The Last Story review: As fun as Wii games are going to be in 2012
23rd Feb 2012 | 14:00
Risky business, a JRPG evoking 'story'. For every masterful Dragon Quest V or Final Fantasy VII there are shelves of fantasy drivel populated by dark lords, whimpering princesses and magical swords.
This is the narrative detritus of the post-Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy world, their early successes cementing the clichés plaguing the genre today. What's interesting is that both series' creators are trying to innovate in their games. Yuji 'Dragon Quest' Horii in an upcoming Wii MMO, and Hironobu 'FF' Sakaguchi in this, The Last Story.
The Last Story is actually rammed with stories. We can only presume 'Lots Of Stories Culminating In A Last Story' wouldn't fit on the box. Ongoing guff about mystic powers and twisted rulers (kings, not stationery) is a launching point for adventurous 'chapters' (complete with cheesy voice-over man to fill in exposition). One second our hero, Zael, is evading guards in back alleys, the next his mercenary gang are playing at bodyguards for the local baron. Later they're ransacking an enemy warship. Another hour and it's a full-scale invasion of an enemy stronghold.
At their best - fighting phantom doppelgangers aboard a ghost ship, chasing a vampire around his gothic mansion - these hectic moments resemble the trials of Jason and the Argonauts. What is technically the stuff of side missions is made compulsory in the name of adventurous sprawl. Action 'anecdotes' also flesh out characters poorly served by the central yarn. Where many JRPG party members are just there to make the hero look good - 'armed candy', if you will - Mistwalker use downtime to nurture real affinity for our ragtag gang.
GOT YOUR NUMBER
Sakaguchi's story isn't a slave to cutscenes and expository dialogue. Most RPGs struggle to find middle ground between statistic-driven combat and wordy yarn-weaving. Try building a story on numbers and you end up with The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and that would make a terrible JRPG. (Caterpillar casts 'scoff' on 'four strawberries', gains +6 'indigestion'.) The Last Story doesn't reject statistics - swords of +5% ice damage are present and correct - but it does bully them into real-time combat geared towards delivering movie-like thrills.
Zael has the flexibility of a third-person action hero. He performs evasive roles, can block and counter, hide in cover and aim a crossbow - complete with headshots for expert snipers. His sneaking abilities open up fun pre-battle tactics. Hopping between cover allows you to flank enemy platoons or, even better, stealthily pick them off one by one. Arrows let Zael lure stragglers to his hiding spot where they can be offed without alerting their friends. At worst, it evens the odds come fight time. At best, potentially messy encounters are skipped entirely.
Close combat reveals some traditional RPG rigidity. Zael's auto attacks (just tilt the analogue stick towards the corpse-to-be) echo Xenoblade's, right down to the bonuses for attacking monsters from behind. Combo chains and a responsive block/counter give hand-to-hand combat an arcade-y vibe, but it does occasionally falter. Get surrounded by enemies - quite possible, thanks to 15 of them on screen at a time - and there's no space to evade. Every direction results in an auto attack, and it's down to blind luck whether Zael manages to break away.
Last Story's coolest combat innovation relies on Zael's added manoeuvrability. Bestowed a mystical 'gathering' ability early on, Zael can draw enemy attention, heal fallen friends and speed up spell casting. As long as he can survive the heat of an enemy army, team-mates act with greater efficiency. The concept of aggro is nothing new to RPGs, but tying it directly to party ability adds a great element of risk/reward. Physically evading attacks while a vital spell is being cast by an ally is exactly the kind of real-time drama a turn-based system can never hope to match.
This sense of being one element of a bigger canvas gives Last Story its cinematic flavour. One trick involves ordering mages to attack structural weaknesses and drop bridges and stalactites on enemy forces. So as Zael lures a snarling golem under a (admittedly convenient) decorative sword statue, a quick call to flame-boy Yurik will crash it on the beast's head. On paper, 'dropping X on Y's noggin' sounds gimmicky, but in action there's a hint of Zelda boss fights to proceedings.
It adds up to a brilliantly living battlefield. Characters leapfrog enemies, Zael delivers critical hits with a slo-mo flourish and particle effects explode all around. Battles audibly buzz with scripted dialogue (none of those soundbites that drove Xenoblade fans mad) that lends both drama and important hints for defeating bigger bads. In a nice touch, dominating the battlefield causes Nobuo Uemetsu's heroic battle theme to trigger, letting you duff up the last few stragglers in style. In full swing, The Last Story acts outs RPG battles previously left to the imagination.
Balancing real-time thrills and strategic smarts gives combat a scale and variety that static menus can't match. From one set of flexible combat rules spin stealth infiltrations, epic ground battles, bosses the size of cathedrals and - a true testament to the combat's scope - straight one-on-one swordfights. In The Last Story's 20 hours we chase vampires, trounce waves of attack gnomes, cleave troll skulls in two with aerial plunges and ride mutant wolves through packs of squealing goons. Mistwalker have cracked the action RPG like no dev before.
But perhaps it's too flexible, at least where difficulty is concerned. Characters have five lives before permanent death - two too many for even the toughest encounters. That we never once saw the game over screen - bar in one instant fail stealth section late in the game - suggests Mistwalker were worried players might struggle to adapt to new ideas. A few overpowered moves ensure monsters never get the upper hand. Zael's powerful slash attack (diving out from cover) is meant to reward stealthy takedowns, but dumb enemy AI means it's readily available in battle.
The combat may well find its challenging feet in the online modes. We've not been able to test them this month, though the ability to face off against five rivals or work with them to topple bosses certainly sounds intriguing.
I'VE STARTED SO I'LL FINISH
That it's a relatively easy game is largely down to user-friendly design. Grinding is non-existent, replaced with summon portals that let you conjure up goons for bonus XP. Although the game is paced so that you needn't ever use the portals, it is worth harvesting materials for sword improvement. Item management is likewise simplified, with few inventory slots to worry about and a focus on improving kit already in play rather than meddling with entirely new gear. With a slim (for a JRPG) 20-hour runtime, it's clear Mistwalker want even newbies to see the end.
The Last Story has such smooth delivery that its few mistakes jut out violently. The frame rate, in city exploration and cutscenes, stutters harder than The King's Speech. Sakaguchi's time in the glossy Final Fantasy trenches means he naturally pushes the Wii harder than most developers. His shimmering water effects are particularly good. (So good that the title screen opens on a big picture of a puddle for us to ogle.) Add anime influence (hair kept within the laws of physics) and it's a handsome game; it's a shame Mistwalker ask us to admire it frame... by frame... by frame.
For a game so competent on a micro-narrative level, our biggest complaint is reserved for the story at large. Sakaguchi's tale of warring nations weaves lots of fun incidents and enjoyably cheesy villains into a tedious bit of good-vs-evil. Major characters are on loan from Rent-A-Cliché - wide-eyed hero, arrogant knight, naïve general - and the tale's twists are too obviously signposted. It's disappointing to see a game avoid so many RPG pitfalls only to stumble into the biggest of them all: the very fantasy bunkum Sakaguchi unleashed on the world in 1986.
The Last Story may reveal itself to be The Same Old Story, but does so with more than enough wit and verve to earn it a place in your Wii slot. We'd like to see it as the first chapter of a bigger story - Sakaguchi has done the hard part and broken free of RPG constraints, now it's time for him to properly reap the rewards.