Iím a fan of the JRPG genre. I like the big casts of characters it often offers, the well-constructed (and usually beautiful) universes to explore; the memorable, epic stories it tells. Also, insane length.
In other words, what attracts me about JRPGs is the narrative. Of course, no game functions without a proper gameplay (duh); but this genre in particular has the responsibility of delivering in all the things I mentioned before, and nailing it in the process. The Last Story fails miserably at this, and thatís why it never quite makes it.
If this Mistwalker debut for the Wii could at least tell a decent story, things would be completely different. Most of the other things work fine (most), but the narrative is so bad that it sinks all other aspects of the game, ultimately ruining the whole experience. Seriously, it is so bad that youíll often feel like youíre being mocked.
First of all, the characters. Letís take the best example, Zael, the protagonist. He is probably the most flat character Iíve ever known in my life. Itís not about how clichť he is (or the whole game, for that matter), itís about how he never truly demonstrates any personal trait, much less a credible personality. He just does nothing. The only thing he is good at is saying generic phrases, and taking a seemingly selfless attitude towards everything, so exaggerated youíll just think he is stupid. Finally, you wonít care much about him, or youíll simply dislike him as I did. The other members of Zaelís party arenít all that bad, though. Sure, they too have they share of cheesy lines, inconsistent traits and annoying voices (to that, later) but at least they have some moments. I found the magic user Mirania to be, by far, the most likable of them all.
The plot itself doesnít work too well either. Yeah, itís filled with too many clichťs, but that really doesnít bother me. I can stand those. What I cannot stand is the absurdity of the situations, the things they never explain to us, the impossible coincidences that still happenÖ Things like a character suddenly disappearing, but no one says anything about it; or maybe how they make the worst decisions when the solution is so simple, right there in front of them; perhaps how someone turns evil or good out of nowhere, without explanation. There are just too many loose ends, too many things done wrong. As far as Japanese stories go, I have yet to see one so abysmal.
It doesnít end there, unfortunately. We know the whole story is disastrous, but it all worsens with how the game tells it. One of the most annoying things I found myself with was when I was in the middle of a quest and then the characters started talking about something right there in-game. Thatís ok, a lot of games do that. The problem presented itself when I continued on walking through the dungeon and suddenly triggered a cut scene, stopping permanently the conversation. This did not happen two or three times, this happened almost all of the times, so my solution was to just stand there, waiting for them to finish in fear of missing anything. Not much different were the times that another conversation started, now in the middle of a fight. The game didnít even give the voices more volume so that they could be heard over the sounds of the battle, and I was too occupied to read the subtitles. More than once this bothered me.
And yet, these little things still donít end here. Thereís the awkward, cheesy narrator that speaks in between scenes. There are also the face expressions of the characters that rarely match the situation or the words they say (probably because I can only recall seeing a ďseriousĒ and a ďsmileĒ face for every one of them). And how could I ever forget about Seek Mode, which I can only describe as being sad. Iíll explain: Seek Mode is triggered in some cases of the game when, for example, youíre being tasked with finding the weakness of an enemy formation. The solution is often obvious (like a weak bridge, for example), and still, the screen highlights it. In other words, Seek Mode is pretty silly. Seek Mode is sad, however, when itís thrown in the middle of a scene when, say, Zael is chasing after someone. He runs, then Seek Mode enters, and you have to find the person. Then he runs some more, then Seek Mode again. You get the idea. It ruins the pace of some scenes; itís unnecessary, annoying and even a little insulting.
Now in the gameís defense, I did find some points that at least got it half right; and even if the result was unpolished, it was still enjoyable. Iím talking about the battle system, which I feel was a genuine attempt at something different. The battles are in real time, affected by standard RPG stats like Defense, Attack, HP, etc. Mistwalker tried to give it a little twist by adding some stealth and shooter elements. Before every encounter, the party usually stops Zael to reflect on the enemy formation and suggest what course of action to take. This generally means a second path that you can use to sneak on your enemies and attack them from behind. There are other times when the best choice is to hide behind a wall, attract an isolated enemy with an arrow and kill it before it alerts others. Now when youíre in the actual fight, you can usually hide to confuse enemies (this is a little silly, since you hide in front of them) and then surprise them from said hiding, dealing considerable more damage. Although this stealth element is fun, it is limited and ends up being a little repetitive. The shooting part is far from stellar; but itís there, and sometimes itís necessary. When you shoot, you still retain a third person view, but you canít move. It is usually useful at stopping enemy mages from casting, but deals too little damage to kill. At the end, Zaelís crossbow isnít that all necessary, and you can easily win all battles without using it (except for the parts that itís obligatory). Finally, a unique battle element The Last Story introduces is The Power of The Outsider, a skill granted to Zael at the beginning of the game that, when activated, makes the surrounding enemies attack him and ignore his allies. This is especially helpful when you want your mages to cast an important spell. This ability, very relevant to the plot, grants other skills like slowing down monsters and reviving allies. All characters, including Zael, have five lives. The rest is not that new: the magesí spells consists of healing or attacking circles, and the other characters deal damage with different blades. The battle system is by far the best accomplishment of the game. It often throws you into situations in which youíre encouraged to do something ďdifferentĒ; but sadly, most of my battles still ended on simply killing every monster standing in my way.
Now there are still some things I found to be decent. The equipment and upgrading system is ok. Although the game only has like seven, eight armor sets (torso and legs) they are upgradable up to 13 levels, adding some new feature on every other level. The weapons are not much different, only in that there are more of them, and donít have that many levels. The prices arenít the hard part (money is not hard to find, anyway), but the materials you need for upgrading. They usually are only accessible until certain parts of the game and even then, they are scarce. The equipment is fully customizable: you can add/remove parts and even apply different dyes to it. It all works great, in other words. Then thereís the town in the game, which I found to be charming enough. Although it offers many side quests, a lot of them consist on fetching things and silly stuff like that. Other than that, they still make Lazulis City feel alive.
The game looks great, generally speaking. Characters as well as environments are immersive enough, although never too charming or amazing. If you want to get an idea, the visuals have a Twilight Princess feel to them. In the sound department, it is worth noting what probably is the only memorable thing about The Last Story: the music. Apart from being beautiful, it works well with both the gameplay and even the narrative. Then itís a little sad to admit that some sounds on the game (like steps, for example), pass like being a little cheap. Then the voice acting is inconsistent. To be fair, they do the best they can with what theyíre given and yeah, most of them are decent. But then there are some characters that I would rather not have to hear. Like Syrenne, one of Zaelís friends, which is given the most exaggerated and annoying accent ever. Then thereís Mirania, whose voice I even find lovely, and matches perfectly how she looks and acts. Then there are those that, you can tell, do a well enough job, but theyíre characters are so cheesy they end up sounding bad themselves. In that case, Zael fits perfectly.
So thereís that. Everything that has to do with The Last Storyís narrative is poor and disappointing. It is especially sad because I feel the game is a genuine attempt at creating something fresh and fun for the genre. The battle and upgrade systems are enjoyable, but they donít make up for the rest. Though for some reason it hurts me to say this, The Last Story is ultimately a broken experience, filled with unpolished features and a story so terrible, itís hard to ignore. One can have fun with it, but not without effort.