The world of fiction has gotten good mileage out of tales of commoners becoming great knights and pillars of chivalry. We do love a hopeful underdog, and the almost childlike, idealised version of the medieval period that was cooked up a few hundred years ago makes for a compelling — if utterly manufactured — setting. In the beginning, The Last Story appears to be telling such a tale, albeit in a world of magic. Appearances can be deceiving.
Zael’s a mercenary. Typically that conjures up images of large, grizzled chaps, possibly with surly demeanors. That’s not our Zael, though. He’s a scrawny gent with lovely feathered hair and he does a lot of thinking. About his dreams. About being a bit lonely. About wanting to be a noble knight. But you can keep your grim protagonists. Zael’s naivety and sincerity in the face of a global crisis of which he is pretty much the catalyst is quite endearing.
It started with a rather innocuous job. Zael and his companions, led by childhood friend Dagran, are pottering about in some caves on a mission for Count Arganon, the limping, eye-patch wearing (but not a pirate at all, if he was I’d make a joke about him being called Yaaarganon, but he isn’t, so I won’t) ruler of Lazilus Island. When Zael and one of his cohorts get trapped in a chamber by a whole lot of angry skeletons, he awakens the ancient power of the Outsider, which he discovers he can control.
This power gives Zael the ability to bring back defeated allies and draw the enemies attention by “gathering”. In combat, Zael is the only character under player control. However, quite early on he gains the ability to command his allies and direct their attacks, this also makes the casting time for spells much shorter. Casters are incredibly vulnerable, magic tends to take a while to charge, and during that time the character cannot move or defend itself. That’s where Zael’s gathering ability comes into play, giving the casters time to attack.
When he’s not acting as bait, Zael’s sneaking about taking pot shots with his rather nifty crossbow, blowing up the environment and spinning across the battlefield like a maniac. The spinning serves a purpose beyond the joys of dizziness. Spells create magical circles dotted around the ground, when Zael spins into one of these circles he diffuses it and when he stands in it his sword can be combined with a magical effect. The spell itself can also be spread and create special attributes. Even though he doesn’t use magic beyond his Outsider abilities, he is instrumental in increasing the destructive or healing abilities of every spell. If he spins on an enemy spell circle, he’ll diffuse it too. He’s like a versatile dervish.
Since the battles aren’t random, there’s always an abundance of objects like braziers (which can be knocked over to create a circle of fire) or healing and explosive bombs, which can help to turn the tide of the battle. Don’t let the optional auto attack fool you, the combat is deep and tactical. This becomes especially apparent when you eventually get to control your fellow mercenaries. Mistwalker tries so many different things with the combat, from cover based shooting, to squad tactics, to typical RPG sword thwacking and somehow it all works. While the basic combat could have used more depth, there’s so much diversity that it’s very rare for there to be a battle where you simply hit stuff with your increasingly ridiculous swords.
After making it back to Lazilus Island, Zael and company get a new job from the count, which ends rather badly with the abduction of the Count’s niece (and Zael’s love interest) Calista at the hands of the Gurak. These fellas used to live alongside humans, but racial tensions led to a war which resulted in the Gurak leaving their homes and ending up exiled. They’re still a bit sore about that. The surprisingly successful rescue attempt sets Zael on the path to becoming a knight, getting embroiled in a huge conspiracy, ethnic cleansing and other important stuff. Oh yeah, he also moves an island. With a city on it.
Lazilus City may be on of the most disappointing aspects of the game, unfortunately. And you have to spend a lot of time there. It’s big, but oh so bland. It’s just a mess of brown and beige run-down medieval buildings. It’s instantly forgettable. The sepia tones might have been welcome in a more interesting city, it certainly fits with the somber, melancholy feel of the game, but when coupled with such an unimaginative stage, it just makes things look even more dreary. It looks the same no matter what part of the city you are wandering around in, it’s a motivation to move forward and seek solace in some dungeons or caves.
The colourful cast have certainly been treated with more care; Zael’s mercenary mates especially so. From the sassy alcoholic Lancashire lass Syrenne, to Lowell, the sarcastic, womanizing Scot (we’re all like that, don’t you know?) there are plenty of interesting personalities, voiced by quality voice actors. It was nice to see them not shy away from using a good few regional accents. The back and forth banter between your party gives life to every adventure; it’s clear that this is a group with a lot of history, and one that’s still growing. You can customise their gear, along with your own, quite extensively too. There’s a whole bunch of dyes to discover, while weapons and armour can be upgraded for some gold and a few items that are otherwise useless. It’s a simple upgrade system, though effective.
Sadly that’s the extent of your control over your party, you level up automatically, you can’t choose the way they grow, it just happens. It feels a bit stripped down, especially considering the tactical elements of the combat. For better or worse, characters have their own lives, too. They won’t all accompany you on every mission, but that gives you time to get to know them better, as they don’t all compete for the limelight.
The Last Story is considerably more focused than some of the expansive RPGs that have gobbled up my time recently. Instead of sauntering about the land exploring and getting into scraps, there’s a constant urgency propelling you towards your next mission, whether it be infiltrating an enemy fortress on a captured ship or exorcising a ghost from a particularly enjoyable haunted house scenario. Getting to your next mission usually just involves walking down the street or talking to someone which will transport you to whatever task requires your attention. It seems more appropriate for a mercenary and then a knight, if you’re serving a nobleman you’re probably not going to get very far if you bugger off into the wilderness for some random adventures.
The New Game + feature and the online mode add some longevity, but the latter feels a bit out of place, even if the combat is good enough to pull it off. The NG+ will likely hold a lot of OCD sufferers’ attentions for some time, though I found that there wasn’t really enough depth to justify me going back for seconds.
It’s an ambitious title which spins a short, but wonderful tale, but it stumbles when it limits player freedom in an effort to keep the narrative moving forward. I would have loved to have seen a more inventive approach to character progression and more control over Zael’s fate. The game often appears to give you choices, like declining an order from the Count, but usually that ends up meaning you are just going away to “think about it”, you still end up going back and doing as you’re told, even when it’s clear that it will only end badly.
That said, Summer breeds optimism. There’s nothing quite like The Last Story, and I hope to see Sakaguchi and Mistwalker build on their innovations here and dazzle us with something really impressive in the future. For the time being, you should go and play The Last Story, because you’ll get sucked in despite the efforts to “streamline” the experience, and as stories of knights and damsels go, this one blows the others out of the water.