The Last Story has a deeply prophetic title. Not only is it the Wii's final fling, but Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi has been developing his latest JRPG like a man at the end of his career, as if it's his swan song as well as the console's. On top of that, The Last Story aims to be the last word for a genre that has been accused of stagnation and cliche in recent years. There's a lot riding on it, but at first glance, Sakaguchi's latest epic appears to be overtly traditional when taken at face value.
Jaded JRPG veterans will scoff at a decidedly linear story involving a runaway princess, otherworldly forces and mysterious magical powers. You'll laugh at the clichéd protagonist: a skeletally-thin, effeminate orphan who schizophrenically flits between being naive, depressed, emotional and infeasibly competent when the story calls for it. Character design resembles a 'best of' collection from Final Fantasy VII-XI, so much so that franchise fans will catch their breath in waves of overwhelming deja vu.
And then you'll play it, and realise that Sakaguchi uses The Last Story's traditional template as a jumping off point to completely subvert the conventional JRPG experience. The staid formula has been put through a brutal training regimen that trims off the unnecessary fat and strengthens the core components that really matter to role-playing fans. In effect, the JRPG arrived at Sakaguchi's 'fat camp' a bloated and corpulent wreck... and emerges as a fit, lean and musclebound powerhouse.
Let's start with the characters. Rather than subscribing to the traditional clichés, you'll be introduced to a core team of complex, dynamic, competent and relateable mercenaries who buck the trend whenever possible. The first female character you meet is a hard-drinking brawler who loves nothing more than bantering with the lads and drinking everyone under the table, talking in a musical Lancashire twang that's never harsh on the ears. A Scottish womaniser shows surprising tenderness and understanding, purring out his lines in a subtle, even melodic, lilt. Even Zael, the aftorementioned orphan protagonist, is likeable and incredibly professional compared to conventional JRPG leading men - you'll care what happens to him as a fully-rounded, believable person rather than a plot device. Impeccable and British voice acting (from Side, arguably the best in their field) allows you to genuinely invest in each and every cast member, bolstered by fantastic localised dialogue.
These characters are then quickly thrown into one of the compelling storylines ever told by a JRPG, chronicling their desire to better themselves and carve a real life in a world that's quickly going to hell. It's recklessly unpredictable and unflinchingly mature; never shying away from dealing with shocking, heartbreaking themes and treating each issue in shades of grey rather than traditional notions of good vs evil. Impressively, though, The Last Story subverts traditional JRPG storytelling by allowing you to play segments that most games would deal with in cutscenes, immersing you in ways that Square Enix can only dream of. For example, a long conversation involving Zael's backstory would have been an incredibly lengthy and uninteresting cinematic to watch, but instead you'll use a telescope to stargaze while listening to the dialogue, enjoying the sensation of really engaging with a fleshed-out world rather than just observing it from behind your television.
The story may be relentlessly linear, but the conveyor belt stops long enough to allow you to enjoy the scenery. Zael frequently finds himself at a loose end in the town of Lazulis, which is destined to be remembered as one of the best cities to ever grace an RPG. It's sprawling enough to offer plenty of exploration throughout its alleyways and backstreets, but compact enough to ensure that you're never far from your objective. Numerous small details, such as NPCs accidentally hitting their heads on shop signs or tripping over spilled fruit on the floor, roots you in the world, with sumptuous art design, washed-out sepia tones and ominous background music creating an foreboding and uneasy atmosphere. Lazulis also offers a few wildly inconsistent subquests to seek out, which run the gamut from boring fetch quests to an hour-long horror adventure through a haunted mansion.
But you'll spend most of your time on the conveyor belt and hungrily pursuing the main questline. Story levels are, as mentioned, breathtakingly linear collections of corridors punctuated by arenas full of enemies, with a perfectly-balanced level curve completely cutting out the usual need to grind away on random battles. Each battle is a major event in its own right, and provides the perfect canvas to showcase The Last Story's innovative combat. Sakaguchi has completely revitalised the traditional JRPG with nuanced and visceral real-time combat that surprises at every turn. Most engagements begin with enemies unaware of your presence, allowing Zael to duck behind cover like a third person shooter, flank around the arenas and lure sentries out of position with well-placed crossbow bolts.
Once combat properly begins, you'll only have direct control over Zael, but can use his magical 'Gathering' powers to distract enemies, power up an impressive selection of abilities and take the heat off your spellcasters. Magic circles can be deployed and tactically shattered to inflict status effects. Zael can seek cover and bushwhack unaware foes. You can even run up a wall - any wall - in slow motion, select a target and turn a desperate situation into a sensationally stylish victory. Some brilliantly-crafted encounters and bosses even allow you to designate scenery targets or tactics for your team, whose AI is fairly reasonable.
Effectively using this wealth of tactical depth will make light work of regular battles and is essential for bosses... except that there's a major problem. The level curve is so gentle, and the penalties for being knocked out so incredibly generous, that you don't actually need to use your brain very often. In fact, the vast majority of combat engagements can be completed just by holding up on the thumbstick, allowing Zael to attack automatically and letting any casualties be absorbed by the staggeringly generous lives system. Each character can be knocked out five times in each battle, making for an experience that's bereft of challenge 80% of the time - and feels much more shallow than it actually is.
It's almost as if Sakaguchi feels that regular combat, even regular gameplay, is just filler material getting in the way of his beloved storyline - and wants you to burn through it as quickly as possible to get to the next juicy gobbet of exposition or finely-honed boss scenario.
Sakaguchi's overt devotion to streamlining doesn't stop with the combat and level curve. Characters gain stat bonuses automatically when they level up, and only have two skills each that improve over the course of the campaign. You can't affect their progression or tailor them to your specifications in any meaningful way. Character customisation is also at a premium, with only a brusque upgrade system allowing you to improve largely cosmetic body armour and weapons. This will be initially disappointing, crushingly so, to fans of RPGs who enjoy the satisfaction of moulding their own perfect team of characters and tinkering with absolutely every aspect of their creation.
But The Last Story isn't about trawling through reams of numbers. It's about real people, human beings who aren't just arbitrary spreadsheets of DPS and armour classes. Most JRPGs continually hammer home the fact that you're playing a game with all of their beardy, grindy contrivances - and The Last Story doesn't want you to delay your adventure by five hours just so you can get a particular statistic up to a certain level. I might have taken Sakaguchi to task if the story and characters didn't hold up, but as I said in the introduction, the layers of numerical fat have been scraped away to reveal a shining core of genuine role-playing: real people, real issues and a real world to engage with.
And this world is where The Last Story ultimately succeeds. Lazulis Island and the surrounding Empire is a truly gorgeous and melancholy place to be, presented with rich, detailed art design and visuals that easily trumps anything else on the Wii. Though it doesn't offer the avenues for exploration provided by Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story feels epic, expansive and steeped in history despite its crushing linearity.
- Sensational characters, storyline and localisation
- Soulful, competent visuals
- Fantastic real time combat with surprising depth
- Surprisingly easy, lacks genuine challenge
- Combat depth rarely needed due to non-existent level curve
- Simplistic character customisation will disappoint RPG purists
The Short Version: Whereas Xenoblade Chronicles set out a bold plan for the future of Japanese development, The Last Story instead looks to the past and attempts to make a definitive traditional JRPG, a last word for the genre that streamlines the fat and nourishes characters, storyline and gameplay. And amazingly, Sakaguchi has practically nailed it. It's just a shame that this exceptional worldbuilding had to come at the expense of challenge.
Regardless, The Last Story is still a fitting swan song for the Wii and a story that deserves to be told.