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.