Editor Note: If you’re not familiar with the term “pile of shame”: basically, it’s all those games you’ve purchased over the years, either on a whim or in a steam sale, that you’ve simply never gotten around to playing. We all have one, but as someone who writes about games, it’s likely no surprise that mine is shamefully large. For this reason, and given the slowdown for new releases, we created a special series where we retrospectively review some of these games.
Final Fantasy VII was the first role-playing game that I ever played. It was an incredible experience for me, as well as a moment of clarity that I would never forget. I know it sounds awfully ridiculous by today’s standards, but I honestly had no idea that games could tell such intricate stories, or deliver compelling characters beyond that of blue hedgehogs and Italian plumbers. Final Fantasy took my casual interest in gaming, and helped to develop a passion that would eventually lead to the foundation of GameCloud. Needless to say it’s special to me, and while it’s true the series has seen better days, there’s also no denying the talent and genius that has been poured into the franchise over the years.
After Final Fantasy X, however, Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator) and Nobuo Uematsu (composer) left Square to form a new studio called Mistwalker. On the Xbox 360, they had two major releases: Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey – both of which met with a reasonably good reception. There was a lot for long-time J–RPG fans to like about these games as they employed a balance of traditional ideas, as well as innovation – whereas some other studios were focused on “westernising” their games. What many didn’t realise, though, is that they released a third game on the Wii: The Last Story, which was localised thanks to Operation Rainfall. This is a game that I actually purchased two years ago, but due to the platform, never found the motivation to play. What a tragedy that would have been if not for this article.
The Last Story tells the tale of Zael, a skilled mercenary who dreams of one day becoming a knight, as well as his friends, who are all on their way to Lazulis City to seek work and a better life for themselves. You see, the world has been decaying without explanation for some time now, and Lazulis Island is now one of the only places within the human empire that still flourishes, as well as not being subject to the bandit raids now common throughout the land. However, on their way to the capital, Zael encounters a strange being who gifts him with a special gift known as “The Power of the Outsider.” It doesn’t mean much now, or even make sense really, but it will change the course of history.
It might not sound incredibly original, but make no mistake, this is a genuinely wonderful story on almost every level. Above all else, the focus is nearly always character driven, which plays a huge part in its success. Of course, the plot does delve into complex political scandals and some heavy science fiction themes, but its nearly always delivered in a relatable manner. You won’t ever need an encyclopedia to understand what the characters are talking about, and this is fantastic. Even when the stakes are lifted considerably, the scale of the conflict always feels focused; which is assisted by several compelling antagonists who also never fall subject to being evil for the sake of being evil. It has it all: love, war, politics, friendship, betrayal, racism, science fiction – not to mention, lots of strong female characters. It’s about as flawless as a conventional J–RPG story could get, with well written characters you’ll never be able to forget.
I honestly can’t tell you how much I enjoyed going back to a linear, character-driven J–RPG. Although, I accept that it might just be me whose growing weary of every single game having to be completely open world and filled with hours of fluff content. Don’t get me wrong, The Last Story still has a large open city for players to explore, as well as lots of semi-open dungeons and areas to discover on Zael’s adventure; albeit with very little time wasting involved. It’s easy to keep track of what you’re doing, even if there are no markers or quest lists. The rewards for combat and quests are also very easy to manage; often being weapons and armour, or items used to make money or upgrade the aforementioned. It’s basic, but still deep enough, encouraging customisation above all else, with a large variety of options for the player. In fact, in terms of clothing, everything can be adjusted, re-coloured, and taken off (within reason!); adding a unique visual feel to the story sequences, as well as some flair to a technologically outdated game.
The biggest difference between The Last Story and the previous games developed by Mistwalker is that this one is actually an “Action RPG” – mechanically speaking. All the battles take place in real-time, albeit with many unique mechanics to ensure it’s never a case of simply pressing “A” to hit the bad guys. In most battles, you will first be provided with an almost real-time strategy styled overview, from which you can see the enemy layout, and then switch to your character to begin the battle. The interesting thing about the way this battle system is integrated, though, is how it suits the focus of the game, allowing for traditional RPG growth, but without any time-wasting. Each character will gain experience, improving their base strengths with each new level; however, traditional RPG grinding is almost never required. For the times when you need to catch-up, there are “summon portals” which allow you to continuously summon waves of enemies; negating the need to run circles or wait for respawning. There is also an arena in the city if you want to step it up for additional coin and experience, as well as a separate multiplayer mode (now unavailable).
There is one thing about J–RPGs that I always look forward to, and that’s the combat system. In a modern FPS, for example, I pretty much know how to play the game immediately, as well as what to expect from the core design and mechanics. In a J–RPG, however, the developers always come up with unique and inventive ideas, and I can’t express how much I enjoy (as someone who plays a lot of games) being thrown into something I don’t fully understand, and then being given the opportunity to master it. The battle system in The Last Story is one of the more unique experiences I’ve had as it employs real-time action with real-time strategy. You will nearly always be in control of the lead character, Zael, but once in combat, you have the ability to stop, evaluate, and to send commands to your team.
In battle, Zael will automatically attack when he makes contact with an enemy. It felt a bit weird at first, but given all the other abilities you want to focus on, instead; removing the need to push “a” for each individual hit was a smart choice. There are also lots of places to take cover, which provides an opportunity for strategy when using special arrows, or performing slash attacks on unsuspecting enemies for greater damage. In addition, each character has an entirely unique set of magic and abilities, and while Zael can’t use magic directly, he instead uses an ability called “Gale” to activate the magic circles which are left behind by previously cast spells, which in turn activate buffs/debuffs. The main ability Zael does employ, however, is “Gathering” which works as an aggro to focus all enemy attention directly on him.
I do have to admit that it feels pretty clunky at times, especially when compared to action RPGs of today, but it’s really not to any major detriment. In my opinion, it’s a brilliant system that employs so many ideas that could have simply sat idle in a turn-based menu, and brings them out into the open in new and exciting ways. If you can adjust to its quirks and look past a few shortcomings, this is a very unique and rewarding combat system for players to learn and master.
While not as polished as its Operation Rainfall counterpart, Xenoblade Chronicles, there is still a lot to appreciate for an expansive RPG achieved with hardware specs not common for more than a decade. Fortunately, a large emphasis was put on the detail of the characters, which is great as it certainly supports the strength and primary focus of the experience. Personally, however, I felt the colour palette was a little too drab ar times, and there is simply no excusing a frame-rate which can drop to absolutely abominable levels. It’s still playable throughout, and the art design is strong enough to deliver that strong sense of fantasy, but I think had it not been for all the cool customisation options and the personality of the characters, the visual presentation would have slipped by as passable, but relatively unremarkable.
Often, with many Japanese games, this would be the part where I’d be expected to express my concern for the poor English dub. Well, not this time. I don’t know if it was because of the attention on Operation Rainfall, or simply because it was a UK team that did the recordings, but the voice acting was absolutely fantastic. In fact, nearly every single character was fueled with their own unique personality, and had dialogue which was delivered with a heart-felt performance. This was a story about a group of mercenaries, who, at best of times, were crude humoured and enjoyed a good drink. It was good fun, and you’d have to be hard pressed to genuinely dislike anyone. In turn, Nobuo Uematsu also delivers yet another inspired soundtrack which always suits the tone of the game perfectly. He knows how to have fun, as well as deliver on those truly epic moments. It’s also great to hear a lot of strong melody’s which made his earlier work in Final Fantasy so memorable, with “Toberu Mono” – the main theme, standing out in particular.
I have to admit, I had long come to believe that I would probably never get around to playing The Last Story, and I suspect that this may also be the case with others who have heard about the game. Between the Xbox 360 and Wii, it feels as if Mistwalker has never quite found their feet, despite crafting genuinely interesting games; which makes me curious whether another platform would have been more suitable. This Wii exclusive J-RPG is a genuinely outstanding, character-driven tale, which, despite some clunky controls and muddy visuals, employs an innovative battle system and heartfelt narrative that will almost certainly please fans of the genre. It’s packed full of creative ideas, Zael is a great protagonist, and, ultimately, it is very rewarding to master and doesn’t waste your time in doing so. It’s such a shame more people have not considered it. If you own a Wii (U) and love J-RPGs, eBay it. You won’t regret it.