There are conventions of the Japanese RPG that have been tried and tested for nearly 30 years: knights and princesses, kingdoms, castles, the young hero chosen to save the world, the corrupt political authority, the ancient evil – all of the typical high fantasy flair that you’d expect from something conspired of a medieval setting. The Last Story is not without these timeless tropes, but with some deft direction, great writing, and a soaring musical score, it not only embraces its heritage proudly, it goes beyond. How fitting, then, that The Last Story is perhaps the Wii’s last hurrah, its final rallying cry? How poetic that it is also one of its finest?
Industry veterans and icons of the Japanese RPG reunite to make The Last Story every bit as thoughtful and emotional as you’d expect. Mistwalker Corporation founder Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy series, and composer Nobuo Uematsu of similar fame marry the traditions of West and East to create a game that is both a love letter to its kin, and a proposition for a new generation. With a tightly-wound and fast paced combat system that evolves over time, a cast of characters so thoughtfully written and skillfully brought to life, and a world that is the absolute pinnacle of the Wii’s graphical potential, Mistwalker has brought forth a true contender for the throne.
Much of the game’s joy comes from those characters that I mentioned, a scrappy lot of mercenaries whose collective ambition is to simply earn enough coin to get by. Player character Zael is your conventional young hero, a man with ambition greater than the hand he has been dealt. He dreams of knighthood, to serve the kingdom of Lazulis City, and to protect its people. He is of the admirable sort, naïve in his endeavors of what it means to be a knight but respected for his dedication. Group leader Dagran is of a more stoic nature, highly protective of his unit but careful enough not to show emotional weakness. He has raised Zael since youth, whose family was killed as a child. The supporting cast each brings this colorful group to life with eccentric personalities and unique characteristics.
The group’s dynamic is rocked when you meet a young woman calling herself Lisa, whose relationship with Zael drives the game’s emotional narrative throughout all of the political betrayals, military uprisings, and assortment of other catastrophic events. All of the characters evolve and adapt when necessary, and some even allow you to explore a bit of backstory via side quests. The game’s structure is broken up into 44 semi-cohesive chapters. The main story arc proceeds normally as you adventure through the world, but many side quests can be completed in a non-linear order. For example, someone’s chapter 10 may be different than others because of the order that he or she completed the quests in. The content is the same for each individual quest, but the structure will vary. Of those side quests, a majority of them occur within the city walls.
Lazulis is a sprawling precinct of hidden alley ways and stonewall castles, and at first may be quite daunting to navigate through. But the city’s design will soon become committed to memory thanks to smart placement of major landmarks and other distinct locations. Many quests are your typical fetch variety, but some involve more peculiar tasks like rescuing children or finding frogs (this is a JRPG after all). Of the quests that aren’t the mundane sort, you’ll be forced into combat, and some of them involve entire areas of Lazulis that are normally off limits.
These quests are always a treat thanks to the game’s remarkable combat system. A synergy of Western and Eastern practices, the combat takes place in real time against foes visibly seen before battle. Some of it is automated, such as a character’s auto-attacks and your supporting party’s primary actions. You will have control of Zael, or whoever is the player character at that moment. Because combat occurs in a non-restrictive environment, you have total control over mobility, which is essential in avoiding many long ranged or magic attacks from enemies.
There’s a bit of strategy involved, however, allowing you to issue direct commands to your party members, and allowing you to pull off some devastating chain attacks. Two of Zael’s earliest abilities are “Gathering” and “Gale:” the former draws the attention of the enemies on the battlefield, allowing your party to proceed uninterrupted. The later has a more significant purpose. When a character performs any type of magical spell, be it healing, damage, or status effect, it leaves a colored circle on the ground for a given time. Walking into that circle will share its benefits: a white circle will heal you for as long as you remain inside of it, a red circle will add fire damage to your auto-attacks, etc. Using the Gale ability, Zael can diffuse these circles; literally purge them from the ground. Doing so expunges their effects in a sudden burst. Diffusing a healing circle offers a quick shot regenerative health, while a fire circle erupts in a powerful explosion, dealing damage to all enemies within. Using Gale to its most effective potential can certainly turn the tide of battle.
Many locations in battle also contain strategically placed environmental cover, the type found in many contemporary shooters. You can hide behind them to avoid enemy detection or use them to surprise foes for quick kills. Zael also wields a crossbow as a supplementary weapon, using the various types of bolts found in the game to deal either normal or explosive damage, or an assortment of status effects from afar. Some areas even have destructible environments, giving you the chance to use both cover and Zael’s crossbow to take out a portion of an enemy ambush before even entering combat. All of this combines to create one of the most fascinating and original combat systems not just in a JRPG, but in any game.
Over time Zael will learn new abilities, and the dynamic of combat will slowly change, but never at a pace that feels too rushed. By the time you learn the next ability, you’ll have already mastered the previous one. Customization is on the light end, although weapons and armor can be upgraded for stat improvements, the latter of which also changes your character’s physical appearance in all facets of the game. You can even dye the colors for some extra personal style.
The game’s narrative will clock in at less than 20 hours, a bit on the light end for most typical JRPGs, but the time spent will be full of near-relentless action. A New Game+ feature allows you to carry over all of your enhancements, affording you the opportunity to visit areas that may have been too difficult the first go-around, and while there are also multiplayer features, there’s nothing substantial to them that will occupy much of your time. A simple horde-mode and competitive deathmatch allow you to experience the game’s wonderful combat system with friends, but it’s more a cheap diversion than a lasting impression.
Nobuo Uematsu’s score resonates, and fans of his earlier work will no doubt see the evolution in his craft. These are some of his most beautifully written songs to date and compliment the themes of love and loss well. The Last Story pushes the Wii further than any game has before. Though its scope is not as grand as Xenoblade Chronicles, the detail of its design and the special effects both in combat and in many of the game’s intense action scenes are top notch. It’s unfortunate that both of these games had to come out so late in the Wii’s life cycle. With only minor drawbacks, such as occasional frame rate hiccups in some of the more demanding scenes, this is a genuinely breathtaking game.
The Last Story redefines that way we interpret the Japanese RPG, and much like Xenoblade Chronicles, it doesn’t abandon its roots in the process. It embraces them and encourages other Japanese developers to think outside the box. Its tenderly crafted love story compliments the game’s gorgeous world and special effects, and the characters turn what could have been a very typical overarching narrative into something truly memorable. The combat, the world, the people – everything is there, ready to be experienced. The stage is set for something truly special, something you do not want to miss.