Tuesday, February 28, 2012

-REVIEW The Last Remnant-
the particle ocean


Title: The Last Remnant
Developer: Square Enix
Release: X360, PS3, PC 

In the future, when you die, your car, your house, your clothes, your TV, and your wife disintegrate. That is, unless someone else decides to take responsibility for it all


I like to suffer for my entertainment. Maybe suffering IS entertainment in a sense, since I relish far too much the moments when I feel pressure, weight, or the strain of breakage upon any physical or metaphysical boundary of mine. It’s an addiction: the exhilaration of destruction and the advent of reconstruction send a gargantuan wave of dopamine surging through my primitive hindbrain.

But has difficulty died? In the great search for soul-crushing pressure and physically demanding bewitchery, have we instead found the unused dregs of some pale, basement-dwelling internet-published science-fiction comedian writer? Have we forsaken the great purity of complex ideas for the shallow and pleasant comfort of beautifully dressed simplicity? Yes, yes we have.
This is because the suffering is still there. The suffering can still be found in moments of frustration, a slip of the finger, or a twitch too early. But it is a suffering without virtue. It is a suffering embedded in the inevitable contingency of genetic superiority and not in the subtle journey from ignorance to enlightenment. One is instinctual, impenetrable, and ultimately untransferrable, a selfish suffering not unlike that of the more indulgent ascetics of old. The other, well…

The other is embodied by The Last Remnant.


Before launching into a complete elaboration of what exactly this game accomplishes, it’s important to address a number of glaring faults that drag this game down from perfection. The combat system is obtuse, the localization is spotty, and the menus can be a bit indecipherable. But the real flaws are found in its narrative.
Have you ever been stuck in a corn maze? Neither have I, but seriously, it sounds like the most infuriating thing ever: endlessly repeating rows of uncooked vegetables, the annoyance of being lost compounded by a proximity-induced hunger that could be solved with a simple fire (which is a solution you can’t resort to because, guess what, it’s corn), and the knowledge that you wouldn't be in this predicament if you had just decided to trick-or-treat instead of "be unique"...this is only part of the problem when it comes to The Last Remnant.

The primary thread winding through this landscape is thick like the proverbial false weave on a blonde girl, but is at the same time as incongruous (and is a terrible idea, blonde girls). It forks unpredictably when new areas open up after side missions, but then fails to reconvene after a cutscene. It introduces political intrigue without sufficient context and incorporates quest dialogue into side missions despite not having an actual quest log (so it’s impossible to know or remember where to go next at times). It pretty much does everything that there’s no reason to do when attempting to tell a story but I’m still playing this freaking game for 5 hours at a time.
What does this mean? It means that I have a problem, and that this problem is bigger than the problem of a terribly designed narrative.


Other games have surmounted the same mountains, of course. Dark Souls has delicate, tell-based combat and impressive level design. God Hand has customizable, twitch-based fisticuffery. And The Last Remnant has squad-turn-technique-field positioning-based indirect combat, microcosmic character growth, semi-random encounters, and immense loot and equipment improvement tables.

JRPGs have always done this: The take a swathe of that fantasy genre and stretch it out over a skeleton of their creation. In the best examples both the swathe that is cut and the skeleton it is lain over are equally balanced. In the majority of them one or the other predominates and what you end up with is either a fluffy, squishy, sensually appealing work that inevitably collapses or a menacing, veiny android, like some kind of degloved animatronio or that partially evolved robot clone from The Last Starfighter.
Which of these is more compelling? For some, fluffiness is enough, or even requisite. Without appropriate amounts of fluffiness many won’t give it a second chance. I will go further to say that our penchant for fluffiness is what has driven developers to saturate the market with collapsible fluffies, whose inherent collapsibility inflicts buyer’s remorse, which in turn drives our desire for veiny androids, which manifests itself in the form of games like Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

Unfortunately, that itself begins yet another cycle. Dark Souls is a particular in a sea of other particulars, but is being used as a paragon, a model, and a design philosophy, but it is not actually a philosophy itself. As a result, it cannot be the thought process which designers can hang their hats on in order to produce games that are as good.
This is undoubtedly something that developers already understand, but as consumers we need to understand this too. We need to understand this because if we don’t, we’ll fail to notice those games which make up the balance of the market; those hybrid creatures of fluffy puffcorn and translucent androids. Games like The Last Remnant.


Following the current analogy then, The Last Remnant is a Fluffy Android. At first glance it looks as good as any realism-based fantasy aesthetic: character design is inspired, interesting, and masterfully crafted. Personalities are fun and natural, but appropriate to the theme of political and mystical intrigue. And every environment you set foot in is highly detailed, unique, and has narrative meaning. At first glance, this game looks great.
It also has an immense aural spirit: dual voice options (Japanese and English), fully-orchestrated BG music, catchy victory fanfare tunes, and great ambient sounds. It’s as polished as any and every Square Enix JRPG I’ve had the pleasure of playing, and (despite having a similar aesthetic to certain Final Fantasy titles) it has its own sense of character. Most importantly of all, this character is embodied not by its artistic choices but by its battle system.

What The Last Remnant does so amazingly well is encorporealize the abstract task of real-time army management into a turn-based paradigm. It does this by breaking up the traditional party system into individuals, such that characters, while still maintaining the 4 key traits of attack, defense, magic power, and magic defense, each play like a single technique and are issued orders as such.
This is accomplished with unions. Unions create the phenomenon of controlling individual skills as though they were units, as opposed to issuing orders to characters to have them use skills at their disposal. This means that union composition (and in traditional terms character build) is dynamic, customizable, and reversible at any given time in the game. It also means that as you build your party, you are not only building the individual but also their role in the greater scheme of battle. Multiply this type of management and gameplay by 2x, 3x, 4x, and finally 5x by the end of the game and it’s easy to see how quickly the rabbit hole deepens.
Ostensibly, complex unit management like this would be perfidiously cumbersome in a combat context, but you issue orders not to individual units, but unions. The composition of the union and the competence of the union leader determines the quality and versatility of the union, hence the quality of the orders that can be issued to it. Each character is also unique, with particular strengths, weaknesses, and ultimate potentials.And while highly indirect (and perhaps vague) in comparison to traditional forms of party control, these elements all combine for an impossibly complex, incredibly deep, incredibly satisfying party-building mechanic. And this is what drives the quality of The Last Remnant.

On top of all this is an extensive table of weapon upgrades, a modicum of crafting, and a complex barter system that involves lots of references to really tasty-sounding foodstuffs. I love me some foodstuffs.


The Last Remnant is far from perfect. It lacks a lot of the charm and atmosphere of more recent games and substitutes much of what could be original for the sake of accessible familiarity. But don’t let the aesthetics fool you, this is a game all its own with a unique flavor and distinct idea. It’s unfortunate that it’s precisely those things that are hardest to pitch, thus leading games like these down the road of “me-too” visuals and style.
hey, listen
But we’ve got to look past this. We’ve got to be susceptible to new ideas and critical of first impressions. We’ve got to let our principles do the talking sometimes, and not our impulses. We’ve got to, or else we’ll end up with more and more of the same and less and less of what’s interesting.

If we don’t, we may end up with an actual scarcity, where quality is nothing more than The Last Remnant of times gone by.