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.
All the good The Last Remnant's battle system brings to the JRPG table is undermined by how stale the rest of the game feels. It's been designed to appeal to Westerners in a way Square Enix's previous role-playing games haven't, but we can't see much of a difference except that there's unrealistic looking and sounding blood (the first time blood has ever appeared in a SE game). The Conqueror, The Last Remnant's big bad guy, has apparently been designed with Westerners in mind, but it seems all that's different between him and FFVII's Sephiroth is that he's older and got more muscles. And the motion capture has been done with Western actors, another first, but you'd be hard pressed to tell.
The complex story is classic JRPG - an enthusiastic teenage boy, in this case called Rush Sykes, sets forth on a save the world adventure after his sister is kidnapped by awful beasties. He eventually meets up with the brilliantly named King David (called Dave by Rush), whose Western voice actor can't seem to decide whether he's Captain Jack Sparrow or Will Turner. Together with Dave's four generals, Torgal, a four armed cat thing, Blocter, a huge tank class with platypus lips, Emma, a matriarchal humanoid with a sexy posh English voice and Pagus, the love child of Kermit the Frog and Jar Jar Binks, Rush plays a key role in a war over the Remnants, powerful artefacts that can be used as powerful weapons. Because we've seen this kind of set up in a million JRPGs before The Last Remnant's story is depressingly predictable. Dogged fans of the genre will like it of course, but we're getting tired of playing annoying teenage leads in coming of age adventures.
Exploration also offers little new. From a third-person perspective Rush runs about town, talks to NPCs, sells bits he's picked up on his travels, buys stuff, improves the quality of his existing equipment (party members look after their own equipment, in keeping with the hands-off nature of the game) and embarks on side quests (which automatically teleport you to the appropriate area and back when finished, giving the game an odd, disjointed pace). Out in the wild, The Last Remnant feels very FFXII, granting the ability to run by monsters and pick and choose your fights. This doesn't prevent you getting bogged down in the 'grind' though. There are boss fights and core story dungeons that force you to go off somewhere and level up for a few hours in order to make them beatable. Again, there will be fans of the genre who enjoy this, but we've been here, done that and got an inventory full of t-shirts. If nothing else, The Last Remnant hammers home the uncomfortable truth that SE JRPGs haven't significantly evolved since FFVII, and that game's over 10 years old.
The graphics are at times stunning. The cities have a wonderfully executed Arabic-influenced design with vistas you can't help but gawp at. Each main city houses a Remnant which usually towers above all the other buildings, and stopping to pan the camera so you can take in the enormity of these artefacts provide the game's graphical highlights. The main characters themselves are brilliantly designed, impressively detailed and varied enough to stand out from each other. Rush disappoints somewhat in this respect in that he looks relatively normal, but the other party members are guaranteed to stick in the memory. Emma is great, as is The Conqueror, who reeks of power but isn't obviously evil. The in-game cut scenes allow the characters to shine, although it's a shame that the walking animations are so wooden (characters turn on the spot before moving in a direction, in ye olde Resident Evil-style).
Any brownie points the graphics score are eradicated by the crippling technical issues anyone without a hard drive to install the game on will unavoidably suffer. Played from the disc, the game suffers from awful slowdown, horrible texture pop in and tiresome loading. During battles involving more than four or so Unions, the game will slow to a crawl when anything other than a simple sword slice is triggered. Character and environment textures will sometimes pop in sometimes five seconds after a scene loads, which, frankly, is unforgivable. And the game loads what feels like every five minutes - before a fight, after a fight, in between cut scenes... all the bloody time. It's so bad that we can't actually recommend The Last Remnant to anyone who doesn't have an Xbox 360 hard drive.
Installed, The Last Remnant runs much better, so much so that you can't believe it's the same game. When textures do pop in it's after half a second not five, and slowdown is less noticeable. The loading, too, is reduced. Still, compared to other games it's a lacklustre effort, and feels rushed out the door without optimisation. Either that or the development team simply couldn't get to grips with the Unreal Engine 3, the first time Epic's much licensed engine has been used by SE.
At the end of the day, The Last Remnant is a stale JRPG with interesting combat and lovely graphics that's crippled by technical deficiencies. It's a good game when installed, and is unquestionably better than Infinite Undiscovery, but there's nothing here to make it worth recommending if you're anything but a die hard SE JRPG fan. The pressure on Final Fantasy XIII increases.