I’ve worked my way through a large portion of The Last Story, and I find it to be a pretty magnificent experience. The game seems to have received a far more divisive reaction than the near universal praise that Xenoblade got. I wonder how much this may have to do with its timing of following up Xenoblade, and thus receiving the burden of inevitable comparisons. I could see how someone going into The Last Story expecting it to be “Xenoblade 2” might come away unsatisfied. It’s a trap I hope most gamers don’t fall into, as The Last Story is very much its own beast, distinct and separate from its JRPG colleague.
As I’ve been playing through The Last Story, it got me to thinking about the direction of Japanese game development. There have been a lot of well-known Japanese game designers calling out the Japanese industry for refusing to learn from Western development, usually in conjunction with them leaving the companies they’ve long been associated with and starting up their own studios. Both The Last Story and Xenoblade have been considered to carry strong Western influences. Yet, rather than feeling like attempts to simply imitate Western games, they still feel distinctly Japanese. This is a good thing.
If we step back and look at the larger picture, we get a sense of a cycle between advancements in Japanese and Western game development. Right now, we have an entire generation of Western game developers who were influenced by the groundbreaking Japanese games they grew up with. The lessons learned from the likes of Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy and Resident Evil were evolved, pushed forward, and reimplemented, albeit in a Western fashion, resulting in the past decade’s rise of North American and European game developers. But what happens if Japan refuses to let the pendulum swing back the other way?
It’s not that Japan has to copy Western games, per se, but there are new lessons to be learned. A new generation of Japanese developers could be taking the advancements made in Western game design, and similarly try to evolve and re-implement them in a Japanese fashion. This is what I’m seeing in The Last Story. The trouble is that it’s not coming from a new generation of young Japanese designers, but from one of the figures of the previous generation: Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. If anything, it displays his incredible talent and insight as a game designer. But what does this say for the next generation of Japanese game designers who refused to learn from the likes of Skyrim, Gears of War, or Portal? Furthermore, could this, in return, also carry consequences for Western game development down the road?
Well, I certainly don’t think the future of the video game medium is all doom and gloom, but we can see the positive influence of a little friendly competition, and if one side suddenly says, “I don’t want to play anymore,” then the result is stagnation.
If The Last Story and Xenoblade are indeed the next evolution of Japanese RPGs, then I think they’re heading in the right direction. If enough people take note, then I’m hopeful for even greater games to come in the future, both in Japan and the West.