Just sitting around, chatting about battles.
After the dust settled over the drama about whether North America would be getting a few highly sought after Wii RPGs, we were left to simply wait. Xenoblade has now come and gone to much praise, but now we're upon the release of The Last Story and I think it's going to surprise a lot of people. The thing with both of these games is that they both offer something different in terms of Japanese-developed RPGs, but don't lump them together, because they are two completely different experiences.
I didn't get to spend much time with the story aspects of The Last Story, but the combat was enough to really help set it apart for me. Battles are strategic, real-time encounters that reminded me a little of Valkyria Chronicles minus the turn-based aspects. Before a battle, players can view the entire field and plan the best strategy to take to win. Players control the swordsman Zael, but can request for allies to perform certain actions such as healing or attacking key points on the field. For example, a group of enemies were occupying an area surrounded mostly by water. At the back of the group of foes were a healer and mage, so the team suggested that Zael sneak around behind them and take out the healer, so that the rest of the crew could defeat the soldiers. We moved Zael around back out of sight of the enemies and took out his crossbow, aiming at the healer with magical arrow. We aimed the reticule at the healer's head and fired. Zael got a headshot that took the foe out in one hit and drew the attention of the whole group of enemies. The rest of our party members used this to their advantage and flanked the enemies from behind. The foes, now split between two fronts, were quickly taken down, especially since Zael's sword made quick work of the the mage. The game's real-time combat, with no button mashing required, was unlike any other JRPG I had ever played.
Muruk doesn't stand a chance.
Combat is not the only dynamic aspect of the game. It's as if Sakaguchi designed this as a JRPG for people sick of standard combat tropes. There are no random battles and foes only respawn if you want them to, so you don't have to constantly sludge through fodder. Environments are often interactive as well. Zael can command his allies to target a nearby rock formation to bring down on a group of enemies, though make sure not to be underneath that formation or you might end up dead as well. Zael also has a command called gathering that he can use to draw the attention of foes, allowing his allies to be free to act on their own. This is really helpful for protecting weaker mages from damage. Mages have auras they cast that leave a circle on the ground, granting a magical effect to those those within. Some examples of this would be a healing aura that restores HP and a fire aura that grants a fire elemental bonus to attacks. There is even more environmental interaction, as Zael can do a wall jump and land on an enemy with a powerful attack. This is easily one of the most progressive action RPGs to come out of Japan.
After playing through a few battles and taking down a boss or two, the RPGamer staff was able to jump into a multiplayer session. Up to eight people could play together via co-op or in deathmatch, but in this case it was just the three of us. You can play as any of the game's story characters or even some bosses and NPCs, so each of us selected a combatant and went at it in deathmatch. Each character has unique skills, as I was playing as a mage who could attack with a melee weapon or cast spells. It was a free-for-all, but our reviews editor Adriaan came out as the first victor, as he had been playing during most of the demo. In our second match, I had learned the controls and was able to swiftly score the most points by taking both Adriaan and Sam out, leaving me the winner at the end of the second bout. After our deathmatches, the three of us opted to try out the co-op mode against one of the game's bosses, the Kraken. We tried our hardest to best the beast, but we were informed at the end that the save file being used was not a high enough level to be any match for the monster. Had we been able to take it down, we could have earned a special weapon or item to take back into our single-player game. This is some of the most fun I'd had playing multiplayer in an RPG. It's a completely optional part of the game, but ties in well with the main mode.
The Last Story isn't quite what any of us expected. We were expecting a JRPG with a new twist on combat, but we were not prepared for exactly how solid and unique that combat really is. Often times, RPGs will try to craft something unique, but will instead end up with a system that is too complex or complicated for its own good. This game seemed to go out of its way to craft something truly original. I cannot speak for the story, but I had so much fun actually playing the game that it didn't really matter. The Last Story will be out next week on Aug. 14 and is a great reason for everyone to break out their Wii once more.