"As it turns out though, The Last Story wasn't really worth getting excited about. It begins in a climactic fashion that shows off its exciting combat and appealing graphics, but never ascends to any greater heights."
Like Xenoblade Chronicles before it, The Last Story took the rather unconventional route of being localised in Europe and Australia long before reaching North American shores. For those of us in the PAL region, we thoroughly enjoy this positive change of pace. As it turns out though, The Last Story wasn't really worth getting excited about. It begins in a climactic fashion that shows off its exciting combat and appealing graphics, but never ascends to any greater heights.
The Last Story follows a band of young mercenaries led by Zael, the hero, and his best friend Dagran. Along with the rest of their group, they head to Lazulis Island in search of work and booze. This all goes according to plan until Zael becomes mixed up with the Count's niece, Calista, and the two develop a romantic relationship. Considering the young lady is already engaged to another man for political reasons, it's easy to imagine how the sparks begin to fly. Throw in a menacing enemy nation, European-style knights, some magic and political intrigue, and you have The Last Story in a nutshell.
The plot is not inherently bad, but it is
inherently boring and predictable. Plot twists are obvious from a mile away, and not a single one took me by surprise. That alone isn't too much of an issue, but when combined with the shocking abundance of clichéd scenes, it's hard to be particularly lenient. You'll encounter a young aristocratic lady disguising herself to escape the pressures of her life, obvious two-faced political villains, and ancient powers hidden in ruins, along with many other RPG plot points you've seen hundreds of times before. The story isn't particularly well paced either. Many events appear to exist purely as time wasters, such as a temporary escape from a prison cell that finishes with a dead end and a return to where you started. The story certainly isn't terrible, but it's far from stimulating. It's just barely enough to hold the game together.
The faults don't end there though. The story takes a further dive when the main characters are involved. Zael is a likeable enough hero, but the rest of the motley mercenary crew could be horribly slaughtered and you wouldn't bat an eyelid. They're all about as interesting as planks of wood and have nearly zero development across the game. Zael and Calista's romance develops far too quickly and is completely unbelievable from the get-go. Numerous other scenes attempt to convey meaningful emotion, such as a star gazing event involving the pair and discovering the death of fellow mercenary Yurick's father, but all fail to have any real impact. Pieces of dialogue imply interesting back stories for the heroes, but very little is actually ever revealed. Zael and Dagran spend a bit more time in the limelight in that regard, but it hardly makes up for the other issues.
Don't panic yet because it's not all bad news. The gameplay is the shining beacon of hope in The Last Story, which manages to deliver some originality and excitement. Battles are in real-time and can involve up to six party members at once along with veritable hordes of enemies. To begin with, combat is exciting, yet simplistic. Attacking is as easy as pushing the control stick in the direction of the enemy you're aiming at and being close enough to hit them. Not having a button to press to attack hurts immersion somewhat, but it's not too much of an issue. A few hours in you can take indirect control of your party members by commanding them to use specific spells or abilities. The controls can be a little clunky at times, but ultimately work well enough. It's worth noting there is absolutely no motion control used in the game. Believe it or not, it feels rather odd when you can't aim Zael's ranged weapon by pointing or are forced to waggle the joystick, rather than the whole nunchuk, to escape an enemy's grip.
As you level up, Zael and his friends learn a few new skills. The gathering technique, which Zael knows from the start, is the crux of the unique combat system. By pressing the C button, Zael effectively taunts all enemies in the battle and becomes the tank of the group. While gathering is active, all enemies focus their attention on him. This allows the rest of the party to set up spells and cast them effectively without being interrupted. By using the environment to your advantage and crouching down behind objects, you strategically lure enemies to locations that aid you. It's a fairly fun and unique system that makes for some pretty intense moments. Across the game, Zael learns additional skills such as dispersing magic circles to provide buffs or healing and the ability to run up walls. Boss battles tend to require use of select skills, which makes them reasonably fun and exciting. That being said, a few battles in the second half of the game stretch on for an exceedingly lengthy period.
Lack of difficulty provides the one major problem with combat. Each character in your party has five lives for every single battle, and a Game Over only occurs if everyone loses all of them. It's rare to feel under pressure. In many cases it's simply not worth the effort of using skills when regular attacks are just as effective. Luckily, some battles do require more strategy. In these cases you may find crossbow-wielding enemies out of reach, for example. To solve this problem, Zael can pull out his own crossbow and fire a variety of bolts to take them out. You can also direct team members to destroy certain parts of the terrain, such as blowing up ledges, killing foes in the process.
When outside battle, most of the gameplay is divided between walking from place to place and story sequences. There are a ton of cut-scenes, but they can be skipped easily enough if you're feeling bored. Most areas are very linear, though some allow for a little more exploration. The major city of the game is a massive area with hundreds of backstreets and all sorts of nooks and crannies hiding chests and items. There's not a huge amount to do, but it's an impressive zone nonetheless. The town is good for upgrading your weapons and armour, however. Most equipment can be upgraded through a combination of enemy-dropped materials and gold. It's a very simplistic system (an upgrade is completed with just a couple of buttons), but it provides just enough depth to keep things interesting. There are a small number of side-quests throughout the game, but as there is no quest log, it's extremely difficult to keep track of them.
If you've seen any screenshots at all, it's plainly obvious that The Last Story is an attractive game. The graphics make the most of the Wii's hardware power and are generally quite impressive to behold. Some textures are a little bland or blurry at times, but excellent character models more than make up for it. In fact, I really have to hand it to Mistwalker for the aesthetics of their character design. The heroes are a great looking bunch that sport varied and interesting models. The Last Story may not quite have the grand visual scale of Xenoblade, but you're unlikely to find much to complain about. If there is one disappointment, it's the animation. Cut-scene animation is not particularly fluid and walking often looks unnatural. A little bit more time and care in this department would have gone a long way. Likewise, black screens and narration are often used to replace what could have been epic cut-scenes. It often feels like the developers used this mechanic to take shortcuts.
Sonically, the game is going to be either a hit or a miss depending upon personal preferences. The European localisation is filled with strong English and Irish accents that either will or will not be to your taste. I didn't always feel they fit the characters very well, but this is merely a matter of personal opinion. The voice acting is generally competent, but never particularly outstanding, and it's often hurt by the mediocre dialogue and script. We have yet to see whether XSeed will use the same voices for their North American release. Sound effects are up to par and nothing sounds out of place and much the same can be said for the music as well. Aside from the truly beautiful opening piece, the score is good without being great. Much like the whole game, really.
At the end of the day, The Last Story is a decent RPG, but nothing to be excited about. A dull story and uninteresting characters mar a unique combat system and solid gameplay. The graphics are great and the music is solid, but there's just not enough oomph in the game for me to recommend it very highly. Across the 20 hours it took me to beat it, I only had a handful of genuinely fun moments. If you're desperate for a new RPG for your Wii (which is quite possible), then you might want to give it a rent. If you've already got a backlog, or access to a PS3, 360, or PC, there are far better options out there.