I have just “finished” The Last Story and I can’t help but feel this weird emptyness. This isn’t the first time a game makes me feel like this; finishing Earthbound and chrono Trigger, for example, has made me feel similarly. Of course I give extraordinary examples because, to be perfectly honest, the number of games that have made me feel this sense of dissatisfied closure are extremely few.
This sense of dissatisfied closure comes not from the story of the game being lacking in any way, or the story ending being lousy or anything like that, but because the sense of belonging and intimacy with the game’s world and characters is so immense. When I mention Chrono Trigger and Earthbound, I refer to the same thing: the awful dread of having to leave behind such an amazing world and characters. This is the effect The Last Story had on me.
It is because of this feeling that I have been so surprised at the kinds of scores this game is receiving. Last I heard, it had a Metacritic average of about 80/100, and the few negative reviews I’ve read about it have been fairly shallow, the reviewers being complacent enough to talk only about the upper layer of the game: whether the combat is challenging, the voice acting of professional quality, the graphics engine stable, the customization simple, etc, etc. That is the kind of stuff you talk about when a game doesn’t do anything particularly interesting, like a run-of-the-mill hack n slash or FPS, perhaps. The Last Story is not such a game.
The Last Story is an incredibly unique game, mixing sensibilities from Role-playing, open-world, and Action games with remarkable ambition: there is a level up system tied to learning powerful abilities; you must be careful with your weapon customization in order to get an advantage in battle; the battles themselves rely on real-time strategizing, the location of your teammates and yourself, your ability to manipulate the enemy masses to place them in vulnerable spots, and your own reflexes to keep a combo multiplier going as well as perform counter-attacks; the narrative is presented sometimes in real-time, sometimes in scripted sequences, and other times in pre-rendered videos; the story itself is dense, with little to no filler, and the sidequests all help flesh out the character of your teammates (I would say to an even better extent than a game like Mass Effect 1 or 2); the main city hub is incredible, even as tangible and full of life as those city hubs of Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
The Last Story is not a “genre piece”, or a narrow or shallow effort by any means. It is a ridiculously ambitious game that amounts to more than a mere system of elements and rules. It is a game that demands intense care, sight, and wit from its reviewer, for he must be able to see the not only how the leaves and branches of the game spread their shadow on the ground, but how deep and in what complex manner its roots burrow down below.
To put that stupid metaphor into the context of The Last Story: it is foolish to focus simply on how the distinct elements interact with one another on a shallow level. One must also look at the impact some particular elements of the game have in the audience.
I might plan on coming back to this topic in the future, but I’ll leave a single example here all the same. In The Last Story, the city of Lazulis is a truly tangible and believable city. Merchants hurriedly move about, careless enough to sometimes bump their heads against low-hanging signposts; a mother chastises her child for doing something he’s not supposed to; crowds gather around street performers, only to lose interest and leave soon after; workers whack their mallets and plaster walls; customers line shops around the market; outside the arena, burly men brawl over trifles, crowds make their bets, and salesmen and brokers try to line up their own pockets; children run around, laughing; the elderly sit in the benches; the homeless line up the river that splits the city in 2; pretentious hipsters chat in an outdoor cafe, dreaming about being noblemen in the future; and so on, and so forth. There really are dozens upon dozens of examples of these “Non-Playable Characters” living remarkably realistic lives, and it turns the exploration of the city into a truly remarkable experience. Many times have I heard the phrase “a world you care about saving” being uttered in reference to video games, but it has never been as true to me as it is in this game – not in Chrono Trigger, not in Earthbound, and not even in Xenoblade. This aspect alone, in my book, earns the Last Story the status of “modern classic”, and it isn’t the only remarkable thing about the game.
Like I said, however, I’ll come back to this topic some other time.