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With the Wii on the way out, North American JRPG fans get a fitting swan song in the form of The Last Story. With a dramatic story, an affable cast of characters, and one of the best battle systems in years, The Last Story is a bittersweet farewell: a fitting end for the Wii’s JRPG library, and a pointed reminder this small catalog had the potential to be so much more.

Kind, adventurous Zael and five of his friends work as mercenaries on the war-torn Lazulis Island, but dream of being knights in service to the stately Count Arganan. After a series of mishaps that culminates in a pitched naval battle, Zael and company find themselves hot on the trail of the evil warlord Zangurak, who seeks an ancient magical force to empower his disenfranchised people. As the plot advances, our heroes grapple with mistaken identities, love triangles, last-minute betrayals, and just about every other trope a JRPG wouldn’t feel complete without.

While on paper, the narrative sounds about as clichéd as they come, The Last Story pulls it off with remarkable acuity thanks to excellent pacing, strong characters, and short, informative cutscenes. There’s nothing particularly novel about Zael becoming a de facto chosen one, or his budding, awkward romance with conflicted noblewoman Calista, but a charming script and constant story advancement keep the plot from tripping over itself. Listening to Zael and his compatriots banter back and forth about booze and muffins is perhaps even more engaging than learning about the climactic war that split the world’s sentient races apart. Buoyed by some inspired voice acting, Zael’s companions – which include a driven swordsman, a petulant mage, and a hard-drinking young lady with a penchant for dual knives – are not terribly deep, but have recognizable personality traits, funny dialogue, and complete character arcs.

The fact that the game never gets bogged down in overlong story minutia is thanks, at least in part, to its innovative combat. The Last Story features fights which embrace the chaotic, fast-paced tempo of a typical action game without sacrificing the kind of strategic gameplay that RPG fans expect. Eschewing turn-based gameplay, battles generally involve Zael’s six-person party, a variety of enemies, and a large battlefield full of places to hide, staircases for leaping attacks, and multiple points of entry for flanking or pincer strategies.

In order to perform a standard attack, Zael simply needs to approach an enemy, at which point the two will go at each other until one of them keels over. As this happens, the rest of the party will generally keep to their own devices, attacking, guarding, or casting magic. The party AI is competent and doesn’t need much micromanagement, but you can still pause the game and issue “attack,” “magic,” or “flee” orders as necessary. As the game progresses, your options will expand, but so will the number of tactics you need to remember. Dodging attacks by rolling away can negate a lot of damage, while hiding behind cover and striking an approaching enemy unawares may take him out in a single hit.

As you level up Zael, you learn increasingly complex techniques, each of which requires a different combination of buttons to activate. Between running up walls, manipulating magic by diffusing area-of-effect fields, and luring specific targets away to pick them off separately, The Last Story keeps battles exciting without ever sacrificing strategic depth. This is particularly evident during the intense boss encounters, which usually require manipulating your surroundings to solve a puzzle in the midst of a chaotic fight.

Battles are usually lots of fun, but they can get messy very easily, with characters and monsters getting stuck on each other or behind scenery. As Zael you can hurtle over his companions or lure enemies away with ranged attacks to get around this, but by the time you’ve repositioned your party, half of your fighting force might already be KO’d. The controls for attacking from behind cover, performing special moves, and running up walls can be sticky at times, and although the camera is relatively helpful, targeting is never quite as clean as it should be.

While level-grinding can bring the game’s challenge down somewhat, The Last Story takes a few very intelligent steps, such as eliminating random encounters and keeping respawning enemies to a minimum, to keep the focus on advancing the story rather than endlessly grinding the same monsters. The game has a plethora of sidequests to confer further experience and items for the game’s robust upgrade system, but most are tedious fetch missions without helpful map waypoints or journal entries. Worse still, it’s possible to miss some of the meatier sidequests entirely, omitting whole chapters from the game.

The game’s high production values only add to The Last Story‘s strengths. The music, composed by industry veteran Nobuo Uematsu, begins with a haunting, mournful string arrangement, and ranges from the frenzied highs in battle to desolate lows during the story’s sadder moments. Large, detailed character models, an impressive array of weapons and armor, and a palette that embraces both subtle earth tones and bright primary colors make this game one of the most attractive on the Wii. However, some of the level backgrounds and layouts are sparse at best and downright ugly at worst, while minor clipping issues during cutscenes can take you out of the experience.

The Last Story makes a few missteps, but they are eminently forgivable when weighed against the game’s resounding creativity and memorable presentation. The Wii could have used a few more JRPGs like this during its heyday, but if there’s only one last story to tell, it stands to reason that it should be one of the best.

Bottom Line: The Last Story isn’t perfect, but its engaging characters and strong gameplay are more than enough to carry it through any rough patches.

Recommendation: If you like JRPGs and own a Wii, this one’s a no-brainer. Action gamers looking for something a little more strategic would be wise to give it a try, too.

[rating=4.5]

This review is based on the Wii version of the game.
Game: The Last Story
Genre: RPG
Developer: Mistwalker
Publisher: XSEED
Platform(s): Wii
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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