This sense of being one element of a bigger canvas gives Last Story its cinematic flavour. One trick involves ordering mages to attack structural weaknesses and drop bridges and stalactites on enemy forces. So as Zael lures a snarling golem under a (admittedly convenient) decorative sword statue, a quick call to flame-boy Yurik will crash it on the beast's head. On paper, 'dropping X on Y's noggin' sounds gimmicky, but in action there's a hint of Zelda boss fights to proceedings.
It adds up to a brilliantly living battlefield. Characters leapfrog enemies, Zael delivers critical hits with a slo-mo flourish and particle effects explode all around. Battles audibly buzz with scripted dialogue (none of those soundbites that drove Xenoblade fans mad) that lends both drama and important hints for defeating bigger bads. In a nice touch, dominating the battlefield causes Nobuo Uemetsu's heroic battle theme to trigger, letting you duff up the last few stragglers in style. In full swing, The Last Story acts outs RPG battles previously left to the imagination.
Balancing real-time thrills and strategic smarts gives combat a scale and variety that static menus can't match. From one set of flexible combat rules spin stealth infiltrations, epic ground battles, bosses the size of cathedrals and - a true testament to the combat's scope - straight one-on-one swordfights. In The Last Story's 20 hours we chase vampires, trounce waves of attack gnomes, cleave troll skulls in two with aerial plunges and ride mutant wolves through packs of squealing goons. Mistwalker have cracked the action RPG like no dev before.
But perhaps it's too flexible, at least where difficulty is concerned. Characters have five lives before permanent death - two too many for even the toughest encounters. That we never once saw the game over screen - bar in one instant fail stealth section late in the game - suggests Mistwalker were worried players might struggle to adapt to new ideas. A few overpowered moves ensure monsters never get the upper hand. Zael's powerful slash attack (diving out from cover) is meant to reward stealthy takedowns, but dumb enemy AI means it's readily available in battle.
The combat may well find its challenging feet in the online modes. We've not been able to test them this month, though the ability to face off against five rivals or work with them to topple bosses certainly sounds intriguing.
I'VE STARTED SO I'LL FINISH
That it's a relatively easy game is largely down to user-friendly design. Grinding is non-existent, replaced with summon portals that let you conjure up goons for bonus XP. Although the game is paced so that you needn't ever use the portals, it is worth harvesting materials for sword improvement. Item management is likewise simplified, with few inventory slots to worry about and a focus on improving kit already in play rather than meddling with entirely new gear. With a slim (for a JRPG) 20-hour runtime, it's clear Mistwalker want even newbies to see the end.
The Last Story has such smooth delivery that its few mistakes jut out violently. The frame rate, in city exploration and cutscenes, stutters harder than The King's Speech. Sakaguchi's time in the glossy Final Fantasy trenches means he naturally pushes the Wii harder than most developers. His shimmering water effects are particularly good. (So good that the title screen opens on a big picture of a puddle for us to ogle.) Add anime influence (hair kept within the laws of physics) and it's a handsome game; it's a shame Mistwalker ask us to admire it frame... by frame... by frame.
For a game so competent on a micro-narrative level, our biggest complaint is reserved for the story at large. Sakaguchi's tale of warring nations weaves lots of fun incidents and enjoyably cheesy villains into a tedious bit of good-vs-evil. Major characters are on loan from Rent-A-Cliché - wide-eyed hero, arrogant knight, naïve general - and the tale's twists are too obviously signposted. It's disappointing to see a game avoid so many RPG pitfalls only to stumble into the biggest of them all: the very fantasy bunkum Sakaguchi unleashed on the world in 1986.
The Last Story may reveal itself to be The Same Old Story, but does so with more than enough wit and verve to earn it a place in your Wii slot. We'd like to see it as the first chapter of a bigger story - Sakaguchi has done the hard part and broken free of RPG constraints, now it's time for him to properly reap the rewards.
Lively combat and fun scenario design plaster over the narrative cracks. Not the glorious last hurrah we'd hoped for, but as fun as Wii games are going to be in a dry 2012.
- Brilliant, sweeping battlefields
- Slick, varied and exciting combat: part-RPG, part-third person action game
- Trims all the fat, making for a lightning-paced adventure
- Cliché-riddled characters straight out of 1986
- Frame rate judders badly during exploration
- Bit of a pushover