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28 January 2016 @ 10:39 pm
Game Review: Last Dream  
I've had an urge to play a JRPG for a few months. I thought about playing Final Fantasy XII--I have the "undub" version with Japanese voices, which should make dealing with Vaan and Penelo less annoying--but a game called "Last Dream" came across my discovery queue on Steam, touting its inspiration from Final Fantasy, its cute 16-bit graphics, and its profusion of minigames. Since I already had tried FFXII once and bounced off it, and since I had been thinking of replaying the original Final Fantasy but have already beaten it twice, I figured a new game in the old style would be a good way to thread the needle.

Sadly, this is never brought up again.

As you can probably tell from the title, Last Dream is a homage to Final Fantasy. And when I say "homage," well.

Your party of four noble heroes starts out on a small section of land, cut off form the mainland because the bridge is broken, and has to rescue the daughter of the local ruler from a ruined castle where she's been taken prisoner. Once you do that, you head out to the mainland, fight a pirate captain and acquire a ship (though not at the same time), make your way to the largest city and receive a quest to gather the four ORBS crystals. That takes you all around the world, and as you explore you learn that an evil empire has gone on a rampage and all the other nations of the world must unite to defeat it. In pursuit of defeating this empire, you uncover an ancient artifact buried beneath the desert sands, a flying ship the likes of which the world hasn't seen in centuries.

You launch an assault on the empire's capital using your airship and fight the Dark Lord, and after a brief battle he contemptuously teleports you away and heads to the Well of Souls where he can enact his plan to become a god. After speaking to Bahamut, king of the dragons, and gaining a part of his power and after taking the SLABRosetta Stone from the empire's capital and visiting an isolated city whose inhabitants speak a strange language, you face the trials required to access the Well of Souls, fly there, confront the Dark Lord, and defeat him once and for all.

And while doing all this, you can take on quests to hunt powerful monsters, race chocobosgiant moas, fight in the arena, solve puzzles, discover Atlantis, search for hidden treasures, fill your bestiary, fish up all kinds of delicious buff fish, and conquer the challenge dungeon.

No forest imps, though.

So, it's mostly the first Final Fantasy with some minigames and narrative beats from the other early ones. This is great,and it's what I was looking for, but I did run into a couple problems with it while playing.

The first is that Last Dream has a more in-depth story than Final Fantasy did but doesn't actually provide fully-realized playable characters. At the beginning, the main character is sucked from Earth to "Terra" and has to make a new life for themselves with three friends they make. Except that the party doesn't have any lines in the game and there's no interaction between the party members. Their entire makeup is the class you pick for them, and while it's possible to name them, I might as well have just gone with KNGT, MONK, WMAG and BMAG, which would have elegantly summarized their character arcs.

The second is that all those minigames threw off the difficulty curve. One I got the ability to do some minigames, I ended up doing a lot of them. I beat the arena, I killed all the monsters from the Hunter's Guild that I had access to, and that overpowered my party to the point where for the second half of the game, most boss fights were over in a round or two. The first time I fought the Dark Lord, my Dark Knight (KNGT after Bahamut's class change. DKGT?) killed him in a single hit. The second time I fought him was more difficult, especially since they included a "Behold my true form!" phase for people who had completed enough of the minigames that the regular bosses would be a cakewalk, but that only applied to the Dark Lord and a few of the optional bosses. Everything else was just BMAG casts most powerful attack spell, WMAG heals, KNGT and MONK attack. I could have macroed my way through most of the game. And did, since there's an in-game macro function.

Attack, attack, attack, heal, attack, attack, attack, heal...

I know, I know. It's a JRPG. Especially for a game that's deliberately emulating old editions, combat is going to come down to two rows of people swinging at the air and falling over and a whole lot of autoattacking. I knew what was coming and I got exactly what I was expecting, but all that macroing was still a bit disappointing. I suppose that part of it is that I did the game on Normal difficulty, not realizing that Hard is the developers' intended base setting. Why even have a "Normal" difficulty if it's not the intended base point? Just go all-in at the beginning and explain to the player what they're in for.  photo darksouls.001.gif

In a way, it's like the problems I have with tower defense games. My goal is always to develop a self-sustaining infrastructure, where it doesn't need any input from me to fight off the attacking waves because my tower design is a shining jewel of murderous civic planning. But the obvious problem with that is that once I do that, I'm just watching the game and occasionally clicking "next wave." I may as well just watch the proceedings on YouTube.

I had fun, but I probably would have had more fun with a higher difficulty level and if I had measured out my consumption of minigames. Just putting on a higher difficulty would probably have led me to grind more. I know my limits.

You'll be seeing a lot of this grey overlay.

The story was hampered by being conveyed mostly in flashback, but I liked it because it involves the elves blowing themselves up and someone going crazy and evil so we had to kill him, both of which brought back fond memories of World of Warcraft. I do wish there had been more effort to tie the party into the events of the game. As it is, the party aren't the Light Warriors of prophecy, they aren't fleeing the destruction of their hometown by the invading empire. They aren't even notable people in the small town they start in. They're a bunch of murderhobos who happened to be around when the Pandoran Empire went on a militaristic rampage and get caught up in events. Well, theoretically. Like I said, the party never has any lines.

War. War never changes.

As I said, I went with Knight, Monk, White Mage, and Black Mage, mostly because that's what I played the last time I beat Final Fantasy and this was inspired by Final Fantasy, so I figured I would try to recapitulate that experience. And it was pretty great, but I kind of wish I had gone with a different party composition because my party was entirely geared around dealing damage in battle and didn't take advantage of the other capabilities different party members offer. Also available are the thief, who can open locked chests in towns without risking guards' wrath and steal items in battles; the engineer, who gets a bonus to the effectiveness of items and who can take tunnel shortcuts on the overworld and dungeon maps; the hunter, who can tame chocobosgiant moas to ride on and who can learn all the peculiarities, resistances, items, and so on of the enemies; and the grey mage, who can cast both White Arts and Dark Arts.

The grey mage wouldn't have changed things that much, but it would have been interesting to have an engineer. While my white mage was invaluable in some of the harder boss battles, most of the the time she put up some buffs and then I just had her cast some random spells because the incoming damage wasn't enough to actually need her. An engineer might have filled that roll pretty well. Also, with a hunter, chocobogiant moa riding would have been nice. And maybe in those cases I wouldn't have had my upgrade path laid out before me. Last Dream uses a point-based system for leveling--you can buy any stats you want, but Attack is much more expensive for a BMAG than for a KNGT. With the party I had, the path was obvious. With something like a grey mage or a hunter, though, maybe I would have had more choices to make.

I don't think I want to replay the game enough to play through again with another party, though. Especially since a Last Dream expansion and Last Dream II are supposedly in the pipeline.

I'm a sucker for fantasy settings with technology. It's why I love the sky fortress in Final Fantasy.

There is one area of extreme disappointment I have to address in the comparison to Final Fantasy--the music. The original Final Fantasy had fantastic music, and I think tracks like Matoya's Cave or Chaos Temple still stand out today. I know I've been disappointed that in going to Distant Worlds, I've never heard a fully-orchestrated version of Matoya's Cave.

Last Dream's music is mostly forgettable mush. After more than forty hours of gameplay, I can't remember what a single song anywhere in the game sounds like, though part of that is because after twenty hours of offensively bland music I turned the volume down to 10%. Early video game music only had a handful of sound channels and strict space limitations, so it tended to be somewhat simplistic and melody-driven, but that's precisely what makes it so catchy and memorable. Limitations breed creativity. I would have hoped that with all their other homages to or direct paralleling of Final Fantasy that they would have gone back to that style of music, but no.

Looking at the music credits, it looks like it was mostly the result of low budget. There's a lot of free and public domain music there. If they thought they didn't have the money for a dedicated composer that's an understandable choice, but my reaction was to turn the music off, so I can say that for me it didn't work.

You have no idea.

At the very end, you get a montage of all the places you've visited and how your actions affected them, which is a trope I've loved since I saw it in Fallout 1. And when I say all, I mean all--it went on for about fifteen minutes for me, and then another ten minutes of credits. There's no stinger after the credits, but it does let you do New Game+ and there's a "Reborn" option, which I might check out at some point when I have more free time and my backlog is clear. Which means never.

On the balance, I liked Last Dream a lot. Other than the music it gave me everything I wanted from an early Final Fantasy game without having to actually replay one of those games. Most of the problems I had with it were of my making, relating to my obsessive grinding and unnecessary gamification. I killed the second form of the Dark Lord without breaking a sweat--there's an achievement called "Overleveled" for beating the game with an average party level of 35, and my average party level was around ~67--and made most of the battles unnecessary, but it turned out that much grinding was also unnecessary. I can't, and don't, blame the game for the problems that I created.

If you like the early Final Fantasies and are disappointed in the last of traditional JRPGs coming out nowadays (though admittedly less true now than a couple years ago), and especially if, like me, you don't have a modern handheld, give Last Dream a try.
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Current Music: Brandon Strader - Omerta (Battle Scene)