I’m rebooting my approach to game reviews starting now. I will no longer be rating games for Presentation and Difficulty because I think the quality of a game’s presentation is covered well enough by Design, Graphics and Sound and because the challenge a game offers does not necessarily reflect its quality. I’ve also decided to be a bit harsher with overall scores as I think I have a tendency to undervalue games that previously scored over 8.0. The first game to be reviewed under the new scheme is The Last Story for the Wii.
The Last Story has rather a lot to live up to. Not only is the game’s director the father of the JRPG, Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi but the Wii exclusive is also the second of three Japanese titles Operation Rainfall have lobbied to be granted a western release, the first being the critically acclaimed Xenoblade Chronicles. The inevitable close comparisons to Monolithsoft’s modern classic might not be entirely fair because although The Last Story does not stand shoulder to shoulder with that gargantuan epic it is a very fine JRPG nonetheless.
In The Last Story you take control of Zael, a young swordsman who works for a band of mercenaries lead by his best buddy Dagran. The group travel to Lazulis Island, home of Count Arganan in search of a better life and the chance of becoming knights. It is here that a strange force gives Zael mysterious powers and where a chance encounter with an enigmatic young woman named Lisa leads Zael and his friends into a story of war in a dying land. Compared to some of the lengthier epics the genre has produced over the years the plot isn’t the most inspired. There are warring nations, power-hungry nobles and alien maguffins but the story of Lazulis Island’s troubles aren’t nearly as involving as the plight of the main characters who are a highly engaging bunch. Every member of the main cast is extremely well defined and very likeable, something largely thanks again to a superb localization effort. The intelligent and often very witty script is brilliantly delivered by another wonderful British voice cast and the result is that you will care very much what happens to the heroes and root for them in their ambitions for better lives. Jack Ryder is fine as the humane Zael but his character is a little too neutral to be truly memorable. Nico Lennon’s dulcet tones lend Dagran tremendous charisma as the stoic party leader. Kelly Wenham’s amusing mancunian brings wonderful characterisation to the abrasive boozing beauty Syrenne. Derek Riddell’s fine Scottish brogue makes ladies’ man Lowell infinitely likeable. Montserrat Lombard’s dreamy voice work makes the mildly odd scholar Mirania memorable and Colin Ryan brings nuance to the quiet magician Yurick. Special mention must also go to Blake Ritson as scheming noble Jirall for his performance in one memorably manic scene in particular.
The story unfolds in a series of chapters, most of which last for around half an hour or so. After the opening few scenes the party arrives at Lazulis City where you’re given a certain amount of freedom to explore and take on side quests which function as self-contained optional chapters that can be played out of order and in some cases skipped completely. The action is often at its best when the gang is doing their job as mercenaries, breaking into bandits’ hideouts to steal medicine for a sick child or rescuing an eccentric shopkeeper’s wife from a haunted house.
There’s a very episodic feel about proceedings and the pace is kept lively by the amusing banter and variety of objectives and settings. The game world itself is rather on the small side especially when compared to that of the vast Xenoblade Chronicles and many locations are only available to be explored once. The game has a bad habit of not making your next objective in the main story completely clear and you may find yourself wandering aimlessly around Lazulis Castle in search of the right NPC to talk to in order to trigger story events. Otherwise progression is fairly linear and most environments don’t offer a whole lot of scope for exploration barring the odd treasure chest hidden a short distance away from the critical path.
For the vast majority of the play time you control only Zael as you explore and get into scraps. Battles take place in real time and play out in the detailed environments. The action will often pause to give you an overhead view of enemy formations to give you a chance to formulate strategy before diving in. The game makes use of auto-attacking in similar fashion to Xenoblade Chronicles but works slightly differently in that you have to tilt the stick towards the enemy to strike. This can be slightly awkward when trying to run past groups of enemies as you can get stuck auto-attacking but it doesn’t ruin anything. You build up other abilities as you progress, one of the most important of which is Gathering which will focus enemy attention on you thereby freeing up your allies, particularly the magicians such as Mirania and Yurick to charge up spells.
Zael is not capable of attack magic but you gain the ability to issue commands to your allies if you want them to cast specific spells. The magic circles that appear when spells are cast can imbue your weapon with elemental properties to gain an advantage on specific enemy types while standing in healing circles replenish your life. Zael can also perform a technique called Gale to dispel these circles for other effects. Dispelling a healing circle instantly restores a large amount of health to the whole party whilst doing the same to a fire circle allows your attacks to break through enemy defenses. Each character learns a handful of techniques some of which can only be performed by your command when the Spirit Gauge is full that must be used tactically to sway the results of tougher battles. Zael also gains the ability to unleash powerful strikes by leaping out from cover quickly or running up walls to perform a Vertical Strike. He also has a crossbow to shoot distant foes and can even look around at the battlefield and give orders to have weak parts of the terrain destroyed to gain an advantage.
There isn’t a whole lot of customization of attack options on offer which may disappoint some players but what there is provides a good balance that always lets you feel like you have a chance of overcoming difficult fights. The gameplay makes for a tight balance of skill and strategy but rather a lot of regular encounters can be overcome just with auto-attacking. Each party member has five lives to get them through every battle but these mostly won’t be needed outside of the frequent boss battles which account for most of the game’s difficulty. Like most RPGs grinding is an option but the speed at which you level-up makes the grinding process quicker and more bearable than usual.
The area in which The Last Story most excels is its graphics which are detailed and polished. Environments and character designs are detailed, imaginative and believable throughout. On the downside the extent to which the game pushes the technical limits of the Wii hardware is visible in frame rate issues which can occasionally slow the action down to a crawl. All the same the game remains one of the prettiest to grace the Wii. The audio presentation is of similar high quality with Nobuo Uematsu’s beautiful score complimenting the fine voice work and sound effects give weight to blows and suggest a sense of tangibility about the environments. The game also makes good use of having no music in many places to give locations suitable atmosphere.
At around twenty solid hours of gameplay The Last Story isn’t the longest JRPG ever made but the content still offers a fairly robust package. There’s more life in the game if you strive to complete every last one of the forty-odd chapters and the gameplay is satisfying enough to make you want to revisit the characters again. The only thing holding the game back from classic status is its rather narrow focus. It feels like the game could be part of a far richer story and if the team had decided to expand the world, deepen the plot and inject the gameplay with a little more variety beyond the excellent combat we might have been on to something very special. What we do have is a very fine and well-presented RPG experience that Wii owners should definitely check out.