In trying to get Nintendo to release The Last Story in North America, I count myself among the most vocal of petitioners. As a fan of Mistalker's work and a lover of Lost Odyssey, I considered it the perfect swan song for the Wii, the kind of game that could embody everything good about the Wii (and there was plenty of good) one last time. When Nintendo refused to release it, I was among the angry and the riotous.
So, what do you do when XSEED does what you wanted Nintendo to do ... but it turns out that what you wanted wasn't very good? Those who never cared will most certainly jump into the fray to laugh, because if there's one thing the gamer community loves, it's schadenfreude. Others will gladly spin it into a moral about being careful what you wish for. In any case, egg will be introduced to one's face.
To very vocally demand something, only to review it negatively when it comes out, is a tricky matter regardless of who turns up to crow -- a matter that involves putting pride on the line and preparing to deal with a torrent of smugness. However, the honest reviewer must bite the bullet and face the tormenting crowd with gritted teeth.
In the case of The Last Story, I can only admit that, yes, this is what I asked for ... and no, I don't want it.
The Last Story (Wii)
Released: August 19, 2012
The Last Story retains its British localization for the most part, so just like Xenoblade Chronicles, you can expect a lot of European accents and the letter "U" exotically inserted into various words. As with Xenoblade, the regional voice acting lends a unique flavor to the otherwise predictable range of voices we usually get in North American localizations, though whether that's good or bad depends on the character. Protagonist Zael is inoffensive but flat, played by ex-Eastenders star Jack Ryder, while his motley party of fellow mercenaries range from dreary to detestable. Fortunately the villains -- particularly scene-stealer Jiral -- are much more enjoyable.
The narrative is a fairly interesting tale of a young mercenary who, despite his low social status, dreams of becoming a knight. His world is a dying one, the planet's life resources draining while its people are on the brink of war. During a routine mission, Zael comes into contact with a mysterious voice that grants him a unique, tide-turning power. That power makes him a valuable asset, allowing Zael to get closer to his dream (and an unobtainable noble lady) but also invites him into a decadent court of vipers who seek only to exploit him.
Though a standard "save the world" plot inevitably rears its head, and its "twist" moments are rather trite, most of the story revolves around Zael's interactions with a part of society placed way above his station, and how he deals with influential imperial figures and their machinations. Mistwalker does a good job of keeping certain characters in a morally grey area, where their actions are understandable up to a point, though when it needs a simple villain, it's not afraid to let the bad guys really ham it up. All told, there is a nice little story that, over a twenty-hour run time, knows when to wrap things up without dragging on too long.
Sadly, the writing is really the only good thing I have to say about it, and getting through the plot requires more tolerance than it's worth.
The Last Story introduces a real-time combat system that, while noble in its intent to shake up the genre, is so poorly implemented that it actively ruins any fun that could be had in the game. It attempts to blend various elements from action, contemporary MMO, and strategy games, but by adding so many ingredients to the mix, the end result is unchecked chaos.
Up to a party of six can partake in combat, but players are mostly stuck with controlling Zael within a group of autonomous allies. In order to attack, the movement stick is pushed toward an enemy, initiating automatic blade swings. Using his mysterious power, Zael can "gather" opponents with a button press, drawing aggression from the combatants and taking the heat off his friends, allowing them to cast magical spells and pull off other crucial maneuvers. There is a cover system that will have Zael stick to any surface with a tap of "A", and he can also shoot a crossbow to destroy environmental structures or take down opponents with a range of specialized arrows. As the game progresses (and you'll be getting tutorials about these hours into the game), Zael will be able to rush to various points of the map in order to hit enemies and "dispell" area-of-effect magic, dive from cover positions to slash unwary foes, and jump off walls to land devastating hits.
Each character has five lives, which is useful since enemy attacks are often of the one-hit or two-hit kill variety. Zael is the only character who can resurrect fallen allies, by using the "gather" ability and touching their corpses. This will happen a lot because allies are beyond stupid and will require plenty of babysitting.
The major problem with the combat is that it's a complete mess. It fancies itself as a strategic system, giving the player a bird's-eye overview of the battleground before the fight, but there are no real ways to command your party before initiating the scrap. Once battle starts, it doesn't matter what you know about the enemy formation, because it quickly devolves into an anarchic scrum as your mentally substandard allies charge in all directions and enemies get in the way of any high-threat target you might have identified. The camera does a terrible job of tracking the action, frequently losing focus or remaining fixed on Zael's front when enemies are in his path. Later on, you get a limited capacity to issue commands, but only after filling a special meter, and even then your options are cripplingly malnourished. It's like Mistwalker wanted tactical fights in a strategy-RPG vein, but literally had no clue how to make them.
Compounding the disorderly ruckus is the fact that so few controls are relied upon to perform multiple tasks. By default, Zael both walks and attacks using the analog stick. He uses cover, dodges attacks, and performs special moves using the same button. He vaults over cover and guards using another button. This leads to each fight frequently become a direct battle between the game and the player, as one carefully edges around enemies to avoid hitting them, or tries to dodge an incoming blow but ends up crouched next to a small wall that was too close. Zael will dodge instead of pulling off a special move because the player didn't come to a dead stop before holding down the dodge button, and good luck trying to distinguish which walls can he can run up and which ones he can't. Then there's the crossbow, which is essential in some areas but is slow to use and leaves Zael wide open to attack.
Just in case you're still confused as to what the issue may be, let me repeat for clarity -- Zael walks and attacks using the same analog stick. The dodge button, the cover button, and the special attack button are the same button. And while you're wrestling with all this, you better hope you're not fighting a lengthy, repetitive boss battle in which you learn to do one new thing, then do it over and over again while the party allies keep telling you to do it over and over again, as if you've never done it before.
The worst part is that, for as confused as it tends to be, The Last Story is simple and brainless. So much of the combat essentially plays itself for you, especially once the party is leveled up, that as a player I wonder why I'm even needed. With Zael not having much to do outside tirelessly swinging his sword and occasionally leaping, his job mostly consists of running around after his friends, and that hardly equates to a thrilling battle. While bosses can be a bit more involved, each "strategy" consists of a simple task repeated until the monster is dead. I don't mind auto-attack systems in games like Dragon Age, where at least you have commands to issue and multiple skills to utilize, but it simply doesn't work in a game that has stripped away so much personal influence and turns the player into a reactionary force, rather than a proactive combatant. In fairness, you can gain a little more control by fiddling with options and disabling auto-battle, which at least stops Zael hitting people while moving, but still does nothing to dampen the thoughtlessness of combat.
Constantly, the game masquerades as something deeper, pretending to give the player choice in how to attack and what to do, but in reality each fight has a particular way to be beaten, leading to each round of combat feeling one-note and linear.
Outside of combat, Zael spends most of his time running between characters in the game's sole town, listening to dialog or collecting random items. Here, the story is not safe from weird ideas that make the game more disjointed and weird than it has to be. Regularly, players will be forced to use a first-person perspective and guide the camera to focus on something before the story will continue. These moments serve absolutely no purpose -- they break up the dialog without cause, they don't offer any sort of challenge or reward with a revelation, and they're far from immersive. Having to stop playing the game properly at regular intervals to partake in a ludicrous round of glorified Where's Waldo? only saps at one's patience.
As large as the game's central town is, it's not much fun to explore. The range of shops rarely stock anything useful, and while there are stores to upgrade equipment, the process is far too simple to resemble anything approaching a decent crafting system. You mostly just grab one or two items and spend money to watch the gear get stronger. There is an arena, which is only fun if you love fighting the same battles against the same monsters, and the city's populace is just annoying, as Zael constantly bumps into them and listens to their regurgitated criticism. The "bumping into people" feature is especially irritating when it applies to NPCs that you might want to talk to. Since Zael moves with all the grace of a bull in a china shop, he'll frequently bump into an NPC and have to wait for them to stop reacting to the shove and slowly return to their original position before they can be interacted with. Seriously, what is the point of that? How does it benefit anybody?
There are some moments good enough that not even the incoherent combat or "I spy" distractions can wreck them. One side story involving a haunted house is gleefully silly, while scenes intended to be rousing and exciting genuinely hit the mark. The scene in which Zael is due to accept his knighthood is incredible stuff, while everything involving the aforementioned Jiral is fantastic. Nobuo Uematsu's soundtrack keeps things lively and, while nothing in here is as memorable as his past work, there's a solid selection of music on offer. At times, The Last Story makes powerful videogame narrative look almost effortless, but the fact that such inspiring moments are married to such an unpleasant experience only serves to highlight how disappointing the overall package is.
In addition to the single-player quest, multiplayer curiously makes an appearance. A competitive deathmatch and a co-op mode against boss creatures are available, though the server population appears to be incredibly sparse. If you can find some people to play with, there are nine maps to choose from, though since these modes are inevitably combat-focused, I can't say I find any of them tantalizing.
It hurts to not be in love with The Last Story, and it's saddening to lambaste something made by the studio that created my favorite Japanese role-playing game of this generation. I tried my hardest to get with the program and enjoy the game for what it is, but if the feeling's not there, the feeling's not there. Every time the game threatens to be fun, something comes along to ruin it. Every time there's a moment of awe, a moment of thwarting disappointment trails close behind. Mistwalker clearly has not lost its grip on the things that make its games great ... but it's terrible at adding anything more than that, and in doing so here it has undermined so much positivity.
Am I glad The Last Story finally made its way to North America? Yes. I am glad the closure is there, and I am glad for those who actually manage to enjoy this. I am not glad, however, that my experience was tainted by one of the most poorly implemented, unkempt combat systems to ever darken an RPG, and that Mistwalker couldn't even deliver the otherwise solid story without letting unwarranted "features" get in the way. I am not glad that The Last Story is, ultimately, a sub-standard experience from a studio that is capable of so much better than this.
If The Last Story is the Wii's swan song, it is a miserable dirge, full of regret and remorse.