There is something about the entire JRPG genre that sees it bursting like a Phoenix from its very own ashes every once in a while. There can be periods of quiet, with only sub-standard examples of the genre hitting store shelves, leaving the fans declaring that it is dead and buried. Then, once the fans have resigned themselves to playing western RPGs, quality titles come thick and fast. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the famed creator of the Final Fantasy series, along with the development studio Mistwalker, seem to have once again managed to create JRPG gold in their latest title The Last Story on Wii. Given the recent releases of two very good Wii-based RPGs, how does this title really measure up?
The story centres around the character Zael, whom the player will be in control of for the majority of the game, and the band of mercenaries of which he is a member. The game slowly eases the player into the story, beginning with a solid tutorial chapter that introduces the control methods whilst dropping the player into this band of friends. Their backstories slowly unfold as the game progresses and the player becomes more involved in this fantastically detailed fantasy world.
The world in which the game is set is indeed one of The Last Story’s strong points. Based in large part around Lazulis City, players will immerse themselves in a world that is almost living. Citizens will go about their daily business and the player will be able to indulge in all manner of interactions. The environments in general are all very impressive, especially given the limitations of the console. In some ways this has been overcome by an impressive use of blurring and a generally aged look applied to the game – bright and colourful it is not, but that doesn’t stop it looking quite gorgeous.
The other strong point of the game comes in the form of the battle system. Offering something new and different, combat in The Last Story is both simple and deep at the same time. The simplicity comes from the player automatically attacking when within the proximity of an enemy. The player is able to block, dodge and duck behind walls and other environmental objects, and use a more stealthy approach to any unsuspecting enemies, providing the player with options when it comes to confrontations, something which is not often seen in the genre. This tactical edge, in which players can use their environment to attack from behind or even ambush enemies unawares, add a variety to the combat encounters which is never really seen in JRPGs.
Ranged attacks can be performed using the Seek mode which gives the player a first-person perspective. This mode is used not only for long distance damage dealing, but also for spotting targets for yuor spell caster or finding hidden passages/items.
The most interesting aspect of the combat system though is the Gathering ability. By activating this, the player can become the focus of attention for all of the bad guys. This may not sound like a particularly good thing, but when used cleverly, this ability will allow the other members of your team to focus their efforts in casting spells or healing completely unhindered. As I have said, this ability comes with certain risks, but when used carefully it can easily turn the tide of battle.
Not that the battles really present much of a challenge. Although on a few occasions, especially in the later part of the game, the difficulty level rises a fair amount, the majority of the game is actually quite easy. Making sure that the majority of players have absolutely no problems progressing are the five lives that are given to each character for every encounter. The relatively easy nature of the game, combined with the ease of the combat system should you choose not to look too deeply, works in the games favour, allowing the player to almost build a relationship with the members of the team.
One thing that I did find irritating within The Last Story, was the voicework. The members of your mercenary band, and indeed all of the supporting cast, have been endowed with a wide variety of regional UK accents. It is not that I have a problem with the accents as such, but hearing the Mancunian accent of Syrenne burst forth just seemed to kill the fantasy atmosphere. I guess that I am used to all of my heroes being slightly more shakespearean with their voices, or at least slightly more softly spoken.
In a traditional RPG manner, the player is able to indulge their customisation whims within the inventory screens. The massive collection of weapons, equipment and such will no doubt please players with an eye for customisation. But if crawling through lists and really not knowing what to equip is where you find yourself, the game even has a handy “auto-equip” option which makes life entirely pain-free.
But again moving away from the JRPG formula that we have come to know, The Last Story offers an interesting online multiplayer mode. Players can either team up and take on some of the impressive boss enemies from the game, or they can indulge in a little PvP deathmatch action. Rather than a hurriedly added option to try and entice the multiplayer crowd, the deep combat mechanics from the game ensure that both of these modes are fun and a worthwhile addition to the game.
Clocking in at somewhere around 20 hours, The Last Story may not be the longest JRPG available on the Wii. But the game is streamlined and very well paced, ensuring that there is no chance of boredom setting in. with the excellent mechanics, multiplayer mode and enough nods in the direction of more traditional JRPGs to keep the genre fans happy, The Last Story is something new and could quite possibly re-invigorate the struggling genre.
As gamers, our tastes in games and what we expect from them evolve over time. As such games need to evolve and improve to match. The Last Story still suffers from some of the problems that other Japanese RPGs suffer from, but it has made changes in other areas that work, and work well. The Last Story won’t hit the mainstream, but JRPG fans who have become disillusioned with the genre would be well advised to check it out. It really is rather good.