The Last Remnant is part two in Square Enix's three-pronged Xbox 360 JRPG love in that began with the infinitely forgettable Infinite Undiscovery and ends with Star Ocean: The Last Hope early next year. Let's be frank right off the bat. The Last Remnant is comfortably better than Tri-Ace's Infinite Undiscovery, but it's got nothing on Square Enix's best work with the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises. At its best it's experimental and innovative, but overall it's stale and stuck in the trappings of its genre. And, most bafflingly, it's both graphically stupendous and technically crippling, all at the same time.
Let's deal with these two contradictions one at a time. The Last Remnant battle system, developed by Kazutoyo Maehiro, the brains behind the love it or hate it Final Fantasy XII combat system, is a refreshing fusion of traditional JRPG turn-based combat and more large scale combat. This 'Gambit 1.5' system, described so by art producer Yusuke Naora because of it's similarity to FFXII's AI-reliant system, is far and away the best thing about The Last Remnant, and is just about the best JRPG-related mechanic Square Enix has drummed up in the yawning chasm that has yet to be filled adequately between Final Fantasy XII's release and the second coming that is Final Fantasy XIII's release.
Units in The Last Remnant are grouped together in Unions, which include up to five party members. You can control up to five of these Unions in any given battle, meaning that at maximum capacity there can be a whopping 25 units under your control. When you consider that you can link together up to nine enemy unions into a single fight using an MMO-style pull system (press RT to pull targeted enemies), you can find yourself thrust into massive 70 unit scraps reminiscent of pitched battles between rival secondary schools on the local common.
If you were required to micromanage every unit in real time The Last Remnant would probably melt your brain. Luckily Maehiro-san has simplified matters somewhat by allowing the player to give general commands to Union leaders every turn, allowing you to sit back and watch the camera dart about the battlefield as the AI takes over. At the beginning of each turn you have a certain amount of Action Points (AP) to spend on either Combat Arts (melee based attacks) or Mystic Arts (essentially spells). A list of possible commands is displayed on the right of the screen, and you simply scroll through them and pick one. You'll have 'Attack with combat arts' and 'Attack with mystic arts', but you'll also have some other commands which are context sensitive. Say, for example, one of your Unions has taken a bit of damage, the command 'Keep you health up' will present itself, but it wouldn't have otherwise. At no point, however, does the combat allow you to hand pick specific attacks or spells. All you can do is have a look at what arts a particular command will have the units in a Union do.
This hands-off approach certainly takes a bit of getting used to, but you do get used to it and, after extended play, it becomes oddly addictive, and, somehow, doesn't get old, even during the pits of grinding despair.
Further depth is added to the combat with the use of formations, which enable you to arrange the units in your Unions differently in order to maximise their strengths and conceal their weaknesses. Formations will allow you to, for example, increase a Union's defence against flank attacks, or increase melee attack power. Within these formations you can arrange your units so that weak spellcasters are at the back and tanks soak up damage from the front. It can get quite complex, but there's an odd amount of fun to be had soldiering through the difficult to use data-heavy 'Union board' and pouring over the statistics of your party members.
Many, however, will not like the combat because it doesn't offer complete control. Levelling up also seems like a somewhat random affair. At the end of battles you're told that certain party member characteristics have increased, like hit points and AP, which is fine, but some of them make no sense whatsoever. Gluttony? Love? What do these do? Nothing it seems.