The most enduring video game memories that David and I have involve sitting next to each other and playing RPGs. We spent countless hours with Squaresoft RPGs, in particular, so when we heard that The Last Story, by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, was getting a US release we knew that we had to play it and had to talk about it. Here are our ramblings.
Spoiler Alert! Read with your eyes closed if you don’t wanna see them
David: Alright! Let’s do this. This is our conversation/rambling for Chapter 1 of Last Story. This is the first time I’ve appeared on your blog, Dan, so thanks for the opportunity.
Dan: Happy to have you, hermano.
David: I’m really excited about playing through another Sakaguchi/Uematsu production. I think the last one I played was 2 years ago. It was Blue Dragon on the Xbox. It was a pretty good game, but nothing special or memorable. What sort of expectation do you have for Last Story?
Dan: It’s kind of funny how you and I have played the opposite Mistwalker releases. My last Sakaguchi/Uematsu game was Lost Odyssey. That was definitely a Final Fantasy-style game, but I’m expecting something pretty different for The Last Story. I mean, for one thing, it’s an action RPG and, from what I hear, this isn’t a globe-spanning story. It focuses on a single city.
David: I think the only thing I’m going to miss from the globe-spanning story style is zooming around in an airship. I’m getting nostalgic memories now of us flying around the World of Ruin in FFVI when we were kids.
Dan: Perhaps it’ll be good to see Sakaguchi break the mold a little bit, you know? The confined story thing worked out fantastically for Dragon Age 2. That game gets a lot of flack, but, trust me, it’s miles better than Origins mostly because of its smaller scale and tighter focus.
David: Games are getting a lot more complicated and require a lot more detail now. Trying to make a huge world it a big trade off. At least with one city, they are able to focus on making that city alive.
David: So we’ve booted up the game and first thing it shows is a very simple and beautiful title screen. Just pure white and the Last Story logo.
Dan: I think it’s weird that you push ‘A’ to go from an all white title screen to a cave background that requires yet another button press to get to the main menu.
David: Ya, I think it was odd too that you go from a title screen to another title screen. I wonder what’s the significance of it. It’d be interesting to see if it changes during the progress of your game.
Dan: That would make a lot of sense since it seemed like the second title screen was on the Reptid cave.
David: I’m also a really big fan of the opening song. The loop on it is a bit short, but the simple violin piece is beautiful and its simplicity goes well with the title screen.
Dan: I like it too. It’s got that Uematsu touch without being so reminiscent of the Prelude theme. Very soothing and welcoming. “This is a JRPG, guys. Come on in.”
David: I think one of the reasons the Last Story Prelude sounds so different than the FF Prelude is because Last Story started off on the Wii. The FF Prelude started on the NES where they had to work with 8-bit hardware. As the hardware got better, they were able to add more definition to the Prelude, but only to a certain extent because it needed to be similar to the FFI Prelude on the NES to keep the series feel. I think that starting from scratch on a new game gives Uematsu a chance for creative freedom. On Last Story, he doesn’t have follow a set formula for coming up with the music or themes. In fact, I think it was Sakaguchi’s intention to make the whole game feel different from other games he’s produced, or in this case, directed.
Dan: You have to figure that Sakaguchi is poking fun at Square Enix with everything he’s doing here. He built the foundation that they’re slowly wrecking. I don’t know of any other way to read a title like The Last Story and not think, “Oh man, he’s making fun of Final Fantasy.”
David: I haven’t checked it out yet, but the game came with a mini soundtrack of the game. I need to give it a listen sometime.
Dan: I’ve listened to a few tracks. It’s definitely something new. Fantasy-style with a little more oomph. None of the tunes have stood out as instant classics for me yet, but I have slight issues with the way modern fantasy game music starts to sound generic. It’s just me, though. We don’t have to get into it. The action tracks remind me a bunch of Metal Gear Solid music.
David: The game also game with a 44 page Art Gallery. I flipped through it. Have you?
Dan: Just a cursory glance. I like the paper stock, but I haven’t had time to really sit down and flip through it. Funny thing is, this is the first game in a while that’s inspired me to bring the instruction manual to work to browse.
David: I feel a bit conflicted about the character design. It looks very JRPG, which is to be expected from a JRPG. And what I mean about that, I had to play a bit of a guessing game to figure out the gender of some of the characters. I think I was just crossing my fingers that since Sakaguchi lives in Hawaii now, he might have strayed away from this look.
Dan: At the same time I don’t think you can say it’s as bad as the Tetsuya Nomura-dominated designs of FFVII and forward. I mean, much fewer belt buckles, for one. Not to mention that if you couldn’t tell that Syrenne was a lady…well…I dunno, man. It’s definitely got a case of the anime cosplay thing where it feels like these characters are overdone, but then again, just go back and look at the Amano art. Just because we couldn’t tell how detailed and crazy our old sprites actually looked doesn’t mean that their designs weren’t just as androgynous and overdone.
David: That’s very true, but I did have a lot of problems trying to figure out if Yurick is a guy or a girl. I’m trying to think back to Amano’s art. I don’t think I’ve seen a huge amount, but it was at least easy to tell the gender from the clothing of the character alone. Most of Amano’s work was set in medieval times, so the clothing defined it for you. You know, one of these days, I wanna play a JRPG where the protagonist has a normal haircut, one belt, a shirt, and a beer belly. And as he progresses through the game and levels up, he starts getting toned. His stomach goes down and turns to abs, his arms get bigger. It’d be a nice change I think. It’s just ridiculous how, for example, Vaan in FFXII was an androgynous young teenage character and the only reason you knew he was a guy was because he had a six pack. What I’m picturing is some washed up guy who rises to the need of the world and saves them from evil. Like a Bruce Willis RPG.
Dan: I’d play a dudebro RPG like that. It’s not like we don’t get radical character design changes in RPGs, right? Look at FF IV. Halfway through Cecil goes from Dark Knight to Paladin.
David: That’s actually a pretty good example, ya.
Dan: All that aside, I do agree that the character designs aren’t exactly impressive, but the cool thing is that the equipped armor can change the way a character looks. Beyond that, you can dye almost anything they’re wearing. In my game, Zael and Dagran have pink shorts and a pink undershirt, respectively.
David: Haha, that’s great. It seems like the whole concept of customizing your appearance is becoming more and more popular. I understand how difficult it must be for programmers to make cutscenes where for one player, Zael looks normal, but for you he’ll be all decked out in pink. I played a little bit of Final Fantasy Crystal Bearers on the Wii. In that game, you can change the emblem on the back of your jacket. To complete the emblem, you need to provide materials and each material adds a different stat to your emblem. It’s a cool concept.
Dan: I think they have a similar thing with dyes that need unlocking in this game, but I don’t know enough about that yet.
David: So you’re going to have a band of pink mercenaries. I think I’ll deck mine out in Orange and Blue to support the Florida Gators. But I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that for a bit. So let’s start the game.
Dan: What’s the first thing you do as soon as you get control of a character in any game? I pretty much always open the options menu and go through everything.
David: I guess I never thought about it. I think I run in a few circles and play with the camera to get the feel of the game. But Last Story didn’t let me dilly dally. It opened with Dagran and Syrenne and felt like I didn’t have time to just run in circles because Syrenne kept running off ahead of me and yakking away about how she was going to kill more monsters than me. And I just had to make sure I beat her.
Dan: So I bet you didn’t find the hidden treasure that was right behind where you started? If you would have just run backwards there was a wall to kick down and a chest containing a Heart of the Outsider.
David: Are you serious?!?!?
Dan: Oh yeah, dude. Right there right behind where you start. Where are your JRPG instincts?
David: I never thought they’d do something like that RIGHT off the bat. What does the Heart of the Outsider do?
Dan: I think its description says it’s for item upgrades? I’m not really sure yet. I bet you can’t get the ultimate weapon now.
David: You’re killing me Sakaguchi!!! I might have to restart and go get it.
Dan: I doubt it’s that vital a treasure, but who knows?! There are generally two styles to introducing your characters and story. There’s the FF VII way where you’re a stranger like Cloud and you’re just getting introduced to everyone and their dynamics. Then there’s the way that The Last Story chooses to do things. Everyone already knows each other and has pre-determined relationships that you’re experiencing in media res, so to speak.
David: I think the FFVII way is the easiest for the story teller. Since you’re an outsider, everything needs to be explained to you. So explaining the game and the dynamics is natural.
Dan: Very true. I admit to being very confused upon first meeting this mercenary group. I didn’t know who I was, who all the players were, or what was going on. It was jarring, but I felt like I caught up fairly quickly. The establishing cutscene that showed after the first battle helped to flesh out the relationships. From my brief time with the game, here’s what I think about the characters:
Dagran – Cool as a cucumber. The almost chilly leader type we’ve all seen in anime.
Syrenne – Your typical brash, unrefined lady. She’s not there to talk pretty or mince words
Yurick – I honestly didn’t get much of his characterization in Chapter 1. He’s the mage.
Zael – Skipping ahead a little bit, he’s the guy who always has to protect everyone due to his inability to protect a certain loved one.
The fact that I could understand who most of these guys were in 30 minutes is both good and kind of worrisome for me. A lot of anime/JRPGs nowadays rarely get much deeper than, “This is the moody one.” What do you think of how cliched some of the characters to already be?
David: I did recognize a few anime/JRPG cliches. After the first battle, the game shows us a flashback of the group in a tavern and Dagran is explaining the job from Count Arganan. The flashback showed some girl in a jacket whose collar comes pretty high. She seemed like a really quiet and shy character and I instantly thought, oh, she’s just like Hinata Hyuga from Naruto.
Dan: I’m pretty sure she’ll end up being your usual quiet, emotionless girl to counter the loud Syrenne.
David: 20 bucks says she also has a crush on Zael.
Dan: We shall see!
David: So I think it was after the first battle that I went into the options menu and switched my fighting style to manual. Since you immediately switched to manual, let me tell you what I observed in normal. The way you attacked the enemy was just by running at them. And when you get close enough, Dagran would do his attacks and even combos. For me, switching to manual makes it a lot more fun and challenging. I’m not even sure yet how to do combos.
Dan: The combo issue is actually why I swapped back for now. Normal mode seemed to have little cinematic accents that I couldn’t recreate with buttons just yet. I swapped back and forth a few times during Ch. 1 and I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I’m set back to Normal mode now.
David: So after the battle and the cutscene, we’ve got control of Zael and androgynous Yurick, right? Any super rare items here? I didn’t see any.
Dan: I didn’t run into any other secret chambers along the way. I think at about this point they also introduce the Seek system or something like that. It lets you target certain things/objects/special points to complete a tactical action. In this case you had to choose how to handle some snipers. Destroy the bridge with magic or take them out yourself.
David: I chose magic, how about you?
Dan: The same. Seemed the most expedient solution. What do you think of this system layered on top of the battle system? Too much? I know when I had arrows and seek points and all of that it felt a little overwhelming.
David: I like it, but I keep forgetting about it too. When I enter seek mode, I’m immediately in sniper mindset and I want to snipe. I had a few issues where I was trying to snipe and the best decision was magic. Made me a little sad to give Yurick all the fun. I do like the system as a way of controlling your team members though.
Dan: I also really appreciated the tactical overview view that preceded battles from then on. Everything feels very tactical. Your party members are always hiding behind cover as they advance and they set up a flanking maneuver right off the bat. It still feels a little chaotic to me, but it’s also not out of control.
David: I did like how it felt when we’re running through the corridors and my teammates were jumping from cover to cover. It made me feel like an idiot just running straight through. I tried hiding from cover to cover, but it was just taking too long. So the first real tactical battle you see is the one after the first mini boss, where there’s a healing mage, a fire mage, and a couple of melee guys, right?
Dan: Yeah. Your instructions are to flank the group and shoot the mages with Wizard Arrows.
David: This point of the game really made me feel like the game was a mix between Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 and something like Phantsy Star On-line: a hack and slash RPG, but you sneak around and breach the perimeter. It felt really cool. I did the suggested route where I sniped the healing mage in the head with the Wizard Slayer arrows. Did you do the same?
Dan: Yep, I was all over that. Flipping over as many blocks by running at them with block up. It was pretty epic.
David: I like that blocking only reduces the amount of damage taken. It really encourages the Dive feature. After taking out the mage, I started hacking at the melee guys. While doing so, I took notice of the fire mage’s casting counter and I just barely made it to him in time to hit him. In this game, hitting someone mid cast restarts their counter. I think this is also a neat feature. It also works both ways, so you need to protect Yurick while he/she is casting his/her spells.
Dan: Oh man, I did the exact same thing! I only saw one mage in the tactical view so I had no idea there was another guy lurking!
David: Did you notice how you can also display information about units with the “+” button?
Dan: Yeah, weaknesses and other info.
David: It’s useful, but in a real time fight, I’m having to focus between reading the info and dodging attacks. It makes me anxious, but I like that they make you feel anxious during a battle. In addition to trying to focus on these things, sometimes our party members start chatting away and that’s also distracting. I love it.
Dan: The story continues after the battle with the always stellar decision to split up. Naturally the bone piles reanimate forcing Zael and Syrenne to flee to a dead end where she is ignobly shot through the heart (and you’re too late!)
David: That’s why splitting up is NEVER a good idea. I just can’t take the whole splitting up idea. This scene where Syrenne is shot is very interesting actually. It had me wondering a lot how Sakaguchi would deal with the concept of death in the game. FFVII gets a lot of crap because throughout the whole game a party member can die in battle and you can just use a phoenix down to revive them, until… well, you know.
Dan: I’m so glad you went straight to FF VII, Dave, because the first thing I thought was, “Oh, is Sakaguchi trying to have an Aerith moment here?” and it’s just so, so perfect because I’m pretty sure he decided to make fun of FF VII by having Zael immediately gain the power to revive her and then DO JUST THAT! We’re not playing a Final Fantasy game, guys!
David: What does bother me is this: Some weird stuff happens that no one but Zael is there for. But then the gang shows up, your arm is all weird, you’re using strange light powers, and you bring Syrenne from the dead, and they don’t take a moment to ask “Wait, what just happened Zael?” They just kinda accept it and from then on just turn to you and say ‘Use that new power thing you’ve got’
Dan: “You only just got this thing and none of us understand what it is, but we know exactly what it can do without having to figure it out. Use your Gathering powers, dude!” I mean, it’s not exactly that bad, but it’s pretty bad. What worried me more was the flashback to the death of his mother and Zael’s inability to protect her. I guess this is the “big motivation” for our protagonist, but, man, it’s kind of been done…a bunch.
David: The use of the flashbacks is pretty cool so far. I’m expecting down the road we’ll see a lot more flashbacks, especially of Zael’s mom. Whenever you get around to flipping through the Art Gallery that came with the game, you’ll see there’s some designs on Zael’s mom, as well as Zael and Dragan as kids. I’m expecting some chapter of the game being dedicated to them as kids. I also guess that Dragan and Zael are childhood friends. We don’t know too much yet about their dynamics, but that’s my guess. Speaking of which, I want to start a group mutiny. Dragan appears to be the leader, but people listen to me in battle and I have cool powers, I think Zael should take over. First thing I’d do is make Yurick choose a gender and put Syrenne in rehab.
Dan: More importantly, like you said before, Dagran appears to be keeping secrets from the group. He seemed to know that there would be more to the Count’s mission than to just kill Reptids in the cave.
David: I almost forgot about that. He does some muttering here and there that makes you think that he knows more than you. It’s also never explained why the Count cares to have this area cleared, is it?
Dan: Not that I know of.
David: So what do you think of Zael’s newly acquired Gathering ability? It seems like the spirit gave it to him just because they both feel lonely, or something like that.
Dan: It lacks subtlety, but I’m absolutely in favor of mechanics as metaphor in games. Zael’s got those mommy issues that make him want to protect everyone and now he’s got a power that will enable him to sacrifice himself as much as his body will bear it. It lets him revive his friends too.
David: In a sense, that’s exactly what this power does. It’s really him taking all the aggro, all the damage onto himself. Both physically and emotionally. I like that you can only resurrect people a finite amount of times too. It definitely helps too when you’re trying to help Yurick cast his/her spells.
Dan: It’s the perfect ability for the party leader to have since it allows you to control enemy aggression. I like the mechanic.
David: That’s right Dagran! Step up to the plate! You’re slacking as a leader. Vote Zael for the 2012 elections!
Dan: What did you think of the first boss? I was still getting used to Gathering and I lost one of my five lives as Zael. How did you do?
David: Did you really? I was wondering something about that. Do the lives reset after every encounter? I had an idea of what I was supposed to do for the battle, and I was Gathering and running around for Yurick to use her/his magic. But it wasn’t until after a couple of spells that I realized nothing was really happening. I had forgotten to use the Seek ability to find his weakness. Surprise! It was the head. Once I got that, the rest was really simple, and really, scripted. I was curious about how Zael got back across the bridge after it was destroyed.
Dan: I think lives reset between encounters, so I’m interested in seeing just how hard this game can get. I think that my party lost maybe three lives over the entire chapter, but never in the same fight, so I dunno. As for the bridge question, I was wondering that too. One second he’s stranded across a chasm, the next, well, the next is Chapter 2.
David: We almost forgot to mention the summoning circle right before the boss. Did you use it? I used it once. It seems like you can use it multiple times to level up, but I’m not sure how many.
Dan: I think that The Last Story is supposed to be very scripted with limited battles as you move on through. That works out for a game that is meticulously tuned, but without any difficulty level options you’re pretty much stuck with what you’ve got…unless you can grind somehow. I think that’s what these circles are for. I want to try to not use them, but we’ll see. I used it once too.
David: I’m not one to turn down help. Thanks for the option Sakaguchi!
Dan: I think that’s about it for Chapter 1. Tune back in for Chapter 2. Will Syrenne get the help she desperately needs? Will Zael’s coup d’etat begin? How does Yurick accurately hit anything with only one eye?
David: Will Yurick get the money he/she needs for her/his sex change? Find out next time!