Japanese RPGs are currently experiencing something of a crisis. It’s been many years since the likes of Final Fantasy VII, games which featured turn-based battles and largely linear narratives, were among the most popular video games around. Their successors have arguably been less influential than Western role-players like the Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls games, which sport real-time combat and tell more open-ended tales. The Last Story, which comes courtesy of Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and his Mistwalker development studio, draws from both traditions and is one of the most satisfying Japanese RPGs I’ve played in a very long time.
IT’S NOT THE SIZE THAT COUNTS…
One of the best things about The Last Story is that it’s small. By that I don’t mean that it’s boring or lacking in content. I mean that it’s focused; it knows its strengths and sticks to them. Take the setting, a verdant seaborne fiefdom called Lazulis Island. It is here that we’re introduced to Zael, a sword-wielding mercenary with a kind heart and a predictably stupid haircut. Although the story takes Zael and his band of merry mercs to some faraway places, most of their time is spent tromping round the island working for the local nobility in hopes of improving their social status.
The main storyline, which involves a power-hungry despot, an exiled race of blood-eyed humanoids, and a lady most fair, is a good one, but what really makes it sing are the grace notes, the in-between chapters that explore the far corners of Lazulis Island in often delightful detail. In one excursion, Zael and company help a local shopkeeper rescue his wife from a haunted mansion. In another, Zael does battle in the local coliseum only to find that the kingdom’s knights are throwing fights to him due to his favor with the ruler of the island. The Last Story tells a tale as exciting as anything in the genre, but we’ve played through too many of those to care without something more. It’s the little things, like the way Zael can smack his head against a low-hanging signpost or overhear conversations between pairs of people talking in the street, that give meaning the bigger ones, and The Last Story is a game that cares about the little things.
This fine shading extends to the cast of characters, who by most metrics lack distinction. Zael is an even-tempered nice guy of a leading man. The leader of the group, Dagran, is a stern patriarch. We’ve also got the bawdy, duel-wielding Syrenne, petulant mage Yurick, and soft-spoken healer Mirania. We’ve seen this group before, but as with the story, they’re brought to life by the little moments. The group talks to each other as they leap into battle, and the things they say are usually diverting enough to be worth having said. The voice cast of British actors is excellent, and the script gives them enough different tones to work with that they needn’t feel embarrassed by the credit. The Last Story is a character-driven game, so it’s fortunate that the characters are worthy of it.
Despite these accolades, the The Last Story’s story is far from perfect. It has its share of RPG clichés, plot-holes, and at least one baffling character about-face, but it’s filled out with just the right details in just the right places that it makes one want to think well of it. The musical score by Nobuo Uematsu is lovely; the main theme summons the kind of elegiac mood once reserved for the better Final Fantasy games. The art team provides a visual style to match it, bathing the game world in a lazy late afternoon haze. I even came around to the obtrusive narrator, who fills in details of the story we only occasionally need to know in a way that started off as annoying and at some point became charmingly dopey. The Last Story is a very easy game to like, and for that reason I found myself willing to look past some of its shortcomings.
…IT’S HOW YOU USE IT.
This quality was helpful when it came to the battle mechanics, since the game’s ambitious combat system sometimes falls short of its lofty goals. Like most modern RPGs, combat in The Last Story unfolds in real-time, but the game avoids one of the most ridiculous images of modern gaming, that of a group of characters standing immobile around an enemy and whacking it while little numbers pop up over its head. Combat in The Last Story is dynamic, with a lot of running and climbing and aiming involved. It has its faults, but it’s still the best attempt I’ve seen by a Japanese RPG to use real-time combat, and is frequently a lot of fun.
When it comes to fighting, one of the game’s best innovations is to eliminate random, and even semi-random, battles entirely. There are no fights in this game that you cannot fight. Each one is planned out ahead of time, meaning that the developers can set up the geography, enemy formation, and available implements to ensure that each encounter is as interesting as possible. Players take control of Zael, who has a variety of techniques he can use to defeat his foes. Running up to an enemy will make Zael auto-attack. He can also manually aim his crossbow, take cover behind conveniently placed debris, command his allies to use their specialty abilities, diffuse magic circles left by spells to cause a wide variety of effects, and quite a bit more. The game introduces new techniques gradually right up until the end, so there’s usually something new to play around with.
What’s better is that the game actually makes you use the techniques it so generously provides, often in rather creative ways. I remember the moment I realized I was actually going to enjoy the fights in this game. My party was battling a doppleganger monster who fought us from the other side of a mirror, replicating my every move. Auto-attacking did nothing, since the monster would just copy me and our swords would meet in mid-swing. I had to order Yurick, my mage, to cast a fire spell on the floor near the monster, which left a heat residue that distracted it long enough for me to land a blow. I was very, very happy to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to win every fight in the game by thwacking the enemy to death.
Although there are times when that’s the case, particularly when the fights have large numbers of combatants and there’s too much going on to focus on strategy. In these moments, the battles can become frustrating and chaotic, but most of the time they’re intelligently laid out and, at their best, play more like miniature puzzles where someone dies at the end. If RPGs must have real-time combat, I strongly endorse this game as the model to build upon.
Buying weapons and armor outside of combat is a straight-forward affair, not so simple that there’s no strategy involved but not so complex that you’ll weep openly whenever you have to upgrade your equipment. Money is available but not absurdly plentiful, so you’ll actually have to prioritize what you want to buy and when you want to buy it. Plus, shopping will give you the opportunity to wander around Lazulis City, the game’s central hub and a memorable medieval metropolis packed with side-quests, collectibles, and a bustling torrent of NPCs. It feels lived-in and alive, vast in size but really residing in the sun-touched corners and windy side-streets. It’s a vibrant place with a surprise around the corner, and somewhere I’d love to see the industry return.