When a video game character takes an arrow through the heart, context matters. In a battle you could simply toss them a potion to regain their lost health, or maybe conjure a healing spell. But cutscenes are a whole different deal entirely. A story is being told more directly now, so death is a finality. No phoenix downs here, sorry.
And a few cutscenes into The Last Story you will witness a party member take that arrow through the heart. It’s a dramatic sequence where the game’s hero, Zael, is seen kneeling over his comrade’s body, unable to accept her passing. “I’m sick of all the pain!” he cries. It’s at this moment that a blinding light reveals itself and grants him the power to better protect the ones he loves most. It is, of course, a new battle mechanism for the rest of the game, but another tutorial pops up alongside it. It’s a tutorial on how to raise fallen allies — in battle.
Control reverts back to the player, you step near the corpse of your beloved friend, and she rises. Her A.I. then runs right back into the fray. There is no “thank you”, no shock, no acknowledgement that she was ever dying or that Zael just performed a miracle. The game never addresses what just happened, and just like that, Sakaguchi tears down the very narrative wall he is revered for.
Is this nitpicking? In the grand scheme of the 20 hour experience, it probably is. Perhaps you can forget this anomaly, even though every time else when Zael stands over a slain friend, you’ll have a hard time not recognizing the stupidity of it all. The more important point, instead, is that a slip up this obvious is likely a sign of equally poor decisions to come.
Ready to unwind after their run in with death, Zael and his mercenary band of buddies hit up the bar in the castle town of Lazulis, preparing to take on a mission from the Count himself. It’s their chance to finally make it big. And an opportunity to make sure they are understood as single faceted archetypes.
Swept under the rug about as fast as they are introduced there at the tavern, they don’t have an opportunity to become much else. Take Yurick, for example, the guy with the eye patch who serves as your black mage. He stands in the corner, arms folded, and you could already guess but he says it for you anyways, “my services don’t extend to socializing.” How subtle.
Strangers, passing facades of personality, the whole lot of ’em. That’s all they seem to serve as, and it eats away at this game. Having ownership over these “friends” of Zael, scrolling through their equipment menus and ordering them in combat – it’s a removed and empty feeling. Who are these people? The game rarely addresses that question, and it when it does, it’s only to further its checklist of cliché JRPG exposition. A side adventure where Yurick learns the value of friendship? Check.
Even being concerned about their presence in battle isn’t required until nearing the half way point, where some bosses force it upon you. You’ll have to tell the nature girl, Mirania, to throw down a heal circle to step in so you can smack a dragon without worrying about losing one of your 5 lives. Seriously, you can die and get up 5 times each battle. Death and resurrection are treated as a kind of banality in The Last Story, apparently.
So go nuts, have fun, because the game is a carnival of clustered spell effects, large enemies, and small hallways – all coming at you at a framerate consistently below 20. It’s like smacking balloons. Your strikes knock each enemy back far enough that you need to run a few steps forward to hit them again. Maybe walk around them if they have weak back sides, and hack away with your maxed out weaponry thanks to the surplus amount of gold thrown at you.
There’s strategy hidden here, using Zael’s newly acquired miracle magic to lure the reptilian grunts out of the quagmire and into colorful circles placed by your mages. Getting them into a circle or surrounding them with your A.I. controlled buddies will speed up the rate of damage, but for much of the game, these occurrences are more convenient than necessary.
Understanding the motives behind these battles and not just their surface level silliness corrodes the mild sense of enjoyment the melee has. Just reach in the hat and pick any of the game’s encounters. Like the scene where Zael is ambushed by ninja knights in the castle courtyard, and Uematsus’ rocking bass line kicks in with desperation. You do your smacking, and afterwards Zael furiously questions a wounded ninja, “Who sent you!?” “Think I’ll talk?” The ninja cackles back, and vanishes in smoke.
If only Zael wasn’t such an oblivious man. Because the ninja henchman are none other than Duke Jillard’s doing, the only man in the castle who had already tried to behead you twice before. But no, that would never cross Zael’s mind. He’s a blank slate of heroism, perfectly naive. Disgusted by violence, completely unaware of greed and corruption, there is not a moment in the game where he is an actual person. The game says he grew up on the streets as an orphan and mercenary, but he shows no sign of growth from this alleged stage.
And this Duke Jillard fellow, he serves as Zael’s primary rival. His reasoning for being driven to madness in his efforts to murder you is this: One day he catches the young hero chatting to his bride to be, and Zael tells him that he should treat her better. That’s it. Even when Zael is on a quest to save the entire world, Jillard is hell bent on achieving vengeance for this heinous offense.
That The Last Story is still a complete and functional little RPG cannot be denied. It comes with a town and fetch quests. It has villains who muse over world domination, who laugh manically behind closed doors. It has heroes, romance, betrayal, even upgradeable weapons. It’s a game that plays by the book. And with that comfort zone to fall back on, Sakaguchi feels brave enough to pioneer the realm of cover systems, stealth, and third person shooting.
Occasionally, you’ll have to snipe some archers on a balcony, and being good sports, they’ll tumble over the railing when you shoot them. And to sneak up on an ogre, you may think that, at the very least, this game requires a level of cover system based caution. But no, not even. The field of vision for enemies is so short that you can stand at the entrance of a hallway and shoot that ogre in the face, and he will come walking over to investigate. The game design is utterly skeletal.
And its lack of intelligence is evident at every turn, literally. Such as when the game throws you into a first person perspective when entering rooms so you can manually locate an item of interest. A big door or a book on a desk, the cursor will even point to where you need to look if you can’t handle the pressure. And the sound effect, the little *kachlink*, like you should feel accomplished by spotting the clue. Like this is some type of educational software.
But there’s Sakuguchi’s name, stamped right on the front of it, and the world be damned if that’s not a name that deserves some recognition. That’s it’s not a name that deserves to be taken seriously. And wouldn’t it be lovely to find The Last Story was tongue in cheek through its entirety, or somehow satirically charming with brilliant undertones beneath its child like features? That somehow, all of this could be explained? Yet, it isn’t so. The name’s meaning is dead to this game, the cutscene kind of dead.
Love it or Hate it: Safe Bet