Mistwalker’s The Last Story, from the pen of the “Father of Final Fantasy” Hironobu Sakaguchi and the second title in the Operation Rainfall campaign, has garnered rave reviews in Japan and inspired considerable hype for its journey to the West. But is it a tale worth holding out for? Or a story better left untold?
Right off the bat, the Final Fantasy comparisons seem unavoidable when talking about The Last Story. With a title so similar that a cynical mind might suspect a jab on Sakaguchi’s part, and title artwork recalling the heyday of Yoshitaka Amano-designed FF covers, the parallels are obvious. Yet, I felt excited for this game in the wake of Mistwalker’s last RPG, Lost Odyssey, a game featuring atypically mature characters and a touching narrative. The artwork by Drakengard’s character designer Kimihiko Fujisaka with its pastel tones and elaborate costumes, as well as the promise of a soundtrack composed by Nobuo Uematsu, sealed the deal for me.
Set on the island of Lazulis, the game centers on the young mercenary Zael (Elza in Japanese) and his group of fellow swords-for-hire trying to reach a better position in life by aiming for the good graces of the island’s ruler, Count Arganan. However, their plans are soon waylaid when the Count’s beautiful niece Calista (Kanan) stumbles into their life, drawing them into a power-struggle for Lazulis Island that might very well — how else could it be — determine the fate of the entire world.
Playing The Last Story means getting intimately acquainted with the island of Lazulis, as this is where the game primarily takes place — or rather, Lazulis’ capital. Although limiting the setting to just a small island and its immediate surroundings may seem like a step backwards in an age where gamers have come to prefer expansive worlds, this is actually a story-driven design choice. The world is dying, we are told, disintegrating into the fine sparkly flakes being scattered all over the island by the wind. Lazulis is actually one of the last places that is hanging on.
A much more questionable choice is the game’s bizarrely linear design, both in terms of levels and general exploration. After Final Fantasy XIII received a sound tongue-lashing from reviewers for forcing players into a relentless series of straight-and-narrow tubes, it is somewhat surprising to have The Last Story attempting a similar thing.
Many of the dungeons turn out to be fairly uninspired, monotone cave systems with few nooks and crannies to explore. Although it is possible to backtrack and revisit locations in order to collect more valuable loot, there appears to be little point in doing so. The areas and even the challenges stay unchanged from the first visit, only this time the battles don’t even give EXP for a few grinding sessions. Looting isn’t really enough incentive to justify return trips — I found I could get most of the materials I needed for sidequests and upgrading equipment by fighting in the game’s coliseum or just picking them off the streets of Lazulis City at leisure.
The most fun and interesting part of The Last Story is undoubtedly its combat system, which combines real-time action and tactical elements to create a unique battle experience. For the most part, you are free to pick between four and six characters for your party who will be AI-controlled but can be issued commands to direct their focus or switch attack modes. The player is placed in control of Zael, who can draw monsters’ attention with his “Focus” ability, allowing the group’s mages to charge up their spells in peace or leading mobs into a trap.
Prominently employing obstacles such as boulders and walls, the game adds a stealth element by allowing Zael to snipe at enemies, either taking out long-distance foes or thinning large groups of monsters by drawing individual beasts away and taking them out one at a time. The game even rewards this by giving more EXP for successfully luring a monster, adding more of an incentive to use tactical strikes rather than charging right in. At times, the game allows you to use your immediate surroundings to aid you in battle by giving you the chance to bring down rocks on your enemies or create shortcuts, though this mechanic isn’t used very consistently.
Another interesting feature of combat is the way magic works; rather than just flinging your regular old fire or ice spells that dissipate upon collision with a target, mages create magic circles that remain on the battlefield for a certain amount of time. By entering these circles, physical attackers can add elemental damage to their weapons or, in the case of a regenerative spell, heal themselves slowly over time. In addition to that, Zael possesses several moves to disperse these magic circles, creating unique one-time effects or disrupting enemy defense.
As a last gimmick in his considerable arsenal, Zael is able to use a variety of explosives to his advantage. This last part feels a little tacked on — apart from one boss battle that forced me to use bombs in order to get a chance to strike, I never saw much need to use them and in fact regularly forgot I even had them.
Given that the creators of The Last Story clearly put a lot of thought and effort into crafting a fun and versatile battle system, it then seems somewhat counterintuitive to discourage the player from using it. As I already mentioned, there is little reason to return to previous locations, as most of the leveling is done only in places the story wants you to be (usually, you will be given a grinding spot in every dungeon where you can quickly rack up levels).
The coliseum is fairly disappointing, as well: Arenas unlock at an excruciatingly slow pace, meaning that you’ll find yourself playing through the same stage over and over again — I believe I was two thirds done with the game before the coliseum even presented me with a second arena challenge. In fact, as I was playing, I couldn’t help the sneaking suspicion that the design team may have devoted too much time to adding an online multiplayer mode to The Last Story, where players can team up for challenges or enter PvP matches.
In short, though the battle system is highly innovative and engaging, the surrounding elements — particularly the level design — could have benefited from more variety and freedom.
Just like The Last Story is a little unbalanced in its gameplay, it is a little schizophrenic in its storytelling. It is difficult to tell where its main focus lies, as it tries to marry the central love story between Zael and Calista with class conflict, racial conflict and an end-of-the-world scenario. The multitude of themes would perhaps feel not quite as jumbled if the game knew how to pace itself — while I had no difficulty understanding what was happening, it often felt like I was getting dragged by my arm from scene to scene, with very little transition between them.
For the first few hours, what I had on my hands was a truly fun and diverse cast of characters — the elegant, soft-spoken but terribly gluttonous mage Mirania, the tough, sarcastic, but terrified-of-ghosts pretty-boy Yurick, and boisterous would-be alcoholic Syrenne quickly became my favorites in- and outside of battle, while ladies’ man Lowell and group leader Dagran proved to be a little beige, but still all right.
Their goal of working their way up in the world is placed at odds with the realization that something is rotten in the state of Lazulis as their youngest member Zael ends up marked by a mysterious power, which brings him to the attention of the power-hungry Count Arganan. All too soon, however, these interesting aspects are set aside to allow a painfully generic love plot to take center stage.
From the initial meet-cute between Zael and Calista that has taken more than one page from Disney’s Aladdin (complete with Calista attempting to take an apple from a vendor and being too sheltered to know what money is), to the special fireworks, the stargazing, and the repeated attempts at elopement, this romance relies more on beats that have come to symbolize love rather than express it.
This is not helped at all by Zael and Calista’s rudimentary personalities. While Zael initially has some potential as a character (a traumatized war orphan who views Dagran as his father and Syrenne as his mother figure), his time is soon taken up by pining after Calista, flitting around Calista, and blindly rushing into decisions for the chance of being with Calista.
The Lady Calista, meanwhile, is living the classic fairytale princess plot of being forced into a loveless marriage with a comically evil, sniveling nobleman, while her character is a checklist of Japanese love interest clichés. Supreme beauty and supreme naiveté define her, as she seems at once aware of several political intrigues in the Count’s court, yet has no idea about the workings of the wider world and is often reduced to staring sadly out of windows. Though the plot occasionally toys with the aspect of “getting what you want may not be what is best for everyone involved,” it never becomes a central theme, leaving the romance at the tedious “will they, won’t they” stage.
Given that this fairly one-note relationship takes up most of the story, other elements begin to suffer. The end-of-the-world plot, though quickly established, doesn’t possess a sense of urgency since the residents of Lazulis don’t seem at all concerned with their shrinking world, and we are never shown the land is dying, either. The class conflict is mostly kept on the level of the castle knights abusing their power over the peasants, while the ethnic conflict between the humans and a race of lizard people doesn’t gain any more depth as the game progresses.
There is one moment that is genuinely disturbing and feels like it could develop into an interesting moral dilemma, as Zael and his friends accompany the knights on an attack on the lizard people’s home base and find it to be full of women and children, whom the knights proceed to hunt and slaughter. Though visibly disgusted, the group has little choice but to proceed with the mission, as not following through would destroy their own position in court and their chance for a better life. However, as soon as the mission is complete, this topic is once again set aside.
Overall, the narrative, though it is the heart of The Last Story, fails to enchant. With plot elements that are far from ground-breaking and a romance more apt to inspire frustration at the characters’ overly dramatic antics than any genuine heartwarming moments, one is left with the feeling that Sakaguchi could do and has done much better in the past.
Graphics and Sound
Like the rest of the game, The Last Story’s look and feel are a bit of a mixed bag. I’ve already mentioned the gorgeous character and concept artwork, which, though detailed and a treat for the eyes, doesn’t feel out of place within the game’s world. It’s obvious that the designs were intended to be a highlight, as the game provides the player with ample opportunity to play fashion designer for the cast, swapping jackets, shirts and accessories and dyeing them in all the colors of the rainbow. There is even a sidequest to unlock an “invisibility dye” which allows you to put all your characters in their underwear, should you feel so inclined. All the characters? Why yes, The Last Story is all about providing equal opportunities by granting female players the option to create a battle party entirely of shirt- and pantsless men. This isn’t just a battle-screen feature, either — however you dress the characters, they appear as you’ve decreed in the game’s cutscenes, too.
Apart from the opportunity to customize the characters, though, the game offers a rather limited color palette for its locations. The expanse of Lazulis City consists of wood and cobblestone with barely a splash of color around, and, since the game will take any chance to send your party into a cave or a cellar, most of the world presents itself in tones of beige and gray, with the occasional spot of blue. The sparkling rain of fragments of the dead land possesses an eerie beauty, but apart from this, it is difficult to tell that the world is dying — even when the characters assert that a location is almost devoid of life, it looks lush and green, making it difficult to establish a sense of threat.
Nobuo Uematsu’s music is as lovely as ever, with sweeping orchestral pieces, action-packed battle tunes and quietly poignant tracks to underscore emotional scenes. The voice work is solid across the board; though some characters (like Syrenne) are given unusually thick British accents, the line delivery is generally smooth and appropriate. I found myself especially fond of Mirania’s voice (Montserrat Lombard), who came across as very soft-spoken and refined, which made the moments where she would dreamily wax poetic about food in the middle of battle all the more entertaining. Colin Ryan also does a great job as Yurick, pulling off the character’s sarcasm and prissiness with natural ease.
The Last Verdict
According to Nintendo, The Last Story is a game about “the universal theme of human emotion,” yet I cannot help but feel that it wouldn’t have hurt for Mistwalker to focus more on the specifics of human emotion. Romance stories are particularly hard to do since they need to be all about specifics, all about “the characters are in love” versus “I can feel the characters are in love.” Pushing a relationship that is already lacking in individuality into the limelight is certain not to do a 50-hour epic any favors. Add to this a fairly narrow world design and a cool tactical combat system that is unfortunately kept on a leash for far too long, and you get the mixed result that is The Last Story: a JRPG following a path well-trodden, though not without a few highlights here and there.
Title: The Last Story
Developer: Mistwalker & AQ Interactive
The Last Story