The Last Remnant …to the end(ish)

Here’s an odd­ity, at least in the realms of my game-playing habits lately. I pur­chased a game, from a real-life bricks and mor­tar “shop”, as I believe they are known, and put that game inside of a game-playing device within 24 hours of the trans­ac­tion, and played it for a length of time that could not be rounded down to zero in any sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant sense. That’s unusual, but should not nec­es­sar­ily be taken as an indi­ca­tion of qual­ity. Regard­less, my Mastermind-esque creed of “I’ve started, so I’ll fin­ish” means that The Last Rem­nant becomes a prime can­di­date for my inter­mit­tent series of game review / jour­nal things.

Pur­chas­ing The Last Rem­nant was a deci­sion taken with almost no con­sid­er­a­tion what­so­ever, which may turn out to be a mis­take. Still, as part of a two for ten pound pro­mo­tion with a game I actu­ally wanted, it also wasn’t a deci­sion that nec­es­sar­ily required much con­sid­er­a­tion. Indeed, by pro­vid­ing two para­graphs worth of blog mate­r­ial already, it’s gone a long way towards being con­sid­ered good value for money.

My knowl­edge of the game was lim­ited, more or less, to the blurb on the back of the box, and a nag­ging feel­ing that as I’ve not heard of it, it’s prob­a­bly not worth hear­ing about. How­ever, given that I more or less bury my head in the sand con­cern­ing all game releases these days this is not an unfa­mil­iar state of affairs. The one unde­ni­able fact gar­nered from the mar­ket­ing blurb is that it’s a Japan­ese RPG pub­lished by Squa­reEnix, the 400lb gorilla of the Japan­ese RPG world.

I have an ongo­ing fas­ci­na­tion with Squa­reEnix, as they’re a com­pany that is con­tin­u­ously mas­sively suc­cess­ful, despite mak­ing RPGs that are, in my esti­ma­tion, barely playable, let alone enjoy­able. Of course, these days they’re a mono­lithic pub­lisher doing every­thing up to and includ­ing the oft-lauded Deus Ex fran­chise, but my fee­ble brain path­ways still strug­gle to move them out of their Final Fan­tasy / Dragon Quest box. Sta­tis­tics and sales fig­ures would sug­gest I’m an out­lier in this regard, but rather than do any­thing sen­si­ble like “stop buy­ing their games”, I per­sist with the notion of pick­ing them up cheap and attempt­ing to work out what’s so appeal­ing about them, to some folks at least.

Hey, every­one needs a hobby.

Well, now that I’ve got my flimsy ratio­nale for play­ing this over, say, the untouched copies of Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age out of the way, let’s dive in.

Day One

Egads! If there’s one thing that makes me run scream­ing from most Squeenix JRPGs I’ve tried, it’s the puz­zling insis­tance on mak­ing the player con­trolled char­ac­ter a barely pubes­cent, screech­ing frat boy irri­tant. It’s afflicted most of the mod­ern Final Fan­tasy games I’ve played, and in The Last Rem­nant the improb­a­bly named Rush is another such annoy­ance. If this doesn’t gets less annoy­ing over time, I may have to rename this series …to the end of my patience.

At any rate, in our intro­duc­tory cut scenes we’re intro­duced to Rush and his sis­ter Irena on a remote, peace­ful look­ing island, watch­ing a holo-video-thing from their absent par­ents. They’re world-famous, respected researchers into mys­te­ri­ous, ancient arti­facts called Rem­nants, mas­sive con­struc­tions of great power that can be con­trolled and “bound” to indi­vid­u­als. The two kid­dy­winks barely have time to con­sider their sit­u­a­tion before some wal­lop­ers fly in on a funny look­ing bird thingy, later revealed to be one of them there Rem­nants, and kid­nap Irena.

There’s your moti­va­tion in a nut­shell, chas­ing after your sis­ter, try­ing to uncover who took her and why. One jump cut later and we’re with the youth­ful David, Mar­quis of Ath­lum, lead­ing his army against a group of mon­sters. The bat­tle is cut some­what short when David unveils Oper­a­tion Over­whelm­ing Force, uncork­ing a Rem­nant under his con­trol, effec­tively a tower-block sized instagib laser can­non. Rush stum­bles into this mess, and over the course of a brief spot of tuto­ri­al­is­ing David and his gen­er­als agree to inves­ti­gate this kid­nap­ping sce­nario and get some answers.

Now, in terms of wan­der­ing around towns, talk­ing to peo­ple in pubs for infor­ma­tion, buy­ing new kit and such this is barely any dif­fer­ent from any other RPG you can imag­ine, so I’ll skip over that. Well, per­haps one excep­tion, but I’ll get to that in due course. The bat­tle mechan­ics, on the other hand, are so dif­fer­ent from the norm that I’m not even going to attempt to describe them until I get a bet­ter han­dle on them. I hope this occurs soon.

Day Two

Scoot­ing through a few of the mis­sions, which largely involve track­ing down a few ulti­mately dead-end leads while still attempt­ing to teach you the byzan­tine game­play mechan­ics, leads us to uncover a few more areas to travel to, includ­ing the neigh­bour­ing town Celapaleis.

Prin­ci­ple sto­ry­line con­cern so far is that those behind the kid­nap­ping may be linked to the Acad­emy, the pow­er­ful body respon­si­ble for research­ing rem­nant arti­facts, and also the employ­ers of Rush and Irina’s par­ents, giv­ing the whole abduc­tion thing a patina of legal­ity. Sus­pect­ing polit­i­cal machi­na­tions afoot and bristling under the demands of Cela­paleis’ envoys, David plays things safe and starts tak­ing a more cir­cum­spect look at the sit­u­a­tion. Cue annoy­ing rant­ing from annoy­ing lead char­ac­ter, who decides to strike out on his own before, grat­i­fy­ingly, real­is­ing he’s being a dick and besides, would have no chance on his own before he’s even left the city. Maybe this guy’s not irre­deemable after all.

Speak­ing of leav­ing town, here’s the dif­fer­ence between this and a lot of other RPGs. There’s no real “over­world”, in the sense of traips­ing around a world map to get between towns and ‘dun­geons’. For the sake of brevity, let’s define a dun­geon as any loca­tion you have to wan­der around hit­ting ene­mies with sticks until you find something/someone to advance the main story, regard­less of whether it’s actu­ally a dun­geon or a ruined cas­tle or a wood­land glen or a marsh­mal­low fac­tory or any­thing else.

To move between loca­tions, you sim­ply tap the lit­tle used ‘back’ but­ton on your Xbox 360 joy­pad (or alter­na­tive sys­tem equiv­a­lent) a cou­ple of times to bring up a world map, and move a whack­ing great arrow over where you want to go. Easy enough, I sup­pose, and cuts out some of the busy­work. After cer­tain con­ver­sa­tions or events, more areas become avail­able to travel to. More unusu­ally, tap­ping back once while in a town brings up a loca­tion map that’s used to travel, effec­tively, between town streets.

This is par­tic­u­larly weird in com­par­i­son to behe­moths like Fall­out 3 and Obliv­ion, where you will wan­der around the world and into town often with nary a load­ing screen to be had. Per­haps this is a lim­i­ta­tion of the Unreal Engine used in the game, as it hasn’t helped with are the load­ing times which aren’t exactly snappy even after installing the game to hard drive and verg­ing on intol­er­a­ble from disk. Per­haps it’s another con­ve­nience aimed at remov­ing time taken wan­der­ing through the back­streets to reach the shop or tav­ern you want to visit.

I sus­pect the lat­ter, given some of the other odd­i­ties. For exam­ple, early on you meet a char­ac­ter in a tav­ern ask­ing to deliver a let­ter to some­one who’s wan­dered off into a mon­ster filled area. Ever the help­ful chap, you agree to deliver this. With­out even a chance to pre­pare your­self, the screen fades to black and you’re deposited in the dun­geon, directly in front of the intended recip­i­ent. You talk to him. He takes the let­ter. Every­thing fades to black again and you’re back in the tav­ern talk­ing to the quest giver and claim­ing the cash reward.

While this has removed a lot of ulti­mately point­less but­ton presses for me, it’s a pretty weird expe­ri­ence. It’s essen­tially remov­ing the gam­ing ele­ments from the game, to the point that it might as well just have given me the money with­out both­er­ing about the whole let­ter idea. Admit­tedly at that point I might as well be enter­ing num­bers in a spread­sheet, and Excel ain’t no game. It’s strik­ing a pecu­liar bal­ance between con­ve­nience and gam­ing, and I’m not alto­gether sure if I like it or not.

Day Three

I sup­pose I’ve dodged this for long enough. The bat­tle mechan­ics in The Last Rem­nant are unique, to my knowl­edge, so I have to applaud the spirit even if I remain uncon­vinced about the exe­cu­tion. On engag­ing an enemy wan­der­ing around the dun­geons, you are pre­sented with some­thing that’s halfway between the usual fight/spell/item/run selec­tions from RPGs since the dawn of time, and some­thing more akin to a tac­ti­cal RPG, or per­haps even a vari­ant of the Total War franchise.

You, and what­ever lack­eys you have hired in the Guild­halls of the world, are lumped into some­thing called a union, although really “squad” or “bat­tal­ion” would be a less con­fus­ing term. The com­po­si­tion of these unions is sub­ject to var­i­ous lim­its, for exam­ple at the moment I am lim­ited to nine fight­ers in total, with a max­i­mum of five in one union. I can form up to three sep­a­rate unions. There are two types of hirelings, lead­ers and sol­diers. As you’d expect, each union must have at least one leader, who typ­i­cally have bet­ter sta­tis­tics and abil­i­ties than sol­diers, and cur­rently I’m lim­ited to a max­i­mum of four leaders.

More odd­i­ties abound. Mem­bers of your unions share a pool of hit­points, and you can only give them rel­a­tively vague instruc­tions on how to attack. While the bog stan­dards ‘Attack’ will have them all run at your ene­mies in an attempt to bash them over the head, the usual other options of ‘Attack with Com­bat Arts’ and ‘Attack with Mys­tic Arts’ will result in your chaps, depend­ing on their abil­i­ties and seem­ingly the phase of the moon, per­form­ing a selec­tion of either spe­cial melee strikes or magic attacks.

This is decid­edly odd. It’s like giv­ing a gen­eral idea of how your char­ac­ter and those nom­i­nally under his com­mand should behave and watch­ing how it pans out. It would be like Sonic the Hedge­hog pre­sent­ing an option at the out­set say­ing “Run right, jump as required” then watch­ing a demo of the game until completion.

Now, if this does wind up as the greyed out option on the screens imply see you con­trol­ling at least five squads of six­teen sol­diers, micro­manag­ing each individual’s actions each round would be about as dull an expe­ri­ence as I can imag­ine, so I can sorta see why it’s built this way.

How­ever, we’re com­ing straight back to the issue of con­ve­nience ver­sus gam­ing. Final Fan­tasy 12 was crit­i­cised in some cir­cles for hav­ing an option to take essen­tially all deci­sions in bat­tle away from you, and leave it up to the AI. The game was basi­cally play­ing itself, which led peo­ple to ques­tion what the point of that was. That was, how­ever, an option that you did not have to avail your­self of. There’s no such option here, and I do won­der how this will play out over the com­ing days.

Day Four

Hey! Where do you think you’re going? We’re cer­tainly not fin­ished with explain­ing the game mechan­ics. Well, I say explain. Parts of it remain fairly opaque to me, but we’ll do what we can.

Let’s give a worked exam­ple. Say we’ve got two com­bat unions under our con­trol, and we decide to take on, let’s say, five groups of over­sized cock­roaches. The groups start off scat­tered around a min­imap that looks on first instance to have more tac­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance than it really does. We set our two groups to attack the near­est cock­roach clus­ter to them, and they charge off towards them.

Our first group run head­long into their tar­get and start bash­ing them up. Both par­ties enter a slightly mis-named state called a Dead­lock, mean­ing that they’re engaged with fight­ing each other. For the sake of argu­ment, both groups sur­vive and remain Deadlocked.

Our other group was head­ing towards their tar­get, but another closer, faster bunch of ene­mies engaged them first — an Inter­rup­tion. They Dead­lock and start hit­ting each other for the turn. After that, another group of ene­mies attack, and as you’re still engaged with fight­ing some­thing else, they get to “Flank Attack” you, a state requir­ing less expla­na­tion than Dead­lock. They get a dam­age bonus against you.

Of course, you have another flank to be engaged on, and if yet another group attacks it’s from behind, oo-er mis­sus. This “Rear Attack” will hurt even more, again, oo-er mis­sus. If another group attacks, it’s termed a Mas­sive Strike, pre­sum­ably to avoid copy­right infringe­ment with a Bris­tol based trip-hop out­fit. So that’s all rea­son­ably under­stand­able. It’s often frus­trat­ing, as you intend on unleash­ing a series of dev­as­tat­ing attacks on a dan­ger­ous group of ene­mies only to be Inter­rupted by a low value tar­get, “wast­ing” your attack turn and poten­tially leav­ing you open to Flanks from those more dan­ger­ous opponents.

I say frus­trat­ing, because there seems to be no way to com­bat this. There’s no obvi­ous way to con­trol your posi­tion on the bat­tle­ground, so it doesn’t seem like there’s any skill to this mechanic. And if there’s lit­tle or no con­trol you can exert over this, you have to ques­tion why they make so big a point of it. There’s mas­sive text over­lays com­ing up on screen every time these Dead­locks or Flanks et al hap­pen, and given that there’s very lit­tle that you can do about these sit­u­a­tions other than the default RPG Plan One of “kill every­thing”, it’s just giv­ing the trap­pings of a tac­tics sys­tem with­out hav­ing any actual tac­tics system.

Oh, yes, and the remain­ing major state, Raid­lock, makes no sense what­so­ever. The text describ­ing it does, admit­tedly. A union that’s not phys­i­cally close to another union can enter a spe­cial Dead­lock state called a Raid­lock, nom­i­nally by hit­ting them with some ranged mag­i­cal attack, get­ting a dam­age bonus. So essen­tially, cov­er­ing fire. Makes sense, except every sin­gle time this hap­pens to me, seem­ingly at ran­dom, at most one of my team has been using a ranged attack, and the rest run up and bash them with swords. So, to be clear, a Raid­lock is a state of Dead­lock for units that aren’t phys­i­cally close to each other but that are nonethe­less phys­i­cally close to each other.

Peo­ple have claimed that the bat­tle sys­tem in The Last Rem­nant is too com­pli­cated. Actu­ally, the prob­lem is far worse. It’s a bat­tle sys­tem with all the obfus­cated seem­ing of com­pli­ca­tion, with­out actu­ally hav­ing any at all. It promises tac­tics and deliv­ers help­less­ness, and that’s plainly not satisfying.

Day Fuck This Noise

We’re prob­a­bly up to about Day Ten or so, in real­ity, with the inten­tion being to back­fill in more infor­ma­tion on the com­bat mechan­ics and a few other things I’ll get to, but I’m call­ing a halt to this game on account of it being more of an exer­cise in per­se­ver­ance rather than any­thing I’m get­ting any enjoy­ment out of.

The last word I’ll have on the com­bat sys­tem will be kept rel­a­tively brief, mainly because it’s a hor­ri­ble idea that you can turn off. As your squads go through the motions of attack­ing and defend­ing (for the twelve mil­lionth time), there’s an oppor­tu­nity to get an enhanced result by, joy of joys, a quick­time event. There is, as we all know, no game that fea­tures a quick­time event that could not be sig­nif­i­cantly improved by remov­ing the quick­time event, so it’s heart­en­ing to see that this can be turned off in the options. Or rather, falling back on your character’s base stats to automag­i­cally see whether you hit or miss.

The point, I sup­pose, was a last ditch attempt to inject some feel­ing of con­trol or involve­ment in the bat­tles, which never stop feel­ing like a spec­ta­tor sport rather than some­thing you’re nom­i­nally direct­ing. If your solu­tion to a lack of action is to dump end­less, excru­ci­at­ing gauntlets of quick­time events, you know you’re get­ting into “nuke from orbit” territory.

So, combat-wise, it’s a brave exper­i­ment and I’m glad I’ve played it enough to form an opin­ion on it, but it’s a failed exper­i­ment. I’ve lost count of the num­ber of times that I’ve would up hav­ing my par­ties wiped out because while it’s obvi­ously nec­es­sary to heal up this round, my only options are to carry on a doomed frontal assault or some such non­sense. I wouldn’t mind giv­ing up con­trol quite so much if I didn’t feel I was giv­ing up that con­trol to a bum­bling poltroon.

Given that any RPG is likely to be heavy on the com­bat, and given the usual Squeenix focus on grind­ing this is par­tic­u­larly so in The Last Rem­nant, it’s not going to work out very well for the game if the com­bat is, at its best, a total drag. So we’ve already worked out the pri­mary rea­son to punt the game into the long grass and find some­thing else to play. There are many others.

Mar­gin­ally annoy­ing, rather than out­right frus­trat­ing is the resource gath­er­ing. Com­po­nents, ores, herbs and the like are found either in shops, from van­quished ene­mies or from points around the maps, which brings us onto Mr. Diggs. With no expla­na­tion what­so­ever this puz­zling lit­tle steam­punk mole thing attaches him­self to your group to enable you to gather more resources, which means watch­ing his canned ten sec­ond ani­ma­tion another four and a half bil­lion times over the course of the game. It’s not par­tic­u­larly impres­sive first time around, and grows rapidly more grat­ing each sub­se­quent time. The same can be said of all the attack ani­ma­tions, really.

The voice act­ing, for the Eng­lish ver­sion at least, is reas­sur­ingly dread­ful. The main char­ac­ter is out­right annoy­ing, with the sup­port­ing char­ac­ters swing­ing between ‘bland’ and ‘some­how worse than the lead char­ac­ter, baf­fling as that may be’. Of par­tic­u­lar note is the bloke lum­bered with David, Mar­quis of Ath­lum, who sounds like a cross between a bad David Bowie imper­son­ation and every accent in every Guy Ritchie film thrown in an accent blender.

Per­haps the most obtuse game­play mechanic of The Last Rem­nant is that it’s very often not remotely clear what you’re sup­posed to be doing to fur­ther the plot, and there’s also no indi­ca­tion that you’re well pre­pared enough to progress fur­ther. I came very close to knock­ing this on the head after, ooh, four days or so, after grow­ing tired of the side-quests that were tak­ing up a great deal of time while pre­sent­ing no sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge. I wan­dered up to the plot­line man­dated fight with a Mr. “The Con­queror”, who smeared me into a fine paste in short order. Aah, I realised, this game man­dates grind­ing. Which was a mas­sive red flag.

Sure, I was happy doing the side-quests in Fall­out 3 and Obliv­ion, but not because I wanted to farm expe­ri­ence points to get past a boss. It was because they were, for the most part, inter­est­ing sto­ries on their own terms, and enhanced the feel­ing of being in a liv­ing, breath­ing world. There’s noth­ing like this depth shown in The Last Rem­nant, and noth­ing like moti­va­tion for doing them.

Even putting the wider game world to one side, the main sto­ry­line doesn’t have the attrac­tion required to put up with the grind required to progress it. What starts off as a sim­ple, relat­able tale of a miss­ing fam­ily mem­ber rapidly devolves into world-spanning polit­i­cal pow­er­grabs fea­tur­ing char­ac­ters we have barely seen, let alone know any­thing about. The sup­posed Machi­avelli behind all of this is so obvi­ously guilty from the first time we clap eyes on him I sup­pose there’s no point build­ing up any sub­tle, decep­tive plots, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to miss it.

With­out lik­ing either the story or the game’s mechan­ics, there’s clearly no point going any fur­ther, or longer. And I could well have gone longer — despite pump­ing some­thing like forty hours into it, the point I gave up was the seem­ingly wide-accepted arse­hole of a boss bat­tle at the end of the first disk, which seemed very much like I’d have to firstly go back to a save from hours ago and level up more, and even then face a bat­tle based more on luck than wits. I’m sure this timesink would have dou­bled from the sec­ond disk, but I don’t think I’d have enjoyed any of it.

The bat­tles are repet­i­tive, drawn-out and tedious, and the lengthy load­ing times add to the feel­ing that this is more a game you are invited to watch, rather than play. It still looks pretty good, I must admit, which is to its credit, but hardly its salvation.

There’s very lit­tle of inter­est in this game, for most folks. It may appeal some­what to the more obsessive-compulsive crowd, or those who take inter­est an in study­ing and break­ing games sys­tems on a more cere­bral level. Basi­cally peo­ple who can under­stand the term “min/max char­ac­ter build” with­out requir­ing a flowchart.

I cer­tainly got my money’s worth out of The Last Rem­nant, going by the time taken, but I’m not alto­gether sure I got too much enjoy­ment from it. I had far more fun sub­se­quently going through Arkham Asy­lum, in far less time. If longevity is your only ratio­nale for judg­ing a game, I sup­pose The Last Rem­nant scores highly. By any other cri­te­ria, it ought to be avoided.