The Last Story is one of the most unique games I have ever played. Over the years, I’ve seen it receive scorn and criticism from all angles (one of my favorite video game reviewers even called it one of the worst games of 2012), but I’d never actually played it myself. Having done so now, I have to say that I largely disagree that any flaws it has ruins the product as a game. This romp with the adorably boring Zael and his band of mercenaries was one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had all year.
As with all JRPG’s, the first place you have to look is to the story. Being largely linear, narrative experiences, a terrible story can indeed make for a terrible game in this genre, and each new entry has a host of previous classics to contend with. Fortunately, at The Last Story’s helm is Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy and essentially father of the genre, and he is fully aware of what he has to contend with. While the game largely confines you to a single major city, it weaves a tale on a global scale, as a threat to the entire world is defended against at this central location. And it works. Zael and his friends fight a massive war on the frontlines, and have no reason to go beyond where they are right now. Characters appear to be of moral ambiguity until their true intentions are realized. Setpieces are grand and beautiful and perfectly convey the levity of the situation bringing you to them.
That’s not to say the story isn’t riddled with cliche’s. The villains are just a little too on the nose (save one), with one in particular who could have made for a much more satisfying turn had his evil motivations not been revealed in an entirely unnecessary scene a full dozen chapters before his direct betrayal of the mercenaries. Another just looks like Ganondorf in a purple aura, and that’s about all the characterization he gets, too. The central conflict is a very generic “our world is dying” tale, as well, though the reasons for the world dying are much weirder than most.
But behind the poor villain characterization and poorly hidden plot twists lies a story with heart, as the mercenaries, initially fighting for their own gain, begin to realize that there’s more at stake, and they’ll have to learn to think beyond themselves. Each mercenary has their own reasons for fighting, interesting backstories and development, and you really do grow to care for each of them. The only major gripe I have with the main cast is how often Lowell was not in my party, because Lowell is clearly the best character in the game and should have been in my party constantly, but actually spends less time with Zael than almost any other party member.
The love story between Zael and Calisto is almost a deconstruction of generic JRPG love stories, as they spend as little time as possible after the first quarter of the game in each other’s company, with Calisto actively pushing Zael away, which only makes Zael more interested in staying close to her. Doing so only creates further problems for the both of them, where had Calisto not been so worrisome or had Zael given up on Calisto after being told to stay away, their lives would have been much simpler than the third path their contradictory actions resulted in. It’s ultimately reconstructed near the very end of the game and in an optional epilogue chapter, but it comes so late you would almost be excused for thinking this was more like Romeo and Juliet and less a RomCom.
However, I feel like the story was also more of an afterthought for the core gameplay, as if they had an idea for how the game would play and then crafted a storyline around it, because The Last Story is one of the tightest games I have ever played. Coming in from any other JRPG, you might be thrown off, because combat is less explosive action and more like a real-time tactical shooter, but with swords and magic. Imagine if Fire Emblem combined with Gears of War, and that’s similar to what you get in The Last Story. You approach enemies carefully, because being overwhelmed means death. You single out the most dangerous targets first and take them out with Zael’s crossbow, which while usually cannot kill enemies, does come equipped with bolts that can instantly kill a magic-user. Once the fight starts however, there’s no turning back, as you are often locked in the combat area until all your enemies lay defeated. At that point, you might take advantage of the ability to deal powerful blows to enemies as you exit cover. Or you might command one of your friends to use powerful magic on surrounding enemies. It’s a very intricate battle system which can be used to full effect or discarded completely in favor of a brute force approach… so long as you’re good enough.
Unfortunately, when it comes to bosses, the possibilities tend to be limited to one strategy and no other ways of coming at it. It can be very frustrating going from trying out all kinds of cool tactics against regular enemies to using the same commands over and over again in a boss fight. Of particular note is the boss that closes off the entire ship-raiding segment early on, which not only has a very specific and unreliable method of defeating, but is also the one to start the trend of terrible bosses within the game, throwing you a huge curveball. If you end up fighting this thing for an hour and a half, don’t worry. I did the same.
Sometimes, however, the game will throw a boss out that seems absolutely impenetrable. What this usually means is that Zael and co. are underleveled, which would mean lots of grinding, right? Not so! There is usually at least one place within a dungeon that you can return to, and it will have summoning circles that allow you to summon enemies. This is the only true way to grind in the game at all, as enemies do not respawn and revisiting areas does not award experience. However, I mean this as a good thing. The summon battles take little to no time, are very straightforward, and will award you tons of experience until you’re caught up to about where the game wants you to be, at which point you’ll notice that instead of gaining 2-3 levels a fight, you’re not even gaining one. It’s very easy and quick and will put you right back on the story’s path once you’re done.
Chapters in the game are more like Missions in a tactical shooter. It’s a very linear pathway where you clear out enemies until you arrive at your objective. People like to spit on the word linear, but done correctly, a good hallway can mean a lot more than a not-so-great continent. The linearity fits with the story being told, as the party has a clear objective and consistently work towards it, and it keeps the pace steady. You are always moving forward, and there are no major chapters that might count as “filler” or “padding”. Any unnecessary chapters are treated just like that; unnecessary and optional. And even doing all of those, the game clocks in at just over 20 hours. The game never outstays its welcome, tells you exactly what it needs to, and wastes no time getting there.
All in all, The Last Story is one of the best experiences I have ever had with a JRPG (which is really saying something when you consider my game library). I highly recommend picking this one up if you never have. I don’t think you’ll regret it.