|It's like ZELDA on STEROIDS!|
First off, I got the preorder bonuses with this game, and I gotta say, as the "last good game" for the Nintendo Wii, XSEED certainly let this one go out in style. With a wonderful art book, special case designed like a book, and a sampler CD for the soundtrack, I really feel like I got my money's worth with this preorder. It's a wonderful package and will sit very proudly on my games shelf.
The caption at the start of this article may sound a bit funny, but honestly, the closest thing I can liken The Last Story to is "Zelda on steroids". The game, though hailed as an action RPG, is an adventure story- a story about an Empire and a particular island called Lazulis that is a part of it. To attempt to explain the story would be a wonderful and difficult act on my part, but that's only because I like explaining stories so much. The condensed version that doesn't give away that much, however, will have to suffice.
See, Zael, Dagran, Syrenne, Lowell, Yurick, and Mirania are a group of mercenaries trying to make a living- mercenaries are generally treated like dirt and looked upon with disgust, rather than being respected and revered like knights, who serve the royal family and the Empire dutifully. It's Zael's dream to become a knight, and escape the awfulness that is his current existence- and when Dagran gets a job for them on Lazulis island doing a little extermination, he starts to believe this could be his chance at greatness. Well, he also gets a kooky emblem imprinted on his hand called the Mark of the Outsider, giving him a some neat powers.
The Last Story's narrative is enthralling, and coming right off of Xenoblade, I was pretty surprised to find myself completely immersed in this game. I haven't even finished Xenoblade yet (and probably never will), but I was really deeply engrossed in that title, and though I had heard wonderful things about The Last Story, videos of its combat mechanics turned me off and I wasn't sure if I'd take the transition from "mind-numbingly huge" to it's lower-key, more contained story all that well. But when you start hearing the story and experiencing the world, it seriously draws you in. The characters, though very archetypical, are fleshed out well, with a number of character-specific plotlines throughout the game. They grow and change, reacting to the environment around them. Their dungeon banter is absolutely fantastic, and isn't just throwaway dialogue. The whole team grows, which is interesting, considering they haven't all been together since the very start of their mercenary careers. Zael is kind of an idiot, though.
Gameplay is a real treat, and after a slow start with a number of tutorials, you're fully introduced to the battle system and how integral each member of the party is to combat. Though you don't have all of your squad-commanding techniques available to you from the very start, the game eases you into its concepts before taking off the training wheels and letting you pedal like crazy. I should say that the opening tutorials are very slow, and that you really shouldn't let them deter you from the rest of an amazing game. Battles occur in real time and you play as Zael, who has a number of abilities at his disposal because he's a total tank. Zael wields a sword and a crossbow, making you the official sniper of the group, among other things. You can roll, block, leap over obstacles, take cover and hide, and activate your special abilities. Attacking is automatic, but there are manual settings that can help at times, if you're willing to hold down the d-pad to use your rolls. But yeah, you're given a number of tools to use against a slew of enemies that you'll encounter over the game, and you will end up using every single one of them.
Gathering, one of the main functions of Zael's Mark of the Outsider, allows you to draw enemy attention towards yourself, and considering the fact that you can get a ton of upgrades for Zael in specific, this makes him somewhat of a tank. He can block most attacks without dying and draw aggro like it's his business- and once you're using Gathering, all eyes will be on you, no matter what. I understand the need for aggro in real time RPGs, but Gathering seems like a little too absolute of a concept, to me. Still, Gathering is probably not best used when trying to snipe enemy forces- and you're given a number of arrows to deal with foes, from paralysis, to wizard killers, to explosive sorts. The Mark of the Outsider eventually gives you another sweet trick that's very helpful in battle, but for the most part, it's a tool for making sure your foe keeps his eye on you. Well, it can also automatically revive your fallen allies from death, but only five times for each partner. Though you may thing that's a lot- it's not, trust me.
Your abilities aren't the only ones you'll get to use, though. Your entire party is at your command as you target specific points and tell them to take them out. At first, you can only mark these objects with your crossbow, but eventually, you can switch to an overhead view of the battle and issue commands for each squad member in specific. Since the game's skirmishes are largely planned out affairs, with enemy placement and approach predetermined, you have to work your way around the enemies on the field and exploit their weaknesses whenever possible. Sometimes, I would throw caution to the wind and just kind of jump in and see if I could handle the battle, but other times I would plan out my strategy pretty heavily before making my approach. Environmental hazards and elemental weaknesses come into play a lot, as your party often has a mage in it.
The wonderful thing about The Last Story's battle mechanics is that it allows you a large amount of control over your party and lets you go nuts. There are times when your party members will draw your attention to a potential "shortcut" through a battle, so to speak- ceiling crystals that can be knocked down or other destructible elements that will deal massive damage, but you don't HAVE to use them. You can carve out your own path, and when each of your characters gets three very unique special moves in addition to all the other crazy things they can do, it just makes you feel like you're in control. But once it gives you these tools, it doesn't let you settle into them. It switches your party members constantly, giving you new challenges even within your team planning that factor into your success. The reason I say it's like Zelda is because you have a variety of tools, but many bosses need to be taken out using unique combinations- they're puzzles that must be overcome in order to do damage.
Is the story interesting? Yes. Maybe a little predictable, though I didn't see one huge plot twist coming. The music is absolutely gorgeous and sets the atmosphere perfectly, with subdued themes for the hub areas and pulsing, intense, and epic battle and field themes. The gameplay is truly entertaining and is a real breath of fresh air for RPGs nowadays- I do hope that it returns in some form of a sequel, because the mechanics lend themselves to a wonderful variety of situations that I don't think were fully covered in the game.
There's only two things I'm not very fond of in this game.The inclusion of a parry function is okay in my book- it's just one more tool you have at your disposal. However, making it necessary to parry in certain engagements is not that nice in my book. With the amount of creatures that have different attack animations (you're supposed to block right before the attack hits you) and the traditional controls being auto-attack (like I said, the combat does run more smoothly with the auto-attack on), the input often become very hit-or-miss and you can get caught in a chain of attacks before you're able to parry. With the second-to-last boss relying on parrying pretty heavily (oops, I said it, spoilers), it strips the interactivity from the game a lot, mostly because it's just an unbalanced move. Second, the frame-rate drops in this game are atrocious. I'm certain I'll be returning to this game on the Wii U, because I hope that processor can handle all the ridiculous auras and enemy movement that occurs in battle at all times. That's pretty much it, though.
I cannot tell you how pleasantly surprised I was by this game, especially with Xenoblade right before it. However, it can't take Xenoblade's place in my heart because of its length- I clocked in about 24 hours before reaching the final boss, and also because while it's great, it's not amazing like Xenoblade. But I should mention that Xenoblade's goal is to wow you with its environments, having massive areas to explore and discover, while the Last Story has a much more contained narrative and setting, but uses every bit of area and content for a reason. The entire game is filled with purpose, from environmental cover and exploitation to its character interaction and leveling. It doesn't swamp you with a slew of equipment- it gives you the tools and tells you to use them whenever you want. It makes sure that each battle mechanic is used in full. In short, everything has purpose in the Last Story, and that's what is so lovely about it. There is always something to do because everything you could possibly want to do in the game world has been considered by the developers and given a reason to be done. It's a gem of a game and I highly recommend picking it up.