Gamers demanded it, but Nintendo squashed the idea of bringing Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s latest JRPG The Last Story game to America like a bug. A lot of scorn was thrown at the decision to deny its publication in America because Nintendo “didn’t see a viable market,” but, luckily, XSEED stepped in to do the right thing and localized the already translated British version for American shores with no skin off Nintendo’s back.
What viable market couldn’t Nintendo find? Sakaguchi is world famous for his video games, and Lost Odyssey was popular on the Xbox 360. He has a following comparable to the top developers in the Japanese market, and he was even backed by his long time composer Nobuo Uematsu, whose name alone can sell video games just for the music.
Plus, Nintendo had a perfect opportunity to win back a few of the fans they angered the last few years without a hardcore RPG.
No, a market definitely exists for the game in America. The problem is that “not seeing a viable market” was mistranslated by gamers because what Nintendo was really trying to say was “it’s just not that good.”
Sakaguchi’s intention with The Last Story was to re-envision the classic JRPG in a new light, a streamlined experience that could match the accessibility of most modern RPGs. If the gameplay was going to be reinvented then to keep the image of an old game, the plot would have to be conventional, and boy oh boy is it ever. Tell me if this story has ever been in a game before.
Zael is a young low class mercenary scrounging around the world with his friends, looking for odd jobs to keep his mouth fed. His hometown was destroyed in a fire, and he dreams of becoming a knight to protect the ones around him. On one fateful mission, he stumbles across a magical power that labels him a chosen one to save the failing world. He meets a princess, falls in love, and rises to the occasion to meet his destiny.
If only Zael were an amnesiac could this story be any more trite. Not that there is anything wrong with a conventional plot, but if an RPG is going to tell an old story, it has to breathe some form of originality into it. The Last Story turns out to be nothing more than a typical “plucky warriors must save the world” fare that tries to be a political game on the side; a kind of Game of Thrones for babies.
The problem lies in the plucky heroes themselves. Zael and his companions are a likeable bunch, but there’s not much to really chew on here. Each mercenary is defined by a single trait, and if they are lucky, a minimal amount of back story. There’s the ladies man, the quirky female, the loud female drunk who makes a lot of uncomfortable alcoholic jokes, the lone wolf with an eye patch, and the noble, experienced leader. These are the extent of their characters, forgettable cut-outs seen time and time again, and sadly, they are the more interesting ones.
That leaves us with our hero. Zael is a cardboard box, a stock hero easily replaceable by any other character in the game. How different would the game have fared if Lowell or Yurick had been granted the power instead? Would Zael even be memorable if he wasn’t the main character? His only character definition is his obsessive love over this princess he barely knows.
It’s also lazy storytelling.
Early in the game, Zael finds himself shipwrecked on an island with his best buddy Dagran and two other mercenaries he’s been kinda hanging out with but doesn’t know too much about yet. Unknown to Zael before landing there, this isolated random island they accidentally crashed into holds not one but two large secrets that are somehow related to these two characters. Keep in mind, these characters didn’t go looking for their pas. They just randomly happened to be kidnapped and found themselves on the ship. It could have easily been two others who had nothing to do with the secrets, but they had already gotten their share of forgettable exposition.
I can just picture the writers saying “OK, we need a little time for these two characters now,” and shoehorning a random chapter into wherever they could. By the way, these character pasts are brought up, solved, and never mentioned again over the course of the game. Their entire character is summed up in one cutscene.
There is some enjoyment to be had with the story, if not for the nostalgic ease of it all or easily detestable villains. At roughly 20 hours, the game moves at a break-neck pace, often skimming across the surface and forgetting to dive into the more interesting corners. So much is just scanned over that it requires an almost satirical narrator voice to fill in the gaps between scenes.
Nothing is your decision.
A passable story can maybe be forgivable in an RPG if the battle system at least works, and luckily the game fairs a little better in this department. Sakaguchi does deliver his modernized spin on the genre, but in streamlining the gameplay, he might have removed just a little too much.
The Last Story is an absurdly easy game with overly simple mechanics. The battle system teases ideas of strategy by showing an overhead viewpoint at the beginning of every battle, but beyond knowing where to fire mage killing arrows to take out a quick healer or two, most can be completed with a little hack ‘n slash.
Zael is the only controllable character, and pushing forward on the analog stick into an enemy is all that’s required of him to attack. Attacking and moving with the same stick might sound like a nightmare in itself, but it surprisingly becomes second nature unless Zael finds himself pinned against a wall, and every direction pushed forces him to attack.
Beyond point-and-swing combat, Zael does gain a few abilities like a gale slash or stealth attack that might change up the formula a little, but they are mostly just for show. The hyped cover system is nothing more than a situational skill, defending is near useless if characters have enough defense, flipping over allies is only useful when they are blocking a path, and the secrets behind Zael’s ability to revive his allies are more trouble than they’re worth.
In the mean time, Zael’s supporting squad will boast most of the useful spells, and healing or creating destructive fields of elemental magic often find themselves beyond Zael’s control. He eventually gains the ability to command his squad of up to six members a little ways into the game, but for the most part, they will do what is necessary on their own to get things done, leaving Zael with not much to do beyond point at the nearest enemy and flail away.
Armor has very little affect on optimizing a character. In fact, some team members never once traded in their default armor for another set, sticking to the same piece throughout the entire game. Weapons, on the other hand, provide slightly more options than the armor, each useful in its own situation as it allows extra damage against specific creatures or give characters the ability to steal. Armor and weapons provide the most direct input to how Zael’s squad of mercenaries advance in levels; but, for the most part, the game’s rigid progression will dictate how each character evolves and what skills they will learn.
Eventually, the randomly generated stat boosting items dropped by monsters or found in the streets become the main driving force of character customization, and the random element of it all puts even that beyond your control.
In the face of aging technology.
Which leaves me to wonder, “Why was this game on the Wii?” It doesn’t use motion controls at all, and if anything, the Wii’s rapidly aging technology cripples the game, holding it back from what it could have become.
Choppy slowdown ruins the pace of battle just when it’s finally hitting a stride. Controlling the wild camera with the Wii Remote’s D-Pad is much more awkward than a second analog stick, and the shoulder buttons on the classic controller don’t feel right either.
Given the power of the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, Sakaguchi might have been able to turn this blocky world of square rooms and bland environments into a more more natural setting that captures the beautiful concept art. Character models are also solid, well animated and backed by a bleakly attractive style, but placing them against the muddy backdrops do very little to make the world feel alive or explorable.
I’d definitely recommend a solid pair of Wii component cables to fully enjoy this game. On a mid sized HDTV like my own, it clears that nasty blurring effect brought on by its ancient aspect ratio, and makes the game much more enjoyable.
Was Nintendo right?
To completely dismiss The Last Story because of its shallow plot or technical shortcomings would be missing the point. Streamlining the classic JRPG into something new was the purpose of this game, and in that sense, it succeeds on some levels. Removing random battles, simplifying the leveling up process, and creating competent AI to control allies are already steps in the right direction.
But this makes it nothing more than the most basic blueprint for whatever else is to come. As an overall RPG delivering quality character customization, gripping narrative, and engaging combat, it sadly comes up way short, especially in the face of games that do it so well like Skyrim or Xenoblade Chronicles, the latter a real-deal when showing off the future of JRPGs.
However, I do not agree with the idea of denying Americans the option of playing this game. Nintendo certainly has no obligation towards us, and leaving the game unpublished might turn out to be a decent business move. But, is there a moral obligation to holding back these games? The Last Story has found a decent sized following, and not many would have been able to enjoy it had XSEED not stepped in.
The third Operation Rainfall game, Pandora’s Tower, also has yet to see a stateside release, and despite my disappointment with The Last Story, I would like to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Thankfully, the days of the NES and SNES are long gone, and the internet has made it impossible for publishers to hide quality titles from American audiences anymore. Nintendo might have thrown up a red flag by not publishing The Last Story on their own, but despite not enjoying it as much as I would have liked, I’m certainly happy they at least gave the the chance to find that out on my own.
We purchased a copy of The Last Story for the Wii with our own money. We played the game to completion in roughly 23 hours before starting this review.