If there’s anything that's missing from the current generation, it's almost certainly high-profile JRPG releases hitting the home consoles. Sure, we’ve been blessed with an avalanche of DS and PSP titles and the odd gem here or there, but compared to the past it’s been relatively quiet. It’s easy then, to understand why Nintendo’s decision to not localize The Last Story (and Xenosaga Chronicles/Pandora’s Tower) for North America caused fan unrest.
That unrest spawned a fan-driven campaign called Operation Rainfall, which aimed to show the big N that people wanted to play these games, and late last year, Nintendo relented and announced that Xenosaga Chronicles would hit the US. In an interesting twist XSEED partnered with Nintendo to bring The Last Story to us, complete with its European localization, so let’s see if it was worth all the fuss.
The Last Story is the most recent effort from Mistwalker and Hironobu Sakaguchi, who last gifted us with the underrated Lost Odyssey. Again, Nobuo Uematsu provides a lovely score, as he is wont to do. It tells the story of a band of mercenaries led by Zael and Dagran, a likeable pair whose ultimate goal is to lift themselves above lowly grunt work and become knights. Throw in some chance encounters with a beautiful woman who turns out to be royalty, an evil invading army, and themes of a world slowly dying, and you’ve got yourself a dang JRPG!
Unlike many games in this genre, there’s a shocking (and refreshing!) lack of ennui in most of the main cast. Zael and Dagran are full of youthful zeal, but actually appear to be a reasonable age for their chosen profession. No sixteen year-olds saving the world here. Since the US release retains its European localization, the voice acting is chock full of British accents and the text is given a liberal dose of extraneous “U”s.
The combat system is fairly interesting - battles unfold in real time, while you control Zael. Rather than mashing out combos, simply running towards an enemy causes him to attack. You can also hide behind cover, switch to an over-the-shoulder mode to fire arrows and spot interaction points with the environment. Your teammates are all controlled by the relatively competent AI, but you eventually earn the option to directly choose what abilities they use if you’d like to micromanage.
Very early on, Zael earns an ability called “Gathering” which becomes the crux of the system. Gathering forces all enemies to focus their attention on Zael, and debuffs their attack speed. While this seems odd at first, its purpose is to allow you to manage enemy placement so your allies can surround an enemy for damage/combo bonuses and to keep your mages’ spells from being interrupted.
Zael and each party member are given five “lives” per battle, and can be revived if downed by triggering Gathering and standing over them. If Zael goes down, one of your teammates can revive you. I didn’t find myself dying too often, but if I was lax with managing the enemies, I would have to constantly revive my mages.
Almost all spells in the game drop an area of effect zone on the ground, which Zael can augment by using an action point to either cancel its effect if it was cast by an enemy or trigger a secondary effect if it’s a friendly spell. A healing zone might become a damage barrier for all allies in range, or a fire spell might be augmented to lower the armor rating of your enemies. It’s certainly an interesting system, and you have to keep in mind that you’ll be trading effects in the end.