(Yourself is compiling his list of top ten strategy RPGs, so I figured I'd write about the second one I've ever played. The first one being Knights in the Nightmare.)
There's a sense of desperation in JRPGs today. You see a general frustration with PlayStation-era JRPG trends as the genre tries to gain new relevance. Combat can't be all menus, cutscenes absolutely must be skippable, so on and so forth.
Enter The Last Story. Initially, its combat doesn't do anything out of the ordinary; you attack automatically by rubbing up against foes, your party members assist you in real time--stuff I first encountered in Final Fantasy 12.
But with only a few minutes of gameplay under its belt, The Last Story introduces stealth shooter mechanics. By holding ZR, you can aim a crossbow in third person, and by pressing A, you can hide behind cover. So, by crawling behind cover, you can sneak around enemies and snipe them. I understand the need to experiment with the genre, but does it really help to throw in elements from
Gears of War WinBack?
I found that one particular battle from the first chapter highlighted The Last Story's stealth shooter side. Up ahead, the enemy formation held one healer surrounded by grunts. If I decided to charge straight forward, I'd meet the grunts head on. I could handle them easily, but the problem was that healer. He could heal them from his protected position behind a line of grunts. The front line would constantly get healed, and I'd never break through their formation.
The smarter option was to sneak around the side of their formation, using cover to remain hidden. Luckily, the enemy party hadn't seen my party in hiding. So, I tip-toed behind cover until I found a good location for sniping the healer with my crossbow. I fired a shot, all but taking him out, and all hell broke loose as the enemy party realized I was invading their personal space.
The same formation that seemed so advantageous to my enemies was now their downfall. Once I killed the healer, I was planted right in the middle, able to strike their back line of troops. Meanwhile, the three other members of my party rushed up to meet me and took out the front line. The battle was clean and quick.
The largest difference between RPGs and strategy RPGs is the sense of space. In strategy RPGs, you can flank enemies, you can bottleneck them, etc. In games like Shining Force, spells have an area of effect; Blaze level 2 hits any enemy within a two-block radius, for instance.
And that sense of space is what stealth mechanics add to The Last Story. If you study the terrain, you can often use it in your favor against the enemies. For example, attacking an enemy from behind cover will deal bonus damage. In other words, where you attack is important.
The Last Story has a nifty assemblage of mechanics that develop the JRPG's action/strategy edge, but at the end of the day, they're often undercut by execution.
Taking a strategic approach is often pain-staking compared to the tried and true method of running into everything until it dies, especially given the low difficulty of many battles.
And, when the game does encourage you to play around with landscape and stealth, your party members will be sure to give you the full run-down on how to win that fight. For instance, for the battle detailed above, my party immediately told me exactly what to do.
But it was worth a shot, and it's a game I'll gladly tip my hat to.