Plucking on my last nerve.
I did not clear The Last Remnant on Switch before I wrote this review. This game is incredibly long and shows absolutely zero respect for your efforts. About a decade ago, I beat the game on the Xbox 360, and after about 40 hours with the recently-released Switch port I wonder why I didn’t respect myself enough to quit the first time. While this port addresses many of the technical issues that beset the 360 release, it doesn’t address the fact the game frequently feels petty and unfair. If you’re still considering it, you’re either braver or more foolish than I. Let me be succinct, do not buy The Last Remnant.
When it first launched back in 2008, The Last Remnant must have sounded grandiose. A very early HD JRPG from genre-exemplars Square Enix, it featured: a sprawling world, dozens of speaking roles, expansive lore, seemingly unlimited quests, numerous hidden dungeons, and turn-based battles featuring upwards of 50 characters brawling it out. “Big” seemed to be the core selling point, but for all the ambition and for everything done well, two or three things were done poorly. Its quests are as numerous as they are grating. Its battle system is complicated yet both unexplained and often unfair. Its dungeons are sprawling and confounding.
The most novel thing about The Last Remnant is its combat system. As opposed to building a team of three to five characters, here you construct an army. A core loop of the side content is meeting a character, running their quest, and then hiring them to join you. These units can then be arrayed into groups of one to five characters. These groups, called “unions,” act collectively in battle, engaging enemy unions on the battlefield. Battles take place in space, and position prior to the start of the fight impacts where enemy unions are placed.
Unions move around the battlefield independent of each other, acting on the vague commands you’re able to issue them at the start of each turn. It’s understandable that the game wouldn’t ask you to command each unit separately, as you can max out well north of 20 units in the field. Instead, the game gives you a situationally-generated list of commands (“Keep your health up,” “Attack using combat skills,” “Bring them back,” etc.). You can direct your unions to attack specific enemy unions, but if they end up running into a different union then they will be “interrupted,” and these interrupts shift the tide of battle.
The designers were clearly in love with their combat system. There’s layers of complexity in union composition, skill acquisition, stat gains, and combat effects that potentially create a rewarding game. However, there is little done to explain it and even less done to balance it. Each unit contributes to the total HP of a union, and when a union hits zero they are incapacitated. This means units with poor defense can cause the union to take tremendous damage, which makes adding them actually a disadvantage. More problematic is the enemy’s use of “area of effect” skills. You might encounter a battle with three enemy unions, each having two or three units. Every single unit could use a devastating area of effect skill that deals damage to every unit in your union. Because the damage to each character hits the unions total health, this is a critical situation. The game feels petty, random, and frequently unfair because weak enemy unions might have every unit in their union use the attack, guaranteeing they will kill your union. There’s nothing you can do to prevent this outcome. It’s totally up to chance what attacks the enemies use.
This game’s boss fights are notoriously frustrating. Google literally any boss in this game and you’ll find message board posts where players are plaintively asking for some liferaft to cling to. Most frequently the advice they receive is some variant of “this fight sucks, just keep trying. It’s luck.” Bosses may attack four or even five times with area of effect attacks, including ones that can hit multiple unions. There’s no recovery from this. Sometimes there are tactics around just having most of your team do nothing, and waiting for someone to drop so one union in reserve can revive them and another can step into the breach. This makes the fight drag on forever, but since the directives you can give your unions every turn are situational, you might not even be able to employ this cheesy strategy. I’ve had a number of boss encounters where I failed four or five times, only for the sixth attempt to go smoothly because the boss opted to forego his most devastating capabilities.
In a normal JRPG, you can deal with this kind of pettiness by going off to grind your party, but this game foregoes a normal levelling system, instead providing an unknowable “Battle Rank.” Battle Rank doesn’t make your character stronger; it’s just an arbitrary metric of their overall strength. Strength instead comes from the stat boosts that may be earned at the end of battles, usually influenced by what the individual unit did during the fight. Take a lot of hits and your HP might go up. Attack physically and you might gain Strength. So while there are known strategies for boosting stats, they are carefully formulated to avoid the other awful quirk of this game’s combat: scaling enemies. Increase your Battle Rank too much and you might find yourself with bosses that are simply too strong to beat. It sucks, and I hate it. It means you have to try to not get too strong while still getting strong enough to deal with your foes.
This is a lot to say that the combat system feels unbalanced. The idea of big battles is appealing. Even a decade later, it’s cool to see 20 members of your army crowd around a boss after their lackeys are dropped. When things are working fairly, you can usually recover, and the challenge feels right, the system enjoyable. Unfortunately, there’s just too many situations where hope is elusive.
Everything else there is to say about the game is secondary to this system. Yes, the world has a ton of cities and dungeons, but there’s an overwhelming sameness to it all. Dungeons are just endless corridors of gray and brown, and require a ton of busy work to traverse. Cities feel lifeless, and while artistically distinct from one another are functionally indistinguishable. The game performs better than the originally 360 release, but the game did not age well. Character faces are particularly bad, and animations are amusingly robotic. There are a huge number of quests, but they’re all variations on the same few styles. For every pro this game has going for it, there’s at least one con. Even the expansive and well-done score contrasts with the hammy voice acting and cheesy dialog.
The Last Remnant feels like it was originally an experiment. The team wanted to know if the new capabilities of a new hardware generation could fundamentally change the scope of JRPGs in every conceivable way. Unfortunately, the “new hardware” was 2005’s Xbox 360. This game had issues at launch, particularly it’s unbalanced combat system, but over a decade later these issues stand in stark relief. Ultimately, even if everything else were great, and the combat system worked exactly like they wanted, the game would still feel unfair. And in a 100+ hour JRPG, that constant grinding unfairness will poison any joy a game can create. There are times where I enjoy playing it, but always know a kick in the teeth is lurking around the corner.