Saturday, December 26, 2009

Xbox 360 look: The Last Remnant

The Last Remnant is in some ways Square-Enix's attempt to bring the Romancing Saga franchise to the next generation of consoles. I think this is extremely interesting because the Saga series has always been very unique in its approach. In fact the Saga games tend to take their uniqueness a bit too far and create games only a small group of people can understand let alone enjoy.

I know the phrase "It's not for everyone" gets terribly overused around here but once again it has to be said. While the Saga games have aspects standard to the JRPG they also have tons of their own sub-systems that create something rather off-putting and picking up on them can be a bit of a struggle. Take for instance how experience is handled. In Saga games the characters don't level up. Instead they randomly gain stats as they win battles. Furthermore the battles they win must be ones where the party is weaker than the enemy. Where this gets strange is that enemies can gain in strength along with the party. There's a hidden rank in some of these games that actually cause enemies to change to more powerful ones. This means that after awhile the rats the player was picking on in the first dungeon could become behemoths of the apocalypse. This rank extends beyond battles as if the player doesn't properly maintain it it'll lead to them missing out on the many quests NPCs dole out. Sure other quests will pop up depending on rank but since some can open up entirely new dungeons and lands to explore that equates to a lot of missed content.

Thankfully it's not all that frustrating. Saga games are usually light on the equipment requirements so the party is adept for whatever situation that comes about. After every battle all party members are restored to full health. Magic Points(MP, TP, EP, or whatever) are given out as battles progress so the player can use powerful skills constantly. So for the most part even if the player can't quite figure out how to work the system to their advantage the games never become truly daunting.

The Last Remnant is definitely a Saga game. The storyline is about as tolerable as the average JRPG will allow and most of the player's time will be spent in dungeons or in combat. While the dungeons are very standard and predictable they serve their purpose.

To properly explain the battle system we must first start with how parties work. In this game they are known as Unions and eventually the player can form up to five unions with 18 party members(though in the 360 version only six of them can be powerful leaders). After deciding on the characters for a Union a formation must be decided upon. These affect everything from defense to certain attacks to mobility to achieving a particular maneuver with slightly more success. Rarely does this boil down to life or death but any advantage is worth having.

When a battle starts all of the Unions will participate. The enemies are like-wise organised into Unions and after deciding their orders they will clash until one side is wiped out. I say "orders" because unlike other RPGs they are a not "commands". When the player selects an enemy party to attack a list of orders will come up. These are adapted to the current situation and take into account multiple factors like morale(the huge bar at the top of the screen), union configuration, status of other unions, and so on. The average list of orders will consist of "Attack", "Attack from afar(with spells)", "Attack with special skills", "Heal selves", "Heal other unions", and so on. Don't be surprised if not all of these pop up at a given time as the game will only allow you to give orders if they are deemed necessary. You can't give individual commands to party members so if there's certain weapon-skills you tend to favor it can be frustrating.

Skills cover all of the necessary things like killing and healing. They are learned during battle and gain in power from constant use. There are also character unique abilities like summons and special attacks. These are definitely useful and should be triggered whenever possible(though getting special attacks require certain conditions).

When two opposing Unions attack each other it is known as a deadlock. From there other Unions can join in to flank their enemies, assist from outside, and so on. Since many foes are capable of area of effect attacks it may be necessary to keep unions out of direct combat to heal others. Bosses and certain enemies tend to lead to multi-deadlocks. These can be a very bad thing because as long as the unions are involved in those the enemy can continue to make moves(this tends to be especially devastating depending on what attacks they are capable of).

It's definitely a lot to absorb but the game gives the player several tools to make things a bit easier. The Battle Rank is back and while it won't cause the player to miss out on quests it will lead to slight gains in enemy stats over time. The Battle Rank doesn't account for other factors like the Union's equipment or skills so no matter the rank the player should have little trouble with fights deemed to be below the player's level(as determined by the morale at the start of the battle). Obviously with these easier battles there are less stat gains to make so that means the player will have to constantly do tougher battles. At least they'll have more fun in the process.

All the same though I'd recommend being overpowered for certain story-related encounters. I say this because these fights can take over an hour just to complete and losing all of that progress because the boss wiped everyone out in a couple turns will lead to quite a bit of rage. The majority of the game will be spent in side-quests anyway and the story-related fights can only scale so much. Despite my misgivings with the battle rank it actually turns out to be well thought-out and the worst aspect of it is that maybe you'll find yourself slightly bored from destroying too easy foes for little gain. This can eventually become an annoyance if like me you decide to run away from enemies during exploration. Thankfully BR is pretty easy to control and as long as you don't revisit areas constantly it stays fairly level and very challenging.

Like many other recent RPGs there is a crafting system of sorts in The Last Remnant. There are tons of components to find and collect and certain parts will be used by union members to strengthen their equipment. It can be a headache to scour the world for a certain flavor of insect wing though.

All of the biggest faults with this game are in the technical sense. At least on the 360 you're in for a pain if you don't install the game on your HDD. Even then the battles are plagued by low frame-rates and stuttering. It gets tolerable after awhile but if you have the PC for it I recommend going that direction. As a bonus the game allows for players to make Unions filled entirely with Leaders. Aside from Leaders having more versatility and power than regular soldiers they also have their own looks and voices that lend a bit of personality to each battle(plus there's actually a Leader named Gabriel, can't go wrong with that right?).

I should also mention that this game is best played with the minor assistance of a guide. There are a handful of missable side-quests and in order to get the most out of the game every last one of them must be completed. Despite this game being one of the better JRPGs I've played this year I have to admit that missing out on these quests took a bit away from my enjoyment of the game. I'm also a bit perturbed by the lack of a clock that tracks amount of time spent on the game. Then again it's probably best that I don't know.

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