Hironobu Sakaguchi's resume is an intimidating list of success. Probably best known as the godfather of the Final Fantasy series, he's also played a key role on nearly every influential hit from Square in over two decades. Leaving to form Mistwalker in 2004, he continued pushing the boundaries of storytelling, and The Last Story is his latest attempt.
The Last Story casts players in the third-person boots of a group of mercenaries who have a job with Count Arganan, the ruler of Lazulis Island. The story bounces you between a few characters, but much of it is seen through the eyes of Zael, who becomes involved in a plot surrounding Lazulis Island's secret weapon. He is the victim of court intrigue and among a people at war, but he still finds time to fall in love.
The Last Story delivers solid characterizations, such as in the rogue's gallery of mercenaries that accompanies Zael. Dagran is the solid standby and Zael's best friend. Along with being the leader of the group, he also has his hands full in keeping Syrenne standing after a night at the bar and preventing Lowell from seducing every woman he meets. There's also scholarly Mirania, whose love for food is overshadowed by her ability to absorb lore. One-eyed Yurick is the young loner, another mage who's along for a paycheck, though his dry humor provides something of a reality check. The solid performances by the voice actors vividly bring their characters to life and often beyond simple characterizations. The Last Story is divided into a number of chapters that encapsulate specific missions. Some quests can also stretch across multiple chapters, but the game's story follows a set path that's fraught with twists and mystery. There's also a love story that weaves between the quests and adventure. The Last Story tugs at your heartstrings and pauses between moral questions to breathe some humor into situations.
The streets and alleyways of Lazulis City act as the main hub that houses merchants, wanderers — and plenty of secrets. It's essentially a rest stop for players to do things between chapters, such as improve their armor, take on side jobs for extra goodies, or stretch their legs. Talking to NPCs may yield occasional side-quests. The streets of Lazulis City are brought to life because of the attention paid to little details. Workmen busily hammer building repairs, merchants entice you to look at their wares, and people sometimes trip over what you left in the street. Only a few things mar the illusion, such as the scripted day/night cycles that depend on the story. Despite the lively streets, Lazulis City still feels oddly empty due to the repetitive side-quests.
Players can also dig up hidden items using the first-person aiming view to permanently improve stats or unearth valuable ingredients to improve armor and weapons. Finding items on the street five times in a row can reward the player with rare ingredients.
Combat in The Last Story blends together action and strategy in a way that is similar to Nihon Falcom's Ys I or Ys II. Fighting is handled by running into enemies. It gives the action spontaneity since choosing and whaling on a new enemy is done by flicking the analog stick in a direction. You can set the controls to make attacks manual with the A button, though there's actually a penalty in damage for doing it this way which is unusual.
Zael also earns a special ability, "the Gathering," which makes him the sole target of every monster in the vicinity. This calls off some of the heat from the rest of his team so that they can cast spells without interruption, and it can build up a reserve of energy, allowing you to unleash it against foes. The Gathering also allows Zael to bring his companions back to life should they fall in battle, but this can only be done a finite number of times. There's also a cover system that integrates nicely with the action, especially when Zael needs to snipe enemy archers or sorcerers. He can hide behind tumbled rocks or ruins and peek to get his aim.
Because of the linear chapters, exploring certain areas for hidden items becomes a priority since you may not be able to revisit some areas. One zone in particular is wrecked several times in the story only to be miraculously fixed later. If you had forgotten to grab any goodies in that time, you won't get a chance to try again.
Leveling up is also done differently from other action RPGs. As you go up in level, experience rewards conversely go down for the area; it encourages you to keep moving. Magic "circles" hidden within most dungeons can be activated to summon mobs for grinding. By exploiting these circles, grinding is efficient and can be done without wandering to find encounters or dive into older dungeons. This system allows players to focus on the story or gathering upgrade ingredients. While it might not replace the more traditional methods of grinding, the mechanic fits in well with the game's linear flow and prepares them for the next chapter.
Depending on the story, your party can consist of up to six or more members at any one time. If a character isn't in your present party, s/he won't gain any experience. The summon circles in dungeons can easily erase those deficits as your party changes.
Zael's command gauge slowly fills during combat, and it allows him to issue commands to his AI-controlled party members. Though he can't order them until that happens, it adds a tactical layer on top of the action. Zael can use his abilities to convert spells into something else or tell everyone to back away to plan their next moves. The AI does a decent job on its own.
As for upgrades and stores, , all armor costs the same, though each has different effects, such as speeding up spellcasting or allowing a character to heal while behind cover. Weapons can also have a variety of stats, and upgrading an ordinary weapon may unlock unique powers. The higher the upgrade level, the more valuable and rare the required ingredient will be. The clean interface also makes it easy to navigate between the different characters, swap out equipment, and manage your inventory. Because there is a limit on how much you can carry, selling items is important to clean up your inventory to make it easier to get around. Though you can "buy low, sell high" at Lazulis City shops, there's not much of a need for it because the game throws a lot of cash at you.
The Last Story clocks in at around 30 hours for one playthrough. There's also a multiplayer mode that pits players against powerful bosses for rewards or against each other in a free-for-all or team-based setting. A New Game Plus mode can be started from a file saved after you finish the game, and it carries over most of what you've earned in the last game. Most of the cannon fodder isn't upgraded in this mode, but the bosses are definitely beefed up and ready to take on your seasoned party.
Despite having a few dull edges to this story of betrayal, camaraderie, love and mystery, The Last Story's blend of action, tactics, and efficient mechanics is capped by a fantastic ending that makes the destination as worthwhile as the journey. When the curtain finally falls, it feels as if the experience had ended too soon.
The Last Story bravely asks those who believe the JRPG genre has nothing left to offer to take another look. Beneath its surface, it bears little resemblance to its peers. At the same time, it's in good company as another entry on one of the most intimidating resumes in the video game business.
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