models in town, and in tight quarters with quite a few allies and enemies onscreen, but it’s there. Many of the interior sections suffer from a monotonous color usage, which dulls down overall visual fidelity even more so. Some of the enemy models are imaginative and detailed enough, especially each of the bosses (sans one of the antagonists), though some characters, such as Zael, look like an amalgam of Final Fantasy protagonists, from the emo hair to the outfit.
The game world its self is overly linear, offering little in the way of exploration. The main hub (Lazilus City and its castle) have enough bulk to it, but for the most part, the story will automatically dictate where Zael and his band of mercenary compadres will head off to. The linearity of The Last Story lends its self to two others snags; there’s a lack of viable side quests to partake in. They are there within the city, however, the second issue stems from the inability to track them down without mindlessly roaming every crevice of the city, talking to every person you see. A good number of these side quests are fetch related, such as tracking down four bluebirds to make an invisible dye, purchasing ingredients for lazy townsfolk so they can make you something, and so on. I really didn’t find much of anything that actually allowed me to head out to a dungeon and get a better acquaintance with the combat system, especially since this is an exposition heavy game, where it’s not an uncommon sight to see several cutscenes in a row, with seven steps taken total between them. To be honest, I really didn’t bother going all out in my search for more side quests, due to the repetitive nature of pressing A whenever I encountered an NPC in any area around town, and the results gained.
That leads to another conflicting issue with The Last Story – its story. There are some scenes and moments that seemed like they were lifted from previous games. Zangurak, an antagonist in this game, looks like a spinoff of Ganondorf, with a plot device that develops towards the middle of the game being eerily reminiscent of Ocarina of Time. Then there’s a brief moment which is almost straight out of Tales of Vesperia, involving a princess changing into something else once she and Zael end up in front of her bedroom while attempting to flee. Of course there are the usual mainstays that pop up, such as the jailing/court scenes, somewhat stark contrast final act (elements and issues that seem almost completely 180 from how the game has gone the first two acts), and so on. When there aren’t a number of familiar scenes and characters popping up, the storyline takes its usual trot down predictability way, though it somehow remains interesting enough to follow and care about enough to see you to the end of the journey.
Players will slowly get to know each character through their own brief story arc, but it seems after they’re all complete, there’s little in the way of keeping players invested in each of them. It’s not that they are all devoid of charisma; Syrenne is probably one of the more enjoyable characters I’ve come across in quite a while. This saucy red headed lush will always remind you about her weakness for alcohol, but it’s the way she interacts with the cast and the lines she has that gives her a bit more life than the rest of the cast. Mirania almost seems like an afterthought with how little she has to offer, Yurick loses a lot of luster once his story arc is completed, and everyone else ranges from passable to somewhat forgettable. One of the main culprits has to do with the fact that the banter that happens between, or even during missions, isn’t very interesting, engaging or important, other than Syrenne and maybe some banter with Lowell. It doesn’t help that it’s rare to have a full six person party either, where even a more intimate affair with a smaller party does not develop.
Even with all that going against The Last Story, I still cared to play through it all and just enjoy the predictable ride. Regardless of all the little issues that combined into a rather annoying batch of failures, the battle system made me want to soldier forward, just to see what else would unlock, even if it took nearly the whole game for everything to become unveiled. The exposition is laid in thick throughout, with a majority of the time sitting down with the controller on the table, listening to the story unfold. As cliche as the story gets, it’s still worth sitting through and watching it develop, however it cuts down quite a bit on the actual gameplay.
Even with its numerous deficiencies, it’s nice to see that The Last Story did find its ways to the west. There are numerous flaws scattered all around every facet of the game, the the sum of its parts is enough to warrant a playthrough. The battle system had the right idea, but was too limited in some respects. The visuals worked when the dungeons weren’t in a monotonous color tone or chugging in speed within a cluttered area. The music was fitting, if not familiar. The story, while almost completely predictable, had enough to it to see you playing until the end (with a New Game + of sorts afterwards, with players retaining their previous stats and equipment, while fighting weak underlings and properly scaled bosses and higher ranked enemies). The chances Mistwalker took are to be commended, as there were some successful moments, but there are enough problems under the hood to occasionally stall this Operation Rainfall title in the middle of an overcast road.