With Square Enix fans eagerly anticipating the release of Final Fantasy XIII, The Last Remnant comes at a good time for fans of the developer. This game is a completely new franchise and it was also developed using the Unreal 3 Engine; a first for the company.
Speaking of first, it was also the first Square Enix game to have a simultaneous worldwide release, and it was directed by Hiroshi Takai. The question is, does The Last Remnant offer a good enough experience to tide us over until the release of Final Fantasy XIII?
Almost as soon as the game starts we're thrust into a battle with little explanation of what's actually going on. This might confuse some players, as the combat system is a completely new initiative, but others will just plough through anyway and pick it up as they play through the game. This is heavily advised as the combat system is actually surprisingly rewarding. Instead of the typical RPG combat, The Last Remnant uses Strategic elements whereby the player selects which actions he wishes each 'union' (collection of units) to perform. Following confirmation that the actions are correct, the two sides then collide and for the most part, the combat goes out of the player's hands. There are some quick time events though added to spice things up, and these can either cause critical damage and altered attacking order as a bonus for hitting, or the chance to counter an opponents attack.
While the combat is an enjoyable experience, it comes at a cost. Unlike in normal RPGs where the player gets complete control over what actions he wishes to take, this isn't the case in The Last Remnant. The AI decides which commands each union is allowed to pick from based on the current climate of the battle. So for example, the option to heal rarely ever comes up if everyone is on full health, although it does come up sometimes. Presumably this was done to make the game easier, but it actually has the opposite effect. Sometimes when a union is almost dead, they don't have the option to cure themselves, despite having healers. Other times, they have the option to heal, but not to break deadlock (a situation where two unions are forced to attack each other). This presents a problem, as the person curing might go last, and the union will die before he can heal. The other scenario is that a union can heal another union, but if two need healing (for example, one at 20% health and one at 80% health), you have no control over which is healed, and in some cases the 80% will get healed instead of the 20%.
Other new gameplay elements include a new take on the now expected form of random encounters and obviously the ability to have multiple unions at any one time. Like in Final Fantasy XII, Rush can 'aggro' monsters when he is walking around areas. However, he has the ability to slow down time, which enables him to get the jump on enemies, or run away from them. If an enemy gets the jump on Rush however, they start the battle in command, which can cause problems, especially if multiple enemies attack.
The ability to have multiple unions actually gives the game a new lease of life, although much more could have been done to really involve the player. Each union must have a leader, but a union can contain more than one leader. The maximum amount of unions possible at any one time is five, but you can use one if you wish. Each union can also contain five members, but there are limits to the overall amount of units allowed in all of the unions, as well as the total number of leaders allowed. The rest of the units are random soldiers which can be hired. It would have been nice to be able to customise the equipment used by leaders or soldiers, as the only person who can be changed is Rush. Also, the ability to actually name the soldiers would have given the game a much more personal touch.
The story is mostly focussed on Rush Sykes, who is searching for his lost sister Irina. Almost as soon as the game starts though, he finds some useful allies and these are all available throughout the game, with a few exceptions. One thing that is slightly disappointing is that while the story is focussed around Rush, he often seems to be quite insignificant. Some of the other characters have much stronger personalities and while Rush' voice acting is very good; it's just quite hard to actually feel anything for him. Moving away from Rush though, the other characters in the game are actually very good, and the voice cast has done a stellar job, even if at first they seem quite suspect. The only thing that slightly hinders the story sometimes are the cut scenes. Sometimes they are brilliant and really sell the story, and sometimes they are completely pointless, with very poor animations and little relevance.
Overall the story is what one would expect from a Square Enix title. The world that The Last Remnant is set in is very deep and rewarding, especially for those who wish to engage it and actively take part in gaining quests from the local taverns. There is quite a large part of the world which could be completely ignored if a player just follows the main story-path and this would be a shame, as some of the environments look gorgeous with their visuals. The world map also makes things very easy to navigate around; by pressing select in a town, the player has the option to jump around the town, and if they press it again, they have the option to jump around the world. This makes travelling time much more bearable and is a nice addition.
One slight problem with the story is that the pacing is very unpredictable. If the player progresses naturally through the game, they will eventually get to a point where they just can't win unless they go off and do literally hours and hours of training. Some bosses throughout the game also seem to only be beatable if luck is on the player's side, and this is partly the fault of the game's poor design with regards to not having full control over a union's actions, which is quite ironic since these choices seem to have been made to make the game easier. Needless to say, once the obstacle has been cleared, the game then progresses to a normal level before the same problem occurs and even more grinding is necessary. The game was initially touted as a 20-30 hour experience, but with the amount of mandatory levelling actually required to progress through the story, this total is way higher.
The game's presentation is rather up and down. Some elements of the game are extremely recommendable, while others make you wonder how the game ever passed quality assurance. In the first battle, it becomes very apparent that the game is suffering from very bad frame-rate issues, which is a shame as it does mar the otherwise gripping battle sequences. This becomes even worse during the quick time events, as the game also slows down on its own accord. It does make it easier to get the perfect timing required though; this flaw can be ignored after a while though, it's just really disappointing that it occurs.
Another problem which plagues battles is the loading sequences, although this also affects the game in general. Every time a random encounter happens, the player is treated to a 5-6 second static loading screen which looks very bland and offers some helpful hints. Then, when a player finishes the battle, they're treated to an even longer loading sequence while the world is loaded. Basically, anything the player does in the game requires a loading screen of approximately 5 seconds, which does start to grate after a while. The game also has quite bad texture pop-up, which sometimes even occurs during battles. This usually subsides after a few seconds though, but given the long loading sequences, this shouldn't really be happening.
However, on the plus side, the accompanying score is amazing. Tsuyoshi Sekito has done an excellent job with the game's soundtrack and it makes walking around the world that much more engaging. It also makes even the most random of battles seem very real, tense and important. The voice acting is also of the highest order, even though some of the accents are quite random. Lord David sometimes sounds like a cockney Jack Sparrow, which is quite contrasting to the very American sounding Rush Sykes. Once the textures actually load, the environments are very rich, and the texturing is very detailed, fully utilising the Unreal 3 Engine's capabilities.
It's actually quite disappointing that The Last Remnant suffers from such technical problems, but they don't make or break the game. What does is the unfortunate lack of control a player has over the combat and an uneven pacing to the game. The story is a good one and the music is also sublime, but these can only be enjoyed in full if the player has the time to dedicate to the game in order to plough through the mandatory levelling that seems to be required to progress.