Letters from Lazulis: The Last Story Revisited

Katharine dons her mercenary gear again to see whether The Last Story still holds up ahead of its US release.

By Katharine Byrne. Posted 08/13/2012 10:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

If you’d asked me at the beginning of the year about whether The Last Story would ever get released in the US, I would have given you quite a sceptical answer. I would have wanted to say “yes” given that Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, was the man responsible for it, but considering how long it took Nintendo of America to give the green light for Xenoblade Chronicles, I certainly wouldn’t have been without my doubts. Yet here we are, eight months later, and there’s only one more day to go before its big US release. I guess I needn’t have worried.

But seeing as how the last time I wrote about The Last Story was way back in March when I reviewed it, I thought it was high time I went back to Lazulis Island to see whether it was still as “outstanding” as I thought it was six months ago. Or maybe I should say five months ago, as a rather strange thing happened when I came to the end of The Last Story— almost as soon as the end credits began to roll, I found myself missing the game I’d only just played. Usually there’s a sense of relief when I finish a game; I think to myself, “That was great,” and I move on, ready for the next adventure. But that didn’t happen with The Last Story.

In fact, I even went straight back to my save file to see whether there was anything I had missed in the final moments of the game to put off the dreaded hour even more, and sure enough, there were two whole side missions that I’d completely overlooked. The only problem was that once they were over I still didn’t feel any less ready to say goodbye. I was too engrained in my little gang of mercenaries, too enamoured with their playful banter, and too enchanted with Lazulis City to hang up my sword and shield just yet. I wanted more, so I did the only thing I could think of, and started the game over again from the very beginning.

You encounter this gang of low-level Reptids early on in the game, but the combat still felt as satisfying as more difficult battles later on.

Of course, I didn’t finish it all over again– I only made it to about half way when other games finally started catching my attention– but this is something that’s never happened to me in all my twenty-odd years of gaming. I’ve replayed my fair share of titles over the years, but not once have I ever replayed a game immediately due to an almost overpowering sense of bereavement. So what makes The Last Story so special?

Playing the game again last week, the answer’s only too clear– it’s the characters, without a shadow of a doubt. If Xenoblade Chronicles was defined by its enormous environments, then The Last Story is almost certainly defined by its memorable cast of mercenaries– and what a bunch of characters they are too. There’s Zael, our nice-guy hero who dreams of becoming a knight; Dagran, the group’s ambitious leader; Lowell, a flirty Scot whose pick-up lines are as cool as his ice spells; Syrenne, a boisterous Northern lass who drinks like a fish; Mirania, a petite healer with a ferocious appetite; and Yurick, the world’s most sullen mage (or, as Syrenne affectionately calls him, “the creepy eye-patch kid”). They might sound slightly stereotypical on paper, but they’re crafted with such fine and loving detail that it’s almost impossible not to like them from the moment they appear on screen.

Even the opening line still makes me smile (Syrenne’s Northern rendition of “Wait, you scaly bastards!” in case you were wondering), and that’s just a taste of what’s to come. From Zael’s shy and embarrassed back-pedalling to Mirania’s masterful deadpan humour, every character brings a wonderful sense of charm and personality to The Last Story, and that’s without mentioning the fact that, even in the heat of battle, you can also trip up everyone you meet with a well-timed banana peel. Silly? Yes. Out of place? Almost definitely– but I think it just goes to show how comfortable the game is in its own skin (if you’ll pardon the pun). It’s not afraid to be a little ridiculous in the face of more serious RPGs, and it’s able to laugh at itself without compromising its own tone and agenda.

But as with any great story, all this is mere table-dressing compared to the game’s main plot, which focuses on the tale of Zael and Calista. I won’t say much for fear of spoiling one of the most touching love stories you’ll ever see on Wii, but they’re both so endearing that you can’t help but get wrapped up in their struggle against the odds. It runs into its fair share of clichés, to be sure– boy meets girl, girl turns out to be a princess engaged to another noble– but The Last Story does something that most JRPGs rarely touch on when it comes to character relationships, and that’s exploring what happens after the hero gets everything he could have wished for. This happens about half way through the game, but as you’ll hopefully soon discover for yourself, its holding onto those dreams soon proves to be Zael’s greatest challenge. It’s an unusual twist for a JPRG, but one that ultimately helps to define both its own story and the game itself within its own genre.

You have no idea how much I wanted to talk about Zael and Calista in my Another Castle column on love and relationships.

Another thing that makes The Last Story really stand out from the crowd is its lively battle system. With a liberal dose of cover-based combat and real-time strategy thrown into the mix, it’s quite unlike anything you’ve seen before, and it’s still just as tense and refreshing as it was during my first playthrough. Of course, one of the major pitfalls of playing any kind of New Game + where you can carry over all your EXP and equipment is the potential dip in the game’s overall difficulty. This was certainly the case when I replayed Xenoblade Chronicles ahead of its US release back in April, and even though this meant I could get to all my favourite areas in a fraction of the time, I quickly found myself missing the thrill of each individual skirmish. Luckily, The Last Story does things differently. While most of the common enemies remain at their original level on your second playthrough, all of its main bosses receive a substantial boost in power, making them much worthier adversaries for your more advanced party. And when each boss battle is easily the best part of any chapter, it means you can get to those moments much faster while still being able to enjoy everything its varied combat system has to offer.

The Last Story isn’t without its flaws, however, and these are no less obvious when playing for a second time. It’s still difficult to target specific enemies (though being able to mow most of them down in a single strike certainly made this a little less noticeable this time), the frame rate still drops occasionally in the heat of battle, and it’s still just as difficult to manage your active sidequests.

But one of the pet hates I mentioned in my review was how rushing ahead would often cut off certain bits of dialogue, and I still fell into this trap no matter how hard I tried to hold back and listen. Of course, when I did hold back and listen, it really hammered home the idea that the game’s environments were just too small to accommodate its own dialogue. As much as I loved listening to everyone’s thoughts and anecdotes, conversations rarely ended naturally when you reached the end of a passage, and I think this surplus of words reveals one of the main dilemmas about trying to create such well-rounded and colourful characters. It spends so much time telling us about them that it ends up undermining their own depth, and it makes me wonder whether a deluge of cutscenes would have been any better. They may have the world’s most amazing personalities, but will the player ever get to appreciate them?

Lazulis City is still as bustling as ever, but perhaps a little less enthralling.

I also found myself falling ever so slightly out of love with Lazulis City too for much the same reason. Obviously not every game can boast the same kind of awesome scale as Xenoblade Chronicles, but this time its borders were definitely beginning to bear down on me. There was less incentive to explore now that I knew only a handful of superfluous trinkets were waiting for me at the end of all those little nooks and crannies I’d enjoyed getting lost in before, and despite its continued hustle and bustle, Lazulis City ultimately boils down to just another functional JRPG town– you can only interact with certain citizens, they all have the same two lines of dialogue for the majority of the game, and several of them look like they’ve all been squeezed out of the same townsfolk factory.

That’s not to say that Lazulis City had lost all of its appeal, however, as the other benefit of hindsight is knowing where all the main story beats lie. Armed with this knowledge, it was actually quite refreshing to be able to explore the city in more detail during those early hours of the game, and with certain sidequests and events only taking place at certain points in the game’s story, I managed to discover quite a few new things on my second playthrough that had completely passed me by the first time. In the first thirty minutes or so I’d had my wallet stolen by a gang of street urchins, I’d caught four frogs and learned how to swim in the city river (where I’d later get mauled to death by four killer jaguars in the sewers), and I’d actively avoided a certain plot point so I could finally deliver a keg of beer to the tavern. It may have been less captivating as a whole second time round, but that certainly didn’t stop me from being any less curious.

And I think that’s ultimately why The Last Story keeps on ticking so many boxes for me this far down the line. It may not be as grand and bold as Xenoblade Chronicles, but you certainly can’t accuse it of skimping on ideas to help keep you entertained. Despite its somewhat drab appearance, curious players will have an absolute field-day with this game, but even the more disinterested among you should find something to hang your hat on, whether it’s the rich patchwork of mechanics in the game’s battle system or the simple pleasure of watching everyone fall flat on their ass from a sneaky banana skin. There’s plenty to love here on Lazulis Island, and I hope you all enjoy your stay as much as I have.

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