Conventional meets contemporary in Mistwalker's latest tale.
Hell, I've written extensively about The Last Story in recent weeks, so I might as well collate all that information into something useful for those still pondering the purchase of this game, whether they're European or Australian citizens who have heard almost nothing about it or those on the North American continent who are eagerly anticipating its XSEED-produced summer release.
The Last Story is an Action Strategy RPG from Mistwalker, the Japanese development studio started up by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, which sees his first proper project lead role since Final Fantasy V. Together with frequent musical collaborator Nobuo Uematsu, The Last Story is intended both to recall the earlier entries of that juggernaut of a franchise while also attempting to create something more relevant to a new generation.
Narratively, The Last Story very much resembles a lost Final Fantasy game from the 16-bit era. The story follows a group of mercenaries, the idealistic protagonist Zael in particular, as they visit the mysteriously vibrant Lazulis Island to work for the ambitious Count Arganan. Though ostensibly there to earn a paycheck, Zael and team leader Dagran seek to elevate themselves beyond mere for-pay warriors to full knights in service to the aristocracy. They long for the respectability of a title rather than suffer the ill reputation mercenaries appear to receive by default; a point emphasized early on when the group rescues some villagers and are treated with a degree of fear and trepidation despite their act of largesse. Dagran finds himself involved in layers of court intrigue to ensure his team stay on the up and up despite various setbacks, most of which are the direct result of a chance meeting between Zael and the disguised princess of Lazulis, Calista.
It's a conventional story to anyone with a passing familiarity with the older Final Fantasy games (or Disney's Aladdin for that matter), but rather than feeling too derivative or reductive for a game made this century I found that by making it an approachable Disney-esque fairy tale that eases off on the sort of maudlin philosophical melodrama that has been slowly killing the genre, it instead benefits. It may play out almost precisely how you'd expect, give or take a twist, but there's enough characterization in your ragtag team, side-stories that explore the wider world outside the island (such as the mystery of why the planet slowly dying seemingly everywhere but on Lazulis and the fleshing out of specific companions) and deeper overarching themes (such as Zael pondering why he chose to be a knight in the first place as he feels more and more like a pawn trapped in court machinations) that it should appeal to younger and older audiences alike. It's also not shy about referencing alcohol - you'd be all but killing the boisterous femme fatale merc Syrenne were you to excise it - which is revolutionary enough on its own for a Nintendo RPG.
The real appeal is in the gameplay, however. The Last Story, from appearances, is a third-person action game that immediately resembles something like Gears of War with the way you are presented self-contained battles in makeshift arenas full of obstacles and waist-high walls. Like the similarly fantasy-themed Hunted: The Demon's Forge, it seems like a situation rife for lazy scenario planning and the pervasive feeling that it's merely cashing in on a currently-popular subgenre. Instead, The Last Story offers players a diverse range of tactical options with each of its encounters, presenting different enemies with different roles in combat and different environments that either side might use to their advantage while at the same time mixing things up by providing the player with varied assortments of companions to devise strategies around, who run the MMO gamut of healers, offensive mages of various and conflicting elements, front-line fighters in both tank and weaker "DPS" forms and, finally, Zael's own unique role in battle.
Strategies are anchored around Zael's unique ability called "the Gathering", which provides various benefits to the user (such as being able to resurrect fallen team-mates by walking over to their comatose forms, with a strict non-game-breaking limit of five lives per battle) while at the same time drawing the immediate attention of every enemy on the field. Zael is able to take advantage of this highly visible aggro-ed state to stage ambushes and powerful sneak attacks using nearby cover. He can also break up tightly-packed formations by distracting singular enemies with his crossbow, break magical circles that can be created by enemies and allies alike with various results, counter enemy attacks via some very specific Devil May Cry timing and is eventually able to direct all his companions simultaneously in the closest the game offers to full strategic command in the vein of something like Baldur's Gate. If all that sounds a little overwhelming, the game is already way ahead of you by intermittently doling out these powers over time, with new ones still being added as the game heads towards its conclusion. It is so masterfully done that at no point did I either feel utterly stuck nor felt like the game had become a simple and dull grind. This is also helped in part by the constant chatter of your companions and their mix of sarcastic, expositionary and helpful discourse, which was something else The Last Story was wise to borrow from Gears of War and its more palatable peers.
Boss fights in particular always have some very specific, if not unique, rules for success, with memorable highlights including: a customary doppelganger fight that will "switch on" friendly fire as a way to punish inattentive players; taller bosses that require you leap onto them from the architecture; a fight where the boss can only be hurt by its own weapon, where half the battle is finding a way to get your hands on it; and at least one rather grotesque showdown where the most effective way to damage the boss is by attacking them from the inside.
Though I said earlier that it feels like a culmination of older and newer Japanese RPG game design, one could feasibly extend that thought process to include all four parts of the wedding custom of "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue": The old is the traditional fairy story, the new is the cover-based real-time gameplay (or at least in how it could be applied to RPGs), the borrowed are the many deliberate allusions to Final Fantasy and the blue is Lazulis Island itself, as gorgeous an environment as the Wii's graphical technology is able to render, with its titular blue gemstone turning up in architecture and a plot-important sword given to Zael upon the initiation of his knight training.
It's not totally without its flaws: The controls at times feel a little awkward and unresponsive with the way some of them double up on certain functions, such as how directional analog is tied to both attacking and movement and the A button for taking cover as well as dodge rolling; It works better than it sounds, but will still occasionally incorrectly interpret what you meant to do. Some dungeons repeat a few too many times, especially as you keep finding new entrances to older locations with some story significance - I can't count how many times I wandered into this one particular circular arena surrounded by water, for instance - though the battles in those locations were often made disparate enough to alleviate the overfamiliarity. The game can also be made far too easy by anyone who chooses to grind at specific spots designed for that purpose such as the customary arena or the game's level select feature, though as these are entirely optional it's really down to player choice whether they want to eliminate any future challenge from their own game or not. I have also yet to try the multiplayer, but it doesn't appear to be as integral to the overall experience as it would for something like Gears of War, since much of what makes the game's battles varied and interesting are down to Zael's unique abilities.
In conclusion, The Last Story succeeds by being at the same time both familiar and new. It sets up each of its battles in a very deliberate and thought-out manner, rather than the usual enervating "throw buckets of enemies in there and see what happens" philosophy of its third-person cover-based brethren or the soul-crushingly tedious random encounters of its RPG antecedents. It probably also goes without saying that Uematsu's soundtrack is fantastic too, reminiscent of the orchestral themes that helped make Final Fantasy the series it is today, with its centerpiece tune "Toberu Mono" (or "The Flying One") being a highlight. If you thought to pack your Wii away after Rhythm Heaven Fever and Xenoblade Chronicles were done, it might be worth considering a stay of execution for one last story.