A rather satisfying game for those with Job-like patience
The Last Remnant represents Square Enix's first major foray into the saturated PC RPG market that is home to western classics like Planescape Torment, the Baldur's Gate series, IceWind Dale series, etc. As such, it was unsurprising that they opted for a faster-paced combat system in their latest JRPG. The end result is a game that will most likely frustrate hardcore fans of either genre, but will delight those with an open mind and patience in spades. The PC port is a much more serviceable iteration than its XBOX 360 counterpart, but it is still mired with the technical problems endemic to the Unreal 3 engine. Load times have been improved dramatically, but can still prove frustrating (even with tweaking).
The player commands up to 5 unions which are like mini parties, and these can be occupied by as many as 5 characters each. Combat is turn-based, and the interesting thing about TLR is that the player does not micro-manage units and instead gives suggestions to unions such as "Use mystic arts!", and "Hurry and heal them!". As such, players will have to group mystic-oriented characters, and combat-oriented characters in unions to maximise their potential. I found myself trying to figure out what exactly triggers that availability of these commands, and you probably will too. This system entails a lot of frustrating moments, the worst case being occasions when the game does not tell have the courtesy to tell you that you ran out of revive consumables in the middle of a boss fight, making you wonder where you went wrong. This hands-off approach will definitely be a rude shock to JRPG loyalists, and takes some getting used to. The game does try to keep you involved with some QTEs during some of your attacks for critical bonuses or turn leapfrogging, so you won't feel the fight is completely in AI hands.
There are hundreds of characters to fill your 18 unit slots with, and this variety brings to mind games like Shining Force. Just like in FFXII, most units are capable of fulfilling any role in the game in varying degrees, so this sort of freedom is definitely daunting. The myriad of options (certain units grouped together maximise the capabilities of certain union formations well) and choices to make will definitely make you reach for a FAQ if you're one of those players that are loathe to play the 'wrong' way.
You are also unable to equip any of your units (except Rush) with items, and you will have to farm for materials to improve them. New possibilities, items, and abilities are unlocked through the completion of sidequests, and this is where the tedium sets in. Most of these sidequests involve frustrating periods of grinding to the objective, and it certainly doesn't help that loading times are involved in fighting, checking your map, entering the world map, entering buildings... you get the idea. However, it is undeniably satisfying to come off a 200+ enemy chain dungeon a few levels higher and with a sweet weapon.
The presentation is pretty solid, barring the residual technical problems from the XBOX 360 original, and the art direction takes a decidedly FFXII-esque style. This should be a boon for those who loved the steam punk style of that hit. Towns look bustling and alive, and there are quite a few people to talk to. I found myself looking around and being awed by the imposing Remnants in the towns' skylines. My only qualm is the regrettable lack of an anti-aliasing toggle, so you'll see more than your fair share of rough edges as you play through. The scoring is very well done, and chances are you'll find a few memorable tracks here. My personal favourite is the Ghor theme.
The storyline starts promisingly, and you'll find lots of nice twists that will keep you glued to the screen, some MUCH MORE frustrating than others. However, it does feel rushed in bits and pieces, although the final conclusion more than makes up for it. Even so, I couldn't help but feel the storyline was padding to the hefty amount of sidequests available in the game. Several key ones are missable, and as such, I found myself checking every inn in every town before even attempting the next leg in the plot's progression.
In sum, The Last Remnant is a brave step forward from Square Enix, although it is regrettable that the game feels a bit rushed. It will prove to be a breath of fresh air to the jaded JRPG fan, but more than a few will be turned off by the tedium and wonky plot progression. It does a pretty good job as a new IP, but one that falls a bit short of the famed Square Enix name.