Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: Though I'm glad I was given the chance to play it, my final verdict on the Last Story is far from a recommendation.

It was, in many ways, a momentous occasion. With the years of speculation, hope, and then ultimately disappointment, Nintendo of America’s handling of The Last Story has been nothing short of tragic. Courtesy of Xseed Games, however, the latest RPG from Final Fantasy creator (and arguably the father of the modern Japanese RPG) Hironobu Sakaguchi was finally allowed to reach North American shores, serving as a symbolic farewell to the Wii system. Xseed, well aware of the built up demand for this title, packaged it with more care and in a more elaborate casing than I’ve ever seen, and as I took the game from its seal, I felt like I was holding something truly special.

And then I played it.

Well, okay, to be fair, The Last Story does begin with promise, though unfortunately that promise is never realized. This is a tedious and unadventurous journey to nowhere: an adventure so forgettable that I could feel it fading from memory even as I was playing it. I’m glad that I was given the opportunity to try The Last Story for myself, but my verdict is far from a recommendation.

One thing immediately clear to me was that this is not a game meant to be played on an HDTV. Though the Wii’s unquestionably not a system designed with HD gaming in mind, many of its games look nice in 480p, including Xenoblade, the other JRPG we had to fight to receive. The Last Story’s visuals, on the other hand, don’t survive the jump. Even with Component cables the presentation’s muddy, the colors washed out, and the jaggies seem to be everywhere. By no means am I picky about graphics, but The Last Story simply looks ugly, at least, on an HDTV. I can’t speak for how it looks in Standard Def, but I definitely recommend playing it that way if you have the choice, though unfortunately the frequent load times and heavy slowdown won’t be fixed.

Distracting visuals aside, I was initially prepared to enjoy this game. It begins the way many great JRPGs do by throwing you into the heat of battle, giving you a taste of what appears to be a fun combat system. Shortly after this opening mission you find yourself in a packed tavern in the middle of Lazulis City, a bustling and atmospheric town that feels like it’s just waiting to be explored. The scenes that follow, including your introduction to the rest of the cast and the chasing down of Calista, a character who initially bears more than a passing resemblance to Dagger from Final Fantasy 9, have a great sense of humor and demonstrate Nintendo of Europe’s superb localization effort. Things seem to be great as you prepare to set off on your adventure, and my hopes were incredibly high. But then, well…

Let’s step back a bit though and I’ll explain how The Last Story works. The gameplay’s divided into two categories; town and combat. Lazulis City is where the game’s exploration elements are most prominent, as you can wander around, chat with locals, buy and upgrade equipment, do battle in the Coliseum, and take on sidequests. The city’s got atmosphere to spare, with its narrow winding roads and many different neighborhoods, and it would make a great town in any RPG world, but in The Last Story, it *is* the world. Outside the town you’re almost always battling through linear levels in areas that are somewhat varied but feature little in the way of personality; it’s like Final Fantasy XIII, except without the beautiful graphics and the strong combat system. But I’ll get to Last Story’s combat a little later. The big issue I have with this game is that neither the town gameplay nor the action gameplay is satisfying, either on their own or together. Lazulis City’s got plenty to do but little incentive to do it. With no Quest menu to give you easy access to the sidequests you choose to take on and with a map that’s not the most helpful thing in the world, there’s just not much fun to be had here. When Xenoblade offered you sidequests it did so in a way that wove them seamlessly into the rest of the game, and you couldn’t walk through town without opportunities for side missions presenting themselves at every given opportunity. The Last Story instead requires you to seek out the sidequests, and given how bland most of them are, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort. As far as story-related content in the city is concerned, it’s very little in number; story-wise, you have precious few adventures in the city streets, and though you can choose to warp back to town at many points throughout the game, the rest of the cast basically just sits in the tavern and does little else. The final few hours of the game give you no ability to return to town, further cementing The Last Story’s place as more of an action-driven dungeon crawl than anything else.

Outside the city, combat’s the main focus, and it’s another aspect of The Last Story that shows initial promise but falls victim to poor execution. In some ways it’s similar to the MMO combat system seen in games like Xenoblade but with more of a focus on individual battles. You and your teammates all have a certain amount of Lives, and when a person’s lives run out they can no longer be revived. Though you control only Zael, the main character, you can dictate certain commands to your allies, such as telling them to use a certain magical skill, and commanding them decreases the charge up time they’d spend to use the spell otherwise. There’s a cover system in place, and you’re given some cool moves, like the ability to dive from behind cover and fly right at the enemy, the ability to block and even counter-attack. Items that you find in chests throughout the environment or bought in stores can be used to upgrade your weapons, either in town or from one of the salespeople you’ll encounter elsewhere.

When fighting against basic enemies the combat system works and proves to be a good bit of fun. When more skill is required of you, though, is when things get ugly. First and foremost, far too many moves are mapped to the A-button, so the button that allows you to dive away from en enemy’s move can also cause you to stick to the wall in a cover position. Whoops. (And that’s just one example.) Adding to your frustrations, your AI allies have so little intelligence that they need to be revived constantly, and the more advanced combat tactics such as “diffusing” magic circles and commanding your squad mates are very poorly explained to you in various video tutorials and never come off as intuitive or natural. It’s a combat system that tries to do far too many things and would have been so much better if it focused on less. Boss fights are often repetitive and can drag on forever; an initially clever chase through a mansion loses its fun after about the 12th time you’re forced to run back to the living room to grab more special arrows to fire at the boss. No “retry” option is offered for if the fight isn’t going in your favor; instead, you can load up the most recent (and pointless) “Checkpoint Save” which often sets you back at least one load screen and a cutscene, which you can fast forward through, but not outright skip. Collision detection needs a lot of work, as your (or the enemy’s) weapons never seem to have problems hitting their target through the solid walls which are *supposed* to be providing you cover. It becomes a complete chore to play.

Though there’s no shortage of cutscenes, the story told is as uninteresting as the world it inhabits, and though the characters all make a great first impression, the game gives them nothing to do and they fade into the background very quickly. The plot involves an ascent to knighthood, an invading enemy force called the Gurak, a bland love interest, a powerful object, and lots of battle scenes that aren’t nearly as epic as they think they are. The cutscenes are okay, demonstrating some good character animation but not much cinematic flair. The well-written and acted dialogue is frequently undercut by a pointless narrator who has such a love for stating the obvious that it becomes laughable. Things get a bit more interesting towards the end but by that point the game’s jumped the shark to such an extent that it doesn’t redeem much at all. For the most part you’re watching characters you don’t care about trying to protect a world you barely get to know in scenes that have been done better in countless RPGs.

Verdict: When The Last Story was in development, Hironobu Sakaguchi was quoted as saying that this would be his final game. Though this was later revealed to be a mistranslation, I can’t help but think how awful it would be if the guy who created some of the most memorable experiences in gaming ended up going out on this note. This is an RPG with no sense of adventure, with little new to offer story-wise, with a flawed and frustrating combat system, and with visuals that just don’t look good on an HDTV (even for a Wii game). It all starts with such promise, but in the end The Last Story comes off as a failed attempt to re-invent a genre that I wish people would stop trying so hard to re-invent.

Presentation: A forgettable storyline that goes through the motions like they’re being read off a checklist. It’s amazing that a game this short has as much filler as this one does. Load times aren't too long but they show up at the worst places. Menus fairly clunky, bad tutorials. City is bustling, areas outside it have little to offer.

Graphics: Play this one in Standard Def if you can, as the decent art direction and great character design is otherwise ruined by the game’s awful look on an HDTV; even the CG cutscenes only manage to look “okay,” which has to be something of an achievement. Lazulis City looks good, that’s about it. Some slowdown during the busy battles can be distracting.

Gameplay: Lazulis City is awesome but not all that compelling to venture through. Combat starts off nicely but tries to do too many things and gets frustrating fast. Weapon upgrading is shallow, more advanced battle tactics feel unrefined. Bad collision detection, repetitive dungeons and boss fights.

Sound: Incredible voice acting that’s some of the best in a Japanese game this generation and great sound effects. The music, though, is among the blandest I’ve ever heard from Nobuo Uematsu. Aside from the relaxing music of Lazulis City, hardly a single other song stood out to me.

Replay Value: 18-24 hours is what the main quest takes, though I wanted it to end about halfway through that. You can theoretically spend more time doing sidequests and other things.

Overall: 5.0/10

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