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A story of things to come,
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This review is from: The Last Story Limited Edition (Wii) (Video Game)
The Last Story is a tale of mercenaries with a dream of being knights. The story unfolds on Lazulis Island. A fortified city located in between two warring continents. The story begins with the group of mercenaries trying to increase their standing, but it quickly escalates into a quest to find the reason behind the worlds decay. It's the latest RPG from Mistwalker, the studio behind the Xbox 360 epic Lost Odyssey and the Blue Dragon series. The Last Story is the first game Hironobu Sakaguchi has directed in 20 years. It represents a distinct departure from the traditional turn based titles of his past as he steps into the faster paced world of Action RPGs. Is this quicker, leaner style of game, a natural fit for the Maestro behind Final Fantasy or is it just one step too far.
Well let's start with the important bit, the battle system. For the majority of the game you will be controlling wannabe knight Zael. Before you even take control of the plucky hero, you should choose whether he auto-attacks by tilting the analogue stick or attacks manually via a button press. I've tried out both control setups and they seem pretty much equally effective. The only issue with auto-attack is sometimes when a posse of enemies surround you, the game struggles to differentiate between attacks and movement. Once you've decided which control method to use, it's not just a case of slashing away. There's a combo system at play, the basic idea behind it is, if you attack as a team you cause more damage than attacking alone. To increase your combo, you need to alternate attacking an enemy with a party member. You attack, he attacks, you attack, and then he attacks, and so on. If one of you attacks twice in a row the combo is broken.
From combos to cover systems. Yes, The Last Story has a cover system but it's not used in the way you would usually expect. Most games that use cover systems use them in a passive way, whether it's to avoid enemy fire or to employ stealth. The cover system The Last Story uses is clearly an offensive tool. It is best used when you've got a small army of Orcs trying to eat Zael's spiky head, because if you dive into cover they suddenly have no idea where you are. They become confused and are left susceptible to critical hits. It's not very realistic but then again neither was three chaps standing in a line playing Russian roulette with a dragon.
Near the beginning of the game Zael obtains the power of the Outsider, don't worry kids it's not a spoiler it happens within the first 20 minutes of the game. A large portion of the battle system revolves around making use of this ability as it allows you to revive party members up to 5 times. Outsiders seem a lot like genies with the whole arbitrary number of wishes deal. More importantly the Outsider enables you to draw the attention of all nearby enemies. Distracting enemies and absorbing their blows allows Zael to increase his attack power, and greatly reduces the amount of time it takes for party members to cast spells. You do have to be careful though Zael isn't invincible, when you use the Outsider you tend to become surrounded very quickly which amplifies enemy damage. The key to success in The Last Story is keeping your allies alive, good movement, using cover well and dispelling magic circles.
Speaking of which when someone casts a spell, residual magic is left behind on the ground. The remnants of these spells have both a status and elemental effect. To make use of the element left behind by the spell, you simply attack while Zael is inside the magic circle. To make use of the status effect requires you to dispel the magic circle, Zael has two abilities that can do this. The first is the vertical slice which sees him run clean up a wall and attack an enemy from above, yeah you read that right Zael makes Jackie Chan look like a pensioner... who's not Jackie Chan. The second is a move called gale which sees Zael swoop across the battlefield it's easier to use but requires 1 bar of the skill gauge. The skill gauge is the equivalent of an MP system. It recovers over time and allows you to use Gale and Party Commands. Each party member has two specific actions and a special move. They will only use special moves when you tell them to. It's a simplistic system that's main purpose is to avoid party members healing an enemy, which absorbs a particular element.
The one downside to this system is it takes a while to get used to, not because it's overly complex but because the tutorial is one of the worst I've ever seen in a game. First of all it's overly long and secondly there is no real reward or consequence for following or ignoring the instructions. This means you don't take what the game is telling you in. The idea of a tutorial is for the player to get to grips with the controls and the game's concepts. It absolutely fails at this. Then quite suddenly at about the five hour mark, the developers take the stabilisers off. It goes from do whatever you want, to start using all of your abilities now or die, in the blink of an eye. It's a difficulty spike that relies on you having paid attention to the tutorial, which you almost certainly haven't. Complaints about the first five hours aside it is a really fun and engaging battle system. As the game progresses it just gets better and better, culminating in one of the best final boss battles this gen.
Other than the battle system the one thing that Mistwalker really nailed is the characters. On paper there really isn't anything special about them. If I were to ask you to describe the seven different types of character most commonly found in JRPGs. Chances are the descriptions you'd give me, would be identical to that of The Last Story's cast. It's not who the characters are that's the interesting bit, it's how they interact. The balance in the script between humour and drama is excellent. It is so easy to get that balance wrong (If you're interested in seeing a game fail this balancing act spectacularly check out No More Heroes 2). The characters really do feel like a group of friends, no one seems like they're straight out of a bad anime, they just feel and sound like normal human beings. The localisation team really needs to be congratulated. British voice acting in combination with a Japanese game can so easily not mesh well and end up sounding completely alien but to their credit, in The Last Story it fits snug as a glove. The one issue with the characters chatter is that sometimes it gets cut off, due to the next scene being triggered. My advice is to wait until the characters have finished talking before moving through an area.
The quality of the characters is almost matched by the world they inhabit. Lazulis City is beautifully constructed. It feels like a character in itself. The way the city changes as the story progresses is very nice to see. You really do get the sense that people are going about their daily business and it really feels like a living, breathing town. From a technical stand point Lazulis City is also very impressive. My number one complaint with Mistwalker's previous game, Lost Odyssey, was the sheer volume of loading screens. They were everywhere; you couldn't walk down a back alley without encountering one. So I was pleasantly surprised when I first started exploring Lazulis City I found that this huge detailed area didn't feature a single loading screen. You won't spend all your time on Lazulis Island but it is the main hub and focal point. The game is divided into chapters and it's structured so that you will complete a handful of chapters then return to the Island before heading out on another quest. The city itself features shops, side-quests, treasure hunts and the arena. The attention to detail is a really nice touch from Zael banging his head on signs to knocking over baskets of fruit in the market.
Almost every part of the games presentation is first class. The character designs are really well done, the art direction looks like Lord of the rings and Final Fantasy IX had a baby. The animation in particular is of a very high quality. The way that characters react to walls and narrow passages is a level of detail you rarely see in games. The music is another highlight but it's the ever reliable Nobuo Uematsu at the helm. Mistwalker stop getting points for that now. It feels similar but different to his usual work, you can definitely feel the final fantasy influence in some of the boss music but for the most part it feels like a different direction. It sounds more like a movie soundtrack, slightly more subdued than usual. The main theme 'Toberu Mono' is the stand out piece and it's used to great effect. There must be five different variations of the song used within the game. I did say `almost' every part of the presentation is top draw because there are two aspects that are not so nice. The first is the frame rate which takes a considerable drop from time to time. This mostly occurs in cut-scenes where the game is obviously pushing the Wii to its limit. It's not terrible but it is definitely noticeable. The second issue is that some of the dialogue is lip synced but other parts well aren't. There are a few occasions where characters will just sort of stop mid-dialogue and do a pedo stare(General Asthar and Zael in particular), which is a little bit odd.
So far I've mostly had high praise for The Last Story but there is a snag that prevents it from becoming an all time classic, and that snag is the plot. The reviews I've read criticize it for being cliched. I don't think the cliches are the issue. The problem is the flow of the story, it felt a bit too much like they'd cut out scenes from the Final Fantasy series and sewn them back together into a deformed quilt. If you've played Final Fantasy I through X you end up getting distracted by the number of nods to the series. Instead of being completely invested in the characters and the story, I was busy playing guess the Homage. This is a real shame because the characters really are well written and acted. It just feels like the scenes and plot were picked up from the Square-Enix recycling centre.
Talking of recycling though there are a couple of reasons to play this game again, there's the new game plus where each of the bosses have a significant leap in difficulty. Also it's worth making sure you haven't missed any of the optional chapters. I completely missed the Epilogue on my first play through and the extra scenes are definitely worth seeing. There is also an online mode which is ok but nothing to write home about. It includes standard death match and co-op boss fights but it suffers from the same problem as Battalion Wars 2, it's fun but the community is pretty much dead.
So did Sakaguchi and co succeed in their experiment? Well to an extent, yes. The battle system is fresh and innovative but for some reason, the developer's successful combat experiments had to be tempered with stories so stale, fungi and plant life have been spotted growing on them. This is a fun game but it could so very easily have been a truly great game. The Last Story feels like a final farewell to the Final Fantasy series and maybe even a goodbye to turn based battle systems as well. It may not be the flawless masterpiece we hoped for but it does seem like a first stepping stone onto something special. Hopefully The Next Story will be a perfect combination of Lost Odyssey's beautiful storytelling and The Last Story's exciting battle system.