As the Wii prepares to be usurped by its successor, you could argue the console's getting some exceptional adventures in its twilight. European gamers had the pleasure of working through epics such as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Xenoblade Chronicles in 2011, with North America due to receive the latter soon. For those with an appetite for immersing themselves in a fantasy world, The Last Story can join these illustrious titles on the Wii must-have list.
When considering this title’s credentials, look no further than Hironobu Sakaguchi, director of The Last Story and creator of Final Fantasy: he’s rightly regarded as a prominent figure in the JRPG – Japanese role-playing game – genre. The Last Story, however, feels like a fresh approach rather than a direct imitation of the trends and techniques that have come before. In almost every possible way it succeeds in being both simplistic and complex, designed to be explored thoroughly over a few dozen hours, or to simply blast through the main storyline in 20 hours. With some expected mechanics reliably in place, this title attempts to be whatever kind of RPG you want it to be.
In some respects, the role of the player is that of a supervisor, overseeing the sometimes linear action and controlling specific, important moments. Combat is an example of this: basic attacks are executed automatically when within range of an enemy, but much responsibility lies elsewhere. Zael, your controllable character for the vast majority of the game, often serves as a focal point of a team of fighters, directing operations to exploit enemy weaknesses. Early in the title it becomes possible to gather enemies towards you, making yourself their exclusive focus; with the foe’s attention elsewhere your team mates, either autonomously or directly instructed, use a variety of attacking moves and magic to swing the momentum of the battle.
When at their best, these battle mechanics work exceptionally well. The abilities to use environmental cover, destroy surrounding scenery and bridges or prioritise specific enemies such as sorcerers or healers all contribute to action that is strategic and exciting. There’s variety, too, with some intense one-on-one sword battles and even a moment where you ride on the back of a beast, running down all enemies in your way. It’s unfortunate that quite a few of these moments, particularly battles against a number of enemies, are undermined by technical issues, primarily a frame-rate that drops significantly. There will be multiple occasions when, surrounded by enemies, frames will grind along slowly and all control is lost, leading to frantic button pressing to get out of trouble. It happens a little too often, and one particularly strange battle with your own reflection in a mirror is both confusing and riddled with choppy performance.
Fortunately, despite the occasional irritating spell of slowdown, the general experience is engaging and enjoyable. This owes a lot to the controls, which succeed in taking a number of relatively complex ideas and making them feel second nature to perform. The best way to play is with the Classic Controller or Classic Controller Pro, with the second analogue stick proving particularly useful for camera control. That said, those of you using the Wii Remote and Nunchuk will be just fine, as in both cases the button assignments show a great deal of common sense. Much like Xenoblade Chronicles, there are substantial tutorial screens that appear for every new skill or move, meaning that gamers of all levels should be able to master the controls. Accessible controls are matched, meanwhile, by a relatively easy difficulty level, which may be disappointing for some.
It’s in resource management that this title finds the perfect balance between complexity for JRPG veterans and accessibility for those new to the genre. On paper there’s a lot to worry about: experience points level up characters, while there are weapons, equipment, assorted items and a bank balance to manage. In practice, there’s the option to manage these things manually: this involves painstakingly watching funds, selling goods and extra equipment while purchasing upgrades, and making sure that each member of your team is equipped with the best armour and weapons possible. Alternatively, you can simply use the ‘auto-equip’ option regularly and let the game do all of that for you. Apart from some simple upgrading and selling with merchants, it can be a simple task that doesn’t have to distract from the adventure. Whatever your priorities and style in item management, you’re accommodated perfectly.
With a gameplay experience that is, mostly, of high quality, a major challenge for a game titled The Last Story is to provide a plot and world to match. It’s in these areas where, arguably, Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team show their strengths. The environments are a particular success, with a range of varied locations beautifully realised with strong artistic direction. Story-driven segments in different locations are often linear in nature, but that does allow the developers to utilise cinematic elements, often to excellent effect. When not working through scripted chapters, a number of side quests and eccentric characters and objectives can be found in Lazulis City, a rather large hub location. It’s possible to lose hours running errands, talking to the locals and generally exploring; it feels like a living, breathing place, with solid physics also allowing neat effects such as Zael bumping into disgruntled locals. They’re small touches, but they contribute a lot.
The storyline itself is told through a mixture of in-game dialogue and cut scenes rendered with the game engine. Some particularly epic moments are pre-rendered and look gorgeous, though these are rare. Some of the technical issues that disrupt gameplay are also evident in the storytelling, with the Wii often struggling to read the disc quickly enough and causing lines of dialogue to overlap or cut off. It’s not a major problem, but is disappointing and distracting when it happens.
The plot itself, meanwhile, has some memorable moments. At times it falls into standard JRPG clichés, with some scenes dragging on a little too long, but the actual script is generally well-paced, with solid localisation. Zael’s relationships with his best friend Dagran, mercenary comrades and most notably with love interest Calista are well-written and developed. The Last Story successfully confronts themes of love, friendship, loyalty, courage, cruelty and loss in various ways, an example being a particularly harrowing invasion sequence. It’s a shame that the visuals stutter on a regular basis when telling the tale, but this is nevertheless an attractive game, with high production sound and music to round off the package. Storytelling is a major success in this title and adds richly to the overall dynamic and experience.
While the single-player adventure and its epic storyline will take anything between 20-30 hours to complete, online multiplayer — sadly there's no local play — has the potential to add even further life to the title. Unfortunately, at the time of writing it appears that PAL copies won’t be able to interact with the existing Japanese servers, so it’s regional play only, it seems. There are two modes: Co-Op and Deathmatch. Co-Op is a battle against major bosses from the adventure, as well as their minions, though these enemies are far stronger than in the main game, so you’ll really need a full session of six players to succeed. Deathmatch mode, meanwhile, involves directly fighting the other players, with choices of characters with varying abilities making the experience tactical and a lot of fun. Despite the automatic melee attacks, a number of power-ups in each of the nine arenas shake things up, as well as the ranged-weapon abilities of some of the characters. Our online experiences were lag-free and, in the case of Deathmatch in particular, enjoyable. There isn’t a great deal of customisation on offer, but this online multiplayer is nevertheless a welcome addition.
The Last Story is, in many ways, a significant achievement on Wii. With gameplay that is both simplified and complex, solid controls, attractive presentation, online multiplayer and a touching, well-paced plot, this title can be considered as a definitive entry in its genre. Technical problems with the performance, in particular regular and punishing drops in frame rate, unfortunately drag the experience back. When the game engine performs it's terrific, but too often it struggles and significantly impacts your ability to control the action. The Last Story's many strengths, however, ensure that it's a story that can't be missed.