The Last Story review: Sakaguchi's experimental side

The Last Story appears to flip the script on Dragon Quest. Where Square Enix's seminal RPG series normally seeks to tell new stories within familiar mechanical frameworks, Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's latest effort offers a very (very) familiar narrative while experimenting wildly with its battle system.

The story is vintage Final Fantasy – a collection of traditional role-playing tropes set amid a world featuring an effective mix of medieval and steampunk elements. The hero Zael has a lot in common with the likes of Cloud and Cecil, and his infatuation with a runaway princess brings to mind Final Fantasy IX. There's even a flying fortress ala Balamb Garden from Final Fantasy VIII. For some, it will be charming (I'm in that camp), though others may find it distracting.%Gallery-162388% The battle system, however, is another matter entirely. The Last Story offers what is essentially a hybrid of action and strategy roleplaying. There are familiar hack and slash elements in play, and like many modern third-person shooters, it's possible to take cover, but there's also a fair amount of planning that goes into every encounter. Party coordination in particular is paramount.

It's this element of coordination that I like the most. The crux of the system is a magic power that gives Zael certain special abilities when activated, but also makes for an irresistible lure to enemies. There are any number of ways to abuse this power, but I like taking cover, then bursting out and surprising foes with a powerful slash move. While all this is happening, party members can sit back and cast spells, or launch back-and-forth combos with Zael. Spells will leave residual "circles," which can then be activated using one of Zael's special abilities, resulting in devastating consequences for those caught within.

It's a system that has the potential to be horrifically confusing, but I was surprised by how measured it felt. Much of that has to do with the ability to pause the battle, which offers a moment or two to gather one's thoughts, aim Zael's abilities and direct party members. There's definitely a push within The Last Story to think strategically, and there are material rewards for a well-planned assault, such as bonus experience for surprising enemies.

The wide variety of encounters is welcome, especially when facing the large number of bosses peppered throughout the game. One moment, you'll be trying to figure out how to keep a giant spider from stunning and eating your party members. The next, you'll be fighting a necromancer that constantly summons minions while flitting around the room casting spells. Room layouts play a big role in how a battle unfolds thanks to the cover system, and the partially destructible environments will occasionally offer more than one way to solve a problem. It was the large assortment of challenges in particular that kept me engaged throughout the adventure.

On the whole, it's a nicely designed system, and definitely The Last Story's main selling point. I suspect that the designers are aware of this, because the battles commence almost immediately, with less time than usual being given over to the usual chit-chat. The overall structure is like something out of Diablo – crawl through a dungeon, return to the hub for story tidbits and upgrades, then on to the next dungeon.

For some, that may leave The Last Story feeling a little cramped. Those who are used to big, open adventures will have to content themselves with one reasonably large city and a handful of other areas, albeit with a fair number of optional sidequests. If you're looking something akin to the sprawling Xenoblade Chronicles, well, you've been warned. All told, there's about 35 hours of story quests and sidequests, and most of the content is quite easy.

Personally, I found The Last Story to be a refreshing change of pace. It didn't feel too long or too short; and even at the 10-hour mark, I felt I had done quite a bit. There are also a lot of nice little touches that serve as a reminder that this is the work of a veteran team. I like, for instance, that armor and weapons become increasingly elaborate as they are upgraded with money and other materials, and I like that low-level parties can activate summon circles and battle a handful of enemies for experience and loot (think of it like on-demand grinding). The only element that falls a bit flat is the multiplayer, which features traditional deathmatch and very stripped down co-op that functions as something of a boss rush.

The overall impression of The Last Story is that of a design team that had grown a bit restive in designing traditional role-playing games and wanted to try something new. What they've come up with manages to be original yet pleasingly familiar. It's elements are very well-executed, though some of the more elaborate encounters can really make the Wii chug. I suspect that experienced role-playing fans will find it a bit on the easy side, but The Last Story nevertheless has plenty of merit, and is certainly one of the better Wii games ever made. If this is the new, more experimental side of Sakaguchi, then count me among those eager for more.

This review is based on a retail copy The Last Story, provided by XSEED.

Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

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