The Last Story is the latest RPG from Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and his development studio, Mistwalker, which has just been released over here having been out in Japan for some time. It’s a fairly unique take on the action RPG genre incorporating a cover mechanic and some third person shooting but is it any good?
You play as Zael, a member of a group of mercenaries lead by Dagran and hired by Count Arganan, the ruler of Lazulis Island, the only place in the Empire untouched by the corruption plaguing the land. If they perform their missions well this could be the groups chance to fulfil their dreams of leaving this life and for Dagran and Zael to become knights. The game opens during the middle of their first mission from the Count, in the caves that run under Lazulis but of course Zael gets granted a mysterious that will change the life of him and his friends and sets them on the course of a grand adventure to end a war and stop the corruption of the land.
The story, while pretty cliché in most parts is pretty well done. What helps is that the mercenary group is full of pretty likeable characters. Yeah, the personalities are cliché too; you have the womanizing Lowell, the loud, rowdy and often drunk Syrenne, Mirania, who seems oblivious to most things and Yurick, the cold and quiet but powerful young mage. Zeal is the all around kind, nice protagonist and Dagran is the driven and respected leader. The game does a great job with the mercenary group and you really feel the camaraderie. The voice acting is great too and all British so that’s nice. The only voice I didn’t initially like was that of the Narrator. He sounded like the kind of guy who would voice a film trailer rather than tell a story but he did eventually grow on me. Speaking of story, The Last Story has its fair share of twists and turns in the plot but most can be spotted from miles away, especially one of the final twists and the characters have their fair share of development and growth as the story progresses. You can also read up on the backstory of Lazulis Island in the castle library if you so desire.
The game is split between exploration of Lazulis City and linear mission segments where the combat is found. The mission side of The Last Story could be described as a corridor RPG. There really isn’t much exploration to be found in these missions as you are pretty much funnelled from combat encounter to combat encounter with a boss fight to end on. There are little branches here or there that hide the occasional treasure chest but nothing that could really be called exploration. The city though is a sprawling place full of NPCs to talk to and bump into, side quests to complete, hanging signs to knock your head on and shops where you can buy or upgrade equipment, convert certain materials into dyes for you clothing and an arena to fight in. Mistwalker did a fantastic job of making the city feel like a real place thanks to the abundance of NPCs going about their daily business and all the back allies you can explore.
The combat in The Last Story is pretty unique. It has a combination of the usual action-RPG type combat and a cover mechanic and third-person shooting. It defaults to auto-attacking the enemy in the direction you push the left stick (I played through the game using only the Classic Controller) though this can be changed to manual where you hit the A button to attack. The auto-attack can get annoying when you just want to get away from enemies instead of attacking them but works well mostly. The best thing to do while attacking is to alternate your attacks with other party members to build up a chain combo and increase damage dealt. You can also roll out of the way by pressing A while moving or Guard with the R button or even counter with a well timed press. The cover mechanic is pretty interesting, you can use it to hide from enemies and to avoid ranged attacks and some sections of the game have you use the cover to sneak around and flank enemies. Cover is also used to unleash your slash attack where you jump around or over cover by pressing A while tilting the stick towards the enemy to deliver a strong attack that can deal increased damage to unsuspecting enemies.
Holding down the ZL button puts you into ‘Seek Mode’ where you get an over the shoulder view. In Seek Mode you can look around for ‘Seek Boxes’ that in combat allow you to order allies, usually to destroy or use magic on whatever it is you are looking at and out of combat let you find items on the floor or things to see Zael comment on. You can also find out information on enemies such as their weakness in this mode by hitting Y, this is very useful in boss fights as sometimes the only way to deal damage to enemies is by first exploiting their weakness. Zael is also equipped with a crossbow and various ammo types that can be fired in Seek Mode. It starts of weak at the start of the game but you can eventually get a rapid fire version that makes the crossbow a much more viable weapon. I found it was best used to take out mages from a distance using the Wizard Slayer arrows. You can even shoot it around the town but only two ammo types, the firework (does what it says on the tin) and the prank banana (causes characters to slip).
Zael can’t use magic but some of his allies can. Magic comes in a few different flavours like Fire and Ice and the magic circles can be diffused by Zale’s Gale or Vertical Slice attacks. Gale is a quick charge that is performed by holding the A button and selecting your destination and Vertical Slice is performed by running up a wall and choosing where to land. When you diffuse a magic circle its energies get unleashed and have different effects depending on the magic type. Diffusing a healing circle will heal all allies while diffusing an ice circle will cause enemies to slip up. There is also the Gathering ability which forces enemies to focus their attacks on Zael and revives a downed ally when you touch them. You can unleash a Gathering Burst that releases energy built up from taking attacks and slows and weakens enemies.
You never really have direct control over your party member’s actions but when your Skill Gauge is full you can enter command mode and order your allies around. You only get to choose from two abilities (which in the case of magic get cast in 3 seconds instead of the usual time) or the characters ‘Spirit Skill’. The Spirit Skills are unlocked as you progress through the game and are similar to Limit Break attacks from the Final Fantasy games. They are very strong attacks that I found were best kept saved until bosses as the game is very easy. Each character has five lives in battle and in my 20+ hour game I only got a game over once or twice due to me not staying in the healing circles like the game told me to. Even if you do get a game over the game checkpoints regularly and there is always a save point before a boss encounter.
The Last Story has some pretty incredible customisation and upgrade systems. Almost every weapon and piece of armour can be upgraded and there are a ton of different weapons. Some weapons gain added effects at certain upgrade levels and armour gets new parts and gains stat effects at +7 or +6 depending on the slot. The armour can also be dyed different colours in different parts and you can even remove pieces of armour entirely. Don’t like the Jacket added with the Cloth Armour? Just remove it. You can even complete quests to get invisible dye that straight up removes the item of clothing while giving you the stats. You can wear your Heavy Armour +9 but have it look like you are running around in your underwear if you want. I found myself outfitting the party in what I thought suited them best rather than what gave the best stats because the game is easy enough that a few points between the different styles doesn’t make too much of a difference.
I was kind of shocked to find that The Last Story also had online multiplayer. I was even more shocked when I found it to be quite fun. It has two modes, a deathmatch mode that includes Free For All and Team Deathmatch modes and a co-op boss fight mode where your group fights against a boss from the single player game but with slight changes, both can be played with up to 6 players either found randomly via the WiFi Connection or from your friends list. Deathmatch works like you’d expect, kill other guys for points, most points win but what is interesting is the amount of characters you can play as. You can play as all of the main mercenaries and a bunch of enemies or even Horace, the weapon/armour upgrader that shows up in a few story chapters. The equipment used by the mercenaries correlates to their equipment in the single player game but is purely cosmetic in deathmatch. There are also pickups spread around the battlefield such as special weapons that inflict status effects like the leek that makes enemies sticky or a bottle that inflicts poison.
In co-op it seems that your equipment stats carry over from single player but levels do not. You can only play as the main group in co-op which makes sense as your equipment affects their stats. I really like the co-op. It’s honestly very hard, much harder than anything found in the single player game and you really do need a few people to beat these bosses. I first tried with just one other person and we got our arses beat badly. Upon winning a game online you will get a special weapon as a reward or a special dye effect for being a runner up that gets saved to the save game you loaded. I went through the whole game wondering how to get effects as I left the multiplayer until I beat the game.
The Last Story looks very good on the whole with some nicely detailed models and some pretty cool character and equipment designs but is sadly let down by some horrendously bad textures on armour. The game also suffers frequent drops in frame rate pretty much all over the place but mainly in battle with a lot of effects flying around and enemy models. The Last Story could very easily benefit by being run on more powerful hardware, at the very least it’d get the game running smoothly and at best would allow the game to use higher resolution textures. The games soundtrack, produced and composed by acclaimed video game composer Nobuo Uematsu, is largely forgettable outside of the main themes and some quite frankly odd late game boss music. The main title theme however is very nice.
In the end I really enjoyed The Last Story and plan to put some more time into the games multiplayer modes and New Game +. The game does have its share of problems like the inconsistent frame rate, low res textures and occasionally buggy camera control but is a fun and interesting take on the action RPG genre with some truly unique and interesting combat mechanics. Yeah, the story isn’t the best but it’s good enough to hold your attention and has a few really cool moments. The Last Story is out now in Europe and will be released in the US later this year.