There’s some discussion in the industry concerning genre names and how they aren’t always representative of the content within that game (see this episode of Extra Credits to see what I mean). Just because a game is a first-person shooter doesn’t mean it has the same experience as another. Bioshock and Call of Duty have different feels to them, and Dishonored plays like a completely different game to Borderlands. The only thing they have in common is the simplicity of the first-person interface, which merely relies on the player to point at an object (or rather, center it on screen) and then click a button to interact. An interaction that, most often, results in shooting that object.
Portal is a perfect example of this. A lot of enthusiasts refer to it as a puzzle game due to its nature, even though its user-interface is derived from a first-person shooter.
Yet sometimes these strange definitions of games can build the most excitement. When trying to describe the combat system to The Last Story, the best I can come up with is that it is a real-time cover-based tactical role-playing game. Depending on what sort of gamer you are, that combination of words will either confuse you or cause you to salivate.
The Last Story manages to draw from a variety of different games in order to create a system that is simultaneously familiar while managing to feel completely fresh and new. Instead of diving behind cover so you can reload or avoid enemy fire, the player now dives behind a chest-high wall to temporarily confuse the enemy before leaping over and delivering a mighty blow with a damage bonus. Commanding a character to cast a spell will generate a “field” in that area, which can then be charged into and “dispersed” for additional effects, or a player can run up the wall and then drop down with a similar effect.
It sounds strange and sometimes complicated, but all of these ideas are communicated easily and in a matter of seconds. Developer Mistwalker understood that in a real-time combat scenario, time is the greatest resource of all. As such, magic points have been done away with, as well as complex menus for items, spells or even character management. The player only directly controls one character, the protagonist Zael, who can only issue commands once a set of four bars have completely filled. Spells take roughly twenty to thirty seconds to cast unless a command is given, in which they are cast almost immediately. Spells also leave behind circles that can be dispersed by one of Zael’s abilities for additional advantages in combat, but only at the cost of one of the bars required for issuing orders.
Each battle then becomes more of a focus on what commands should be issued at what time, and when the player should use their dispersal ability or how they might make use of the environment for “free” as running up a wall grants the player the dispersal ability as well. This leaves the tactical aspect of the battle simple enough that the player can constantly be running calculations in their head while simultaneously keeping an eye on the status of the other members of their party. Zael also has an ability that can grant even greater damage when striking from cover or reviving downed teammates, but also draws the attention of every monster on the battlefield. Knowing when to activate and deactivate this ability also becomes important as the game progresses.
The Last Story is ultimately a game that utilizes a variety of simple, interconnected systems to achieve depth. Each boss encounter feels as if it plays out differently from the last, yet very few new features are introduced. Variety is merely achieved by creating a variety of uses for these different abilities and their interactions without forcing the player to do anything new. Within the first couple hours the player will have learned every necessary ability required for the game.
Rewards are also constant, with characters leveling up after nearly every encounter and treasure scattered across the battlefield. While the player won’t be using potions in combat, there are plenty of materials used to upgrade or purchase new equipment. This system is also kept simple, making sure the player never has to spend more time than necessary scrolling through menus or trying to decipher complex systems.
Perhaps these are part of the reason the game is roughly twenty-five hours in length, “short” for a Japanese role-playing game. This is simultaneously a strength and a curse of the game, as it never feels padded with too much unnecessary content or side quests. There are only a handful of distractions that are either optional or serve the primary storyline in some manner, which the game rarely deviates from.
The shame of it is, a greater length could actually help this game in terms of its narratives. There are a lot of ideas going on in this game concerning war, why people fight, revenge, honor, and even duty. Yet a good number of these elements are never explored in a satisfying manner as the game merely tells its story in the most time-efficient way possible. What is on one hand a blessing is also a curse.
More time might have also helped the two protagonists, as their personalities are not very interesting and as a result neither is their love story. The game wants you to care about these characters and the events going on around them, but it is simply too difficult as Zael and Callista are just not worth caring about. It is only later, when some of the more complex elements of the story begin to reveal themselves, that things become interesting.
On the whole, though, the story is still refreshing. The lead characters are a team of mercenaries with a variety of motivations and goals, ranging from secret missions from distant lands to simply wanting to fight and drink the days away. These characters in particular are a delight, and more time spent with each of them would have been welcome.
Despite these drawbacks, though, The Last Story was an enjoyable experience that does not overstay its welcome, which is most interesting as the game continues on for a couple more hours after the primary conflict has been resolved. The player is given a bit more time to tie up some loose ends as well as extra time to just spend with these characters in the aftermath of battle. It is an interesting and risky decision, but one that leaves a smile on the player’s face when all is said and done.
The Last Story may not be Sakaguchi’s return to epic and emotional story-telling, but it certainly has his mark of unique narrative and play that you don’t always get. It is an easy game to recommend to anyone that loves Japanese role-playing games or those that prefer more action-oriented titles. It is, quite frankly, one of the better games to have released in 2012, and on the Wii as a whole.