There is little denying that the Nintendo Wii is on its deathbed. Game releases have been few and far between over the last year and the WiiU is mere months away from its debut. However, before the lights finally go off, developer Mistwalker Studios has one final entry for Nintendo’s little box via the fittingly titled roleplaying game, The Last Story.
It is also somewhat fitting then that this last hurrah of sorts for the WIi comes in the form of a Japanese roleplaying game, being as many believe that the genre is also on its deathbed. Gaming has evolved, and the genre, once heralded for its deep gameplay, entertaining storytelling and hours upon hours of playtime, is in a weird spot. Players that were once willing to put 90 hours of their time into Final Fantasy VII have moved on and now lack the ability or desire to do so on a new adventure. Worse though is the large segment of new gamers who just do not understand the draw of an 40+ hour game. The genre needs a shot in the arm and maybe The Last Story is the answer.
Crafted by the venerable Hinorobu Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy series, The Last Story is a labor of love from Mistwalker. And while it has some of the traditional genre trappings, it is simultaneously not your typical Japanese roleplaying game. Naming conventions and developmental legacy aside, the game draws another, stronger comparison to the original Final Fantasy. Like its predecessor 25 years ago, The Last Story is a bold move for its developer and in turn sets the genre on a striking new path.
Players take on the role of Zael, a member of a rag-tag group of mercenaries with romantic dreams of becoming a knight. Early on in the game he gets marked with a mysterious sigil that grants him special power and unwittingly sets him and his friends on a quest for the ages. As a character Zael is idealistic and naïve, typical traits of a JRPG hero. However, he noticeably lacks the brooding behavior that has come to define the genre’s most iconic characters. It is a nice change of pace to have someone that doesn’t seem like they belong in a My Chemical Romance video as the main protagonist.
An even nicer change of pace are the characters in the game, all of which ooze personality. From the feisty ale loving wench, Syrenne, to the elegant Lady Calista, there has not been a group of characters done this well in an RPG in years. And it has been a long time since I have been as emotionally invested in a group of characters from a JRPG as I was in those in The Last Story. Best of all there is no filler as all the characters service the story, instead of distracting from the narrative.
One of my biggest personal issues with the storytelling in roleplaying games is the way that they present a main quest of dire importance and then force the player to venture off course to do inconsequential tasks. While inherently clichéd, The Last Story does an excellent job of telling its tale and, more importantly, keeping it focused. It is not the typical RPG where one will do hundreds of boring fetch quests or have to wander aimlessly around the game world, battling random monsters in an effort to grind levels. And while there are still side quests to be performed and monsters to grind on, should one so desire to do those things, they are also all completely optional and never hamper the main quest in a negative way.
For as well delivered as the story in the game is, it would all be for naught if the gameplay was not compelling. Thankfully it is, although it may be a little off-putting at the start due to its somewhat automated nature. Foregoing the traditional turn-based battles of Mistwalker’s heritage, The Last Story utilizes a semi-real-time, semi-direct control battle system. While players have free roam of the combat arena much of the battling is done automatically as simply pressing towards an enemy unleashes a melee attack. This makes many early battles rather dull and could make the system seem less intriguing than it truly is.
It is not until abilities begin to be unlocked that the game’s battle system starts to click. Once Zael and his friends can utilize active on-field abilities, the system becomes extremely nuanced and downright tactical in its implementation. Learning how to deliver attacks and combo them with other party members powers is the key to successful combat in the game, especially during boss encounters. While standard combat is fairly unchallenging, it is these boss encounters that make the combat system shine. Nearly all of them have a unique tinge to them and force players to utilize all the different abilities and tactics that they’ve learned throughout the game. All in all, the combat system is a hugely rewarding and fun experience.
The final piece that pulls the entirety of the game’s package together is of course, its artistic presentation. The Last Story has a phenomenal art direction that at times made me forget I was playing the game on the Wii. Still, there are tell-tale signs that this is a game developed for a system a generation behind in terms of hardware. For instance, costuming looks fantastic in static shots but when players move it appears stiff and rigid. Fabric should move and not look like cardboard. The game has a handful of these minor fidelity issues that diminish the game just a bit to make one wish this was on a more powerful system.
Graphical shortcomings aside though, The Last Story absolutely shines in the music department. Longtime Final Fantasy composer Nobou Uematsu has delivered an audio masterpiece that rivals his best works. Similarly, nearly all of the voice acting is superb. Aside from a couple minor characters, the British voice cast works amazingly well and puts higher budget, bigger name titles to shame.
With the Wii on its deathbed and Japanese roleplaying games in a weird state of flux, The Last Story is a welcome treat. It serves as both a gracious bookend for the console and a step forward in a genre that has often lacked forward mobility. Players that have any love for the genre should find a way to play it as it truly is something special.