Released late last year on Xbox 360 and earlier this spring on PC, The Last Remnant is Square Enix’s newest RPG attempting to bridge the divide between Japanese and Western audiences. Given our similar divide in RPG tastes, Mike and I decided to take the game on as our latest discussion review candidate (or victim perhaps?). So, what happens when a JRPG lifer and a hardcore CRPG enthusiast square off? You’re about to find out!
Matt: While I am certainly more accustomed to console JRPGs having grown up playing them on the NES up to the current generation of consoles and really only getting into the CRPG scene with the first Baldur’s Gate, I know you are much more at home with CRPGs so I’m eager to see how radically our RPG tastes clash over Square Enix’s multi-platform RPG The Last Remnant.
The game first launched last year on the Xbox 360 to mixed reviews, with the PC version finally just coming out within the past few months to a much more favorable reception. A PS3 version is supposed to be in the works as well, but that’s of no concern to us for now.
Overall, my time with The Last Remnant has been a positive experience, though the game isn’t without a lot of flaws. However, before we dig our heels in and really start to debate the game itself I first wanted to find out how your experience has been strictly from a technical perspective and get an idea of how the two versions compare.
I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but the 360 version is a technical nightmare. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh since there aren’t any game-breaking flaws, but the game is loaded with so many fundamental bugs and glitches that it’s hard to believe Square Enix’s QA department gave the game a green light for release. The frame rate during combat sputters along, load times are frequent and noticeably invasive, and the dreaded Unreal Engine 3 texture load-in bug is more prevalent here than any other game before it. Seriously, every single time a scene changes the graphics look all washed out for a second or two before the textures load in.
Now I’ve heard the PC version is much more stable — another friend of mine recently downloaded the game on Steam and said that other than the occasional texture glitch he didn’t notice any of the same problems I was having on the 360 — but I’d like to hear what your experience has been. Would you say the PC version shows more polish?
Mike: You mean I don’t get to lead off with a rant about cut scenes? OK, fine … it’ll hold.
Honestly I was bracing for a really lousy experience when I started playing Last Remnant. The installation was simple, because even the retail version requires a Steam account, and I assumed that meant that I could just plug in my code and let Steam hook up the download and come back to play when ready. That all worked perfectly. But when I went to run the game, it started up in ‘windowed’ mode rather than ‘full screen’, despite the fact that I run *every* Steam game ‘full screen’. And it was also pre-configured for using the XBOX360 controller despite the fact that I didn’t have it hooked up at the time – I had decided to try it with keyboard and mouse specifically because it was a console port of a very console-centric style of game.
As a result, after watching the first set of cut scenes and getting to half-play the first battle with little help from screens that showed me what controller buttons I should be pushing, I finally got control of the game. I went to the options and re-configured everything, and was able to restart and actually pay attention. That total lack of control and lack of regard for my time is a personal JRPG pet-peeve of mine and had me annoyed before I got back into that first battle and learned how to play with the controller I was actually using.
So you might guess I wasn’t technically impressed at the outset, and anticipated the same idiocy to plague me throughout – but it didn’t. Throughout the game I saw solid frame-rates, a complete lack of crashes, reasonable load times, and nothing else that ever distracted me from the whiny protagonist. The worst I can complain about is some minor texture tearing and pop-in, but nothing worse than we see in most graphics-rich games, and nothing I would have mentioned if we weren’t comparing notes. Certainly nothing on the order of which you noted.
One thing I have heard about the X360 version is that the graphics were good but not great, making the loading and engine issues and stuttering problems feel even worse. In exactly the opposite way, my opinion of the solid performance and reasonable loading is only enhanced by the fact that the game looks really excellent on the PC. I’ve only seen the X360 version in online videos, but the graphics look so much nicer that if I didn’t know better I would have believed that the PC game I played was a sequel rather than a port! While that is obviously an exaggeration, the PC game looks great and performs perfectly, while videos of the X360 version I’ve seen look worse and show loads of poor performance. I’ll let you elaborate more on putting the X360 version’s graphics in context, but for the PC the colors popped off the screen, the details were vivid and lush, characters were lively and well animated, and in general nearly everything looked extremely well thought out and rendered.
Since we’ve gotten on a technical jaunt before hitting gameplay, let me finish by talking about sound and controls. As I mentioned, I was annoyed that the game started assuming I’d have a X360 controller plugged in, but once I was set up on the mouse and keyboard I had nothing but good experiences. You can customize everything in a way that makes sense and without silly restrictions (hear that, Bethesda?), and the controls are very responsive. The mouse control over the camera and keyboard selection of choices in combat and movement outside of combat honestly work much better than I expected. I figured I’d try the keyboard & mouse, get frustrated, then just go back to the start with the X360 controller and re-learn combat. The only issues I had were with camera control, but that had nothing to do with the physical controls but rather with the game taking over and making sure I see what IT wants me to see.
One thing that didn’t surprise me was the audio quality: from the Final Fantasy games on the GBA, DS & PSP to the sublime The World Ends With You, Square Enix can certainly pack in plenty of high-quality sound regardless of the medium. So I expected nothing less than a stellar soundtrack, awesome sound effects, and top-quality voice acting. On two of those they scored very nicely, and on the third they did a good job but fell a bit short. The soundtrack is enjoyable and constantly contributes to the atmosphere and excitement during battles and otherwise. Similarly the sound effects during battle are very well done and combine with the music to create an epic feel from the very first encounter. The one issue I found was with the voice acting – what was there was high quality, but I was a bit disappointed that not all of the characters had voice acting, and perhaps even more so that the whiny main character seemed to always be talking and his voice was terribly annoying.
As Matt said, his history starts more with the JRPG genre dating back to the NES, whereas mine is rooted back to the very first full-featured games for home computers such as Castle Wolfenstein and Wizardry for the Apple ][+ I had in high school and college in the late 70's and early 80's. As such I found myself hard pressed to adapt to the storyline of the whiny little kid who will save us all that is so common in JRPG history, eventually adapting to the genre on the GBA over the last decade. As a result, I have come to expect and sometimes enjoy the whiny and petulant kids developers stick at the center of these stories, but to have limited voice acting in a game mean that the most annoying characters get the most lines resulted in me seldom putting in my earphones, instead just listening to them as low-volume speakers. I'll be interested in hearing your take on these technical issues, especially how they all tie in to the story and characters. I think it will get even more interesting as we hit the combat system!
Matt: I'm glad to hear the PC version is more polished. And actually, the 360 version's graphics are excellent too...after the textures finish loading in! If Square Enix touched up all of the graphical bugs this game would be one of the best looking RPGs on the 360.
The Last Remnant actually takes a lot of cues from Final Fantasy XII on PS2 in terms of the presentation, so much so that had I not known any better I could have easily mistaken it for some type of spin-off or sequel. Everything about the game seems like it is straight out of FFXII's Ivalice, from the art style to the naming conventions of the characters and equipment to the character and environment designs to the intriguing, politically-charged storyline to the thickly-accented voice acting -- which I agree is very good overall (the 360 version doesn't have the limited VO problem you speak of, all of the main characters are voiced and all of the main cut scenes feature spoken dialogue). FFXII even influences certain aspects of the gameply, like how you chain together successive battles and earn greater loot rewards the higher the chain.
Similarities end there, though, as the combat system in The Last Remnant is very, very different. Battles (which are not random encounters; you get to see the creatures roaming around the environment and can choose which to engage) combine the traditional turn-based style common to most console RPGs with the larger battlefield scale and tactics of a strategy-RPG, and for the most part this combination works well.
In battle, each of your units is actually a grouping of up to five characters, and the enemy units are similarly grouped up around the battlefield. At the start of each turn you pick from a list of orders -- standard attack, combat arts, mystic arts, healing, etc. -- and from there the entire unit acts based on your choice, with each individual soldier within the unit attacking on their own from there. The battlefields are also often quite large, and the position of your units on said battlefield is extremely important. When you first engage an enemy union you enter a Deadlock with them until they are defeated. As you are locked in on the enemy, other enemy unions can then flank and rear attack for higher damage bonuses against you. And of course, you can also utilize these tactics to your advantage as well, so there's sort of this light chess-like element to managing unit position.
Despite their tactical nature, the battles have a fairly fast pacing to them, even going so far as to introduce occasional quick time events for critical hits that turn into linked team attacks (if you can keep up with the QTE chain). It's a refreshing system that is generally a lot of fun and definitely unique for a console RPG.
Unfortunately, the game is weakened by an element of randomness that constantly undermines the whole of the experience. In battle, for example, the list of commands is random, meaning that on every turn your list of orders is completely different, and certain orders (like healing and using items) aren't always available to you. This can be very frustrating, especially when you have status ailments like poison draining your health yet your ability to use an herb to cure it is limited. On top of that, since you are giving one order to a group of five soldiers, you have no way of controlling which attacks they use. Each of your heroes has a variety of different special attacks, but you can't pick which one to use. You simply tell your unions to use combat arts or mystic arts, and from there the attacks they use are random.
This "auto pilot" feeling also drags down the character progression. Characters don't level up, per say, but randomly gain boosted stats and higher-powered special abilities as you win battles. Your character customization is also limited to the main hero, Rush. You can outfit him with weapons and armor of your liking, and you are occasionally afforded the choice of special skills to learn. But other than that, the character growth is out of your hands.
I have a feeling this will be strong point of contention for you as well, Mike, so I'll stop and let you take the floor here.
Mike: Just to restate, I come from a PC-centric, western-RPG background, so my thoughts regarding so-called JRPG's are somewhat different than those who grew up with the Final Fantasy games on the NES. In particular, I tend to think of them as action-adventures with turn-based combat. That way, when I get no choices, no consequences, no control over level-up or other character development issues, I really don't care. That probably sounds condescending to the genre, but it isn't intended that way, because the reality is that the focus of western and Japanese RPG's are very different. I want to be able to concern myself with what the game is trying to convey, and not what I would rather see if it was in a different genre.
That said, as you expected I still get bogged down from time to time in EVERY JRPG I play with the amount of times I feel the game yanking me out of the experience, forcing me to sit by the sidelines and watch as the game happens TO me. I alluded to this before when I said how much I resented that feeling when I had to replay the early section after getting the controls configured properly.
The reason I belabor those points again is that because of my long history agonizing over character attribute and skill selection and progression elements in role-playing games, which tends to make me anticipate and savor seeing how those choices play out in battle. I like the 'avoidable combat' aspects that have crept into some JRPG's lately, especially as you progress to the point that the majority of conflicts in a given area amount to 'trash collection'. So I was very happy that Last Remnant used this system, since in a long game like this the LAST thing I want to deal with is constantly being attacked by low-level enemies for little to no reward.
As you say, the combat system is really a mixed bag - you can see that they were trying to get a solid mix of action and strategic elements, and I can picture the design team in a room with a white board drawing out the system and it all looked great. Indeed, for a little while, after I got used to the Union system and after I resolved myself to the various QTEs, I was enjoying the combat system somewhat ... but even then it felt like a half-baked idea that sounded better on paper than it did in reality. In my mind it is impossible to reconcile the desire for strategic control elements with a game that allows you no direct control over units and only basic directional control over unions. It takes what seems like it could have been a very deep system and turns it into a thin and random-feeling distraction. Of course because it is a Square Enix game you will need to spend loads of time in combat if you hope to make progress.
And there again you meet with randomness. As you presumed, the lack of control over character progression drove me nuts. Since I was also playing Elven Legacy at the same time, I was able to contrast strategic unit progression directly. While I know these are very different game types, the bottom line is that each game has 'hero' units that will progress over the course of combat, but in Elven Legacy I could issue commands directly to any unit, and as they made progress I could choose their skill progression path. In The Last Remnant I never had control of anyone but Spike McWhiny (yes, I know his name is Rush) in terms of character progress and even then my choices were limited. Interestingly, the game seems to try to make you constantly feel like you have choices but in reality you are doing more herding and suggesting than actual controlling and role-playing.
Speaking of randomness, I have complained about the random feel of character progression and skill development and usage in Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, but at least with that system you can see that while occurrence is random, probability is deterministic. As you have more battles and use more spells you are more likely to hit events where you have a strong chance of leveling up. In Last Remnant you get no such feeling - just a bunch of random stuff.
One thing that I have heard is new for the PC release is the ability to add unlimited leaders to unions - something I applaud for a couple of reasons. First off, carrying generic cannon fodder into combat is a bore and a chore since you have to worry more about keeping your leaders alive. Second, every leader has their own personality and voice, and that is the core flavor of the game, so being able to add to the amount of folks you interact with is always a great thing. Matt - did you ever struggle with the limitations on the numbers of leaders in unions, or was it just one of those 'that is how it is so I never even thought about it' things? Personally if someone hadn't mentioned it to me I would never have known - as it is I'm just estimating the impact after the fact.
OK, so no surprise I guess - I really didn't think they hit the mark with the combat system, and was constantly struggling and annoyed with the lack of control over combat and character development. Let's move on to the story, characters, cut scenes, and so on.
My quick synopsis - generic fishing trip through the sea of JRPG tropes featuring generic teenager Spike McWhiny searching for his sister suddenly getting embroiled in a earth shattering series of events. I know the main character's name is Rush Sykes, so you can guess that my calling him Spike McWhiny isn't a compliment! When playing I found myself constantly jerked out of the action by annoying cut scenes where I had to listen to the main character, and thinking of him as the annoying whiny kid with the typical spiky hair. So he became Spike McWhiny to me.
I have never been a huge fan of games that feel like I am simply traveling through a sea of random combat from cut scene to cut scene, and that is the way this game felt to me all too often. I found the story drawn out and generic, the various things that happened predictable and hackneyed, and the characters a clichéd set of JRPG standards. That said, I wouldn't by any means call it bad, just a very average game and my least favorite Square Enix game story. Since I'm not a console guy, my exposure to their stuff comes in the form of handheld releases. In theory this should give the advantage to Last Remnant since it has nice cinematic cut scenes on my large screen laptop ... yet they still fall flat compared to things like Final Fantasy IV, VI, Chrono Trigger and even the recent Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII.
I feel like I'm starting to wind down on thoughts of the game so I'll pass it back to you. My thoughts so far: bland story, great visuals, interesting but flawed and underdeveloped combat system, too many cut scenes, generic characters, nice control customization, and awful randomness in combat and character development.
Matt: Wow, did you really think there were too many cut scenes? I haven't had that feeling at all while playing the game, and it honestly has nothing to do with me being more acclimated with console RPGs and the fact that I enjoy a lot of cut scenes. Maybe I've just spent more time fighting around and doing side quests, because compared to most JRPGs I've found the cut scene quantity and length very reasonable. Games like the new 360 Star Ocean and any of Namco Bandai's Xenosaga titles? Now those have a lot of cut scenes, occasionally verging on too many even for a cut scene lover like me. From my experiences, The Last Remnant is far more heavy on combat and exploration. I can't think of one moment in the game so far where I've felt cut scenes were interrupting gameplay or “yanking me out of the experience,” as you put it.
I think we're generally in agreement about the combat, though it sounds like I've been able to look past some of the flaws in the system and enjoy the experience a little more than you. The randomness drives me nuts, but I still find the combat well paced and packed with a fair balance of action and strategy.
As for the union leader situation, there are certain limitations on how many you can use in battle, but as you progress the cap gradually increases. It is annoying early on, but the longer I play the less of an issue it becomes. I'd have to play the PC version and see how it works firsthand to gauge how much of a benefit it provides over the 360. If you're debating which platform to play the game on it could be an important deciding factor, but I just don't know.
I don't feel quite as harshly about the story as you seem to -- actually, I find most of it rather entertainning -- but I do concede that it is fairly plain and unoriginal. There really isn't much left to do in these fantasy settings though, so I'm at the point where I don't get into too much of a hubbub over clichéd plots anymore. Rush certainly isn't the most complex or interesting RPG hero to get behind, but I think calling him Spike McWhiny is a bit much. Again, by most JRPG standards I think he's pretty tame in terms of being a typical whiny, spiky-haired punk. He does have his angsty moments for sure -- I swear if I hear him yell out "Come on, let's kick some A!" to start off a battle one more time I'm going to break my speakers -- but he has his calm, likable moments as well – I certainly like him a hell of a lot more than Edge from the new Star Ocean! I actually take more issue with a lot of the supporting cast, which save for a couple cool characters seems like a collection of castaways from the FFXII universe.
Mike: I fiddled around in the game a bit again last night after reading your last comments. I think that for me the cut scene comment comes from two things: first, simultaneously playing other games such as Drakensang I am able to get an even more detailed and broader story conveyed with many fewer cut scenes. Moreover, much of what happens in terms of side-events doesn't need a full scene in many non-JRPG's, instead occurring as sidebar conversations or interactive dialog events. Second, and more importantly, I tend to get irritated in a cumulative fashion - so when I have a game that is already taking so many decisions away from me, getting yanked out into cut scenes is something I am less likely to accept willingly than when I feel like I am much more in charge of other aspects of the game.
I am not surprised that we differ in our opinions on the story and characters, and I admit that I am easily turned off by the prototypical spiky haired angsty teen such as Zack from Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII or Rush from Last Remnant. And while I won't dispute that Rush is no worse than any other JRPG protagonist, Square Enix did little to make him a sympathetic character - in fact, like I said it isn't just him. I like your description of 'Final Fantasy XII castaways', as that is what it feels like - these aren't bad characters any more than it is a bad story. It is just a bunch of stuff that was lying around unused from other projects so they tossed it together into a game. Well, that is what it felt like to me, anyway.
My opinion of the game definitely varied over the course of playing. I have made it clear that I found the early parts fairly annoying. As I played I would generally just accept whatever the game would offer - it was never awful, just bland and generic. What made me generally irritated was exactly the assumption you mention - that there is nothing else we can expect from fantasy JRPGs. During this same time I was replaying parts of the Golden Sun games on the GBA, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII on the PSP, and Dark Spire on the DS. Each of these has a very interesting story and set of characters within an already played-out genre. I also played the Neverwinter Nights adventure pack - and I doubt you could find something more overplayed than typical D&D settings. Yet that was extremely interesting and challenging. The final straw was when I grabbed the recently released Final Fantasy VII on the PSN store. Within an hour I was more engaged with the story and characters than I ever got with The Last Remnant.
Sure, I know what you're thinking ... what good is comparing something to what is largely considered one of the great games of the JRPG genre? It was just the final reminder that it is possible to have an engaging experience regardless of the platform, style or even age of game. So I came to a conclusion - stop forgiving the game, and hold it accountable for what it is: a very average game with average story and average characters. When I was thinking this I came up with a comparison: Loki for the PC. Loki has a nice attempt at something new, looking at a story through four mythologies. Yet aside from that singular new idea, everything is generic and feels like a summary of things from better games made before.
So that really summarizes my feelings about The Last Remnant: average and generic. It does one thing that is new - the combat system - but even that feels half-baked. The graphics are gorgeous, and I very much appreciated the flexibility in control customization, but nothing else stands out. The game isn't bad in any way - so there is nothing that would make me recommend *not* getting the game. I should reiterate that the game requires Steam whether you buy it online or get a retail disk, meaning that after installation you cannot sell or trade the game. Since I don't consider this to be the type of game folks would generally hang on to long term, that is a definite drawback for a $50 game.
I struggled a bit with my final recommendation. I was concerned because of the Steam activation, but fortunately there is a demo available on Steam and various demo download sites. I always recommend trying the demo before spending your money - because the demo is free and you just never know. My advice is to play the demo if you have any interest, but enter the game without raised expectations based on Square Enix being the developer.
+ Stunning graphics
+ Excellent customization of PC controls
+ Massive (80+ hour) campaign
+ Highly polished PC port
- Generic characters and story
- Combat system feels half-baked
- Too many cut scenes
Matt: I totally hear what you are saying, and again, despite our clashing histories and tastes with the RPG genre I think we’re pretty much on the same page here…at least far more than I expected when we decided to start this discussion!
I can’t argue with your description of The Last Remnant as an average RPG, because by Square Enix’s lofty standards it does come across as a bit of an uninspired effort. From strictly a console perspective though – I am examining it from the Xbox 360 side after all – it is actually better than many of the other RPGs I’ve played on the 360 in its lifespan thus far. Unfortunately that shows more of how weak the current RPG library is on the 360, but the fact remains that The Last Remnant is a solid game despite some of its average qualities. Certainly not remarkable or memorable, but solid enough to warrant playing…if you don’t mind putting up with the myriad technical problems, that is!
+ Enjoyable, well-paced combat system overall
+ Graphics look excellent when the textures and frame rate cooperate
+ Great all-around audio production
+ Interesting storyline, despite the cliches
- Xbox 360 version is horribly glitchy
- Too much randomness
- "Auto pilot" character progression
Platform: PC, Xbox 360
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: X360 - 11/20/08, PC - 3/24/09
ESRB Rating: Mature