Hearts exploded with giddy appreciation for Nintendo this week as the gamemaker announced it would be partnering with publisher Xseed Games to bring fantasy Wii role-playing game The Last Story to U.S. shores this summer. Nintendo has traditionally treated its RPG properties like adolescent children, keeping them inside as long as it can, so this is surprising (and fantastic) news for North American JRPG junkies, especially after the company spent most of last year ignoring us.
So here's what we know about The Last Story. Directed by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and scored by legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu, it's the type of grandiose adventure that the Wii has sorely lacked in recent years, a game that fans have spent a lot of time advocating. But how does it play?
To help answer that question, I enlisted Japan-based Kotaku writer Richard Eisenbeis, a man who has played through The Last Story multiple times both in Japanese and English.
"I would say that The Last Story is the best JRPG I have played in a good ten years," Eisenbeis told me in an e-mail. "It takes combat in a direction that's neither massively multiplayer online game-based (i.e. Final Fantasy XII or Xenoblade) nor traditionally turn-based and comes up with something unique, fast paced and exciting."
There are no turns in The Last Story. Battles are frenetic and fast-paced, Eisenbeis says, filled with important decisions and little quirks, like a first-person viewpoint that you can use to interrupt enemy spellcasters or afflict monsters with debilitating statuses.
But outside of combat, Eisenbeis says what's really appealing about The Last Story is, fittingly, its story. Where other JRPGs might task you with saving the world or rescuing princesses, The Last Story puts you in charge of saving a single city. You'll visit that city quite a few times among your adventures and dungeon-crawls, and Eisenbeis says you'll grow to love the characters that inhabit it — to the point where you'll develop a legitimate desire to save them. Which is good, because to finish the game, you'll have to protect this city almost as well as Nintendo protects the rights to Mother 3.
It's not that the narrative is cliché-free, Eisenbeis says: after all, you'll be escaping prisons, fighting your way through haunted pirate ships, and romping through sewers just like in every other Japanese role-playing game ever. But by focusing on one small kingdom, The Last Story makes things unequivocally personal.
Eisenbeis isn't the only one enamored of this game. Early reviews for the European version of The Last Story, which is out today in PAL territories, have been quite positive.
"The storybook ambiance, strong characters and interesting battle system make this relatively short adventure one that's worth following to its conclusion," writes Simon Parkin over at British newspaper The Guardian.
This is a game worth putting on your radar — and it's certainly a game I'll be paying close attention to over the next few months.
This Week in JRPG News
* Classic strategy role-playing game Final Fantasy Tactics is now available on your iPad for the ridiculous price of $18. It's a lovely game, but I can't see many fans loving that price point.
* The dungeon-crawling Etrian Odyssey series is getting a new sequel on Nintendo 3DS. And there's an airship!
* Persona 4 Arena, a fighting game based on critically acclaimed RPG Persona 4, will bash the U.S. this summer.
* Square Enix has opened up an official site for Piano Opera Final Fantasy IV/V/VI, an album featuring orchestrated music from all three games. Might want to get your import stick ready.
* Lucky Japanese iTunes users can now buy an iPhone port of the original Shin Megami Tensei. Siliconera reports that it's the Game Boy Advance version from 2003.
What To Play This Weekend
Something new: Tales of the Abyss 3D, which I've been consuming in twenty-minute bursts on the subway while commuting to and from work. The button-mashing battles don't do much for me, but the characters are (sometimes) appealing and the story seems delightfully twisty.
Something old: While we're waiting on The Last Story, why not check out Sakaguchi's last game, Lost Odyssey? Though its voice acting can be a little harsh on the ears, it's worth checking out for its dream sequences, which are basically short stories that help supplement the main narrative. They're poignant and touching.
Your Questions Answered
Thanks to all of you fine readers who sent in questions for this week's column. The number of responses was absolutely overwhelming, and though I can only pick a few to tackle each week, rest assured that I'll be reading them all. Don't fret if you didn't make it this week: check back every Friday and who knows when you might be pleasantly surprised?
Reader Sandrockcstm writes:
A lot of people think that JRPGs are a dying breed. These people usually cite such concerns as JRPGs being "too stale," or "too formulaic." The question this raises for me is, "Isn't that true of every established genre on the market?" First-person shooters rely on a formula, as do strategy games, and platformers relied on formulas long before this console generation. That's kind of what makes them genres (they follow similar patterns of gameplay). What's so wrong with following a formula, especially if it works?
First of all, I think the people who say JRPGs are too stale or too formulaic are people who haven't actually played any modern JRPGs. Outside of the Dragon Quest series, I can't think of many recent role-playing games from Japan that do follow that turn-based, fight/magic/item, town/dungeon/town/dungeon formula.
Regardless, I definitely don't think there's anything wrong with using certain tropes to make your game stronger. One of the reasons we flock to JRPGs is because of the familiarity in guiding a hero through an adventure, often against near-insurmountable odds. It can be soothing, like a warm cup of tea or the click of a Lego figure's hands. As long as the game is presented in a unique fashion, with some sort of twist or subversion or mechanic that makes it stand out among its peers in some way, there ain't nothin' wrong with a formula or ten.
Reader Nery Avila writes:
My immediate thought when I meet a fellow RPG nerd is: What game got you started? It's always a treat to discuss your beginnings. My first memories were of renting Earthbound and Final Fantasy III for Super Nintendo at Blockbuster, always hoping the next time I rented it my save file would still be there. Who knew those two amazing games would make me a lifelong (RPG) gamer? What was yours?
Earthbound and Final Fantasy III (or, as it's more commonly known now, Final Fantasy VI) are certainly excellent choices. My first RPG, appropriately enough, was an NES gem named Final Fantasy. The game feels clunky as hell now, but I have many happy memories of starting up a quest, fighting my way through monsters and bosses to get to the Marsh Cave, and... dying. Dying and dying and dying and dying. But for some reason I liked it. I must've been a fucked-up kid.
Reader Ryan Bunting writes:
My question pertains to Final Fantasy games specifically. When and why did Square Enix decide to make their flagship series so god-damned serious? What happened to the playful and comedic parts? Take a look at Final Fantasy VI's main antagonist - Kefka was a psycho and a sociopath. His own misanthropy made for some rather dark-comedic quips throughout the game, as well as the lightheartedness of Locke's constant assurance that he's not a thief, but a "Treasure Hunter." The many little parts of the game with some funny lines and events added a good break between the conflict and sadder moments in the game... So why did Final Fantasy decide to be gone with the comedic, and often cute side-commentary and events in favor of super linear overly-cinematic-bordering-on-MGS4-type-nonsense school of thought?
Good question! Perhaps the biggest problem in Final Fantasy XIII — a game I did not enjoy very much — was that it just took itself way too seriously. Sure, the game had a few funny little moments and quirky character traits (like main character Sazh's afro, which also served as home to a little chocobo), but for the most part, it was nothing but melodrama after melodrama. Final Fantasy XIII-2 felt similarly.
On the flip side, today's high-definition graphics and oft-whiny voice acting might not do a very good job of conveying the humor found in series entries like Final Fantasy VI. Would we still love Locke if he had somebody else's voice? Would Kefka still be as entertaining if we had to suffer through some awkward voice actor reading us lines like "son of a submariner"?
I'll leave this one up to you guys. What do you think? Has Final Fantasy been too serious lately?
Reader comments have been edited for clarity and brevity. Want to see your name featured in an edition of Random Encounters? Just shoot me an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) with a brief question or two.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.