The temptation to run this review under my "Year in Final Fantasy" title (which has officially gone a month over now, whoops!) was immense. This is much more the Final Fantasy that we've been dreaming of – well, since the SNES honestly. Final Fantasy VII and X might have an outsized place of importance in my heart, but all things considered, the series really hasn't been very good since Hironobu Sakaguchi stepped down from a more direct role in the games' development. With the release of Final Fantasy XII – XIII-2, and now with this release, Square Enix and Mistwalker have been fighting an almost imperceptible battle for the soul of a series, with Square Enix throwing money at what is basically just a husk, with an incredibly famous name keeping the series afloat; and Sakaguchi's Mistwalker has, over the course of three games, been trying to exorcise the demons of Final Fantasy in increasingly subversive ways.
Blue Dragon might have been a Grandia-ripping misfire, but Lost Odyssey (the first of Sakaguchi's post-Final Fantasy games to consciously quote the Final Fantasy moniker) brought a level of understanding of the core elements of the Final Fantasy experience and a deep, emotional pathos the likes of which Square Enix has completely fumbled over the last seven or so years. Now, with the release of The Last Story, Sakaguchi is all but reclaiming the series he started. I'm not the first person to point out that "The Last Story" is basically the equivalent of a Final Fantasy homonym, but it goes much further than that. This is Sakaguchi's first time directing a game since Final Fantasy V, and he's surrounded himself with longtime collaborators like Nobuo Uematsu as well as new talent, all with the intent of, basically, making a new Final Fantasy game, copyrights be damned.
I don't mean any of this to imply that The Last Story is derivative or without its own identity, and that's where things get interesting. For all that this game seems like an attempt to right the Final Fantasy ship, so to speak, it also definitely (even defiantly, at times) has its own identity – and that identity, too, is wrapped up in the veneer of pastiche, ranging from seminal Square classics like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana to more modern affairs like Mass Effect. And yet, despite all of this liberal quoting and repurposing, the game still feels like its own thing, and if we were to honorarily bestow upon it Final Fantasy status, it would, without a doubt in my mind, be the best Final Fantasy game since at least VII, and maybe even VI.
There are a number of common criticisms of The Last Story that perhaps need to be dealt with straight away. The first is that the game is fairly linear, and doesn't offer the same expansive freedoms of Xenoblade Chronicles, much less a sprawling WRPG like Skyrim. The second is that the game plays around with a number of JRPG tropes from well over twenty years of the genre, and the third is that, fuck, it's a Wii game. Barring that last criticism (a hoary argument couched in e-dick waving graphical prowess debates and bitter feelings of resentment over a feeling of "abandonment" from the "hardcore"), the other two seem to miss the point entirely on The Last Story. This game was never meant to be a complete retooling of the JRPG genre, despite what Sakaguchi says. Instead, it plays like a mission statement from a pretty idiosyncratic auteur, a distillation of every idea Sakaguchi has ever had into a cohesive whole. It's a game as design autobiography, and that makes it feel incredibly personal.
Indeed, the game is linear and does play around with Sakaguchi-brand tropes, but that's kind of the point, and you wouldn't expect Sakaguchi to make sweeping changes to his design philosophy in much the same way you wouldn't expect Martin Scorsese to start making giant mecha anime. And within Sakaguchi's bag of tricks, he's actually making sweeping changes to his design formula, things that you don't expect Western games to do, much less the JRPG. Indeed, with this game and Xenoblade Chronicles, the JRPG is looking downright progressive, whereas games like Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 are basically doing the same things their respective series have been doing since the very start (while gutting the design prowess).
The game casts you as Zael, a mercenary who works with a team of lovable rastabouts for hire. Initially, this team seems to be comprised almost entirely of one-note characters, with Syrenne as the hard-boozing meathead (woman, in a nice inversion) and Lowell as the philandering ladies man. The others at this point are kind of blank slates – and in what should be a surprise to absolutely no one, Sakaguchi takes this band of archetypes and creates incredibly well-rounded characters out of them, with Lowell being the absolute standout – his character's progression is downright touching.
Anyways, Zael and the group's leader, Dagran, have had aspirations of being knights in the employ of Count Arganan (the ruler of Lazulis Island, where the game almost entirely takes place) since they were children, striving for a life of peace and recognition after their parents were killed in a razing of their childhood town (if at this point you're thinking "convenient orphans" and stroking off a checkbox on your "Sakaguchi Bingo Card," you were correct to do so). Two events right near the start of the game bring them progressively closer to this goal – the first is that, on a mission, Zael somehow inherits "the power of the Outsider," a mystical energy that gives him some superpowers (though these super powers are not all that powerful, or at least not powerful in a particularly flashy way); and the second is that Zael stumbles upon Lisa, someone who seems to be hiding from the knights of Arganan, and who is later revealed to be Lady Calista, who's trapped in an engagement to the slimeball Lord Jirall. The final piece of the puzzle are the Gurak, who at first glance seem to be a reptilian race determined to exterminate the humans on Lazulis Island – but of course, not everything is exactly as it seems, and the Arganans are at the centre of it all.
Besides playing around with common themes (the land is dying, for instance, basically for the same reasons that the land was dying in Final Fantasies III – V, and the Outsider's storyline feels an awful lot like a mish-mash of the Jenova/Lifestream plotline from Final Fantasy VII), the storyline is incredibly straightforward. I absolutely do not mean that as an insult – indeed, this game has one of the clearest senses of purpose in the whole of Final Fantasy-dom, finally jettisoning the obscurantist jargon that has become de rigeur in most Final Fantasy games. Indeed, if anything, it recalls the clearness of Chrono Trigger, and suggests that Sakaguchi was a bigger force in that game's development than I had originally thought. The Last Story's plot basically feels like the last 15 years of Final Fantasy simply didn't happen, or that there was some sort of alternate universe where Sakaguchi continued to make Final Fantasy games himself on Nintendo consoles. It might be incredibly earnest about its ambitions (indeed, the game is at times almost embarrassingly earnest, which I for one can't help but admire, as I'll take earnestness over obliqueness any day of the week), basically saying that Genocide Is Bad and Killing the Planet Is Bad, but it's so much more effective than most JRPG stories that it can't help but feel like a complete revelation.
It's also helped along by Sakaguchi's apparent willingness to pull out all the stops on this game. Indeed, you can basically hear the gears inside the Wii churning as it struggles to keep up with the visual cornucopia on display. If there was a legitimate complaint to be made here, it's that the graphics, while beautiful, are in perhaps too muted of a palette (while it looks better than Twilight Princess, it does share its propensity for inappropriate bloom lighting), and that the Wii often struggles to keep up with the game, especially in complex battle sequences.
Like a good many modern JRPGs, the game is pretty much built around its battle system – but unlike most of these games, the battles are actually outstanding, and they're not the only thing that the gameplay encompasses. Battling is comprised, again, of a pastiche of elements. It's got the hack and slash feeling of a Mana game, the "area of effect" spells of Dragon Age, the top-down strategizing of an RTS, the cover-based shooting of Mass Effect and the limit breaks and techs of Chrono Trigger. With that many elements, then, it was a complete shock to me that it didn't buckle under the weight of all these elements a la Brutal Legend. Instead, it all synthesizes together into an incredibly satisfying, intelligent, and most importantly, original whole. You're never just wildly swinging your sword around – you need just as many strategic considerations as even the best Final Fantasy games. It feels like a better version of what Final Fantasy XII was going for, and I have no qualms about claiming that it's the best battle system in the entire FF series. And while the combat can be on the easy side under default settings, simply changing the attacks from automatic to manual makes the battles far more difficult and engaging.
The game might be "linear" in that it has set chapters and a set story order, but that really just allows good storytelling to flourish (side note, the translation and localization, as done by Nintendo UK and a team of ridiculously endearing British voice actors, is about the best bit of translation work done since the era of Ted Woolsey). Instead, the game pulls a page out of the Grand Theft Auto playbook and allows you free reign to explore an outrageously detailed and beautiful city in Lazulis. True, there's maybe not a whole lot to do in this city, but simply exploring its back alleys and European charm is more than enough. The game doesn't have the world-spanning travel of a Final Fantasy VII, but it does present a convincing local (fantasy) geography, and Sakaguchi's always in it to entertain – the game never plops you in one place for too long.
In fact, one of the craziest criticisms against the game has been its length, which is completely asinine. Considering that some Final Fantasy games are a good 30 hours too long, the fact that The Last Story clocks in at 20 hours is about perfect. It's about the same length as Chrono Trigger, and while it doesn't have the same incident per second ratio as that game (few games could, in this day and age), it's about the breeziest feeling JRPG in generations. Twenty hours is basically the perfect length for a JRPG, and the fact that this is a criticism against the game's lack of "epicness" demonstrates just how histrionic the FF series and JRPGs in general have become.
The game isn't perfect, of course – I don't think Sakaguchi has ever made a perfect game. But it's interesting, and it's about the best distillation of JRPG design in some time. It's a game that, despite its modern touches, is for the converted. For those of us who have been waiting for the genre to do that impossible balancing act of paying homage to the Golden Age while still feeling accessible and modern and able to excise those elements which have lost their usefulness, this is that game. Call it a Final Fantasy game and there's a good chance that a new Golden Age might have happened. This is absolutely essential playing, and one of the best role-playing games in years. (Side note: Uematsu knocks the soundtrack out of the fucking park.)