The Man, or the Pauldron?
HIGH Watching Zael finally tell off the Earl.
LOW Watching is all I got.
WTF Is there anybody in this game who didn't lose their parents during childhood?
The Last Story tells the tale of a young man named Zael who has always wanted to be a knight. Sadly, his dream seems a lot less attractive as he comes closer to realizing it—a plight mirrored by the game he appears in. The Last Story attempts to answer the perceived demand for Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) to be more like Western ones, but the end product is disappointing.
The Last Story does get some things right, especially when it comes to character customization. Although the overall repertoire of equipment is somewhat limited, armor and weapons visibly change in appearance as they are upgraded. Each set of armor has numerous optional pieces that can be turned on or off without penalty, and as long as a player is willing to poke around a bit for materials, they can be given a wide variety of colors. This near-complete customizability is only skin-deep, however.
Although the player has a huge degree of control over how the characters look, he has almost no input into who they are or how they play. The player does not determine stat growth or even general areas of emphasis. The Last Story lacks any kind of relationship system, and the few character-related sidequests aren't optional. When the game asks for the player's input on any significant point, it's always a false choice, with the wrong option leading to a loop or ending the game.
The player can't even exert basic control over the party. The Last Story uses a real-time combat system where party members act on their own. Zael eventually learns how to issue commands, but this requires filling up a gauge that is also depleted by special attacks. Worse, Zael cannot set the default behavior of his allies. This becomes a serious problem in dungeons where certain elemental attacks heal enemies, as party members typically default to using only one of their two skills. Thus, one character informed me that his ice magic would only heal the slavering reptiles we were fighting, then proceeded to cast those spells over and over again as I waited for the command gauge to charge up.
When several allies in the party are casting useful magic, combat can be reasonably interesting, especially as Zael has a special ability that can transform allies' spells into buffs or debuffs, and dispel enemy buffs. Even then, the combat tends to play out by hitting the button that draws aggro to Zael and then whacking the A button for a while (or not, if you haven't switched to the active combat scheme). When the party roster thins out, combat becomes incredibly tedious, as most of Zael's skills are not very useful when he's on his own, particularly if he's facing numerous enemies.
To make matters worse, the game's camera often flakes out in combat, whipping around unexpectedly or freezing in place. It's particularly inflexible if Zael takes cover to try and make use of the game's inadequate stealth mechanics.
Little of this will matter because the vast majority of the game's fights are trivially easy, though the difficulty spikes significantly in battles against enemies that must be defeated using specific techniques or spells. The challenge lies in the execution, however, not in figuring out what to do. Quite the contrary: Zael's companions will shout instructions at him nonstop when a specific trick is called for, especially in boss battles.
The flipside of that irritation is that defeating the bosses is, for the most part, emotionally unsatisfying. The game does its best storytelling in laying out the degraded and corrupt state of the human nobility, effectively demonstrating that Zael is better than the position he has always desired. However, The Last Story denies the player the chance to meaningfully partake in Zael's ultimate rebellion against his false idols. The player fights to become part of the social order, but not to get out of it. Instead, just moments after Zael (in a cutscene following one of those fake choices) loudly rejects the Earl's offer of knightship, the player will be again helping the Earl get what he wants. The player is consistently thrown into combat against secondary antagonists or even misguided friends, almost none of whom represent the forces that are the game's best-characterized evil.
The rest of The Last Story's plot functions, but not particularly well. It's flabby and poorly paced, overburdened with superfluous NPCs, needless exposition, and mood-killing digressions. Too much of the story hinges on outlandish coincidences, characters behaving in ways that serve the plot rather than who they are, and scenes of story that ignore the mechanics of play. When The Last Story tries to sell an emotional moment, the smirking, rubbery faces of the characters and ill-directed voice acting consistently get in the way. That's a problem for a game that hinges on a traditional princess-and-pauper romance.
The Last Story feels like a JRPG that took incomplete notes as it tried to learn from Western design. The simplistic implementation of massively multiplayer online (MMO) combat motifs makes battles boring or frustrating. The character customizability, though wonderful, is purely cosmetic, never really extending into the play or storytelling. Worst of all, the gameplay and story might as well be two ships passing in the night. While Zael confronts the game's real antagonists in cutscenes, the player simply sits on the sidelines. In games, that's the last way you should try to tell a story.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Wii. Approximately 30 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed once).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains language, mild suggestive themes, use of alcohol, violence. As with most RPGs there is a lot of fighting, and some scenes where the murder of women and children is implied. Many scenes take place in taverns, and one character regularly gets drunk and even more often talks about getting drunk. Easily-obtained items can cause male and female characters to appear to be clad only in underwear. There are a few instances of relatively mild cursing.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There are no essential sound cues, but on the rare occasions when battle dialogue is helpful it might be more difficult to pick out without the sound. Subtitles are available for all important dialogue.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.