This game is one of the two reasons I bought a Wii recently. The other one is of course Xenoblade Chronicles which I'm looking forward to playing later this year. Being a JRPG buff is pretty rough these days, so I'll take anything I can get, even if it means buying more consoles. The Last Story has a promising premise: it would be an RPG that emphasizes story and characters. Sure enough, it does. However, as usual, I will be sidestepping the story of the game and focus on its distinguishing game mechanics and other design features.
1. How to pace a game
Pacing a game is tricky business. One way to think about a good curve for RPGs could be: calm, anticipation, excitement, absorption. I believe there needs to be all of these for a game to be really solid. It's not a guideline pattern or anything, but these things need to be present. Keeping this curve in mind, we can take a look at how The Last Story paces itself. The game truly emphasizes its story. On a scale that it actually cuts out most traveling that is typically done in RPGs. There are no scenic routes from scene to scene in The Last Story, the game just skips on to the next one. This solution was fine at first. Towards the end I felt I was being rushed through the story. The game robbed me from any chance to calm absorption.
Then again, as you will soon find out, I didn't particularly enjoy the game's fighting system, so part of me was relieved to skip unnecessary traveling. There are no random encounters in The Last Story either. Every encounter is planned (and mandatory). Okay, so they provide these summoning circles where you can summon enemies to gain experience if somehow your characters are underleveled (which should not be possible) This again is kind of double-edged. Encounters in the game tend to be overdesigned to the point where they are puzzles. Very simple puzzles with AI characters constantly giving hints what to do, but puzzles nevertheless. This solution makes every battle an event in the game's story. This with the lack of traveling time through scenery makes the game feel too rushed and makes game events a bit disconnected. This is partially remedied by the fact that the characters do a lot less traveling than in a typical RPG.
2. Real time combat, ver XYZ
The Last Story belongs to the real-time combat camp of modern RPGs. In general, making a good real-time combat system is tricky. Star Ocean 3 did a marvelous job, but most of the time turn-based systems beat the crap out of half-hearted real-time systems. There is a hell of a lot more variables in real-time systems than turn-based. Turns create a comfortable order for things. Real-time systems need to implement all sorts of rules just to make the system core stable enough. Attack delays, hit stuns, hit boxes and whatnot become a significant design problem. Action-adventure game designers wrestle with these problems but RPG designers have an additional burden to consider. Characters in RPGs usually have a much wider repertoire of abilities (in fact, if they don't, the game probably is not very good).
The Last Story does not do a very good job. Basic fighting is simply repeating the same attack endlessly, occasionally stopping to block or dodge. Crowd-control is oversimplified: the player has an ability which makes every enemy target the main character. This ability also makes enemies slower, so using it is pretty much a no-brainer. Special abilities are limited by recharge times. The same bar is also used for direct command, which is the only way to give orders to AI-controlled allies. Spells have casting times and casters can be interrupted. Overall the system core is mostly strategically sound but fails in execution. Most importantly, battles are usually very boring to play. There's a significant lack of variety in what the player can do.
The game can feature as many as five AI allies at the same time. The going gets rather chaotic, and because the game is often not very hard, battles will solve themselves regardless of how well or poorly the player does. I also lamented the lack of a minimap or radar showing where enemies are. The battle areas are quite large, and sometimes I found myself wondering where the last enemies were. This might have been remedied by making the camera controls better or by having a better target locking system.
The Last Story is not entirely without good ideas though. The game's magic system has a feature called circles. Each spell leaves a circle on the field. These circles do various effects. Attack spells leave a circle that imbues attacks with the spell's element and healing circles do what you'd expect them to do. Enemies can also cast poison and damage circles. In theory this means that circles can be used to create optimal conditions on the battlefield. In reality, the element circles are pretty hard to utilize because AI allies will be spamming whatever spell they know, and each of them only knows one element. Typically this means that against a tougher enemy, the fight will happen in a mess of two or three overlapping circles and attacking with the right element becomes impossible. Healing circles appear around their caster, which makes them often appear far away from the battle.
In truth, the best use for circles is diffusing them. The main character can do this via his special abilities. Diffusing a circle creates an area effect which is typically a debuff. Healing circles diffuse into instant healing of all characters and one attack spell diffuses into a buff that shields against magic. The diffusion mechanic is also pretty good in theory, but like the circle system itself, it also lacks in execution. There's not much use for these effects. A few boss fights aside, they are not really needed. There's only like five different circles in the entire game anyway, which is way too low. The game tries its best to create variation in combat through its designed encounters but way too often the battles are just your usual hack and slash which gets very old very fast. Only the final boss of the game demands actual strategy from the player. At least a little.
The Last Story shows a lot of promise but fails to deliver. While yes, the story and characters are quite good as advertised, the game's design fails on many accounts. On top of it all, the game uses a 100% linear character development scheme with laughably limited number of abilities available to the characters. Equipment upgrading is not much better. Each weapon or armor has exactly one special ability which is mostly a boost to same stat or effect. I have to say I expected more, although Mistwalker does not really have a shining record. Now I'll really think twice before playing their next title, if there ever will be one.