Since its founding by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Mistwalker has yet to set the world alight, despite the large amount of fan appreciation for Lost Odyssey. However, there is much hope that may change with Mistwalker's debut Wii title, The Last Story. Although The Last Story may at first appear to share many similarities with Sakaguchi's previous creation (logo and title the most apparent), there is much to set the title apart and those going into the game expecting a Final Fantasy-clone will find themselves rather misinformed.
The Last Story weighs more towards a medieval-esque setting, although there are some limited science fiction elements. Set on Lazulis Island, the game follows Zael, a member of a band of mercenaries who harbors dreams of becoming a knight. Zael and his fellow mercenaries find themselves called upon to defend the island against invading Gurg forces, with a running mystery regarding the power Zael holds within his right hand. While The Last Story may not wander very far from the usual boundaries of JRPG plot and likely features a good number of familiar tropes, indications are that the actual quality of the storytelling is up there with the best of them.
The fast pace of the real-time battle system in The Last Story certainly distinguishes itself and comes with a promise of great importance in tactical teamwork. Players have access to Zael's special ability known as 'Gathering', which causes Zael to become the focal point of enemy attacks and allow his teammates to recover or concentrate on attacking. The usage of Gathering does require a balance, as players will not be able to constantly bear the full brunt of enemy aggression by themselves. Targeting lines, similar to those in Final Fantasy XII, show who currently holds the focus of each enemy's ire. The use of cover also plays a part in battles; enemies can be forced to maneuver around obstacles, or lured into areas where they can be easily outflanked. Zael is able to use his bowgun from behind cover, which may prove useful in getting a few early shots off while enemies are scrambling, as well as for those in the distance.
Other party members are controlled by the AI, but players can use the command mode to select specific attacks and targets if required. Zael attacks automatically when in range of the enemy, although this can be changed to manual, while players will have to guard or evade attacks themselves. Unsurprisingly, magic makes an appearance in the battle system, with characters' magic attacks leaving elemental circles on the battlefield. Characters within these circles will find themselves able to include the elemental attribute in their attacks or use it to cast various status effects.
Battles take place on the dungeon map, although it appears the actual battle won't start until the player prompts, giving an initial opportunity to size up the task ahead. Party members have a large amount of customization options in The Last Story, with players not only able to select a character's equipment, but the color of that equipment as well. Lazulis Island acts a hub for the majority of the game, with players returning to it every few hours, where they can undertake side quests or revisit previous locations if they wish. The Last Story does not incorporate motion controls, so players will be able to choose between using the remote and nunchuk or the classic controller.
The Last Story also includes online play for up to six players, either cooperatively or competitively. Cooperative play sees players working together using characters of their choice against various boss challenges. Weapons and items earned from the story mode are carried into this mode, however levels are evened out so all players are on a similar footing. Defeating these challenges will award special items that can be carried back into the story. The competitive mode is a free-for-all battle, in which players can pick from a variety of characters; including those not controllable within the single-player story itself. Points are awarded for kills and lost for deaths, with the objective being to have the most points at the end of the round.
As with Xenoblade, appearing on the Wii means there are some clear limitations on the technological quality of the visuals, although The Last Story seems to have done a more detailed job with the character models. However, as Xenoblade has proven, design and direction can easily outweigh these limitations, and this looks to also be the case for The Last Story. Towns appear to have a great sense of vibrancy, with narrow streets populated by plenty of stalls and people who players can push their way through. Examples of some of the dungeons indicate a good amount of variation, with some fascinating architecture and scenery, and it appears a lot of thought has been put into layout to make use of all the battle system's features.
Nobuo Uematsu continues his association with Mistwalker and takes charge of The Last Story's soundtrack. The excellence associated with his name certainly seeming to be on full display once again. The musical score looks to do a sterling job of complementing the calmer locations and exploration sections, as well as adding a sense of urgency to battles and the more climactic areas of the game. There hasn't yet been any media released that gives possible insights into the quality of the English localization, but it can be safely assumed that if Nintendo of Europe puts in the same effort as was done for the superb Xenoblade then JRPG fans should have very little cause for concern. There are a few confirmed name changes for the English version, notably in the name changes for Zael and Lazulis Island, originally Elza and Ruli Island respectively.
The Last Story was well-received in Japan upon its release there in January 2011, topping sales charts and achieving a 38/40 score from Famitsu. With Xenoblade and Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword already on the scene, it looks apparent that The Last Story will be the final factor in ensuring the Wii's swan song is one of considerable note for gamers. The Last Story is due out in PAL regions in February 2012. There is currently no news regarding a potential release in North America, however, the recent Xenoblade announcement may provide some optimism for JRPG fans in the region.