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The JRPG subgenre is one of the most nostalgic in gaming today. Veteran developers don't rest on conventions that are over 25 years old for nothing. Turn-based battles, familiar characters, and stock through lines lend RPG fans a sense of familiarity that's hard to rebuff with any semblance of certainty. The sticking point arrives when production teams end up producing stale and even fetid experiences that fail to adjust to the ever-evolving tastes of contemporary gamers.
The Last Story is the latest epic from Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy series. It's an audacious (and rare) RPG for the Wii as Nintendo shifts its focus toward Wii U launch titles. The famous Japanese developer ditches the unwavering conventionality of 2008'sLost Odyssey and strives to emulate the skill-customization novelties found in 2007's Blue Dragon. Most of the time, Sakaguchi's Mistwalker studio and the localization team at XSEED Games fare well.
You play as a young mercenary named Zael, who imagines becoming a knight, though his lowly status impedes him and his multifarious friends from becoming royal protectors. Throughout their journey, they are beset by war, courtly backstabbers, and a world that withers on the vine. The ranged and close-quartered mercenary scuffles, part of the game's real-time battle system, are furious and, at first blush, seem worthy of the game's 20-to-30 hours of exploration. Overhead, strategy game-esque tactics are employed throughout, and attacking is as rudimentary as holding forward on the joystick, though the ragged seams of this vibrant tapestry begin to show during the repetitive combat sequences.
Though Mistwalker's willingness to do away with arduous menu management for automatic leveling up is to be applauded, it's a shame that the hassle-free level and item management didn't dovetail into the battle sequences. The addition of a multiplayer mode for co-op battles or competitive death matches against other players is a pleasant, if not exactly deep, facet. Most confrontations with grunt enemies are way too simple using the Wiimote (I preferred to use the Classic Controller Pro), though the game's many boss battles are enjoyable enough, as the tactics employed for these diverse encounters, during which your party (of up to six players) will vanquish everything from beasts to evil men of the royal court, are more involved. The game's cover system adds an inventive element to the game, allowing you to fuse to surfaces with an undemanding tap of the A button. A "gathering" ability is a nice touch for resurrecting fallen allies, and you'll need it since attacks are often one- or two-hit kills. That each party member gets five lives will also keep your frustration level at a low boil.
The narrative and combat setups may be all too familiar for JRPG fans, but the execution is characterized by dynamic dialogue that attempts humor in admirable fits and starts. The vocal acting in particular is engaging. The British localization is excellent most of the time, with former EastEnders soap-opera star Jack Ryder voicing Zael to great effect. Some JRPG protagonists can be clichéd or excessively whiny, but Zael's motives are clear and sensibly articulated. But his party, an armed force of vivacious fools, enticing tarts, drunken louts, and stentorian roustabouts, is less focused. Expectedly, the villains are more animated. In particular, the mustache-twirling Jirall steals every cutscene, and proves that he deserves a better game.
The Last Story's setting is almost as captivating as its best villain. The large majority of the game takes places on Lazulis Island, where you can sink time into various sidequests, buy armor, new weapons, and dyes for clothing. The latter feature is a poor substitute for the developers not giving you much in the way of character customization. The world of The Last Story is like a storybook, so the Wii's graphical limitations only show during some of the crowded battle sequences. Textures may pop and frame rates will stutter and jolt, but character modeling is thankfully strong throughout, as is the emotionally resonant score by longtime Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu. The forlorn theme may be simple, but its floating violin line evokes the dust that settles after a tumultuous skirmish.
Given its slipshod combat, frequently annoying or dull characters, and its relative lack of character customization, The Last Story's U.S. localization via XSEED Games isn't always the best example of Mistwalker's enterprising spirit. Which is too bad since the release of this game in North America was hotly anticipated and petitioned by particularly vocal fans last year. And because the game's brave effort doesn't quite live up to its lofty expectations, Xenoblade Chronicles remains the finer example of a JRPG that struck a balance between holding onto a popular genre's best conventions while also abandoning formula for untested experimentalism
Sakaguchi's varied career will be forever marked by a willingness to try and try again though, and the renowned tale behind the inaugural Final Fantasy game on the NES bears that idea out. It was Sakaguchi's last attempt (thus the title of the eventual series) to create a successful video game, and its triumph not only salvaged his own emergent career but also the prosperity of Squaresoft (now Square Enix). Such a fairy-tale beginning to a storied career will never be tarnished by a minor bump along the road such as The Last Story.
[This review originally appeared in Slant Magazine.]