"[The Last Story] is Gears of Swords."
Sometimes, when you're walking along in the cobblestoned Lazulis City early on in The Last Story, the princess Calista might get careless when she's following you and whack her head on the sign hanging above the blacksmith's shop. It looks like it hurts. She winces the same way anybody would.
You helped her give some guards the slip. She is following you because she likes you. She hurt her head because she's a person. The Last Story is going to teach you how to love.
This game comes at you diagonally. It's a hell of a thing when a fantasy game is so sturdy and so grounded in reality the way that The Last Story is, and it most definitely was made by an old man that is not concerned with putting out a vibe while leaning against a hallway locker or making medieval armor resemble a school uniform. No big surprise, The Last Story was directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the original creator of Final Fantasy, a series that has become so rudderless in recent years that the teams making it can generate two games worth of concept art and be shocked that they came up with such a scattershot result. No, Sakaguchi has arrived at the Wii's deathbed, read it its last rights, and blessed us with what is ostensibly Final Fantasy Two. Here, we have a fantasy game that forgoes the fantasy-crutch, and only occasionally leans lightly on a fantasy-cane instead, and that's why it's such a intriguing prospect. My undying love for Final Fantasies VI, VII, and IX unshaken, they are side stories, straight-up gaiden compared to The Last Story. The true sequel to 1987's Final Fantasy on the Famicom has arrived.
The Last Story is set mostly in that big, cobblestoned city I was talking about before. It is filled with things to look at, and despite the story not taking the characters very far afield -- nearby islands, a pirate ship, the palace, to wars and to weddings -- they all certainly begin in one place and end in another. You will be introduced to all of the main cast in the first hour, at which point, they're living hand-to-mouth, and have been for some time. They are not volunteering their vulnerabilities in each breath though. They do not resemble your schoolyard chums -- if you want that experience, you can, go buy a copy of Persona 3, it ain't go nowhere. The Last Story's cast is composed of adults. These are folks who are crashing in an inn, getting drunk and doing odd jobs, flirting and fucking, smashing and grabbing, trying to forget their shitty predicament.
Then you meet the princess. The people that call The Last Story cliché have never experienced the joy of holding a library card.
Indeed, you will come across knights, and mad Counts, and flying beasts, and the linger stench of ancient wars, and all at once, you remember that escapism is about going to a place that doesn't resemble your own shitty predicament. Because you just met a princess. She is about to marry some bloody sod. You're a dude named Zael with a rag-tag gang of hard-drinking do-gooders that steal back some medicine for a dying little kid, and there is going to be hell to pay if this damsel isn't liberated. Zael is just sort of a guy, a guy with a pretty cool job, all things considered -- he saves the day, every day, for one or two people, and his friends are there along with him, and they survive to see a new sun rise. And now some limp-dicked fop is gonna make this nice girl marry him for land and title. We already know Zael and the Gang are gonna say, "Ain't no way, you entitled pillock!" to that. Guys, the swashes are gonna fuckin' buckle.
This is a game that runs on heck-yeah optimism that dashes dead-ahead like a kid on a snow day. You want to see what the world looks like. You want to be baited into an adventure. You want to forget about the consequences, at least for a little bit. And then they show up later at the absolute worst time. Your reward for success is, "What next?"
The game begins with a holistic commitment to possibility. It makes a few rules, then nudges you forward, and then it makes a few more rules, and checks that you're comfortable with all of it, letting you explore the city for a while with no calculated objective, and then it continues on. It puts your feet on the ground and makes a deal with you -- "Here is your reality, here is a fantasy that resembles reality, here is what your characters understand reality to be. Now we shall up-end it by familiar forces and wicked deeds." It's possible, no, definite, that there are monsters in this fantasy world. You saw some lizard men very early on. I bet whatever else is to come is scary. The characters you control and just some gals and dudes with swords and a portion of magic, which is a skill that's probably like accounting, an estimation I make because at first, your grumpy mage is basically an accountant with an eye-patch. Fortunately, you're in a peaceful, walled city. Kids are playing in the streets, and right now, you have human antagonists to worry about.
There are definitely scary monsters outside the walls. Things progress like a story and less like a video game. You fight scary monsters when you're forced out of the city. Your characters trade small daggers and leather armor for skull-crushing maces and pauldrons. Why? Because you spoke to your earthy Luna Lovegood-style forest-healer that you previously knew as The Eerie Calm Girl That Liked To Eat, and she asked you to help her find out why the earth seems to be molting. It's shedding blue dust and nobody has really paid attention. Mirania is a sweet girl, so you took a moment to investigate because she's your friend and she's nice. This is a distraction from the main story whose importance will dwarf the pettier character-conflicts.
Except it doesn't. The plot is entirely character-driven. Kingdoms might be warring and cannons may be loaded. Zael and the princess Calista just want to be together. They'll save the world when they have a free moment, shit, quit bothering them.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 would have approached this plot point differently. It would not have approached it. It would have taken your rock 'n roll kidz to a beach party and been all, "I bet time and space is coming apart. Just check out these dancing blue Time-Lights. Let's save the world. I'm seventeen."
Dude, Zael just Shanghaied the count's niece at her request. She wants out. She doesn't want to marry Prince Notso-Charming. Zael has more immediate problems than fighting the unknowable evil that's drinking the world's rivers dry. He wants to save the girl and become a knight at some point in his life, if that's alright? He'd rather have job security and a girlfriend than punch the devil. Then he gets sucked into a bigger world. One that he has no business navigating -- judging by what we've come to learn about him and his BFF, Dagran, they only want to survive. They want to help each other survive to the end of the story and beyond.
Time passes. Things change. They jump at opportunity for a better gig and a better life. They make money and come to learn, through battle and travel, that being a knight might not be the greatest thing. Flush with cash, you can upgrade and re-color your armor. This feature is cosmetic, but important. It's a visualization of gradual progression. These crazy kids began as leather-draped mercenaries, a guy on a pirate ship even comments to that point -- eventually, suddenly, your gang is choosing sides in a war, armor bulking off of their bodies, cutting through the battlefield, and keeping each other safe from those that would slip a knife between their ribs. These are people that have already come to grips with the fact that their lives aren't all that great. Like a third season of a TV show, they're not entirely comfortable, but they're stable, and even the drunken Seyrenne and Lowell the Lothario obviously value each other. This makes the larger-than-human, darker-than-fantasy dangers all the more threatening to our gang of grinning mercenaries.
There are villains -- multiple villains, all with individual agendas from you and from each other. You spend a lot of time with them, speaking with them, working with them, fighting alongside them, and against them. You'll hate them because of the situations they put you in and for what they do to your friends. There is the count, the young princely lord trying to marry your lady, the invading beast-king, and others, all of whom are antagonists with character arcs that you observe and alter, the same way that they actively direct the player-controlled characters through the game. Except, perhaps, for the invading beast-king, who looks way too much like Ganondorf from Twilight Princess (* out of 4), the bad guys were not birthed from a writer's mind, fully-formed, omniscient to the entire plot, and singularly-focused. They are not drivel-spewing prophets of villainy.
Count Arganan is untrustworthy from the instant you meet him, however, Dagran demands that you do, hoping to gain status in the city with the Count's blessing, and you trust Dagran, so Arganan's old, wormy evil slowly blankets you. There's a part where he demands that Zael activate a super-weapon. You can refuse. If you do, the game stops moving. You can walk around the city and go on with your life. It's neat. It's a great example of "destiny," if that's a thing, and eventually, you have to activate the super-weapon to move the game forward again. Try to ignore the other villains laughing at you. Jirall, for example, is the sniveling dandy and would-be suitor of Calista, and he is a greedy, puss-leaking aristocrat that constantly hounds you from beginning to end. When he finally loses to Zael, but is left alive, he is driven mad, and because he was very much a believably priggish human until then, the insanity is damn-straight scary, like watching some non-threatening, but edgy fella that works over in HR suddenly give himself a PCP-enema and come after you. These are villainous people. They all have plans.
They are motivated to grab a better lot in life -- just like Zael. Just like anybody. They think they can get there by being evil and going crazy. Prove them wrong, children. Get a plan and prove them wrong.
Your party plans. It's kind of neat. Before many battles start, your party might press up against a wall, blades at the ready -- making a great case for this game to be called Gears of Swords -- and they assess the situation, describing the threats, whispering tactics, and discussing who is responsible for what.
Like all of the best-laid plans, things go well for a bit in The Last Story's battles -- then they stop going well, and that's when it's Time To Go Loud.
The game is a real-time action-strategy RPG -- if I had to draw a composite comparison, The Last Story combines Final Fantasy XII, Valkyria Chronicles, Fire Emblem, and Gears of War. It has a tendency to get cluster-fucky at times when things go to shit, but I imagine that's how these half-magical mêlées in this sort of world would go. There's some strategizing, movement, taking cover, and timing is important, and it always is brisk.
As was previously inferred, the fights are swashbuckling and rife with the dialog from the characters. Lowell and Seyrenne bicker. Dagran will shout you (Zael) advice. Yurick and Calista chuck spells across the battlefield, lighting your sword on fire or giving you a healing pool to retreat to. It's all joyfully reckless until you need to focus. Then the battle-system tilts. It adds modifiers and stacks rules against you. There are no random battles, and that's really great! Random battles existed on older systems because there wasn't enough processing power to render all those monsters and battle-sized sprites for your party's characters on-screen at once. Then Chrono Trigger (* * * * out of 4) came out, and it didn't have random battles, and it should have been the end of it, and that was back in 1995.
The Last Story embodies a great stride for the rationale to remove those random battles. It turns your encounters with enemies into specifically-designed engagements. Designed engagements. For nearly the entire game. That's why it owes so much to SRPG's like Fire Emblem. Many battles are puzzles that force you to compensate for something the world, and potentially the story, have subtracted from your toolset. Maybe a dependable character is gone. Maybe you'll have to fight without healing. Maybe your tactician isn't around and Zael is forced to grow up and be smart and think on his own. The game is forcing you to become the propellant to the characters' growth.
The princess Calista -- and I realize she isn't technically a princess, she's the count's niece, but for all intents and purposes, she's The Princess -- is innocent, but she is not naive. She's aware of good and evil. She's educated. In fact, all of the main characters are rather street-smart, and actually have motivations to be cagey or loud or themselves. Yurick, our pouting ice mage at the beginning, is sort of quiet because he thinks his dad was a traitorous coward. Mirana is dry, but kind, and draws him out of his shell. Dagran is a sly, social-climber. Seyrenne and Lowell have their own personality defense-mechanisms to keep themselves collected and together. These guys weren't created with you in mind, nor to be appealing -- they were crafted as people, and, hey, who would guess how appealing people can be?
Like in Mass Effect, you want to examine these personalities as much as you want to clash with your enemies in combat. You had so much fun hooting and hollering around the battlefield that you're left wondering what might be over the next hill.
The Last Story's intangibilities bring its greatest victories. It is buoyed by abstraction more than calculation, which makes it a fun place to escape into.
There are times when the game says, "Look over there!" or sets you up to dread what's around the corner or what could be sneaking up behind you, and then it gives you one task -- control the camera. This is genius. This is Buddha's QTE. It turns you into the character for a moment. It usually happens during a cutscene, but instead of a qucktime event, which is just pressing a button to endure, this is the act of looking being handed over to you, the player. It isn't, "Press X To Endure," it's "Participate To Continue, My Son."
They do something similar after you go to sleep for the night sometimes too. It fades in on Zael sitting on his bed. It's morning, and he's sitting there on the bed's edge. There's no indication, but you need to tilt the stick to make him get out of bed. You, personally, need to get up -- nobody's going to tell you to do it. That's a tough fight right there.
The fights begins fast and loose, kind of as it should with a bunch of swashbucklers going Jack Sparrow on the situation. Later in the game, and in bigger fights though, it requires you to straight up, and it escalates appropriately from battle to battle. It's a little regrettable that the damage you suffer in one battle doesn't carry to the next, a sensation that generated great, prolonged feedback in old RPG's and shooters, reminding you that, "Damn, I'm still fighting, but I am slowly approaching death. I hope I make it through."
Nevertheless, The Last Story has its battles so well-paced from one to the next that the easy ones are appropriately easy, making your party feel like a custom-tuned engine, fragging scab guards here and there.
Then tactics are necessitated, making you look before you stab. Hide when you can from an ogre. Wait to slash it in the ankle. Time your magic and diffuse it for an area-of-effect. You can be reckless, but those victories end up looking ugly.
Finally, the boss fights arrive. Boss fights in a good RPG need to be decoded, and even once they are, the required execution should not be assured, in fact, it may have to be repeated many times with slight variations just to keep you nervous and unsure. It's a desperate and huge feeling when your party is yammering ideas for how to take down the thirty-foot monster as you duck and dash behind crumbling pillars, developing a plan and trying to find a weakness. These are so different from regular encounters because they demand that every person in your party be firing on all eight cylinders. You'll be loading up your baddest magic, half-dead and Losing The Battle, judging by comparison in life-bars, saying, "I can't believe I've got to use this spell, and I still don't know if I'm going to win."
It's a sensation that doesn't really exist too often anymore. You open a box, and unfamiliar item is inside, and in the description of that item is Kills Shit Faster Than God In The Old Testament, and you think you'll never have to use it, but they wouldn't have put the thing in the game for no reason, so you save it. You can't wait for the chance to use it. In The Last Story, you will be made to use it. It still won't always be enough. You'll have to use it twice on the same monster.
Smoking corpse of the Class-7 Scum-Dragon decaying before you, it's suddenly obvious what that spell was for, and you're relieved that you discovered it in time.
So, in a lot of modern games, basically everything made after the Nintendo Wii and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out, there's this non-verbal contract that you signed indicating that getting lost in a video game will get somebody at a game company fuckin' fired. My dad used to yell at me for getting lost in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and as such, assumed I was wasting time wandering around. I don't get lost anymore. Not in Zelda or in real life. Not fucking ever. That isn't me bragging on the Internet, it's a stone cold fact. See, what Call of Duty 4 did, and this was such a delicious carrot, was that even if your mom or girlfriend came into your room and saw that you were playing Call of Duty 4, and they'd say something like, "You're dying a lot. Every time I see you play, you die a lot. Why is that fun?" You could actually provide a tangible answer.
In Call of Duty 4, you were always gaining experience points and unlocking stuff -- gun stuff and bomb stuff. So it didn't matter if you lost or were lost. You never failed, you could only succeed less, and to anybody that wanted to argue otherwise, you had the numbers to prove it. You were quantifiably not a failure.
There are far fewer measuring sticks in The Last Story. If your roommate came home from work and asked you if you got any further in the game today, it's likely on that occasion, you might not have a bigger sword or a larger number to show him, and you could only describe what you did, and maybe that Calista hit her head on the sign hanging outside the blacksmith's shop. You saw it. Nobody else did. You are un-qunatifiably a winner. And you kinda love that.