Review by ezeliyn
"A story of wasted potential."
From the creator of Final Fantasy. It's a tagline that is bound to engender almost unreasonable expectations. And since going solo with Mistwalker, every game Hironobu Sakaguchi has touched has somewhat struggled under the weight of these expectations. Personally, though, I never really bought into the hype. While the series certainly began with his work on the NES, how much it owes to Sakaguchi beyond that is open to debate, being that VI and VII, the two games which won the series the bulk of its current popularity, were also the first two where his personal involvement in the series started to wane. And though I am fond of the game's earlier instalments, the Final Fantasy I grew up loving was as much the work of Yoshinori Kitase and Kazushige Nojima as Sakaguchi himself.
Thus I don't believe I approached The Last Story, my first Mistwalker title, with particularly inflated expectations. My only hope was that the game would be as fun to play as the Sakaguchi-helmed titles I enjoyed so many years ago. To some extent, this hope was met. The Last Story offers a fairly fun, fresh take on the JRPG, weaving more traditional genre elements over the top of a fully fledged 3-D action game, and making an admirable attempt to modernise what many have criticised in recent years as a stagnating genre. Unfortunately, for every step the game takes forward it takes two back, and I cannot help but feel that it ultimately does more wrong than it does right.
Visually, the game certainly gives a strong first impression. The character models are undoubtedly some of the finest the Wii has to offer, the game's water effects at times give the illusion of a high quality PS3 or 360 title, and the animation is full of neat little details, with characters ducking or weaving to avoid corners of objects, or flipping acrobatically over obstacles in battle. Based on carefully selected videos and screenshots, one could be forgiven for praising the game's visuals as a real jewel in the crown of a console often criticised for its lack of technical muscle, and certainly, Mistwalker have created a game that is at times very pretty to look at. Sadly, though, said jewel is not without its flaws, and closer scrutiny reveals something a little less flattering. The game is plagued by horrible amounts of slowdown, especially during cutscenes, and though it's not prominent enough in the gameplay segments to be a real deal breaker, it certainly diminishes the game's visual impact. Equally, while the character models are undeniably fantastic, the environments are decidedly less so, with throwaway dungeon designs, some extremely muddy textures, and a bleak, washed out colour palette. And for all the detail in the way the characters move and interact with their environments, I found some of the facial animation somewhat awkward and goofy, with the main character Elza a particular offender. The end result is something that, though in many ways quite stunning, left me with decidedly lukewarm feelings.
Aurally, too, I wasn't entirely sure what to make of the game. The voiceovers are a mixed bag, with some strong performances for a number of side characters, particularly Quark, proving a stark contrast to an extremely forgettable turn by Mamoru Miyano in the game's lead role. Though I've enjoyed Miyano's work across a number of other games and anime, his Elza is a decidedly bland, by the numbers performance that did nothing to endear the character to me. Whether the blame for this lies with the actor himself or with a character that simply isn't very interesting is debatable, and I suspect it's a little of both, but I found his huffing and puffing through lines that could have come from any JRPG protagonist of the last fifteen years did the game few favours. Even more troubling is the game's soundtrack. Scored by Final Fantasy veteran Nobuo Uematsu, it marks a distinct departure from the composer's familiar style, and is sure to be his most divisive to date. The memorable, catchy melodies of Uematsu's work on the Final Fantasy series are largely gone, and are replaced with something much more atmospheric and Hollywood film-esque. Whether this is a good or bad thing is entirely subjective, and it would be a little unfair to say that the game's soundtrack is poor. Still, as a longtime fan of the composer, I could not help but miss the highly melodic, song-like approach of his earlier Final Fantasy soundtracks. There were, admittedly, moments in the game's soundtrack where I heard hints of the composer I grew up with. Some of the game's key themes are worthy of his earlier work, especially the rousing main theme, and several of the later boss themes evoke fond memories of his work with The Black Mages. More often than not, though, the game's music feels like it has been written more as background music than something than could just as easily stand apart from the game. And being that Uematsu's greatest strength is in his ability to pen great melodies, I found myself a little disappointed with this approach. The Last Story's soundtrack is not bad, but it is largely forgettable, and sounds like it could just as easily have come from a good dozen other composers. And from a man with so much incredible work under his belt, that simply doesn't feel like enough.
Being fairly familiar with Sakaguchi's previous work, and having read impressions of the 360's Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, I approached the game's story expecting something of a throwback to the simpler adventures of days gone by. I found exactly that. Those expecting wildly complex, convoluted character backgrounds in the vein of Xenosaga or Final Fantasy VII need not apply, and those who felt that RPG stories somewhat lost their way with such titles will feel right at home. A few little kinks aside, it's all stuff that anyone who has played a JRPG in the last twenty years will have seen before. Ancient ruins, mysterious powers and tyrannical rulers are the order of the day, and plot twists are telegraphed a mile away for anyone familiar with the genre.
There is nothing inherently bad in this, of course. I'm very much of the opinion that a story doesn't have to do anything new to be great. I believe stories that do something familiar very well are just as worthy of praise as those that tread new ground, and I'd happily cite such games as Lunar: Silver Star Story and Grandia among my favourites of all time. Unfortunately, the problem with the tale woven by The Last Story is less that it's run of the mill, and more that it's simply not very good. The setting is high fantasy at its most generic and dry, the villains are laughably bad, and far too much time is given to the game's uninspired, annoying leads, while potentially interesting side characters are relegated to largely one-dimensional supporting roles. These problems are compounded by the fact that while the story is very much in the vein of games like Final Fantasy IV, presentation-wise it's delivered like any modern one. What retro charm the story has to begin with quickly wears thin when you're force-fed it in the form of long, drawn out story sequences, and the game frequently writes cheques with its sweeping cinematics that the game's writing simply cannot cash, leading to a number of scenes that attempt to pull on the heartstrings and wind up simply feeling awkward. There are moments where it all comes together for an especially neat action set piece or a story sequence that is rather nicely executed, but they're depressingly few and far between.
Though the game is a by the numbers presentation story-wise, it is anything but in terms of gameplay. Like Final Fantasy XIII before it, the game takes extensive steps to streamline the JRPG experience, cutting away the chaff and distilling the genre down to its core elements. But where FFXIII remained at its core a JRPG, The Last Story fuses hack and slash, stealth and RPG elements together into a battle system that is really quite unique. Despite its pedigree, the game's RPG influences are actually relatively light, with character customisation and micromanagement kept to a minimum, and a fairly small range of abilities available to the game's characters. The emphasis is more on how you apply these abilities to a range of situations and terrain, with a fair bit of freedom offered to the player in how to approach a given battle, and some interesting enemy setups thrown the player's way as the game progresses. Boss fights, too, present a range of options to the player, with simple brute force often being as much an option (if a much less efficient one) as cracking their unique weak points. And like Final Fantasy XIII, there is a steady drip feed of new abilities and ideas fed to the player throughout the game, though instead of presenting an initially crippled system that only comes alive after the first ten hours like the former game, The Last Story starts with something quite fun and adds just enough every couple of hours to keep things interesting. My mixed feelings on the rest of the game aside, one must give great credit to Mistwalker for putting a lot of effort into crafting a battle system that really tries to do something new for the genre.
It is a shame, then, that a battle system with so much potential should be so utterly crippled by one simple flaw - The Last Story is absurdly easy. Not since Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure have I played a game that demands so little of the player. Much of this can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, the enemy AI is appalling. The game's sheer inability to detect allies in plain view makes the soldiers in the first Metal Gear Solid seem competent, and an early ability that allows you to deal a critical hit to an enemy when ambushing them from cover becomes immensely abusable when one can duck into cover in plain view of an enemy and have said enemy's AI immediately start wondering where the player has gone. Equally, though Elza's Gathering ability is an interesting idea in theory, a little more thought about its implementation might have been wise. Enemies are completely unable to break away from it, and in practice it essentially allows you to lead them around the room while your allies beat them to death.
A far bigger problem, though, is the shockingly lenient approach the game takes to characters dying. Though enemies can hit hard and bosses can sometimes one shot your characters without careful blocking, each of your characters is given five 'lives', allowing them to auto-revive on full health up to five times, and making defeat all but impossible. It would be easy to downplay this element of the battle system as a mere annoyance, but this one poor design decision undoes almost everything the game does well. There is little point in exploiting the range of strategic options at your disposal in battle when nine times out of ten the most efficient way to win is simply to plow straight into crowds of enemies whacking the attack button and counting on your lives to see you through. And though the game sees a moderate increase in difficulty in its final chapters, this is counteracted by one party member gaining a special attack that replenishes one of a character's lives, meaning that if the player is careful enough, they are essentially invincible. There is potential for a little more balance in the game's boss fights, where often the player needs to exploit a boss's weakness to do significant damage, but the game makes another misstep here in having Elza's allies point out to him during the battles what these weaknesses are, rendering their puzzle-like nature ultimately quite pointless. Despite its flaws, the game's battle system can still be fun at times, and I found myself really wanting to like it for all the interesting ideas it presents. Unfortunately, though, the most effective way through most battles is simple button mashing, so these ideas are ultimately rather meaningless, and what could potentially be something really spectacular quickly becomes rather stale.
The Last Story is not terrible. For all the criticism that I have heaped upon it in this review, it manages to be a fairly fun game with some nice aesthetics and a number of interesting ideas. And at somewhere around twenty hours for the main quest, it doesn't outstay its welcome. Its problem is less that it fails spectacularly and more that it is so much less than the sum of its parts. With a couple of refinements to its gameplay, it could be a very good game. With that plus some better writing it could be a great one. As is, Sakaguchi's latest is little more than a frustrating hotchpotch of interesting but ultimately undercooked gameplay ideas married to a dry story and some pleasant production values.
(Note: This review only addresses the single-player story of the game. I haven't touched the multiplayer mode, and probably won't, so I can't really comment on how it differs from the main game)
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 07/14/11
Game Release: The Last Story (JP, 01/27/11)
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