Playing The Last Story feels like catching the JRPG genre in puberty. From my taste-test, the game doesn't seem to quite know where it fits. Is it traditional or new age? Is it last gen or current gen? It's as though Mistwalker knew the classic JRPG equation needed to change but wasn't quite sure of all the ways to change it. Evolution is happening, but this game came out somewhere in the middle of that.
For this reason, I went through a lot of mixed feelings during my crunching, and actually spent a fair bit of time confused. Let's enumerate.
Introductions are too slow. From clicking NEW GAME, The Last Story drops you straight in on the action. You have a party of characters; you're in a dungeon; there's no extravagant cinematic or long conversation chain barring your entry to the game play. This was a pleasant surprise. The only awkward thing I have to report is that you actually start off controlling a character whom is not the main character: you use Dagran for about 10 minutes before being swapped to Zael, the apparent protagonist of the title. This actually set the expectation that I would be swapping characters often, which was not the case.
Players want interactive game play, not passive cut-scenes. This is one of the biggest fallacies I can think of for game design. Some time ago, designers decided that the player would always rather be pressing buttons on the controller than just watching a cinematic – otherwise the player would just be watching a movie, right? Games are here to entertain and, yes, games are meant to be interactive, but I only care if this interaction is meaningful. I encountered numerous moments when cinematic exposition was interrupted just so I could point the camera at whatever or whomever was being referenced, then the cinematic would continue. For one scene, I was actually allowed to walk around while a character monologued, though I couldn't interact with anything during this time. Times like this, I would much rather your cinematic director to take over and show me something more engaging, more captivating. Movies, if directed and scripted correctly, are not passive experiences. Mistwalker knew long bouts of exposition were boring but just giving the player arbitrary control is not the solution.
Turn-based combat is boring. The trend in JRPGs for the past fiveyearsor so has been to run away from turn-based combat as quickly as possible. Everything must be real-time and action-oriented. Same here, and it's done well! The combat is very tactics-oriented, giving the player direct control over one character and command-control over the rest of the party. Going in and out of battles is seamless. Adding and dropping party members is smooth. There's not even a big fanfare for leveling up. One pit was not escaped, however, and the combat mechanics were introduced at a snail's pace (but not as slow as someothers). A good step in the right direction, but not flawlessly done.
Long spaces between save points are irritating. Correct. So we have automatic checkpoints. Moving on now.
Inventory management is cumbersome. This actually baffles me more than probably any other RPG trope. Why does every role-playing game (especially JRPGs) use a different inventory management system and store implementation? Every single game. Golden Sun did shops right back in 2001. Why didn't everyone else just steal from Camelot? Regardless, The Last Story evidently wanted to avoid clunky shop systems and decided on upgrade systems instead. Why try and buy a better sword when you can just make your current sword explicitly better? Simple enough. Sadly the inventory management was still hard to read.
Story first, then you can play the game. This is the biggest issue I have with The Last Story and with RPGs in general. I want to play your game. Yes, the story is a big factor in this, but I need to know the game is fun. Gradually introduces mechanics to the player is very good. However, this can really start to wear on the player when there's half an hour of exposition between each new introduction. I only just found the cool combat at the end of my taste-testing. I spent the rest of the time confused and pondering potential.
JRPGs have been trying to evolve for a while and The Last Story makes a good case for moving forward. The odd part is that while it seems to claim that it's advanced beyond the constraints of the old days, it still seems mired by the root of those old days' issues. The result is a game that feels stuck in some kind of limbo: not quite a last generation JRPG but not really something new and advanced either.
The Last Story was developed by Mistwalker and published in the US by XSeed. For this post, I played for just over 3 hours, reaching Chapter 11, on the Nintendo Wii.