The Last Remnant had a fairly interesting story leading up to its PC release. After its announcement in early 2007 Square-Enix kept completely silent about the game, revealing only that it was going to be an RPG and was being designed in an attempt to appeal to both Western AND Eastern audiences - something that S-E rarely had success doing in the past. Nothing except a few screenshots were revealed in the nearly-18-months prior to release; even the additional details about the combat system and gameplay that were shown in the final month before launch were not enough to satiate gamers' curiosities. Then the game finally came out on the XBOX 360... and promptly fell flat on its face in the West, with complaints about gameplay elements, slowdown, and loading times appearing in most professional and user reviews about the game. The PC version was released several months later with the promise to fix all that was wrong about the 360 version. Will the improvements be enough to make the game more enjoyable, or will they instead prove to have no significant impact on the game's playability?
The game starts off by introducing the player to the main protagonist Rush, who is wondering around a forest looking for his kidnapped sister. He accidentally stumbles upon a battle between an army from a country called Athlum and an army comprised of monsters. Rush mistakes a person in the battle as his sister, dashes in... and gets entangled in a story of politics and adventure on a scale far larger than a simple rescue attempt. Unfortunately the story plays out in a far less interesting fashion than its concept sounds, partially from a lack of focus and the rest from undeveloped characters. Several of the main characters have their charm - David has the determination fitting for a young ruler, and Rush is so socially inept that he uses lame phrases that sound idiotic even to people in-game, but very few of them get any real character development outside of Rush thanks to the aforementioned lack of focus.
There is a little going on for the rest of the cast despite several having recruitment quests that attempt to expand on their back-story. The fact that the story only seriously starts nearly halfway into the game doesn't help matters, and introduces the Conqueror (the enigmatic character designed specifically to attract more Western gamers) so late that any potential new Western players would have stopped playing the game by then, defeating the point of why the Conqueror was created. Lack of focus and main-story development is at least partially intentional due to the way the creators intended the game to be played (explained later), but that still does not excuse having a cast that will probably be remembered more for their designs than their actual character.
While a mediocre story normally spells the end for most RPGs, The Last Remnant fortunately makes up for this lacking thoroughly in various other areas. The graphics for instance were not impacted by the game's multiplatform release which tends to result with games that don't fully take advantage of a PC's graphical power, at all, and instead improve the already-decent graphics found on the 360 version. The game has been incredibly well-optimized for the PC; the much-maligned loading times between areas and between going in and out of battles have been reduced significantly and are completely ignorable now, and the draw distance has been greatly improved, allowing for more enemies to appear on-screen without slowing down the frame rate by any significant amount. Furthermore, if you have a computer with higher-end specs you can even get texture detail, draw distance and other graphical details to a level that's actually better than its console counterpart. In fact, the game is optimized so well that it doesn't even need a top-of-the-line computer to run at the best possible settings: the copy of the game used for this review was played at maximum settings and 1600 x 1050 resolution on a system that can only run Crysis at medium setting (and even then with significant slowdown).
Sound effects complement the game well, with the sounds used for weapon usage sounding believable and the sounds for magic sounding appropriate for how the spells are shown when used. The sound effects are accompanied by a well-made soundtrack. While the music for the different towns and cities are varied and fit the environment, it's the battle music that really stands out. There are surprisingly large amounts of battle themes in the game, with the potential of having multiple songs play in the same battle depending on the morale of the player's troops. They all are fast-paced and hectic, with the song fitting the mood of the battle (i.e. more desperate if the player is losing, more positive and rallying if winning). The instruments used is also interesting, as it is a combination of various orchestral and heavy rock instruments, with a hard-rocking guitar normally being the main highlights of the song. It comes off as fairly unique once heard, and captures the desperate, high-energy feeling that a battle should have.
Same can be said about the voice-acting, albeit to a lesser extent. All the English voice-actors play their parts well and are fitting for the characters they portray. This also carries over to the battles themselves, as all characters have various lines for different situations: you will hear them exclaim as they are hit with a particularly brutal attack, or cheer on others as they are engaging a new enemy or healing another team. This is also, oddly enough, the time when you get to see the most characterization out of each of the unique characters in the game as no two special characters speak alike; they all have their own type of reaction to the different situations which fit their backgrounds, and the decent voice-acting helps make this stand out. There are a few characters a little off, personally, Irena sounds far more uncomfortable and awkward in her role than most of the other cast ? but not enough to ruin the experience. If you however find that you dislike the acting significantly and do not want to listen to them, Square-Enix was nice enough to add the option to switch to the Japanese voices.
Of course sound and graphics can only help a game so much, and even after factoring the great quality of both in this case isn't enough to make up for the largely-mediocre story. That is where The Last Remnant's gameplay comes in; it's very, very obvious upon playing the game that the creators were putting more focus in this area of the game than any other part. Gameplay can be divided into two distinct parts: the battle system and everything else. The former of the two is a surprisingly complicated - but easy to understand - turn-based system. You're allowed to take up to five units into battle; the twist here is that each "unit" is actually a group of up to five team members. Each member of your army affects the strength of the unit as a whole, affecting its general stats and hit and action points (the latter pool being used for both magic and physical attack skills), yet also grow individually through the game's 'skill-leveling' system. Unlike most JRPGs, The Last Remnant does not rely on an experience-based system to improve characters but instead makes individual stats grow after battle, similar to the SaGa series of games. Players can influence which stats will grow faster than others based on how they use the units: characters in a unit that specializes in magic will increase more in the magic-focused stats, while suffering in physical stats and hp for example. The same can be said for both magical and physical skills, and even item-usage: the only efficient way to get newer, better versions of skills is to repeatedly use them until a character learns the skill mid-battle or after the battle is finished. However all skills take points from the entire units pool of action points, so it's very unlikely that a unit will find everyone in the group using special skills simultaneously in a round.
The battle system is further complicated thanks to the constantly-shifting morale bar that appears in battle. Its simplest function is to give the side with the higher morale benefits such as a higher chance to score critical hits and slight defensive improvements. However, it also affects the type of orders that can be given out by the player to his units; if the player's troops have low morale then more defensive and desperate commands, such as prioritizing healing or attempt to increase morale somehow, have a far higher chance of appearing, while high morale results with considerably more aggressive orders with healing and defense being far less common as a command selection. This mechanic does keep the battle interesting due to the increased unpredictability caused by this varying selection, but it can, and has, come off as a nuisance to some people who are used to and prefer having a firm set of commands being available every round. Furthermore, there is no way to assign actions to specific members in a unit in-battle; each command is for the entire unit, and each member takes actions that they deem appropriate for the command. Fortunately, Square-Enix added in the PC version the ability to disable commands the player doesn't want a member to use while in the out-of-battle menu, so the player could prohibit a physical attacker from using offensive magic and so on. The AI for the units are also descent and rarely will unit members use skills or actions that are nonsensical based on the command given, so the limited command selection actually comes off as a fun, tactical addition rather than something that hampers gameplay.
When Rush and company are done fighting and slaying hordes of enemies, the other gameplay elements take over and are all focused on one theme: World immersion. The developers designed the non-battle portions of the game in an attempt to let the player experience The Last Remnant's world as much as possible and feel right at home in it. The primary trait that shows this is the game's sand-box style of adventuring; about half of the dungeons and cities that are available in the game are never visited in the story, and thus it is the player's responsibility to talk to people and wonder around until they find the new area. These optional areas yield a large number of quests, items and characters that greatly develop the world that the game resides in. The world-immersion focus is also very apparent based on the cities and dungeons themselves: while the cities are small and the dungeons are normally linear they are very, very varied. Each town in a different country actually looks significantly different and the townspeople have different policies and focuses. This variety, while mostly a minor change in terms of gameplay, plays a massive part in making the countries seem realistically different and keeps the game from getting stale in the long run.
Throughout the game there are also a few interesting twists on features already seen in other games. One of them, the shops, is handled in such a way that both players who like finding materials as well as players who are in it for the story instead of adventure will be balanced. There will be multiple times when weapons and items sold in the store will be equivalent, if not better, than the items one can find or upgrade, but it's paced in such a way that the player will still find a lot of worth in upgrading. Just don't be surprised to find that most of the upgrades that will make a weapon consistently better than a store-bought one are in the much-harder-to-reach optional areas, or need items that you can't get for a while. There are also guilds in many of the towns, where you can both gain items from doing special tasks like killing a certain number of monsters or obtaining rare weapon ingredients, as well as quests that help accomplish different things including obtaining new recruits and even more quests.
There are a few frustrations that do lessen the fun of the game though. First up is the equipment system: Rush is the only one that the player can equip themselves, while other characters normally upgrade their own weapons and items or ask you to find a nearby ore. If you are unfortunate enough to not know where to obtain said ore or part, then the character's weapons will not be upgraded which in turn can potentially lead that character into being a nuisance until the player (at least, until the weapon gets updated somehow). Furthermore, the game has only the basics by covering them as tutorials (which appear as one-time screens when you first achieve certain steps like getting something for the first time) which is inexcusable in a game as difficult as this (rushing through dungeons WILL get you killed in this game). Also, while the free-roaming focus does much for expanding upon the world and culture of The Last Remnant, it also forces the story and character development to take far less of a focus as a result. The Last Remnant is a game that has gone through some tough times, both in pre-release as well as during the 360 sales and reviews. Fortunately the game has been considerably improved for the PC release, speeding up gameplay and improving graphics while also maintaining the elements of TLR that were already good, like the free-roaming aspect. There are still several problems, such as an underdeveloped story and cast as well as a lack of a way to help ease newcomers into the largely-difficult gameplay, and they do hamper the game to an extent. However, they do not come close to ruining the game at all, as the graphical, sound and gameplay elements more than make up for the story and character mediocrity. The Last Remnant is a game that would be a worthwhile purchase for any RPG gamer... as long as you prepare yourself for the gameplay difficulty in advance.
- Neil Chatterjee