So I finally got around to finishing The Last Story the other day. On the whole, I liked it.
It's certainly got a lot of the same old themes from Final Fantasy, as you'd expect from a game produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi where he appears to have literally just typed "Final Fantasy" into a thesaurus. There's a corrupt empire, an ancient threat from outer space, plants withering and the earth beginning to rot, a pair of starcrossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks, and a focus on providing story explanations for game mechanics.
Many of Uematsu's themes, of the musical variety, return as well — I heard hints of Terra, Edgar and Sabin, Gau, and Setzer in the ending alone, one of the final boss themes is a dead ringer for the FF7 boss theme, and the main theme recalls bits of Locke, Celes, and Aeris.
It's good stuff, though, and not too derivative; I'm probably primed to pick up all those little FF6 threads from all that listening to Balance and Ruin.
It's pretty standard High Fantasy genre stuff — lots of horns and strings and timpani. It doesn't have the breadth or variety of Uematsu's 16- and 32-bit compositions, but that's a function of this game being a lot more tonally consistent than those were. I've talked in the past about how FF7 has more mood swings than a bipolar teenager. Last Story is much more steady — there's plenty of levity to be had, but little or nothing in the way of racing giant birds or attending an opera.
For all that's familiar, it's a very different kind of game. It feels smaller in scale — sure, there's still a cosmic threat that endangers all life on the planet, but the scope feels smaller. The game is centered around a single city — the kind of thing that just wasn't done in JRPG's back in the '80's and '90's but which has become increasingly commonplace. More than that, the plot is intimately focused — it's less about the events going on in the world than how they personally affect the handful of main characters.
Final Fantasy tends to focus on small ragtag parties who travel all over expansive worlds and eventually save the world. Suikoden focuses on small ragtag parties who participate in small regional conflicts and eventually gather large armies to overthrow dictators (and save the world). Last Story combines the intimacy of a Suikoden game's regional conflict with the intimacy of a Final Fantasy game's small, closely-knit party of player characters — in a setting that's smaller than either. It's like what you'd get if a Suikoden game took place entirely inside the castle and its surrounding environs, or if Final Fantasy 7 had taken place entirely in Midgar.
And — like a Suikoden game and unlike Sakaguchi-era Final Fantasy games — it also creates the impression that there are more stories to tell in this world. The heroes save the world, the current threat is dealt with, but the Empire is still out there and who knows what else is going on in the world. This is the kind of game where there could be sequels set in this same world — which is great, because that's still a rarity in JRPG's (except, recently, for Final Fantasy games that really, really don't need them, no matter how much I may have enjoyed Crisis Core), and both the main Suikoden series and the Ivalice series sadly seem to have stalled at this point.
At any rate, maybe I'll get into specific plot details another time, but for now I'm going to take a minute to talk about mechanics.
As for the gameplay, it's really quite enjoyable, but it has some warts, particularly in the boss fights.
The complexity of the combat is a good idea in theory. It's clearly designed to give a more satisfying experience than Fight-Fire-Cure.
In practice, boss fights tend to go pretty much like this:
- Wait for a party member to explain what the boss's weakness is.
- They will either explain this only once, in which case you will probably miss it, or they will explain it over and over again constantly forever until you go into the menu and turn the fucking voices off.
- Also, occasionally, the game will fuck with you by introducing a simple concept in a completely counterintuitive manner. Like explaining elemental weaknesses in a battle with an ice-elemental monster at a point where the only offensive spell your party has is an ice spell.
- Try to hit "A" at exactly the right moment to perform the action that you need to perform to make the boss vulnerable; hope and pray that you are facing the object you're supposed to be interacting with dead-on and the "A" button performs the action it's supposed to instead of just rolling you out of range.
- Repeat step 2 until the boss becomes vulnerable to normal attacks. (In my experience this usually takes about 3 successful presses of the "A" button at exactly the right moment and about 50 unsuccessful presses of the "A" button that make you roll out of range and have to try again.)
- And then the rest of the fight is just Fight-Fire-Cure.
- Unless by this point you've been whittled down so badly that Syrenne is dead and Zael is on his last life. In which case you'll need to play defensively.
- Run around the boss in circles like it's a turn-of-the-century shooter, except without any shooting.
- Whittle the boss's health down, agonizingly slowly, with your remaining mages.
- If you do get hit, lunge for the nearest heal circle.
- Hope the boss doesn't just straight up fucking one-hit kill you.
So yeah. Combat makes some interesting decisions that are really nice in theory, but really fucking tedious in actual execution. It's the sort of thing that I think really could be improved in a sequel.
And while the game uses save points (boooooo), for the most part they're employed competently; they're spaced pretty close together and the game also has checkpoint saves that are even more frequent.
In fact, this works out pretty well right up until the last boss gauntlet.
The last boss gauntlet is fucking bullshit.
It relies on hoary old JRPG artificial difficulty tropes like spacing save points too far apart. In one case, there's a series of three consecutive battles with no save points or checkpoints in-between. Die in the third one and you'll have to replay the first two. But if you give up and quit, then the next time you restore from a save you'll not only have to replay those first two battles, but the boss fight right before them, because there's no save point after the boss. There's a save point before the boss, but you can't backtrack to it after you beat him.
And the last boss gauntlet is long. From the Point of No Return where you can no longer backtrack or buy equipment (which is distinct from the previous Point of No Return, where you could no longer backtrack but could still occasionally buy equipment), it goes something like boss, save point, boss, cutscene, checkpoint save, gauntlet of tougher-than-average regular enemies, checkpoint save, cutscene, boss, boss, cutscene, save point, cutscene, boss, checkpoint save, boss's second form, save point, cutscene, checkpoint save, another cutscene that you can fast forward through but can't actually skip, boss with three forms.
And, in addition to the complaints above, the difficulty of the fights is adjusted upward by things like repeatedly splitting up your party for no real good reason, and adjusted downward by sticking those last two save points in rooms where you can indefinitely spawn monsters that are laughably easy and yield ridiculously high experience.
In short, it feels like the frequent Sakaguchi problem of a climax going out of its way to keep ratcheting things up and reminding you that this really is the climax, with actual gameplay seeming to be an afterthought.
And then the game still doesn't end. I think it's actually nice that there's something to do postgame (not just a New Game+ but an opportunity to go back to town and do sidequests or what-have-you), but by the end there really was a feeling of "Jesus Christ, when is this thing going to end?"
There is seriously another numbered chapter after the Epilogue. That is not how fucking epilogues work!
You know, I was going to do a bit here about what I liked about the plot, themes, characters, and so forth, but instead I think I'm going to go eat my leftover beer bread, watch Daily Show, and then play FF6. Suffice it to say, I like how almost nobody's pure good or pure evil. Maybe I'll come back to this later.
Guess I kinda did leave this on a gripefest. But that's misleading — check the title! I thought the game was pretty good.