Game Review: The Last Story

A quarter of a century has passed since the first "Final Fantasy" was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, forever changing the landscape of Japanese role-playing games.

I'm so old that I actually rented it from the local video store.

Though the game was far too complex for my 7-year-old mind, I became a lifelong fan of the series several years later when my parents bought me "Final Fantasy VI" (titled "Final Fantasy III" at the time) for the Super Nintendo.

Famed game producer Hironobu Sakaguchi created the first "Final Fantasy" as a last-ditch effort to save his fledgling career in the video game industry, naming the game out of a belief that it quite possibly could be his last. Though Sakaguchi hasn't produced a "Final Fantasy" game since the ninth one was released for the original Sony Playstation 12 years ago, he still has remained a prominent game-maker in the Japanese RPG scene.

"The Last Story" for the Nintendo Wii. Rated "T" for Teen. $49.99

Sakaguchi's latest epic, "The Last Story," shares a similar title to his first game, but actually plays more like a compilation of his entire career. If you're a Sakaguchi fan like me, that's more than a good thing. In a weird, nostalgia-worshiping way, it's a religious experience.

Of course, when you're listening to a greatest hits album, you shouldn't expect any new tunes. "The Last Story" sticks to the classic Japanese RPG formula that veterans of the genre have come to expect -- a hero with a special power that can save the world, a band of plucky adventurers who form a deep friendship, a maniacal politician with an evil look in his eye. Nothing you haven't seen before.

But even the most familiar stories can be captivating when executed properly. Though the plot behind "The Last Story" lacks the subtlety or impact of a high-end RPG like "The Witcher 2," the game play is just as fun.

Considering I blew through this 30-hour-long game in just more than a week, it's safe to say "The Last Story" is one of the most addictive games I've played all year.

Set in a medieval fantasy landscape that bears a striking resemblance to some of Sakaguchi's previous efforts such as "Vagrant Story," players take on the role of Zael, a roaming mercenary who ends up on Lazulis Island with his fellow merc friends. While western audiences may envision mercenaries as scruffy bearded gentlemen covered in scars, Sakaguchi's interpretation is quite a bit more innocent, consisting of lively young men and women you would invite to a party rather than a fight.

Not surprisingly, these young adventurers are caught up in a game of royal politics that leads them on a quest to save the world. The serviceable story and surprisingly lovable, yet two-dimensional characters keep things moving, but the real jewel here is the combat system.

At least one fellow game critic has lauded the battle system as one of the best in modern-day RPGs, and it's easy to see why. I was hooked from the moment I pushed the analog stick forward to make Zael attack everything in front of him.

Though game developers have tried for years to merge the instant gratification of action-RPG games like "The Legend of Zelda" with the more strategic turn-based battle mechanics of games like "Final Fantasy," few have nailed it like this.

Though you only directly control Zael during combat, your automated party members are surprisingly adept when it comes to choosing their own attacks. Zael automatically attacks in the direction you're pushing the analog stick, and it's even possible to take cover behind objects, just like a "Gears of War" game.

It seems incredibly simplistic at first, which is a nice change of pace from RPGs that drown players in a ton of complicated battle mechanics in the first hour. Just as you get used to a new power, such as distributing a healing spell to all your party members with Zael's blade, another one is introduced. About 10 hours into the game, Zael can issue direct commands to his teammates while running up a wall, performing a back flip and coming down on an enemy's head.

That's just as fun as it sounds. "The Last Story" could best be described as an action game poured into an RPG mold, kind of like the popular "Tales" series from Japan. But instead of being restricted to a two-dimensional field, Sakaguchi finally opened the straight-ahead combat style to the third dimension.

If only the rest of the game held up so well. "The Last Story" suffers from a host of technical issues, which can be blamed on the Wii's limited graphical capabilities and processing power rather than the game itself. While the art style and character design are absolutely sublime (if a bit recycled), the graphics are ugly on a large screen LCD TV. Part of the problem is the resolution. While Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 games are displayed at a resolution of 720p or 1080i (which is high definition), the Wii is only capable of displaying games at 480p -- a far cry from high definition. The result is a muddy, blurry mess that only gets worse as the screen gets larger.

The real graphics killers, however, are the course textures and limited polygon count, which give the game a very primitive, original Playstation look that harkens back to the previously mentioned "Vagrant Story." The retro look becomes charming after few hours, though I doubt that charm holds out for people who didn't grow up playing RPGs in the late 1990s.

Even worse are the incredibly frequent drops in frame rate, which occur every time there are too many characters on screen. While the slowdown really doesn't affect the easy-as-pie combat (I only died once the entire game), that annoying feeling of moving through molasses makes the game seem much older than it really is.

Nothing disappointed me more than the game's incredibly short running time. While 30 hours might seem like a lot of time for an action-adventure game, that's about half the time an epic RPG should last. Combine that with a plodding (but pleasant) story line that just starts to get interesting before it abruptly ends, and the overall scope of "The Last Story" feels rather limited. There's only one town in the game, and your band of mercenaries spend the entire time exploring that town and the accompanying castle.

That's quite a few complaints to level at a game receiving such a high score, but I became so enamored with the characters and the world of "The Last Story" that all those issues just rolled off my back.

Maybe Sakaguchi reached a bit beyond the Wii's depth with this latest opus, but I can't blame the man for having a vision. If "The Last Story" was released on the much more powerful Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, it would have looked just as good as Sakaguchi's previous effort, "Lost Odyssey."

As it is, this is a game that only the most dedicated RPG fans will purchase. But if you've never dipped your toes into Japanese RPG waters, "The Last Story" is a great entry point. The beautiful score composed by Sakaguchi's long-time musical director Nobuo Uematsu is just icing on the cake.

A fitting swan song for an out-of-date console.

Three-and-a-half out of Four Stars

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