In the sea of RPGs at the Tokyo Game Show last month, The Last Remnant stood out - not only because it commanded a disproportionate section of the Square-Enix stand, but because its demo pods comprised almost a full half of Microsoft's. It's no longer exclusive, but Last Remnant is a key game for both the Xbox and Square Enix this Christmas: where Microsoft is no doubt hoping that Xbox sales of the game will make a dent in its success on the PS3 in Japan, Square-Enix is billing it as an RPG for the world; the Japanese-developed role-player that will finally break out and enjoy as much success elsewhere as it inevitably will in its home country.
There are a few atypical things about The Last Remnant. The character design is less airbrushed than usual - characters have jaw-lines, and facial expressions, and less improbable hair. There are no random battles - instead of running around the world hoping not to trigger a fight, you run up to an enemy and push a button to initiate combat, or skirt around them at will. And the actual fights themselves are completely unlike anything in the genre - they play more like a strategy-game battle, and look more like the fight scenes from a large-scale action game.
This last element, particularly, makes a big difference. Instead of putting up with the battle system for the sake of the story, the role-playing genre's less forgiving followers can bask in genuine spectacle, and there's depth to the battles too. It's not possible to hit a button fifteen times and then watch them play out; like Lost Odyssey's battles, they incorporate sparing Quick-Time Events to add to their action-game feel, and instead of individual characters you command units of three or four members of the main character's army at a time. It really is very different.
Before we dive into the intricacies of The Last Remnant's combat, though, let's consider the story, whose basic elements will be far more familiar to JRPG fans than the fighting system. 18-year-old main character Rush Sykes is a young man brought up in a war-torn world where four races are constantly fighting over Artefacts of Mysterious Power (the titular Remnants, in this case). His younger sister is kidnapped by mysterious cads, and he embarks on a quest to save her. The Remnants themselves appear to be anything from giant swords to mysterious glowing jewels to animals and insects, and are scattered across the world.
The Remnants come into play in battle too, evidently, although we've yet to see how. Some, like the giant swords, can presumably be equipped as weapons or armour, but some of the pre-release literature suggests that living Remnants can be persuaded to attack enemies on your behalf as well. The Remnants are the focal point of the game world; the four races have each built massive cities around these magical artefacts, and they are the reason for the thousand-year ongoing war that forms the backdrop to events in the game.
Square-Enix typically isn't releasing much more than random details about the plot, except that its twists and turns are designed to change the way we think about Rush Sykes and about the inter-race wars. Given that The Last Remnant is out worldwide on 20th November on the Xbox 360 (no date yet for the PS3 or PC), there's not long to wait to find out what those plot twists might entail.
Until then, we can ponder the combat some more. The monster design and excellent, dynamic battle animation and camerawork make the fights a pleasure to watch, although there was considerable slowdown in our preview build when more than about thirty combatants were involved. Battle is turn-based, but fluid. Your own fighters and enemies are grouped into units (unions, as the game calls them) of three or four, and positioning is important. There is a quite complicated Lockdown system, involving flanking enemies with your own units to cause more damage or attack from the rear to cause more damage. Each union can be ordered to attack, defend or use magic, and everyone within that union will execute that command. The wording of the orders is quite interesting - 'attack, but watch yourselves', 'rip them to shreds' - and suggests that morale and positioning has an effect on what commands are available.
Once all commands have been given, the turn plays out; the camera zooms dynamically about as individual units attack each other, speeding up and slowing down the action for effect, and random QTEs allow you to inflict extra damage. Main characters also have magic arts available to them - special moves, essentially - as well as items, although we didn't get any hands-on experience of that. Equipment and stances - dual-wielding, sword-and-shield, sacrificing defensive abilities on order to wield a larger weapon - also change how characters fight, and how the battle spectacle plays out. Like White Knight Story's, the combat system has clearly been designed with variety and visual impact primarily in mind.
We won't know whether The Last Remnant has succeeded in its ambitious mission to be an RPG for the whole world until we spend more time with its characters and in its universe, but from the experience we've already had, it's evident that the game is attempting some radically different things that really should broaden its appeal.
The Last Remnant is due out for Xbox 360 worldwide on 20th November, with PS3 and PC versions also in development.