At least, that's the theory. But as you get five lives per character per encounter, it doesn't really matter if you don't really get into the swing of things, because you've enough of a safety net to muddle through. AI allies are extremely efficient, and on the occasions they do fall, you can just activate Gathering mode and revive them. All this is helpful when you're learning the ropes, but it rather smoothes off the difficulty curve once you've mastered the most effective tactics.
Still, the dynamism of the system and the drama provided by Nobuo Uematsu's excellent score makes for some pulsating encounters, and the ability to summon more enemies to fight at special portals offers the opportunity to get some practice and experience without the need to find suitable areas for grinding. It helps that each battle has its own scripted dialogue rather than the same stock phrases repeated ad infinitum. Xenoblade's "what a bunch of jokers" got a bit much by hour five, let alone 50, but you won't get fed up of the dialogue here.
Indeed, that's true of the entire localisation. Nintendo of Europe has excelled itself in the translation effort, and as with Xenoblade, regional UK accents dominate. The Mancunian twang of flirty drunkard Syrenne is a particular delight, while softly-spoken Scot Lowell is equally likeable. You'll hear Essex girl landladies and Irish guards, though once again, the bad guys are almost exclusively Londoners. The script, meanwhile, is filled with colloquialisms and phrases that clearly weren't in the Japanese original. Attempt to peek in on Syrenne in the tub and she angrily admonishes you - "yer big perv!" - though it's worth resisting the basest of urges in this instance for a double-entendre-laden exchange.
Yet the warmth, wit and charm of the dialogue and voice acting serves a story that, ignoring the atypically brisk pace, reverts to JRPG archetype. There's the orphaned hero, the ragtag band of mercenaries with hearts of gold, the mysterious girl with a secret identity and even more secret powers - and a bad guy who's been taking fashion and grooming tips from Ganondorf. For a game that's so fiercely inventive elsewhere to fall back on such a rote RPG setup is disappointing. Perhaps it's churlish to complain about a concept that has long been a genre staple, but the clichéd world-saving plot sits uneasily with the creativity elsewhere.
That includes a level of customisation rare in JRPGs, so you can not only deck out your gang in a variety of different gear but also change the colour of their outfits. Your clothing choices carry over into the cutscenes which, in another sop to accessibility, can be fast-forwarded. It's a game in a bit of a hurry, alright, and such briskness extends to its runtime, which for most players will be around the 20-hour mark. Sadly, that pace doesn't carry over to the sometimes sluggish framerate: explore the busy Lazulis city that acts as a hub during the early game and it chugs badly, though it's less of an issue during combat. Otherwise, it's technically solid, if a little too fond of bloom lighting and the colour brown, and can't compare with the scale and vibrancy of Xenoblade's world of wonder.
Although it can't quite live up to Monolith's last astonishing reinvention of the JRPG, The Last Story offers highlights of its own. Full of gags, bawdy humour and pratfalls (what other game gives you the chance to shoot bananas at the feet of citizens for comic relief?) it's got charm to spare. Unlike Sakaguchi's biggest hit, The Last Story's title is more likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it represents compelling proof that there's still life in the old JRPG yet.