As any avid fan of Japanese videogames will already know, there are many, many games which remain forever locked in their native country, and never see a western release. In some cases, this is simply because they’re too niche – it’s unlikely that dating games or railway simulations will find a mass audience in Europe or America anytime soon – or because western publishers don’t think there’s a big enough market to justify the lengthy process of localisation.
Lest we forget, the localisation of a videogame is a lengthy and sometimes expensive process. The days where gamers could overlook such hurriedly translated, garbled bits of dialogue as “I am error” and the infamous “All your base are belong to us” are now long gone, and with the increased quality of graphics and production values expected of modern, mainstream games, comes the assumption that any dialogue will be up to a certain standard, too.
And when it comes to the Japanese RPG, a genre whose dialogue and sprawling storylines inevitably make for a particularly time-consuming and expensive translation process, it’s little surprise that, unless a game has a ready audience – the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, for example – western publishers will be reluctant to pick it up for release in the west.
This has certainly been the case since the days of the Super Nintendo – inarguably the finest console for Japanese RPGs in the 90s – where highly-regarded games such as Marvelous: Another Treasure Island (directed by Eiji Aonuma, who would later work on Zelda games for Nintendo), Seiken Densetsu 3 (a semi-sequel to Secret Of Mana) and Star Ocean are but a few examples.
For a long time, it looked as though the Wii JRPG The Last Story would share the same fate. Released in January 2011 to extremely favourable reviews in Japan’s Famitsu magazine, Nintendo were very quiet about the possibility of launching an English-language version of The Last Story. This was in spite of the game’s warm reception in Japan, and its excellent pedigree – director Hironobu Sakaguchi was famously the creator of Final Fantasy, first released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987.
And as well as creating one of the most influential and respected RPGs of all time, Sakaguchi continued to guide the Final Fantasy into the gigantic franchise it has since become, and also created some of Square Enix’s most memorable games, including Parasite Eve and the much-loved Disney cross-over, Kingdom Hearts.
When Sakaguchi left Square in 2003 to form his own studio, Mistwalker, his creativity continued unabated; Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey were well-received and commercially successful, with the former title buoyed by some beautiful character designs and artwork by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama.
But then, just when The Last Story’s notable absence from Nintendo’s presentation at E3 2011 appeared to suggest that it would never make it out of Japan, the product manager of Nintendo France, Ludovic Amouroux, revealed that an English language version of the game would be released in Europe and Australia.
Sadly, fans of Japanese fans in America have yet to be so lucky – in spite of the best efforts of Operation Rainfall – a fan campaign that aimed to encourage Nintendo of America to release localised versions of Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower in the US – Nintendo has so far only responded with a somewhat vague “Never say never” statement regarding a US release of The Last Story.
The campaign’s efforts haven’t been entirely in vain, though, since Xenoblade Chronicles is now planned for release on 2nd April in America. And with the campaign still ongoing, it’s just possible that Nintendo of America will eventually see sense, and release The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower in the region too.
The fact is that, right now, many western companies – not least Nintendo of America – tend to view Japanese games in general, and JRPGs in particular, as a somewhat niche concern. One only has to look at the rather off-hand way Sony treated the fabulous Demon’s Souls, a JRPG whose western success took it completely by surprise, to get an idea of how overlooked Japanese games so often are.
It would be little short of a tragedy, then, if The Last Story doesn’t get the audience it deserves, given that we’re so lucky to get a localised version of it at all, and that’s because it’s a genuinely great game – not just a great Wii JRPG, but among the best games of its type on any system.
Admittedly, the quintessentially Japanese look and character design of The Last Story hint at business as usual. The lead character is Zeal (Elza in the Japanese version) a dashingly handsome hero whose flowing locks and wide eyes belie his tragic past, where his family were brutally murdered. Now a mercenary for hire with ambitions of becoming a more honourable knight, he teams up with Calista, a young woman of regal origins, and a group of other fighters, to defend his little island from supernatural invading forces.
But like Zeal, who holds a mysterious, extraordinary power in his right hand, the game’s apparent simplicity (not to mention familiarity) is a cover for something far more deep and intriguing. Like Skyward Sword, The Last Story is divided up into long dungeon areas, all tied together by a central hub – in this instance, Lazulis island. These dungeon areas are the backdrop for the game’s strongest asset – its battle system, which is a world away from the menu-based fighting of many traditional JRPGs.
There’s the pace and accessibility of an action adventure, with auto-attacks, combos, ranged attacks and the ability to hide behind cover, Uncharted-style, but there’s still plenty of strategy to its combat, too – particularly in boss battles, where each guardian is like a hulking puzzle that will take timing and coordination to defeat. Members of Zeal’s party, meanwhile, can be despatched to different positions, or sent off to fight different enemies from a top-down perspective.
In fact, there are many elements you wouldn’t expect to see in a Japanese RPG – there’s a first-person mode, which can be used to aim projectile weapons and magic, and even cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes.
Taking into account the obvious limitations of the Wii, The Last Story is a quite beautiful looking game, too, with detailed architectural and world designs, engaging characters and, of course, the sort of spiky, exotic bosses that have long been a feature of Japanese games.
Over the last few years, the Wii has repeatedly proved itself to be the unsung home of some truly great hardcore games, from the surprisingly deep tactics and kingdom building of Little King’s Story to the underrated Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. And with The Last Story, the little pale console may well have received its finest JRPG yet.
The Last Story is due out in the UK on the 24th February exclusively for the Nintendo Wii.
Hironobu Sakaguchi will be speaking about The Last Story at Midlands Comic Con on 18th February.