March 1, 2012
Final Fantasy, designed by Sakaguchi in 1986, salvaged not only his own fledgling career but also the fortunes of his small company, turning it into one of the world's most recognized game publishers. In more ways than one, The Last Story is eerily similar to some of Sakaguchi's other famous works. Then again, to dismiss this curious Nintendo Wii game as a copycat would be truly unfair. The surface details may be similar, but the mechanics underneath the game's hood are both forward thinking and original, and the experience itself is all the more notable for it.
The Last Story stars Zael, a young mercenary with a ragtag crew of cohorts who set out to find fame and fortune on the vast island of Lazulis. On this particular island, mercenaries are not only feared, but also looked down upon by the general populace. Only knights are given honor and poise, which is why the motley bunch desperately desires to attain such a rank. Along with Zael and the gangs' ambitions to become knights, it's the twin motivations of self-fulfillment and personal ambition in the narrative that drive the group through the game's 20 (or so) hour storyline.
As with Lost Odyssey (one of Sakaguchi's other notable works), much emphasis is placed on the relationships between the cast in the game and numerous cut scenes reveal the dynamics of the group. Occasionally awkward, these exchanges generally succeed in giving each character quirk and personality, ensuring that in battle they appear as more than mere pawns for your combat abilities. The sense of camaraderie between the gang helps push you through the story and while some lines of dialogue miss the target (particularly those that try to be funny) the ensemble cast is more than the sum of its parts.
At the beginning of the game a unique ability awakens within Zael, marking him out as someone quite special. This aptly named "gathering" ability can be triggered during combat sequences and used indefinitely. While activated it draws all enemy attention towards Zael, leaving your AI-controlled teammates free to attack their targeted foes without interruption. A smart risk/reward dynamic is thrown in here as Zael recovers a little health every time he successfully lands a strike on an enemy. The risk of course is that all enemies naturally target Zael for this affront.
Reportedly, Mistwalker dedicated an entire year of prototyping to make the JRPG battle system more interesting and dynamic for this game. The results of that focus are both original and engaging, offering a real-time blend of offensive and defensive options with ranged and close quarters weapons that ensure each skirmish is both tense and strategic. New abilities are unlocked steadily over the course of the adventure, adding the capacity for Zael to learn new slicing attacks as well as wall runs and wall jumps. Meanwhile, the magic users in your group must be protected as they hover before casting a spell. These mages can produce "area of effect" spells that automatically heal comrades and/or demolish foes within a certain radius.
Later in the game Zael gains the Gale ability, a gust of wind that can shatter an area of effect spell, causing large amounts of damage to any nearby enemy. All in all, the range of tactical options presented moment by moment during the battles is quite wide and, while the game arguably becomes a little too easy near its end, the system is overall fast-paced, responsive, and engaging.
Outside of battle there are plenty of side quests to engage in and a slew of customization options open to the player, with dyes and armor pieces to dress Zael and company to your liking. In addition, blacksmiths can (for a fee) strengthen your accessories and equipment, with the most expensive upgrades requiring rare and unique items.
The Last Story is also notable for having multiplayer options (a rarity in JRPGs). With one co-operative mode and one competitive mode, it's not the most expansive multiplayer experience, but the opportunity to show off your personal crew of customized misfits in battle alongside other players does have novelty.
The Last Story demonstrates that there is still life and innovation left in the form of the Japanese RPG, despite the constant crowing of naysayers to the contrary. While it does lacks the sense of wonder evoked by some other recent JRPGs on the system, and it also begs for the character empathy akin found in others, its interesting setting, colorful character designs and interesting battle system make it a quest that is more than worth undertaking for any fan of video gaming. Naming conventions aside, hopefully The Last Story isn't the final tale to be woven by the talented creators at Mistwalker studios.