The Last Story Interview: On Standing Out From The Crowd

By Spencer . August 6, 2012 . 2:30pm

The Last Story is Takuya Matsumoto’s second major collaboration with famed RPG director, Hironobu Sakaguchi. Matsumoto, who is a development lead at Marvelous AQL, had previously worked with Sakaguchi on the development of Blue Dragon for the Xbox 360.


Plans for developing The Last Story came about over drinks one day, when Matsumoto and Sakaguchi began to discuss the state of videogames. Looking back at their past work, the two recognized that Blue Dragon hadn’t been very warmly-received in the U.S. and European markets, and that they would need to take a new approach with their next project in order to avoid falling into a rut.


Siliconera caught up with Matsumoto, who served as The Last Story’s lead designer, to ask what kinds of ideas he feels make the game stand out, how the online multiplayer feature ended up in the game, and what his thoughts on the future of role-playing games are.


Which one of Sakaguchi’s ideas was the most challenging to implement? And which one of your ideas did Sakaguchi think was difficult?


Takuya Masumoto, Development Lead: To answer your first question, the most challenging was implementing a wide range of strategies into battles. We prepared a “solution” to each battle from the first design stages, but it was a real challenge to allow for each player’s unique way of solving problems (strategy) on top of maintaining a balance between difficulty level and understandability.


Whether it was gathering, the command mode, or the deleted rewind feature, Sakaguchi-san spent months testing everything with us.


Next, for somewhere that I gave Sakaguchi-san trouble, a large part of the level design for each dungeon was left up to me. As a result, I think that reconciling the parts of the levels, story, characters and settings ended up causing some contradictions, which caused more work for Sakaguchi-san to readjust things to have consistency.


How did you develop the battle system for The Last Story? It’s pretty different compared to Mistwalker’s other works with a cover system for crossbow fire and acting as a decoy. Did you experiment with any other mechanics with “Tofu-kun” before finalizing combat?


First of all, let me introduce Tofu-kun. He’s something like the NCAP crash dummy in America. His sacrifices in many rigorous tests of the battle system gave us valuable feedback.


A large part of the direction of the battle system in The Last Story was impacted by the projectile weapon system that was a central mechanic when the project first started. However, one day Tofu-kun came out wielding a lightsaber. We repeatedly refined our system and AI through tests like chaotic battles royal between over 20 people wielding swords, magic and guns or ally command systems.


Similar to Lost Odyssey, players can use the environment in battle. How did you design and balance areas to make use of falling bridges and other traps players can set?


In preparing elements such as destructible bridges and poles, we were always conscious that the player should be able to recognize those elements. We wanted to foster a play style where the players were using view mode to survey the battlefield and determine if there were elements that could be used, or characters or terrain that would reveal an enemy’s weak spot. As with the prior discussion of strategy, we wanted to give each player the ability to choose how they do battle.


The Last Story also has a multiplayer mode, where you can play both deathmatch and co-operatively with other players. Was this a bit of western influence making its way into the game, and do you think it’s important that more RPGs allow for players to interact with each other in some way, in order for them to be noticed more outside Japan?


Personally, I’m part of the generation that was addicted to Dungeons & Dragons, Wizardry, and Ultima Online, and now I’m a huge fan of Diablo and Gears of War. Beginning with EverQuest, Sakaguchi-san is an expert on western games, and those titles probably had a big impact on The Last Story.


A game where I thought the interaction between players was great was From Software’s Demon’s Souls. Regardless of being direct or indirect, I feel that connections between people are an important element that underpins the whole world. A big part of the appeal of MMORPGs especially and online games in general is that people from different counties can communicate on a deep level.


Mistwalker have always said that, with The Last Story, their intent was to break the mold and create something that was different from other RPGs. What about this game is different from other role-playing games out there?


If previous JRPGs were about enjoyment and immersion in storytelling and character portrayal, I wanted The Last Story to be more about experiencing vivid feedback in battles and perilous exploration.


Unlike in most JRPGs, where the player can control all the members of the party, we were aiming for the world to be experienced very directly, indicated by the narrow player viewpoint that is created through experiencing everything vicariously through Zael alone.


Which scene in The Last Story’s story is your favorite and which one defines the game’s underlying themes?


When the protagonist Zael visits a certain dungeon a second time, there is a conversation where his companion Syrenne gives him a hard time. “When we came here last time, that Zael did ___ to me.”


Like Syrenne, it’s a very playful and ribald joke. As we were doing level design, there were a lot of times where characters would automatically start that kind of conversation. As if they were alive, the characters created by Sakaguchi and Fujisaka developed rapidly.


Beyond just the relationship between Zael and Syrenne, a lot of interrelationships came out of level design and are well connected to keywords like “companion” and “alive” at the core of The Last Story. I hope you’ll play it and experience it for yourself.


Have the kinds of stories you want to tell in your games changed as you grow older, and how? Also, has developing The Last Story left any kind of influence on your design sensibilities that we should expect to see more of in the future?


In the past I had a lot of experiences developing action games, so I preferred the emotion and experience that comes from actually playing the game to less involving dramatic elements like cut scenes.


My experiences with the RPGs Blue Dragon and The Last Story taught me the appeal and depth of theatricality and strategy. Especially in The Last Story, I discovered how dynamic character interactions unfold in real time, expanding the world of the game, and in the future I also want to combine the visceral feeling of action with the subtle depth of an RPGs strategy and worldview.


While narrative drives modern JPRGs, The Last Story’s gameplay aspect took priority with the gathering mechanic being central to the story. How exactly do you go about developing an RPG with a gameplay first theory from a production process standpoint and break up the script? What aspects of the story were decided upon at the start, and how much of the story was fleshed out prior to the actual development?


A difficult part of The Last Story was balancing story and game functions. If gathering didn’t have an obvious effect, then it couldn’t drive the story, but if it was overpowered then the balance would be broken.


This conflict continued all the way to the final adjusting stage. However, Gathering was at the center of Sakaguchi-san’s scenario and image for gameplay from the beginning, so the philosophy of “lead from Gathering” never changed. Regarding changes to the story, while there were revisions and alterations to level design settings along the way, once we decided on the current fantasy world there were no large changes. If I gave it a percentage, it’d probably be about 10% difference.

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  • Nice!

  • SirRichard

    It’ll be interesting to see what Mistwalker will do next; I honestly really liked Last Story’s balance of gameplay and story and while it certainly wasn’t long compared to other recent JRPGs, it was a better ride than most and was certainly much more fun to play. I wonder if they’ll keep that sort of style for future games, or will they experiment some more?

  • Vampiric

    Spencer, Great interview

    My immediate thoughts

    1) Blue Dragon from what I can tell, was a hit of sorts. Not a 20 million seller. But a great rpg people really loved.

    2) The multiplayer mode was a mistake. I dont know if its what spencer says and was some naive appeal to the west. But it was out of place

    3) Matsumoto has bad taste in western games. Even if Sakaguchi is a western game master, hes a japanese rpg master, and thats what shone

    • MonsieurEek

      “Matsumoto has bad taste in western games. Even if Sakaguchi is a
      western game master, hes a japanese rpg master, and thats what shone”

      What does this even mean? There’s no discernible point here except to randomly impugn the subject of an interview and the bizarre implication that you know better what went into making a game than one of the actual designers.

      • Vampiric

         reread it

  • Mrgrgr and Unacceptable World

    Really nice interview there.^_^ It is always nice to see how they come out with the game there lol. Came over drinks??? No wonder many of the scenes in the games takes on a bar lol.^_^

  • XypherCode

    Very interesting interview. Hype + 1 :))

  • idofgrahf

     Played the European version of the game and it was pretty enjoyable as there are many ways to approach certain things. Battles was fun since there are several strategy’s to most fights and you can customize your character’s look to a degree. But it felt like they simply deleted a chunk of the story not going to say which chunk to avoid spoilers but some of you may notice it as the game progress.

  • Heartless ㅤ

    “If previous JRPGs were about enjoyment and immersion in storytelling and character portrayal, I wanted The Last Story to be more about experiencing vivid feedback in battles and perilous exploration.”

    And that’s the reason why I disliked this game so much. I really hope he goes back to the immersion in storytelling and character portrayal formula =/

    • Jirin

      I’m a big fan of the storytelling in JRPGs, but I also think that SNES/PSX-era JRPGs told bigger, better stories than modern JRPGs with about 1/10 of the dialog.

      You have to ask what makes a video game story different from a movie or TV story.  The difference is, of course, the player.  The player isn’t passively being told the story, he’s actively exploring the story.  A good video game story doesn’t rely only on massive amounts of cutscenes to tell you about the world, it uses the world itself, and the experience to tell you the story.  So I really think the pendulum needs to swing back in this direction, using less dialog to tell the same amount of story, like they did back when the limited hardware forced them to.

      •  You make a very good point there, but how would you go about it then?

  • *Stares at pre-order screen* Seven days… Seveen daays… ( @[email protected])

  • Jirin

    This interview makes me really interested.  If they really focused on gameplay and learning about the world through exploring it instead of just through the dialog, this could be great.  One thing though.

    “Unlike in most JRPGs, where the player can control all the members of the party”

    What?  Have you played any JRPGs lately?  The entirely genre is unfortunately moving to the ‘only one control character and limited control over allies’ directly.  If allies are heavily involved in combat, I really hope you don’t have to rely completely on AI like you do in games like Xenoblade.

  • $30632660

    Zael was the most boring character out of the group and having to control only him over 90 percent of the single player mode was annoyingly frustrating.

    And those dialogs with the party were scripted events, they never happened when I revisted dungeons that didn’t automatically take me there as if I was doing a sidequest.

    It was not a natural conversation that just came out of nowhere and it’s annoying when you try to listen to the conversation only to have it get cutoff when you move too close to where a cutscene happens.

    And it’s not like they warn you that a cutscene will happen soon, there is no hint whatsoever.

    The Online is tacked on and a straight lag fest too.Not unplayable like Brawl, but it’s still pretty bad.

    I would’ve enjoyed the game a lot more if there was more thought given to the combat system.When you manually attack, there is only three combat animations, a kick, and two different slices.

    But when you use auto attack, you can do stuff that you can’t do in manual, which is straight bs.For example, you can vault over an enemy and do an attack similar to Cloud’s Braver Limit Break. Or you can do a spinning horizontal slash or a 3 hit combo.

    And all the characters from the merc group have the same attack animations except Syrene because she dual wields. Those animations don’t change if you equip a different weapon from a sword like a spear.

    I hope this is The Last Disappointment from Mistwalker.

    • sporkarus

      I’m sorry, but those complaints are all so ridiculously petty, that if those are the only things you found wrong with the game then it’s going to be amazing for the rest of us. 

      • $30632660

        Doesn’t stop them from being true.I could’ve went on to mention the horrible framerate in battles and the fake romance.

        But I’ve said my part, so I’ll wait and see those US sales be abysmal because I doubt even half the people who hyped the game up will even buy it.

    • RPGamer

      Odd.  I’ve already liked Zael just from the little bit I’ve seen of him.  As for the combat system, you complain about there not being enough different combat animations.  To make up for that though, there seems to be a lot of strategy and a good variety of elements involved overall.  Complaining about the number of kicks and slices available seems a little petty.  Its a shame you didn’t enjoy the battle system but most I’ve talked to did.  Some actually think it’s one of the most fun battle systems they’ve ever played.  Personally, I’m excited.  Bring on TLS. 

  • l777l

    Syrenne’s a great character; she’s the best thing about The Last Story, in my personal experience. The combat wasn’t very gripping, the environments not very detailed, diverse, and inspiring. Its story lacks uniqueness; and some parallels to FF VII make clear that depth – in terms of themes and relationships and of how both are unfolded and presented – is missing. Overall, it is still a game worth recommending and playing. Check it out when you get a chance.

  • Unknown

    I somehow need to play this game

    • Unknown

      played this game, and it was absolutely amazing

  • sporkarus

    And, I might add, every single one of those issues was in Xenoblade as well (aside from the online component, but I don’t plan on using that myself anyway), and we all know how universally loved that game is now. 

  • Sho Zero

    Really looking forward to playing this!

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