The First Story
While Adam waxes poetic about Xenoblade, I’d feel remiss not touching on The Last Story, the Japanese RPG’s other great modern hope. Because despite looking like each other, these two games couldn’t be further apart.
Xenoblade, in my view, is something of a gasp of old-world gameplay, of a genre—the MMO influenced JRPG—that died a sad death in Final Fantasy XII’s wake. It’s a genre that never really took off in a sort of middle idea ground, like the Puzzle/RPG and whatever you’d describe Super Mario Brothers 2 as. Xenoblade’s is a classic adventure story told through the medium of endless expanses to explore and grind through. It’s glossy, and it’s an entertaining romp, but in terms of innovation and creative capital…no one’s going to cite Xenoblade as a formative title in their development process.
Imagine an alternate reality where Halo failed, and that’s pretty much what Xenoblade is. A lovely pretty expression of death.
The Last Story, meanwhile, riffs on Halo’s cousin, Gears of War. Similarly, it’s not quite the pure expression of newness that Gears was. That said, The Last Story represents something new and alien to the JRPG, something not quite sussed out yet. It’s a pretty miserable game, but it has ideas.
That’s an important note: it’s pretty terrible. The design, especially, doesn’t jive with video games, modern or classic: the controls are funky, the presentation lackluster (the big “Menu” on the title screen? Nice touch, guys), the equipment upgrades weird and awkward. Everything feels like it could have used some ironing, then another wash, and more ironing.
There’s a Goddamn Good Idea behind every one of The Last Story’s doors, though. Its riffs on stealth combat are fascinating: this is a game where, in the first eight hours, your best attack is hiding from enemies, jumping out, and scaring the hell out of them with your sword. There’s tactics here beyond making numbers stay up or go down in comical amounts. You have to work together with your companions to take enemies out, requiring strategy akin to a Zelda boss, and that collaboration rocks.
Okay, your companions are complete idiots, and your tactics often fail because if you’re not constantly using protagonist Zael’s “tank” button (where he attracts all the enemy’s attentions), but they exist. They work sometimes, and when they work The Last Story is brilliant.
The story, too, gives and takes in equal measure. It eschews the JRPG’s tradition of grand adventure for small, character-driven drama. Of course, the leads are insipid, heroic, lovely-dovely gibberish—the male an incredibly earnest, unfucked up Squall, the female literally every Princess ever—but by keeping everything small and self-contained within an island city the game feels fresher than it should. Zael, who desires nothing but to become a knight, feels better because he has context, a physical space to exist in, and points of reference. He’s a dude working protection at a gala. It’s a working man’s story.
Of course, the working man is a character I could do nothing but scream at, who possibly sustained brain damage to prevent him from feeling harmful negative emotions. Of course, that’s The Last Story’s schtick: an earnest, boneheadedly frustrating take on something genuinely new.