Release Date: March 2012
Third-party titles have rarely fared well on the Wii when compared Nintendo’s first-party fare; much less so for those aimed squarely at the hardcore crowd. The Last Story comes to the UK largely through the efforts of Operation Rainfall; a fan-run effort to bring the latest trio of Wii JRPG titles (also including Xenoblade Chronicles and Pandora’s Tower) to territories outside of Japan. Advertised heavily as the latest JPRG from Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and his Mistwalker studio, such words conjure expectations of an epic, sublimely-animated adventure filled with random turn-based battles and lengthy cut-scenes. However, beneath the glossy exterior, more radical changes are at play: fans may find this a reaction to the genre’s robust traditions and an effort to breathe new life into a genre that’s remained relatively stagnant since the last console generation. The bulk of The Last Story is woven from third-person action-RPG fare consistently interspersed with extensive in-game cut-scenes; a relatively flip-flop mix of lengthy exposition/animation and real-time battling. Also absent is the typical statistical tedium/excitement (delete as applicable depending on your point of view) of equipment and character micromanagement notable in most RPG titles. Though there’s by no means enough novelty to mark this as a true JRPG revolution, it at least displays a willing to break from norms and develop new ideas.
The action takes place on Lazulis Island, an ancient bastion ruled by the decadent family of Arganan, and inhabiting a setting typical fantasy-medieval setting formed of towns, castles and caverns painted in a dour palette of stony greys and leathery tans. Charted are the tribulations of a ragtag band of mercenaries led by the charismatic Dagran where intercontinental warfare, inter-group tensions and run-in with Arganan legend make for a rip-roaring backdrop to proceedings. Dagran’s second-in-command, Zael, poses as reticent wingman but ultimately true focus of the story, along with the main playable character. The game documents Zael’s elevation to greatness, but also the developing emotional ties that are formed with the Arganan family, in particular the Count’s daughter Calista, and the threat of attack of Lazulis City by the forces of an orc-like race known as the Gurak. The first half takes a while to get going, but once the momentum’s built up, it rarely lets up. The rest of Zael’s team is made up of the feisty Syrenne and womanising Lowell, the timid Mirania and upstart Yurick: The former pair focus on brawling and swordplay, while the latter pair provide magical abilities. Zael’s armoury comprises a variety of upgradeable blades, and first-person crossbow: combat and movement operates much like Final Fantasy XII, by default auto-attacking enemies when you’re in range and unleashing a clattering blade strike. The primary new feature is in the use of Gears of War-style ‘cover’, allowing characters to crouch beneath walls or against pillars to leap out and attack enemies, adding a more tactical bent on proceedings. The secondary characters use AI tactics to deliver their assault, although the player can manually pause the battle to dish out orders and define the group’s combat tactics. For a title where third-person (and non-turn based) scuffles mark it out from the main JRPG crowd, combat is a considerable disappointment: the automation of much of the action often makes you feel like a passenger, exacerbated by the heavy reliance on animated cut-scenes to develop the plot. Compared to traditional JRPGs there’s also little in the way of dungeon exploration, as the few areas visited by the team are predominantly linear affairs punctuated by battle instances. Lazulis City and the prominent Castle act as the main hub from which the dungeons branch off, and every so often you’re let off the leash to explore the city to buy equipment, see the sights and complete side-quests, but there’s altogether too little down-time to explore, and too little to see when you do.
The large group of supporting characters are populated by a broad range of personalities, meaning that chances are that you’ll relate to some characters and develop a preferred party. Remarkably, The Last Story features full voice acting for the entire duration (not just in cut-scenes), but it’s of decidedly uneven quality and often extracts from the emotion of the story rather than adding to it. Arguably, Zael’s voicing is the weakest of all; coming across arrogant when you desire humility, and too timid when the dialogue infers resolution. Ultimately, the romantic story of Zael and Calista is less interesting than the overarching tale of Lazulis Island, the Arganan family and the ambitions of the mercenaries, and there’s none of the charisma of, say, that of Aeris,Cloud and Zack which made a similar sub-plot succeed in Final Fantasy VII. Nobuo Uematsu provides an uncharacteristically subtle musical score; one that often blends too much into the background to make a major impact, but keeps from detracting from the story’s gravity. While some input of decision trees and sidequests allow the player to mould the story to your own only minorly, the feeling is still that of a (supremely-rendered) interactive novel with only sporadic player input. That said, one cannot underemphasise the sheer beauty of much of The Last Story, from the delicious vistas to the interesting steampunk-esque character costumes. Throughout The Last Story, players will have field day attempting to work out how Mistwalker managed to wrangle so much power out of the Wii’s meagre electronics, even if things do slow down to almost crippling levels during some particularly action-packed battles.
Overall, The Last Story both dazzles and disappoints in almost equal measure: for every glorious vista and engaging combat, there’s a cringeworthy narration and yet another elongated cut-scene ripping you away from the action. JPRG skeptics will likely find little here to convince them otherwise, but if you’re looking for a short, smart role-player to fill the gap left by The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and can overlook a few of the game’s flaws, then you could do much worse than drinking in The Last Story‘s glorious landscapes and curt but engaging tale.