Thursday, June 10, 2010

Last Remnant - Part One

If I were pressed to give Last Remnant a rating on a one to ten point scale that summed its graphics, plot, gameplay, innovation, and everything else into one simple score, I'd give it a 5. Then you'd probably walk away with the idea that it was a mediocre title that did nothing well or poorly and was ultimately forgettable. And you'd be totally wrong (which is one reason that exercise is of limited usefulness).

In actual fact, Last Remnant is a game that is alternatively mesmerizing and infuriating, brilliant and broken beyond repair. It's a turn-based Japanese-style RPG that tries to reinvent many of the conventions of that genre, failing as often as it succeeds. So should we praise Last Remnant for trying something different, or deride it for its numerous shortcomings?

Anyone who follows my reviews will know that I always start RPG analysis with the plot and characters. The genre is so dependent on the story that it's hard to make up for a bad one. Last Remnant opens with Rush Sykes, a pretty typical teenage JRPG protagonist, as he desperately searches for his kidnapped sister. Rush ends up in the middle of a war zone between neighboring countries and is apprehended on suspicion of being a spy. After proving that he's not engaging in espionage, Rush agrees to assist the leader of Athlum (Marquis David) in exchange for help locating his sister.

What follows is a tale of political machinations gone awry, as the leaders of other nations scramble to exploit powerful living weapons called Remnants to destroy one another and conquer the world. Worse, a new nation has emerged under the rule of an unstoppable warrior known only as the Conqueror, who for reasons unknown is sweeping across the continent with little resistance. Rush and his new friends must stand against the Conqueror and unravel the mystery behind the Remnants to discover his true motivations.

It's not a bad idea for a plot, and it probably would have worked well except for one glaring issue: the antagonists are badly characterized. There are four people that you might call the "villains" of this story, and not a single one combines an interesting personality with clear motivations. Let's go through them (obviously, SPOILERS):

Duke Hermeien: This is one of the two people (the other being the Conqueror) that the game pitches from the start as the main bad guy. He's the Chairman of the Congress (sort of like the head of the U.N.) and leader of the Academy (the main institution of knowledge and scholarship). These two positions make him the most powerful political figure on the continent (besides the God Emperor). And like all maddeningly stupid villains, Hermeien's goal is to conquer the continent for himself. Why? Who the hell knows...he's already supremely powerful in the political, social, and economic spheres, plus he fully controls the only academic institution in existence. Why would he risk all that just so for the slim chance that he could subjugate and rule the same people who are willingly cooperating with him already? Anyway, Hermeien is a dimwit and a total red herring villain...he's dispatched well before the end of the game and rather unceremoniously at that.

Wagram: Ostensibly Wagram is the Duke's top underling, but it's pretty obvious from the word go that he's one of those "I'm secretly manipulating the guy who thinks he's in charge" villains who turns out to be higher on the bad guy hierarchy than his boss. That might be interesting if (1) they'd tell us anything about Wagram's background or motivations and (2) again, if it wasn't terribly obvious from the start. Anyway, Wagram is portrayed as a mysterious guy, which if fine but doesn't give much context to our political plot.

The God Emperor: This guy is completely superfluous to the story. Supposedly he rules over everyone, but all the leaders under him do whatever they want, including invading each other's land. He doesn't appear in the story until the very end and is more of a lazy idiot than a villian. The good guys bluntly inform him that a plan is underway to see all humans (and humanoid races) wiped out, to which he basically shrugs and says "If it's the will of the Remnants, I'm cool with it". As far as I can tell, his only role in the governance of this land is to sit on his throne in a stupid outfit and eat a lot of fatty foods.

The Conqueror: The actual main bad guy and the only truly formidable foe in this story. The Conqueror is quite a bad ass, capable of punching right through a person's torso Bruce Lee style and catching a sword with his finger tips. But there's a problem with this guy too...he pretty much never talks or explains what the hell he's doing. Again, a mysterious villain is fine, but why should I be motivated to stop him if I don't even understand what he's doing in the first place?

What we have here is a game that features lots of cutscenes with political figures yapping to one another at various meetings and congresses, but with no real understanding of the goals and motivations of the villains, it's hard to make sense of it all. We know that Marquis David is the good guy, and it seems like the Duke is the bad guy, but what is everyone trying to accomplish? It reminds me of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, with Senator Palpatine manipulating the Republic using a bunch of political duplicity. It's effective, I suppose, but not very compelling to watch in a video game cutscene.

Next time, I'll talk about the characters that did work for me.

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