It often seems to be forgotten that Square Enix develops more games besides just the Final Fantasy series, and the occasional obscure title that only see the light of day in Japan. One of these games that made its way to Western territories in 2008 was The Last Remnant, a not-so-traditional Japanese Role Playing Game that has been both developed and published by Square Enix. The Last Remnant was intended as a more accessible RPG that would serve as the cornerstone of SE’s increasingly international strategy.
I think it’s fairly common knowledge that first impressions are very important, if not crucial to the disposition with which you look at a subject. Unfortunately, The Last Remnant makes a terrible first impression, as even the introducing cutscene is plagued by severe pop-in. As we see the protagonist of the game rush through a maze of brown surfaces, it takes a few seconds before the actual textures turn said surfaces into trees. As he then comes across a small flowerbed in the middle of the forest, it once again takes a moment for the texture to turn the small waving ‘blob’ into a beautiful flower. I had been told by many that the game suffers from graphical issues, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Without even finishing the cutscene, I returned to the Xbox 360 dashboard to install the disc to my harddrive, which is known to shorten loading times. After returning to the game, almost all textures are on the screen within a second, but it still remains a little bit iffy as most of this happens while the cutscene is already underway.
Once the actual gameplay starts, you are given a short introduction to the combat mechanics of the game. The combat is easily one of the most refreshing takes on the ancient turn-based system, and gives you control over a small army of units. All units controlled by the player are divided into small squads which contain at most five units, called unions. Unions share a single health bar, which is the aggregate of the member’s individual hit points. The interesting thing is that you do not directly control the units within the union, but rather give the union a general command, such as attack or heal; you can also have them attack using melee or magic skills. Units that are not able to perform such moves, will often either defend or just attack with regular attacks. Skills are performed using ability points (AP), which are also shared with the entire union. Unions regenerate AP based once again on the aggregate of all AP regeneration each unit contributes to the team.
Creating unions can easily become a micro-management task, especially as more soldiers / mercenaries become available as the game progresses. Unions can be customized in many ways, ranging from setting a leader for the group (who provides certain bonuses for the group) to the specific formation the units should take during battle. Balancing AP regeneration against the versatility of the units within the union can easily give you an edge over the enemy in combat. But seeing as the game will sometimes ruthlessly punish you for a small mistake, be prepared to spend considerable time in balancing and training your unions. In fact, if Square Enix wanted to make this an accessible RPG, they have failed considerably in that aspect. Not only do they simply fail to explain some of the items on the union-status screen or some of the meters that show up during combat, but the game lacks a gradually increasing learning curve. In the early stages of the game, you will easily manage to defeat enemies by brute force, but this suddenly stops working and the game leaves it to oneself to figure out exactly how to make your unions operate more effectively. Unfortunately, by the time you know exactly what you’re doing, a large portion of the game has passed. While you can save the game at any moment you are not in combat, it gets annoying if bosses decide to wipe out your entire army in a single turn without clear explanation as to why he managed to get 4 turns in a row all of the sudden. Players should be prepared to suffer many cheap deaths, and should also not be surprised if even ‘easy’ enemies start taking down unions if the player is not focused.
On the other hand, Square Enix has done a great job at simplifying other tasks, such as the fact that all units heal automatically after combat and the automatic outfitting of units in your unions. The player can only customize a single character, Rush, and all other units that tag along on his quest will often ask for certain items after battle that they will use themselves to customize their gear. The units will also level up their attributes in a (seemingly) random manner. As players string together a long chain of defeated enemies across consecutive battles (without being ambushed or defeated) the units you control will level up faster, making the grinding of lower level units a more viable alternative to fighting some incredibly hard high-level creatures.
But the two things a JRPG cannot do without are atmosphere and a gripping story line, and especially in this department, The Last Remnant delivers. The game is set in a world where wars are fought using ancient machinations called Remnants. Though they vary in design, many of them are of impressive size and function as the sole guardians of cities and regions. Despite the graphical issues, Square Enix has managed to use the Unreal 3 engine to create a world that feels alive and create characters that are relatable.
The story begins small but eventually grows into a story line that has severe impacts on the entire world. It revolves around Rush Sykes who is chasing after a flying Remnant that abducted his sister, Irina. It quickly becomes clear that Irana has extraordinary powers that relate to these Remnants, but the how and why remain a mystery for a considerable time, making it interesting to focus on the main quest rather than the side missions. Yet these side quests are where the game also shines, as they are very numerous. Each consists of a few story arcs that hint at future events in the main quest line, making the world feel alive with all fates being intertwined.
Overall, The Last Remnant is not such a bad game as many would have you believe, but consistent texture pop-in remains a nuisance throughout the entire game. For those who manage to look past this, The Last Remnant will provide a deep experience with enough unique aspects to set it apart from the large number of JRPGs that have made their way to the Xbox 360. It does not come close to Final Fantasy, but there is definitely a small gem beneath the massive crust. The separate aspects of the game burst with potential, but the execution of them all combined just slightly fall short of buying the game as a budget title. That doesn’t mean you won’t find it highly enjoyable if it all resonates, but if you like JRPGs in general and are looking for a change, you should start with a careful rental.