The Wii’s swansong isn’t perfect, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you passed up this engaging, original RPG.
The Last Story is the latest RPG to come from Mistwalker, the development studio started by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy. Despite the pedigree, I’ve had a mixed history with Mistwalker: I didn’t like their first game, Blue Dragon, very much (I thought the battle system was overly simplified and the story was boring,) but I really, really liked their next RPG, Lost Odyssey. Despite once again having a battle system that I wasn’t particularly fond of, it had one of the most genuinely touching (often emotionally devastating) stories I’d ever seen in a game. Since then, Mistwalker has made a few handheld games that were mostly forgettable, and I don’t think most people thought much of The Last Story when it was first announced. Like myself, it seems like most RPG fans’ opinion of Mistwalker seems to sway back and forth between unapologetic apathy and occasional respect, so I really didn’t know what to expect from The Last Story. Well, now that I’ve played The Last Story and beaten it, I can say wholeheartedly that Mistwalker has finally hit their stride and that Sakaguchi has finally delivered a title that can step out of Final Fantasy’s shadow.
The Last Story tells the tale of Zael, a member of a band of colorful mercenaries who someday hope to become true knights in service of the Empire. After a mission goes wrong, Zael finds himself imbued with mysterious powers and embroiled in the center of a power struggle between the Empire’s scheming nobility and an invading army of beastmen. Sure, The Last Story’s premise sounds very, very clichéd — I’m sure we’ve all played a million RPG’s by now about sullen mercenaries and guys with mysterious powers they don’t quite understand — but quality writing and voice acting help keep The Last Story’s narrative from feeling too tired, and despite the “classic” premise, the story ultimately did deliver a few twists and surprises that I didn’t see coming. There’s no denying that The Last Story recycles a lot of the character archetypes and genre tropes that developers have been using as a narrative crutch for decades, but at the very least, it manages to pull off those clichés very well.
While The Last Story’s narrative is certainly rooted in genre traditions, its gameplay is far more experimental. RPG’s live and die by how interesting their battle systems are, and thankfully, The Last Story has one of the more original and interesting systems I’ve seen recently. The game’s battles start off simple: Zael auto attacks any enemy that’s close to him, and for the first few battles you can pretty much get by by simply charging into a group of enemies and letting Zael do his thing. But the game quickly adds more and more elements to combat: Zael can take cover and use ranged weapons to take out enemies like in a third person shooter, and he eventually learns a number of powerful skills that require specific buttons commands or use of the terrain to execute. The game even eventually adds in some light real-time strategy elements when it gives players the ability to issue direct commands to Zael’s party members.
There was also a lot of thought given to each and every encounter in The Last Story: enemies are often set up in strategic positions, and beating the game’s more challenging battles requires that players make clever use of the environment. Spells and some of Zael’s stronger physical attacks can actually effect the environment, and the game rewards players who think strategically instead of just attacking head-on: for instance, instead of charging into that room of heavily armored knights, the game gives you the option to simply blast the ceiling’s support pillars and bring the roof down on them. While most enemies aren’t particularly over powered, they are tenacious and smart enough to make use of the environment as well. Enemy fighters will move in formation to protect their spellcasters, and their archers will often look for cover and seek out good sniping positions. The Last Story’s battle system seemed shallow and easy at first, but within a few hours, it had evolved into something completely different: tactical, frantic, and completely addictive.
Unfortunately, it’s not perfect: the game’s inept camera has a hard time keeping up with the action, and it often gets snagged on bits of the environment or even large enemies. The Last Story has a great battle system that requires both reflexes and strategy, but it’s hard to react when you can’t see what you’re doing. The camera isn’t bad enough to completely ruin the experience; it behaves most of the time, but when it spazzes out, it could potentially ruin even your best laid battle plans. It’s a problem that’s not enough to ruin the game, but it certainly makes some parts more frustrating that they needed to be.
The game’s presentation is also similarly uneven. Mistwalker made some very pretty games on Xbox 360, and it seems like they genuinely tried to push the Wii hardware in ways that nobody else has attempted to: the game is filled with all sorts of graphical effects, like bloom lighting, bump mapping, reflection effects, and depth of field blur, that you’d expect from a 360/PS3 game but not from your Wii. Sometimes the game looks absolutely beautiful, but the occasional pixelated texture pops up to serve as an unwelcome reminder that yes, you are playing a game on a system powered by antiquated hardware. The game’s character models (which are fully customizable,) are very detailed and animate well, and the game’s environments are both expansive and lavishly detailed, but again, there’s some pretty rough texture work all around that’ll make you wish that the Wii just had a little more hardware oomph.
Mistwalker’s attempt at creating HD-quality visuals on the SD Wii also causes some gameplay hiccups: The Last Story gives you command of a party of six (!) characters, and the game often throws dozens of enemies at you per battle. Once the battle starts and both sides start flinging spells at each other, the game’s framerate nosedives as the Wii struggles to render all of the characters and fancy graphical effects at once. Not only does it hurt the game’s presentation, but it gets pretty hard to time your dodges and attacks perfectly when the game gets reduced to a single frame per second slideshow. Like the camera problems, its not enough to ruin the experience, but it is another blemish on what could’ve been a masterpiece.
Despite the technically problems, I really enjoyed my time with Last Story. The characters were fun, the combat was addictive, and the story was just good enough to keep me engaged. By the end of it, I was left wanting more… and I’m sure that’s a sentiment a lot of you will share as well, because The Last Story is about half the length of most other J-RPGs, clocking in at about 20-25 hours. This brevity works as a double edged sword: on the plus side, The Last Story is free from a lot of the pointless filler material that a lot of RPGs use to pad out their length, but at the same time, I really wish there was another dungeon to explore or another hour or two of sidequests to do.
Of course, The Last Story has a fully featured online mode to keep you busy after you complete the campaign, and while you wouldn’t expect a story based J-RPG to offer a fun online compotent, The Last Story’s online mode mostly delivers. The combat mechanics really shine in a multiplayer setting, and you can really get a feel for how much thought Mistwalker put into the battle system and the level design.
Unfortunately, apparently not a lot of people are playing The Last Story online. It’s only been a week or two since the game came out in the US, and the servers were mostly deserted whenever I signed on; I was constantly getting matched up with the same one or two players every time, and finding a fully occupied match was harder than finding even the rarest piece of gear in the game. It’s a shame too, because because on the rare occasions that I did find a fully populated match, I genuinely had a lot of fun. It’s obvious that Mistwalker put a lot of time and thought into creating a worthwhile online experience, and they succeeded. If you can find a match, The Last Story’s online multiplayer isn’t just one of the best online experiences on Wii, but on any platform in general. Of course, that’s a big if.
The deserted servers are probably sadly indicative of how The Last Story will be treated by history: The Last Story, along with its fellow Wii RPG, Xenosaga Chronicles, are both excellent RPG’s that probably would’ve been heralded as modern classics if they had come out on the Xbox 360 or PS3. But they’re on the Wii, and a lot of supposedly “hardcore” gamers who can’t get over their prejudice for the system will probably end up passing them up, and that’s a shame, because they both represent some of the best and most forward thinking game design to come out of Japan in recent years.
Don’t be that guy. Don’t be the fanboy that passes up The Last Story because it’s on a system you don’t like. It’s a game that’s definitely rough around the edges, and its short length definitely left me wanting more, but it is by far the most polished and original game that Mistwalker has ever made. The aptly titled Last Story may be the last reason I ever have to turn on Nintendo’s slim little system, but it’s a game that’s so good that it makes me glad I didn’t sell my Wii months ago. Don’t let this game slip through the cracks.
Final Score: 8.0 out of 10