For years fans of the Final Fantasy series have bemoaned the series’s decline in quality. As the RPG genre stagnated, FF no longer represented what it once did as one of the best and most influential RPG series in video games. The stories became melodramatic and the protagonists were broody and more concerned with hair gel and fashion than going on an epic adventure. Gamers have been asking for a Final Fantasy entry that gets back to the series’s roots and reminds us of all the best parts of past games. We need a game to give the series a kick in the pants and draw on all the best facets of the games to make a wonderful adventure that feels familiar yet fresh and new. While Square Enix is doing the opposite of this with Final Fantasy XIII's third entry, FF’s creator Hironobu Sakaguchi has made a game that does just this. The Last Story is the best Final Fantasy in years.
The Last Story is a tale about a young man who wants nothing more than to leave his life as a mercenary and follow the noble path of a knight. When he actually gets a chance at everything he ever wanted, our hero Zael realizes that it might not be exactly what he wanted. Hironobu Sakaguchi directs his first game in eighteen years to tell a tale of how far someone would go to get to the top and corruption of power. The Gooch is still in top form to tell an intriguing story. While he hasn’t directed a game since Final Fantasy V, he oversaw the FF series until X-2 and continued to develop RPGs after founding Mistwalker in 2004.
The plot in The Last Story is refreshingly local. For years JRPGs have tried to one-up each other by introducing new world-shattering, galaxy-trotting, universe ending threats and WRPGs are constantly trying to pack the most content into the biggest worlds that you’ll never get to fully experience. The Last Story is a personal tale about a young man unhappy with his station in life that for all intents and purposes takes place in a single town. But the characters and the town change. Throughout The Last Story you’ll be confronted with decisions that enter a grey area between good and bad we don’t often see in JRPGs. Usually it’s Hero vs. Villain.
Most of these decisions are hardwired into the plot, but they’re still thought provoking and explore the topic of what you’d do to get what you’ve always wanted. They range from simple, silly things like peeking on someone in the shower to allowing your friend to frame someone just because they deserved it. There’s even a gut-wrenching cutscene depicting a raid on a town of civilians that feels ripped right out of a WWII documentary.
A lot of The Last Story's plot will feel very familiar if you're a fan of RPGs, particularly Final Fantasy. A group of ragtag mercenaries long for the legitimate life, meet a member of royalty who wants to be free to live her life the way she likes, and they meet her while working as staff at her castle during a party. An airship-like craft is deployed and our hero stumbles upon an ancient magic that he can use for good or bad. These are all near-cliche RPG tropes, but they come together to form a unique story. It feels less like a retread and more like a revisionist list of greatest hits. The Last Story is to RPGs as The Searchers is to westerns.
The Last Story is a JRPG that really evolves the genre. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so refreshed by an RPG, and a big reason is the battle system. There are no random battles and all the combat is in real time. As you approach a fight, the camera will whip overhead and give you a lay of the land and present the next unique fight layout. Enemies are placed throughout the battlefield in interesting configurations that require you to think for a bit before rushing into the fight. As Zael, the player gives orders to their allies and builds a strategy as the fight plays out. The nitty-gritty combat at first seems simplistic, but gets much deeper as it gets more tactical.
Attacking enemies is easy as walking into them. Much like the first two Ys games, to engage an enemy, all Zael has to do is run toward them and he automatically starts swinging. But this is no 'auto-fighting' system. There’s never a second where I don’t feel completely engaged in a fight, due mostly in part to the enemy configurations and keeping my team on point. This is the best happy median I’ve seen between God of War-style action and tactical turn-based combat.
In fact, The Last Story shares just as much in common with modern western action games as it does with classic RPGs. The camera is over the shoulder, action is all in real time and you frequently enter first person in Zael’s Seek mode and to fire long range weapons. Gamers are constantly pointing out Japan’s refusal to accept western innovations in gaming, but The Last Story really feels informed by the last ten years of gaming. It really helps the bigger battles feel glorious and exciting, rather than tedious like late game grinding in most JRPGs. It’s very rare that an RPG makes me feel “in the sh*t,” but when The Last Story is throwing enemies at me the fighting feels kinetic and crazy in a good way.
What IS very simplistic is the equipment upgrade system. In fact that’s about all that goes into it. You have equipment and you upgrade it. Occasionally you’ll need an item to do so, but other than that it’s just, “This thing is white instead of grey *Click*.” But there are so many pieces of armor and items to pick up that it feels bigger than that. I spent lots of time in shops upgrading items just so I could sell them for more money to upgrade my own weapons and armor.
The Last Story is one of the most beautiful PS2 games I’ve ever played.
But seriously, the game’s biggest flaw is being on the Wii. Sakaguchi had a great opportunity to work with Nintendo and get this game made, but the game wants to be bigger than the system. The character designs are mostly unique, but many assets are reused and textures often look stretched and muddy. It’s got the same blurry aliasing issues any Wii game does and the bigger a battle gets, the slower the framerate becomes. Once the entire world disappeared while I was chasing someone and then the game flung me across the town. I failed a mission because of that. I know we’re all tired of seeing these complaints in every Wii game review. I’m tired of writing them.
Legendary Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu reunites with Sakaguchi to create the game’s soundtrack. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from him by now, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Zael’s look is fully customizable. Armor upgrades actually effect how it looks in-game and all the colors are customizable. I spent more time than I’d like to admit customizing color sets for my armor. I’m sorry I mean “colour.” This IS the European localization which is also why EVERYONE in this game is British. And frankly the whole time I was playing this I was wondering why we don’t get stuff like this more often. The accents do nothing but reinforce the fantasy setting. It may be jarring to some people for the first hour of the game, but it passes quick. Many companies could save a ton of money by plopping out more EU localizations of games on us. And if you have a problem with that you’re a racist.
Should you buy it? If you’re a fan of classic RPGs and haven’t paid attention to the genre since the PS1, this is the game for you. If you’ve followed RPGs for years and have wanted to see more evolution in the genre, this is the game for you. If you’re completely new to RPGs and want a game that’s got a low barrier to entry and mixes the best of classic and modern RPGs, this is the game for you. If you LIKE RPGs or video games, THIS IS THE GAME FOR YOU.
I don’t see The Last Story becoming a hit. It’s a miracle that it even came here after Nintendo of America outright refused to release it in the states, but thanks to XSEED and Operation Rainfall we can play this great RPG. Sales will build steam and do well, but I definitely forsee this becoming an underrated classic. The Last Story has some of the most memorable characters, relationships and sequences I’ve experienced in an RPG which are all propelled by the wonderful, unique combat system. If this is a success at all the video game industry will be better for it and hopefully we’ll see further evolution in the RPG genre that’s been stagnating for so long. Please pick up this game and let XSEED know how much you like it. Hopefully we’ll get some more titles like it.