The creative maturity of Hironobu Sakaguchi's Last Story

There must be a fascinating behind-the-scenes story as to how XSEED managed to get a hold of the localization rights for The Last Story. Ordinarily, Nintendo has a death grip on the rights to its games: If they don't localize it, no one does. XSEED, for their part, say they "got lucky."

The Last Story is the most recent RPG by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, as well as the natural companion to Xenoblade Chronicles, which arrived last month. Both headlined last year's Operation Rainfall petition, along with Pandora's Tower, forever joining them at the hip. Much like Monolith Soft's opus Chronicles, Sakaguchi seems determined to say something new about the genre he once helped create.

In many ways though, Last Story goes even further than Xenoblade Chronicles in experimenting with genre conventions. It eschews traditional party-based combat, for instance, and instead mixes cover-based melee combat with squad combat, which gives it a rather unique flavor, particularly among Wii games. Mixing things up even further is the ability to essentially draw perfect aggro with an ability earned halfway through the game's introductory dungeon, which plays a large role in the battle with the first boss, a spiked beast that must ultimately be lured to its doom on a nearby bridge.

Last Story is interesting to me because it has some of the trappings of modern third-person shooters, like cover, but I wouldn't necessarily call it an "action RPG." Even early on, enemy encounters feel like a bit of a puzzle to be solved, rather than an exercise in pure reflexes. At times, it's not even necessary to engage enemy monsters. Simply ordering a teammate to blow up a nearby bridge is occasionally enough to send them plummeting to their doom.

I find it fascinating that Sakaguchi opted to take such a unique approach to Last Story. This is the same guy who claims the nostalgia-fest RPG Final Fantasy IX as his favorite of the series, then went on to develop Lost Odyssey, which mixes traditional Japanese storytelling with a battle system that hearkens back to the 16-bit era.

That's not to say Sakaguchi has completely abandoned his comfort zone. Last Story still has the look of a Final Fantasy game, down to the mix of technology and fantasy, and more than a few people have commented on the similarity between the titles. Some of the character archetypes, like the magic-wielding heroine of noble birth who longs to explore the world, are also straight out of the Final Fantasy playbook. These trappings are somewhat comforting, especially amid such a radically different battle system.

The key to understanding The Last Story, I think, is that it still retains much of the essence of what drove classical console-based RPG. Party members are still very important, for example, and it largely eschews hack-and-slash combat. The thoughtful strategy, meanwhile, almost evokes Final Fantasy Tactics in the way that each enemy position is carefully documented using an overhead camera.

In developing The Last Story, Sakaguchi commented that he was throwing all of his energy into the project, as if it were his last project. In many ways, it does indeed feel like this project has reenergized Sakaguchi and his studio. There's a creative vibrancy here that was lacking in both Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey. There's a sense that Sakaguchi has reclaimed the energy and creativity that once drove him to make Final Fantasy, which he really did figure would be his last game at one point.

Final Fantasy was a desperate effort, though. Sakaguchi's career was on the line. Now, 25 years later, the desperation has been replaced by a creative maturity that is no less potent, and has resulted in one of this year's most intriguing RPGs.

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.