What can a videogame tell you about its creator? Often very little. But occasionally a game comes along that represents a perfect snapshot of the context in which it was made. 25 years ago it happened with Hironobu Sakaguchi. After a few years of commercial failures at Squaresoft, Sakaguchi made one last-ditch attempt, putting his all into passion project Final Fantasy – so named because it might very well have been his last game. Now, long since departed from the series that made his name, Sakaguchi finds himself embroiled in a creative crisis that goes way beyond his own developer and encompasses the whole nation. The Japanese RPG has been left for dust in the innovation race, Western examples of the genre advancing the game way beyond expectation while only the odd Japanese titles like Dark Souls or Xenoblade Chronicles dare to try anything new. The Last Story – Sakaguchi’s first game as director since 1992’s Final Fantasy V – therefore represents another attempt to pour everything he has into a do-or-die project. The title’s similarity to Final Fantasy is definitely not coincidental, but will The Last Story reignite Japan’s hold over a genre it once dominated? Probably not.
The Last Story is far from a bad game. As one of three Wii games petitioned for localisation by the grass-roots Operation Rainfall movement, The Last Story deservedly takes its place alongside Xenoblade Chronicles as part of a last hurrah for Wii, and as a high-quality RPG that absolutely must be played. It’s just that Sakaguchi’s reinvention has focused mainly on the battle system and therefore neglects other crucial RPG elements.
That battle system genuinely is a revelation though. Clearly inspired by Gears Of War, it sees the player character and a group of AI-controlled allies bound through dungeons, taking cover behind obstacles to pick out headshots with crossbows and spells, before vaulting over for a bit of hack-and-slash. In a nice touch, the player need only walk into an enemy in order to perform a melee strike. There’s no mindlessly bashing an attack button just because that’s the way it’s always been done. Instead, The Last Story manages to inject a little bit of strategy into its action-RPG framework.
At any time, it’s possible to pause the action and view the battle from above, giving commands to allies and casting your own spells. Complete the commands and the action returns to real time, each character playing their part simultaneously. Almost every command has an area effect, represented as a circle on the tactical screen, and if these are made to overlap then they can augment each other. It’s possible to cast a wind spell over a fire one, for example, in order to make the flames more potent, while casting over an enemy’s magic can dispel it entirely. Those circles often remain during the action phase too, so you can choose to stand in a healing area to recover health mid-battle or run through a patch of flames to add fire properties to your melee weapon.
A few other battle moves – like the ability to wall run, somersault and pinpoint a downward strike in slow motion, or the option to exploit weak points in the scenery so it falls on a foe – complement the overall tactical gameplay to make The Last Story’s battle system a true triumph. Its intelligent blend of action and strategy elements really does put the wind back in the sails of the JRPG, creating a gameplay flow that zips along at good pace while also still demanding that you make constant critical decisions.
Outside of battle, however, that streamlined feeling is a lot more hit and miss. The overall pace of the game is a definite improvement on a genre that tends to lean too far into overblown, unnecessary content. Similar to Brian Fargo’s Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, Sakaguchi’s game tries to keep as much narrative on the battlefield as possible. There’s a great sense of forward momentum to the dungeon exploration, characters chatting as they move rather than stopping for yet another cut-scene, while the sections between dungeon runs do a good job of covering great geographical distances without forcing you to pointlessly trudge all the way there yourself. Towns are infrequent, and often small enough to not overwhelm, though the opening village does stray a little too close to the traditions of the genre, featuring faceless pedestrians and scores of buildings with locked doors.
There should be no prizes for guessing that where The Last Story really falls into bad habits is in its story. Though streamlined in battle, storytelling outside of dungeons is just as clumsy and bloated as ever. There are about a thousand identical characters, all of which are capable of talking at length on the most boring of topics, and the cast soon expands further, leading to confusion about exactly what is going on and, eventually, us losing all interest. Worse still isn’t so much the story itself but the way it’s told. Like many Japanese developers of this generation, Mistwalker seems to have taken inspiration from Mass Effect without truly understanding what that game did right. The presence of multiple dialogue options, for example, is a step in the right direction, but when half of them are functional dead ends the choice becomes one between correct and incorrect binary responses, essentially rendering the mechanic pointless.
In the end, The Last Story is an engaging and refreshingly svelte JRPG, but one that offers mere hints at where the genre may go from here rather than the new blueprint it could have been.