Zur deutschen Seite.
(Deutsche und englische Artikel,
deutsche Oberfläche.)

Read the German page.
(German and English articles,
with German interface.)

Read the English page.
(Only English articles,
with English interface.)

Zur englischen Seite.
(Nur englische Artikel,
englische Oberfläche.)

Archiv der Kategorie ‘Strategy’

Hironobu Sakaguchi’s The Last Story

Dienstag, 22. März, 2011
The Last Story begins...

The Last Story begins…

Hironobu Sakaguchi has an eye for talent, he understands what kind of game-play works and who can make things work. It didn’t seem that way when he produced one commercial failure after the other during the early Square days. But when he made Final Fantasy, one of the first original Japanese role-playing games, he finally found his genre: As he himself commented he’s much better at telling a story then at making an action game.

Inside this story heavy genre he still tried different things, leaning both towards the action side of the spectrum with the Final Fantasy spin-off Mana series and the Nintendo co-produced Super Mario RPG, and towards the strategy side with Front Mission and Final Fantasy Tactics. Some of the risks he took payed off big, like betting on the CD medium and polygonal 3D graphics, which gained his already successful Final Fantasy series worldwide recognition. His attempts at an expensive Final Fantasy CGI movie and a Final Fantasy version of the fresh MMORPG genre were perceived as flops though and Sakaguchi took responsibility for these commercial failures and left the company he made what it is today, right around the time it merged with its biggest rival, Enix.

His newly founded company Mistwalker is made up of only a few people and most of the colleagues he had worked with before stayed at Square, Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu being the biggest exception. Most of the development side of Mistwalker games is left to other companies who work under Sakaguchi’s guidance. The first two of which were high profile titles funded by Microsoft who probably hoped Sakaguchi could recreate the success of Final Fantasy on their new Xbox360 console. That didn’t quite work out and so the following titles ended up being more low budget games for Nintendo DS, which also allowed Mistwalker to be more experimental with these titles and explore the more niche RPG sub-genres. They were mostly strategy RPGs and a few action ones as well.

The experiences gained with these smaller bridge titles show in Mistwalker’s latest (and maybe last) traditional RPG The Last Story, which fuses these two genres masterfully while retaining the typical RPG framework. While Sakaguchi didn’t feel confident to make a good action game he always knew how to spice up turned based RPGs with some action elements, like the timing based bonus damage he introduced in Mario RPG and reused in Final Fantasy VIII and Lost Odyssey. Another example being the seamless battles inside the same exploration maps typical of action game which made the turn based grinding in Chrono Trigger much less distracting. The Last Story takes quite a few steps more into this direction though, more on which below.

Elza and Quark talking in old school strategy RPG presentation style

Elza and Quark talking in old school strategy RPG presentation style, used in select dialogues

With Mistwalker Sakaguchi seemed to mostly draw upon his previous work. Blue Dragon owes a lot to Chrono Trigger, his collaboration with his JRPG rival Yūji Horii. The immortal hero storyline in Lost Odyssey owes a lot to the critically acclaimed Glory of Heracles games, which started off the career of Playstation era Final Fantasy scenario writer Kazushige Nojima. Nojima was just one of many game creators washing up at Square during the SNES days, who then contributed to some of the biggest hits of the following Playstation era. Another one was Yasumi Matsuno and many of his colleagues from Quest. The Last Story owes a lot to Final Fantasy Tactics, which was a Final Fantasy version of Quest’s strategy RPG masterpiece Tactics Ogre, re-imagined by most of its original team, but produced by Sakaguchi at Square.

This is (not) a Matsuno game

Physical weapons can be endowed with the element of a spell casted

Physical weapons can be endowed with the element of a spell casted

When The Last Story was announced for Wii the developer Sakaguchi collaborated with this time wasn’t revealed right away and only referred to by his initial Mr. M on the Mistwalker blog. There had been rumors that Matsuno had been working on a Wii title ever since he quit work on Final Fantasy XII before it was finished and made a promotion interview for Nintendo’s Wii where he stressed the possibilities Wii offered for creating new intuitive ways to control a player character. Obviously many fans (including myself) were hoping Mr. M from the Mistwalker blog might be Matsuno. But it was later revealed that Mr. M was in fact Takuya Matsumoto (who had worked with Mistwalker before as director of Blue Dragon) and The Last Story, for all its innovative game-play, completely ignores the Wii specific control methods.

But nevertheless this game is so very reminiscent of Final Fantasy XII and the whole Matsuno style it begs the question if Mistwalker didn’t try to make a Matsuno game, even without his personal involvement maybe. The cryptic M-san abbreviation only lends to stir likewise rumors. As in Final Fantasy XII the environments are rich renderings of medieval places with too many characters walking around to all have their own dialogue. Instead there are some that can be talked to indicated by an A above their head, and some who can be overheard when walking by or addressing the player character when they spot him. As in FFXII the battles are seamless and occur in the same environments which the characters walk, talk and live in. As in FFXII lines indicate character targeting their enemy for attack. It’s pretty clear where Mistwalker got their inspiration from with The Last Story.

Taking aim, and checking the enemy's weak spot as well

Taking aim, and checking the enemy’s weak spot as well

But they manage to best Matsuno at his own style and to bring a lot of the kind of strategic game-play his previous games offered to a more traditional RPG with fully rendered game world. It’s of course to be expected that they would expand on what FFXII did right and remedy the problems. One problem being that the battles were mostly automatic and boring exercises at watching rather than playing. The programmable Gambits only demonstrated how formulaic most of Final Fantasy battle strategy was without living up to the potential of what it added to them, positioning the characters in a 3D play-field. In The Last Story on the other hand, attacks are still activated automatically but the terrain and obstacles in it are much more important. Hiding behind corners, making use of difference in height, projectile attacks, surrounding enemies, all these concepts from Matsuno’s Tactics games are incorporated by real time actions borrowed from stealth games like Metal Gear Solid and other action oriented titles.

When Matsuno himself took the step to real time controls with Vagrant Story he reduced the amount of party members to one and the number of foes battled simultaneously to three. These limitations were also due to the switch from sprites to polygon models and the Playstation hardware not being powerful enough to render more characters in real time. In Final Fantasy XII the party had three simultaneous player characters (mostly because that was the number now typical for the series) and hordes of enemies to battle at any one time. Still a far cry from the five or more characters per team in Matsuno’s strategy games and in the game Matsuno was actually working on recently, a remake of his Tactics Ogre for PSP, one of the main innovations is increasing the party size even more to allow for more dynamic battles. The Last Story takes the same route and has around five simultaneous party members on average, sometimes more, sometimes less, and often thrice as many enemies, with back ups joining the fight mid battle.

Use Wind to pause the game and dash to the left magic circle to heal all your allies or to the right one to break the enemies' defense with fire

Use Wind to pause the game and dash to the left magic circle to heal all your allies or to the right one to break the enemies‘ defense with fire

The big hurdle is of course how to strategically control this many characters in real time. As in FFXII the characters act independently based on AI with optional menu controls. But the game also gives the main character many ways to work with his fellow party members and the effects of the spells they cast. He gains the ability to draw enemies towards himself when he triggers his Gathering stance. This way he can keep them away from magic casting allies or lead them to magic circles, i.e. the areas where spells are at work. He can also revive fallen allies by touching them in Gathering mode, use his Wind ability to quickly move along the battle field, and interrupt enemy spells or widen the effect of ally spells, by moving onto their magic circles with this dash ability. Usage of this special skills is limited by meters building during battle and each character has five lives per battle which limits the times they can be revived. Another cue from the action genre, so instead of stocking up on heal items and keeping one’s magic points up the player has to keep track of what his allies are doing, to help them and make best use of their spells as well.

Gathering can also be used in combination with hiding behind parts of the surroundings to disorient foes and ambush them for extra damage. There’s a wealth of possible actions most of which map to one single button respectively that does the same thing regardless of context. For example C will activate Gathering, no matter if you’re attacking or defending by holding B. So it’s easy to remember these techniques without the controls getting convoluted. Few of them require precise timing and for all the action game-play it boils down to choosing the right action for the right moment and occupying places which work to one’s advantage. If the battle gets hectic there’s abilities like Wind which pause the real time action and allow to look around the field to get an overview. Before a battle starts there’s often a top-down view on the surroundings complete with enemy formations and strategy discussion with the other party members. Since the party is a team of fellow mercenaries interesting and atmospheric dialogue abounds before and during the battles, with members providing hints or asking for help.

Bumping into people

But the surroundings aren’t just important during battles. In previous RPGs there were frequent awkward situations where you couldn’t advance your character on screen because someone or something was in the way. Maybe the obstacle was just overlapping your way by a few pixels but still movement was obstructed. Or a clueless non player character wandering around randomly just didn’t try the one direction where they could go out of the way. In The Last Story you can bump into people, even knocking them over. Normally you won’t want to do that of course so for the first time you will find yourself avoiding NPCs when walking around the streets. If you still bump into one, on purpose or accidentally, many will react to that, scold you, get angry or sometimes even cheer for you one once they realize who you are. The latter type are mostly kids who admire the hero for being so cool or girls having a crush on him.

Look where you're going! Or where you're running from...

Look where you’re going! Or where you’re running from…

This collision detection feature becomes crucial during run and chase sequences. Bumping into people will slow you down and you may even knock your head against a hanging sign. You can also look behind you by holding B which changes the camera perspective, which of course also increases the possibility to bump into people which only come into view when you’re right next to them.

Taking a look around

When you press and hold Z the game changes to a first person perspective which is used to aim a projectile weapon or simply look around the vicinity. Sometimes a Z icon will appear to alarm you of things to spot. It’s like an instinct that makes you aware of things your were going to pass by. If you find spots with a box around them you notice things in a distance or items/bonuses lying around. These can then be interacted with, triggering scenes or strategic choices in battle, where you can give commands to the other party members. This way NPCs, treasures, passages and even whole story chapters can be discovered. The chapters are mostly predetermined events but the order in which they can be found isn’t wholly linear. Much of the narrative is a result of traditional RPG exploration and listening to NPCs. There’s side quests revolving around procuring materials and trading resources, buying for cheap and selling when prices have risen.

The town is cozy and small but quite detailed

The town is cozy and small but quite detailed

The scope of the world in The Last Story is limited to only a few places, the story taking place mostly on Ruri Island and the sea surrounding it. But this means that the town below the castle, even though it’s not that big, is rendered in realistic detail and many little episodes and events can be discovered. The game as a whole is a bit on the short side, looking high budget but keeping the cost down by concentrating on fewer locales which do offer at least the same amount of richness as in FFXII, but being fewer in number. Instead of a journey over the whole globe it’s a more personal story, revolving around two island nations.

You’re (not) free

Many RPGs today allow a wealth of customization, letting the player choose what to learn and how to combine abilities. The Last Story on the other hand goes for the story governed style Sakaguchi already used in his defining Final Fantasy entry, FFIV. As in that classic, who is in your party and its size, what abilities each character learns, all this is defined by the story and the role of the characters in it. There’s some customization involved in what equipment you use but this is simply pre-battle strategy, for which there’s some room to express your personal style. More important are the strategic decisions during battle, which you’ll have to do in real time. Freedom in performance is used as a tool to put pressure on you, allowing you to shape the details rather than the greater narrative.

But like mentioned above, The Last Story isn’t quite as linear as Final Fantasy IV was. There are always optional events in any RPG and The Last Story has those as well, but whole chapters being skippable or in need of discovering, the game lets you choose your own pace as well as what aspects of your player character your interested in and want to see developed and illuminated. You play Elza, member of a band of mercenaries, who come to Ruri Island on one of their journeys. They get hired to work as body guards for the royal family, backing up the knights of the court. The Gathering ability Elza acquired on his way to Ruri Island draws the attention of Count Arganan to him, who is interested in utilizing this force from a foreign land for his political agenda.

The castle's throne room

The castle’s throne room

When war breaks out Elza is asked to become the savior of Ruri Island and he even gets a chance to become a true knight instead of a lowly mercenary,1 Fußnotenauszug: In this way The Last Story is a shusse-mono (career story), the most popular genre of mass literature during the late middle ages, end of Muromachi to Tokugawa period. In the fantasy themed otogi-zōshi for commoners, which compare to Western fairytales, usually a person of low descent acquires great riches by making a career, gaining almost aristocratic or samurai status. This was a very appealin... a dream he has shared with his other fellow mercenaries and their leader Quark. A dream that is at odds with the one he soon starts to share with Princess Kanan: She knows that knights are used for unjust wars and would rather not see her lover Elza become a knight.

The story includes many more motives from JRPG lore and especially Sakaguchi’s works: the locked up princess seeking freedom, having to follow orders the hero doesn’t agree with, taking to the seas to travel to foreign countries, being trialed in court, escaping from prison, acquiring legendary power, magic disappearing from the world, nature on the brink of destruction… If you played RPGs before there aren’t many new concepts that haven’t been done already. But The Last Story manages to combine these motives in new ways, staying unpredictable without giving up on the mature approach to the setting it also borrows from Matsuno’s style.

We hate predictable

Party members take guard near wherever you need to go next, although here it's kind of obvious...

Party members take guard near wherever you need to go next, although here it’s kind of obvious…

It manages to do this by keeping everything fast paced and throwing out the filler. You can relax in the city at times and do little side-quests, but the main story is very tight and dramatic. Also since the story is played rather than just watched, the stage of the story, i. e. the play-fields are essential to keeping everything unpredictable. Locales, as well as the layouts of the rooms and places you traverse, change all the time to keep both the narrative and the action fresh. This is especially, but not only, apparent during battles. Every single battle is unique and meaningful, both in dialogue and in strategy. And since the strategy depends largely on the terrain, it’s easy to visualize what is kept abstract in many other RPGs.

Battlefields might be tight passages or wide open areas, elevated platforms to hurl foes down from or wet ponds. Obstacles abound, to hide behind, roll over or even smash. The terrain has to be considered to plan your movement as well as to find opportunities to use the environment against the opponent. Party members also change all the time, people join and leave from fight to fight, the party splitting up in dungeons with branching paths or getting support from the court knights stationed at different parts of Ruri Island when it’s under attack. The player has to keep adapting to ever changing situations and won’t be finding themselves doing the same things over and over again. Sometimes you’ll have to remember an ability you didn’t use in a while, but the other party members will remind you in helpful real time dialogue. There are no unnecessary battles unless you choose to grind at enemy summoning spots or by going back to already cleared dungeons. The frequency of battle isn’t constantly high either, often you will expect to have to fight in certain situations but they end up being events without enemy confrontation.

Battles are a part of the story, too

Magician's have to give up their hiding to cast their spells, which makes them float into the air

Magician’s have to give up their hiding to cast their spells, which makes them float into the air

Even with FFXII some ideas of Matsuno’s strategy RPGs were already applied to traditional RPGs, but the high battle rate and experience building style remained untouched. The Last Story is more thorough in bringing Final Fantasy Tactics type of game-play to the traditional RPG framework, giving up on repetitive simple battles and making every battle count by meaningfully incorporating them into the story. The battles being seamless, the player always in control over the movement of his avatar, this gives battle and exploration a common style. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a city or in a cave, if you’re listening to NPCs or fighting lizards, most of the basic controls are the same in all situations. You can even shoot banana peels to make NPCs trip and fall, same as enemies by freezing the ground beneath them.

The only thing interrupting this common interactive story telling mode are of course the cut scenes, but even these can be fiddled with. You can adjust the camera slightly or fast forward a scene, no matter if you’ve seen it before or not. Instead of just skipping whole scenes you still have to watch them at high speed, so game and story cannot be divorced from each other. Every bit of game-play is enacted story, every automatic event retains a minimum of interaction.2 Except for the few pre-rendered cut scenes which really can only skipped entirely.


Choosing your character, battlefield and team preference in the Versus Lobby

Choosing your character, battlefield and team preference in the Versus Lobby

When you have cleared the game or just want to take a break from the story you can also use the multi-player mode to battle with people all over the world. Up to six players can duke it out in versus, battle royal style or in teams of two, or join to fight some of the in-game bosses again. You can freely choose your character in these, from all of the party members and in versus even guest allies and human(oid) bosses are selectable. Playing as a magician or boss is really fun as you play as Elza for most of the main game. Everything’s in real time and lag was not an issue, playing from Germany over the Japanese servers. Finding people to play with is quick too, as is lobby navigation.

Choosing what to say

Choosing what to say

To communicate with other players four pages of preselectable voice messages are available. Some of these are also mapped to direction keys and events to quickly access even during battle. All the messages can be selected from large lists of expressions by all the in-game characters, grouped by situation to use it in. If you don’t want to bother finding the best ones for you, two pages are preselected with all purpose lines automatically expressing things like saying „hallo“, „thanks“ or „heal me“.

The battle system translates really well to multiplayer, with some adjustments: resurrecting fallen allies is available to all characters in boss battle mode, not just Elza. Gathering is disabled, but everyone has their own Wind-like technique and projectile attacks. Aiming Wind doesn’t interrupt the game flow (and movement of the other players)  but needs to be done in real time. The surroundings can still be used strategically and the selectable fields offer variety even though they’re few in number.

The Last Story?

The Last Story...

The Last Story…

If this game indeed turns out to be the last game Sakaguchi ever makes, there couldn’t be a better one to remain as his legacy. This game, for all purposes, succeeds brilliantly at what it does and there’s no real criticism to address. It’s quite perfect and finally brings all three schools of RPG together, retaining their best parts. Even the graphics, though technically limited by the Wii platform, are impressive both in style and in detail rendered on screen. You couldn’t claim that the game-play is limited in any way by horsepower either, considering the way all the design choices fall into place to create an experience that is never annoying and always rewarding. The difficulty starts out pretty low to ease the player into the many complex yet accessible game-play systems, but towards the end the challenge rises considerably, making the clever battles all the more rewarding.

As with previous Mistwalker titles, since it lacks the brand recognition of Final Fantasy and isn’t published by major RPG publisher Square Enix, sales didn’t live up to Sakaguchi’s earlier success titles but the game-play is as good, and in many places even better, than Square Enix‘ recent efforts, like Final Fantasy XIII or Dissidia. To put it simply, The Last Story turned out to be the game I expected Final Fantasy XII to be. If Matsuno’s team gets another shot at doing a mainline Final Fantasy game I hope they will closely look at what The Last Story achieved and try to outdo their prodigal imitators. And maybe the higher ups at Square Enix will have more trust in the possibility of making a strategic game that is accessible to casual gamers even without being dumbed down.

  1. In this way The Last Story is a shusse-mono (career story), the most popular genre of mass literature during the late middle ages, end of Muromachi to Tokugawa period. In the fantasy themed otogi-zōshi for commoners, which compare to Western fairytales, usually a person of low descent acquires great riches by making a career, gaining almost aristocratic or samurai status. This was a very appealing dream in times of rigid class systems and it’s interesting how The Last Story goes back to this genre which in a way started popular fantasy in Japan. The motives in these stories draw upon the older aristocratic literature tradition constituting high culture, in fact most of the otogi-zōshi stories originate from the court environment but were retold for the common people later. So court nobles and samurai in a way set the standard for the common people, which is (critically) reflected in The Last Story by Elza and his friends wanting to become knights. []
  2. Except for the few pre-rendered cut scenes which really can only skipped entirely. []