There’s something comfortingly familiar about The Last Story. Whilst it’s not afraid to play around with the form of the J-RPG, soaking up influences and ideas from a wide range of other sources, at its heart beats a tale of love and destiny that’s been told a thousand times before.
Our protagonist this time is Zael, a young mercenary with a heart of gold who dreams of one day becoming a knight. With his ragtag band of comrades, he takes the dangerous and unpleasant jobs that no one else wants, with cash and social revilement his rewards.
Early in the game, he is bestowed with a mysterious gift that acts both as plot point and system mechanic. Called ‘The Power of the Outsider’, it essentially allows him to draw monsters attention, and forms an important part of The Last Story’s battle system.
Those battles are where you’ll first begin to realise that The Last Story is something special. Fought in real time, with a dual focus on action and tactics, they spark to life with vibrant sword slashes and bursts of ethereal magic.
Pushing the analogue stick in the direction of an opponent will see Zael unleashing a standard attack, with hack-and-slash style dodge and guard moves allowing the chance to escape an enemy’s riposte.
Fights start off simple, with only a few moves at your disposal and no way of controlling your allies. But as the game moves on, and Zael becomes a more confident and competent warrior, new avenues of attack are unlocked.
Spells are cast as glowing circles on the ground, and Zael can diffuse them, whether they’ve been cast by friend or foe, with a spinning slash. This amplifies the effect, and hurls out damage, buffs or de-buffs depending on the type of magic used.
A command mode allows you to order your team, cutting down casting times and letting you unleash powerful spirit moves that are unique to each character. This is all enabled through a bar at the top of the screen, which fills up in sections as Zael deals and takes damage.
Boss battles show off the combat at its finest, mixing pattern recognition with intriguing design and environmental threats. Zael’s power allows him to revive knocked down opponents, but each character only has five lives per bout, and once they’re depleted they’re out of the fight for good.
It’s not just the battles that The Last Story gets right. Item customisation lets you turn standard weapons into flaming, magical blades, and cloth shirts into armour plated defensive tools. Dungeons are rarely repeated, and the game finds new ways to change the patterns of engagement, keeping things interesting and fresh in spite of its thirty hour play time.
When you’re not fighting, you’re exploring a rich and diverse universe, populated by likeable, three dimensional characters. A brilliant British voice cast adds another layer of sheen to an already highly polished title.
It’s not without its flaws, with arrow straight linearity and some underwhelming enemy design chief amongst them, but taken as a whole, Mistwalker and Artoon have created an intriguing, varied game that can count titles as diverse as Gears of War, Assassin’s Creed and The Legend of Zelda as influences.
Alongside its beautiful, engaging single player experience, sit competitive and co-operative online options. Whilst the multiplayer can’t hope to replicate the narrative drive of the core game, they add longevity to a title that will already absorb a large part of your life.
Zael’s story is every story we’ve been told by Japanese-made RPGs, but it’s handled so well here that it becomes impossible to ignore. Familiar and unique at the same time, The Last Story is heartfelt adventuring at its very best.