Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review: The Last Story (Wii)

The Last Story Review
The Last Story is the most confusing game I’ve ever played – not for the game itself, but the sheer hype behind it. When we didn’t think it was being translated to English, I imported a copy from Japan, and proceeded to be bemused as Operation Rainfall and the like managed to elevate it to legendary status.

Then it was released in the EU and Australia, so I was able to play it. I was willing to give the game a second chance because I assumed my Japanese was imperfect enough that I missed the appeal of the game in my first play through.

But no, it’s just not a good game.

From start to finish, this feels like Hironobu Sakaguchi’s attempt to stick it to his former employer and make a game that is a Final Fantasy game in all but name. Even its own name is a “homage” to the Final Fantasy game.

The problem is the game was clearly made with a fraction of the budget of a real Final Fantasy game, the console of choice for the game is all wrong, and there’s just not that much genuine development talent in Mistwalker for this kind of thing.

The Last Story Wii
We’ll start with the superficial, then work through the real problems the game faces. On a purely technical basis, this game is too ambitious for the Wii hardware. The framerate stutters, and often, but more importantly, there’s a clear vision here in the art direction that, unfortunately becomes a mess of jagged lines, drab colour splotches and jagged lines in execution. There’s glimpses of what the game aspired to be here and there – the architecture has a European medieval majestry about it, and there’s real care put into the character design and costuming, but this is a game that belonged on a higher definition console.

I can’t help but compare to another Operation Rainfall campaign – Xenoblade Chronicles. That was a game that worked hard to be glorious by playing to what the Wii can do well. The Last Story tries to be glorious despite the Wii’s capabilities, and that approach falls flat.

The other technical element, the music and sound, is even worse in the translated game than the original. The English accents feel awkward, and you’re not talking about the top flight English actors here, either. It doesn’t help that they voice actors don’t have much to work with, but it's worth noting the Japanese soundtrack and voices are at least somewhat better. It would have been better to go with a subtitled story by default.

The Last Story Review
It’s hard to care about these characters. There’s one-note clowns, such as a woman with a penchant for alcohol (how original), and one-note heroes, such as the main character, who is a mercenary with honour that wants to be a knight (how original). The plot, too, is also wholly unoriginal, being the usual “kill the orc things, save the princess” deal. The big bad orc thing even goes so far to be a direct clone of Gannondorf from the Zelda series. To cap everything off, this game rushes through and is over in 20 hours. As much as I can appreciate the idea of a “bite sized” RPG, when you’re aiming for something this epic, you need to spend a little more time on plot development.

The reason the game is over so quickly is in part due to its penchant for big set pieces, rather than traditional encounter structures. Typically, dungeons are broken down into a few brief fights, and then a big set piece, where you’re typically outnumbered and outgunned. The game wants to be strategic. Before each set piece, the game pauses to give you a top down overview of what you’re facing. Then after you’ve planned your moves, the combat kicks off. As a rule of thumb what you want to be doing is taking out the magic users first, protecting your magic users, and then using attrition to wear down the rest of the fighters.

Strewn around the combat arenas are places to hide (you can sneak attack for massive damage), and other terrain to ultilise to create bottlenecks and the like. Melee combat is automatic, you just need to position your hero in the right space and he’ll wail away at the enemy. You hero also has a crossbow that can be used for sniping, or identifying structural weaknesses and the like to hit with magic to create some amusing effects. That’s aimed manually. Unfortunately the aiming controls are also clunky.

The Last Story
And, thanks to the speed of the combat, it’s never quite as strategic as it wants to be. The melee chaos is also not helped by the muddy colour palette that can make it difficult to see exactly what is going on at times, and a camera that tends to jump around at the critical moments. The big monsters and bosses are interesting looking creatures, but the strategies involved in defeating them tend to be very straightforward affairs.

These set pieces yield a lot of experience points, and levelling happens quite rapidly in this game. It’s just as well, because there are no random encounters. The game is extremely easy at the best of times, but if you do find yourself in a spot of bother, then you can use the summoning circles to create a few monsters to knock out; a contrived system that would be incredibly dull if it was ever needed.

There’s also next to no real customisation involved in the game. Characters gain skills when they hit certain levels, and while it’s possible to buy new weapons and upgrade existing ones, there’s not that much in terms of statistic boosts and the occasional ability upgrade that those weapons bring to the table.

Throw in the fact that the weapons and equipment changes don’t show up on the avatars, and The Last Story ends up with a decidedly old school approach to loot and levelling. One that doesn’t mesh well with the fairly advanced ideas behind the actual combat.

The Last Story Wii Review.
Then there’s all the small little oversights that really hurt a game. At one stage early on a voice over says something along the lines of “the castle was brimming with energy leading up to the grand ball.” The castle was almost empty of people during that cut scene. It didn’t feel very energetic at all. Shortly after, the foul-mouthed alcoholic woman got herself in a fight with a knight. She’s told to put away her weapon. She was never holding a weapon.

It’s the little oversights, coupled with the overambitious technical elements for a Wii game, and combat that never quite manages to gel that makes The Last Story anything but a game worth getting worked up over. There’s a few good ideas in there, but the greater portion of the game is either generic or faulty, and to be blunt, even if you don’t have a PS3 with the mass of quality JRPGs available on it, even the Wii has produced much finer examples of the genre. If The Last Story is your last Wii adventure, then be prepared for the console to go out with a whimper.

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