The Last Story is the latest title from Mistwalker, the Japanese developer founded by none other than Sakaguchi Hironobu, the creator of Final Fantasy. Hironobu left Square before they became Square Enix and set up Mistwalker with the help of Microsoft which led to two Xbox 360 exclusives, Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey. Neither of these titles hit the kind of heights that the Final Fantasy series had achieved, and though strongly reminiscent of his previous work, they lacked the same polish. Expectations were understandably mixed when Mistwalker announced The Last Story and not least because of the fact it was a Wii title. With the Wii’s poor reputation among the hard core gaming community, it was surely a brave and possibly rash move. But has it paid off?
Strangely it has. I say strangely not so much because the odds were not stacked in favour of The Last Story, but because it is a strange game in many ways. The story follows Zael and his friends, a group of mercenaries who are brought to Lazulis Island on the request of the shady Count Arganan. The group, led by Dagran (Zael’s best friend), find them selves caught up in a global conflict between mankind and the Gurak. Early on it is discovered that Zael posses a strange and seemingly unique ability that will turn the tide of this ancient conflict and is thus thrust into the path of knighthood by Count Arganan. The narrative is pretty minimal and awkwardly plotted in places. Moments such as a dying character giving Zael a pep talk rather than revealing who had murdered him highlight the absurdity of the situation. The narrative flow is given momentum by a constantly interrupting narrator, who explains scene transitions and reiterates what we have just seen. This actually functions as a way of streamlining the gameplay experience however, as rather than travelling large distances from A to B, you just appear there after a brief explanation that you have had a journey.
Still, throughout the game the characters remain likeable which is largely due to the localisation. I would be interested to know if US gamers will receive a totally different dub of this game because the localisation is very British. Each character has a strong regional twang and the dialogue is often more like an episode of Skins than a JRPG. Much of the time the characters are chattering about getting pissed, pulling birds or giving each other stick. This is totally juxtaposed against the exposition sections of the game, where these ‘oi oi geezas’ get serious and start talking about the events in the narrative. Still, while it may feel at odds with the original Japanese presentation, the localisation team have clearly had a lot of fun. There is a lot of humour that I would suggest has been added by a team who were probably not taking their job very seriously, but when the story is this silly it is for the best to find the funny side. Without this tongue-in-cheek approach the whole game would feel very naff but instead it comes off as quirky and fun.
Along side the great voice work is a score by none other than Nobuo Uematsu (also of Final Fantasy fame) and on the whole it is a cracking set of tunes. There are a couple of tracks that are very familiar, most notably the battle arena theme which is very similar to the Hunter’s Chance track from Final Fantasy IX, but on the whole the score feels fresh and evocative. Even tropes of the genre such as the leading lady singing/humming the main theme incessantly doesn’t get too grating.
Much like the narrative, the gameplay has also been streamlined. Mistwalker have effectively achieved what the Final Fantasy games have yet to do which is integrate classic JRPG action and exploration while keeping the gameplay flowing. You control Zael directly while the other characters are controlled by the AI however, you can pause the action and lay out commands. This is fundamental later on as whatever Zael commands gets a much shorter charge time and obviously caters to your needs as well. The AI characters will also hold off using their ultimate move which allows you to time the techniques to your advantage. The streamlining I mentioned early comes in the form of automatically attacking an enemy within striking distance if you point the analogue stick towards them. At first this feels weird but you soon realise that by not tiring your thumb out tapping away at a button, you have more freedom to focus on your team. Zael can even fight multiple enemies, hacking away with his sword and kicking people which leads to some pretty frantic attacking, minus the button mashing. Zael is melee focused but also has a magic attack called Gale that deals damage to a wide area and also effects both friendly and enemy magic circles. He also has the ability to draw enemy focus towards him, allowing magic users to charge up and weak team members a break. While they make a huge fuss over Zael’s “Gathering” ability, in practise it is a useful tool that if anything could have been more heavily focused on.
The biggest flaw with The Last Story is the graphics. Even for a Wii title it doesn’t look great, opting for a desaturated and washed out look. Adjusting the contrast helps somewhat but even so everything comes out muted. It is a shame as games like Skyward Sword have proven that the Wii looks at its best with a bright and colourful pallet. The effect they have used dates the visuals and makes it feel last generation. There is also little to be said for the art direction which is just bog standard JRPG fare.
For an RPG, The Last Story is actually very short, though it still exceeds 20 hours of gameplay. However, much of this is down to a lack of needless travelling rather than a lack of narrative to work through. The traditional focus on level grinding has also been abandoned, opting for generously portioned experience from the fighting. I only found my self grinding once which was against the end boss, and even then it only took about 10 minutes with a summing circle to become strong enough to complete the game. The Last Story is certainly easier than most JRPGs but it is also more fun than most. Mistwalker have abandoned design elements from the 80s so before you raise up in protest, actually think about how much you really enjoy spending 2 hours grinding an area just to carry on with the story.
I have taken my time with The Last Story and it has been time well spent. Will it be the game of the year? Not a chance. Still, it was a game that I wanted to finish not due to my gaming pride but because I wanted to find out what happens to these guys. A more likeable bunch of manga stereotypes you will not find.