This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.
When Hironobu Sakaguchi set out to make The Last Story, one of his main goals was to make something new. It was an approach that made him nervous.
"With this title, I felt strongly that as the creator of the game, I was laying myself bare, and I was anxious about how the customers would respond to my ideas," Sakaguchi said in an Iwata Asks feature released by Nintendo. "At the same time, there are certain unique things I want to do and express, and in the end, I don't think that my approach is mistaken."
In the end, Sakaguchi was indeed vindicated. The Last Story was met with solid reviews, and was praised in large part because of its creative battle system. All told, it's a nice story of a developer breaking out of its comfort zone to create a new and interesting game, and it's worth reading the full interview to see how The Last Story ultimately came out. I don't think it needs to be the whole story though.
It's in part because The Last Story incorporates so many new elements that I would like to see it adopted in some way by other RPG developers – especially strategy RPG developers. The Last Story can't really be pegged in any particular genre; but it does have a fair amount in common with strategy RPGs. It's not grid-based, or even turn-based, but it does place a premium on enemy placement, for example, by making it possible to knock out casters or other hazards using alternative methods.
Playing The Last Story, my mind went to another Nintendo-exclusive RPG series: Fire Emblem. I've always liked Fire Emblem because it feels as much like a dungeon crawler as it does a strategy game. Objectives are typically centered around reaching a certain location in a castle or a field, and there's usually treasure to be found if you're willing to go out of your way to look (don't wait too long though, because a thief might grab the goods and make a run for it).
Can Intelligent Systems find a way to build on what The Last Story has started? There doesn't necessarily need to be a large hub city with the sidequests and the like. I imagine this new Fire Emblem would be divided up by chapter, as usual, with each dungeon serving as a map of sorts. The trick would be finding a way to deal with the much larger parties that would be inherent to a Fire Emblem game. Some serious thought would definitely have to go into designing the actual enemy encounters, and it could make for some exciting large-scale battles. As with the real Last Story, I expect the element that would keep things from getting too far out of hand would be the ability to pause the battle and direct individuals in a concerted attack.
If not Fire Emblem or strategy RPGs in general, I imagine that The Last Story's system could work in any number of other contexts. The nice thing about Last Story is that it fills so many niches; it has both action elements and tactical elements, and it demonstrates a deft touch in maximizing both without allowing one to overwhelm the other. It doesn't quite feel like an MMO, and it definitely isn't an action game like Kingdom Hearts. It is, as Sakaguchi said, something new.
With a new console generation on the way and the genre in transition, Sakaguchi's ideas are uniquely positioned to be relevant to a whole new set of RPGs. In a recent interview, Final Fantasy producer Yoshinori Kitase said that he feels audiences are trending away from turn-based systems and toward action RPGs. It's a trend, he said, that you ignore "at your own peril." As a game that occupies a kind of middle ground between the two, The Last Story would seem well-placed to appeal to both traditionalists and newcomers. Imagine the irony if Final Fantasy XV ended up incorporating a variant of The Last Story's battle system.
Whether the ideas forwarded by The Last Story are ultimately embraced by developers will come down to the usual factors – sales figures and Metacritic scores. Sales will likely be modest given that the Wii has largely fallen out of favor with core gamers on both sides of the oceans, but reviews have thus far been positive. Another developer will likely have to make a leap of faith in taking The Last Story's ideas and running with them. But sometimes it only takes one or two studios picking up a new idea to start a trend.
Based on my experiences, they are ideas that certainly deserve to be picked up. In developing The Last Story, one of the foremost RPG developers of our time worked as if it would be his very last game. It would be a shame if such efforts were to go unnoticed.
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.