Monday, 2 February 2015
Last Dream (Video Game Review)
As with all things, as a franchise builds and develops they sadly develop flaws. Some fan be fatal, others divert it down a route the story never explored, and the canon devolves into a patchwork of retcons or forced sequels. Whether this is down to the creators losing sight of what worked, the rights shifting to those who do not understand the property, or even just changes in vision which go against its best strengths, we've seen this many times over. Sometimes it can take an indie to show where a major publisher went wrong, and Last Dream captures everything which SquareEnix has lost sight of with Final Fantasy.
Created in RPGMaker and touted as an ode to the classic era of SquareEnix's fabled flagship series, Last Dream is a near perfect example of how to make a great RPG. The story is surprisingly deep but un-intrusive, the world is vast and the enemies challenging. Atop of all this however, it manages to account for many ideas and points big name publishers have long forgotten. Not just in Final Fantasy, but in the likes of the Elder Scrolls, or even the biggest of names.
The story opens up with a parent being separated from their children while on a beach. Whilst out searching for firewood, the skies overhead darken and the very environment seems to warp about them, and their family disappears. Returning and frantically searching for them, they nearly drown as a hooded figure looks on and barely escape alive with the help of the enigmatic Dante. Recovering, they soon discover they have somehow arrived on a parallel world known as Terra, and may have no way home...
Despite sounding like some demented opening to an Uwe Boll production, this actually works in the story's favour. The opening is very short, presents a real sense of mystery, and you soon discover that the protagonist (the parent, whose name, class and to some degree gender, is decided by you) may not have been brought there by mistake. Through visions you see glimpses of how the elves were driven to extinction and the rise of a new power. The character himself is a blank slate, as are your companions, but that partially works in the game's favour. It's up to you to really fill out their character traits and turn them into a legendary figure, rather than the writers. Not to mention how things play out.
Of the two franchises mentioned above, Final Fantasy's main failing has been its increasing linearity and emphasis upon trying to tell a long drawn out story. A story which is, going by XIII, often bereft of context. Elder Scrolls meanwhile never seems to let your achievements have much impact. You can be champion of the area and head of the mage's guild, but people will barely recognise you for it, and bandits will still attack as if you're a no-name chump. Last Dream completely obliterates these as it progresses onward.
Along with offering a massive open world which is huge even by Final Fantasy's standards, sequence breaking is outright encouraged by the developers. There are many hidden ways you can find to skip ahead of the main story or even bypass a few plot critical events like gaining access to a ship by serving the king. While many still need to be followed at some point to keep the story going, there's far more freedom in how you accomplish them. Atop of this, a huge number of locations and points can only be found by going out of your way to find them. While having no bearing on the core story, it's possible to kill a demi-god, the very being who destroyed the elves, build a submarine, find Atlantis, and kill a sea-going leviathan from the inside-out. Those are just a handful of the things which happen, and revisiting villages is actively encouraged. Many will change over time to react to events, or even be occupied by a hostile Empire at points, or even offer brand new sidequests.
Speaking of sidequests, it's through these and a few key choices that you can really get the world to react to you. Okay, go back and speak to them about new developments and they'll say something new, but you can end up heaped with praise. Kill a pirate terrorising a village in a non-required battle? You get repeatedly thanked, several nights free in the local inn, and even hear how things develop thanks to your actions in the ending. Complete the entire Hunter's Guild and Arena tiers? People will often recognise you as the champion who accomplished them, and both will not only alter the ending but a huge amount of the final battle. You can even at one point launch a raid into the heart of occupied Asgard, join with the resistance, rescue the imprisoned king, and flee, and you'll be seen as a hero by many for it.
This is the thing about the game, while the Last Dream might be more basic in its presentation and general story, it makes up for that by covering areas missed by bigger titles. This makes it truly well worth investing in and more often than not there are choices or unseen moments which will make you go back to try things again in multiple replays. The fact that the developers themselves published an online guide shows how much they wanted people to really make the most of their game.
Beyond even this, many mechanics in Last Dream are fairly solid from the outset. Much like the first Final Fantasy, you get only four heroes to choose from and they consist of the usual mix of classes. There's the tanking Knight, sneaky Thief, White Mage, Black Mage and Monk, with a few later or unusual choices such as the Hunter, Engineer and Grey Mage. Each of them plays out as you'd expect, and their overall role goes as you'd expect, albeit with a few twists here and there. Rather than leveling up normally, there are two separate points systems to help upgrade your party in terms of abilities/spells and stats. The former can be used to ignore some of the more basic spells and save up for better but more expensive ones. The latter allows for some real freedom in terms of how you develop a hero. As a personal example, after getting irritated at Mages being exceptionally squishy, I dumped a metric ton of points into defence. Keeping with this, they rapidly became borderline bullet-proof and capable of tanking attacks like there was no tomorrow.
The actual combat system goes as you'd expect really. It's turn based, you have a wide variety of actions to choose from and it's strictly sticking to what works really. While the inclusion of passive upgrades you can buy and a few class choices might surprise you, such as the Engineer's usefulness with certain items, it's really nothing we've seen before. At the same time, there's nothing really wrong with that as it is set up to emulate classic pre-PSX RPGs. It's also somewhat expected due to the RPGMakers system, and really it's better to stick with a winning formula here than anything else.
What is every interesting however, and something far more RPGs should have included a very long time ago. In the options menu there is the choice to edit the exact state of Last Dream's world as you play through, allowing players to play as they want. This consists of a varied array of difficulty options (allowing you to lower it briefly to deal with any especially aggravating speed-bumps of bosses), but also the rate of random encounters and whether you want to see cutscenes. Both are very intelligent choices as they can ultimately speed up grinding, and allow players to really tailor their experience. If you're only interested in the mechanics or speed-running the game, repeatedly mashing the spacebar to race through cutscenes is going to become frustrating in minutes. If you do miss them however, there is an option to go back and re-watch them in the menu.
All this said however, Last Dream is not a perfect game by any means and there are a few irritating points here and there.
While sticking to a classic turn based system and mixture of classes, some elements of the abilities system and enemies lack some fine polish. In going back to an older design, many design choices which were better refined later on in Final Fantasy's sequels rear their heads here. A lot of spells quickly become problematic as rather than the usual Cure or Firaga, you have various Cure 1s, Fire 7s and the like. This means you're going to be buying up and churning you way through multiple very similar spells which do not scale too well with your levels. Switching them in and out due to the limited slots in combat is pointless busywork at the best of times, and it would have been easy to have one replace the other as you brought them up. Instead it can leave you scrolling through pages of no longer useful spells at times.
On the subject of scrolling through things, this is actually a real problem the game has with a few systems. Navigating through the map can be problematic as it does not allow for free moment, only jumping from dungeon to village to dungeon by scrolling up and down on a list. However, rather than putting them in alphabetical order, it's merely mashed together meaning it's hard to find what you want at times. The same goes for the recipe system to make new items, which is infinitely frustrating when you just want to know how many more demon skulls you need to craft a new helmet.
In terms of the actual enemy variety, there's nothing really unique here and it even lacks some of the more interesting choices. While the usual mix of orcs, bandits, undead and the like all show up, but none of the spellcasters immune to physical attacks. It's the same sort of foes you'd expect to see showing up but they lack that additional element to make them truly interesting or stand out. Just a bit more variety or originality would definitely help.
Even the story does suffer from a few teething problems. While it quickly settles into its storytelling method, the initial cutscene is extremely jarring and it takes a couple to really get going. Atop of this, the party beyond the protagonist seems to really be ignored. Even in the ending, none of your companions even register as being there and just disappear entirely. It's thankfully kept to a minimum but these headscratching scenes really spoil what is otherwise a perfect ending. One which, in all fairness, nails everything you'd hope it would in tying up the fate of the characters you meet and your impact on the world.
Really though, these problems are not nearly enough to prevent Last Dream being a glowing beacon of hope for indie RPGs. This really is the standard to which all RPGMaker titles should be measured against as it maintains a consistently high quality throughout and really rewards the player for going out of their way to explore the world. If you have been missing a great RPG in the style of yesteryear which isn't afraid to change things up or break from tradition when needed, this is one well worth recommending. For its very low price you can expect to drain a good fifty hours of your life into the game, and you'll not regret a second of it.
Just remember to take an Engineer if you want the best ending to be available to you. No, really, you'll need him.