Last Scenario is a Japanese-style RPG made in RPG Maker XP. This game is actually a bit special to me, because it was the first RPG Maker XP game (and one of the first RPG Maker games, period) I ever played, so it really introduced me to the concept in a lot of ways.
Gameplay-wise, it’s not groundbreaking, though it does make some attempts at originality, and there is a rather large strategic focus. The basic format doesn’t differ significantly from the Dragon Quest-style “attack/magic/defend/item” paradigm, but it does borrow a few pages from Final Fantasy VII to spice things up a bit. Characters have no innate skills; instead, they equip items called “spellcards” that each contain two spells – one that can be cast normally, and one that can only be cast after a certain meter that increases when the character is damaged fills up – a “limit break” of sorts. (Unlike Final Fantasy VII, these cost mana points as well, making them a bit less overpowered.) Spellcards alter characters’ stats, too, by certain percentages. Every character starts only being able to equip 2 spellcards at once, but special items gained throughout the game can increase that number up to 5. Spellcard abilities start off fairly generic, but become increasingly more unique and interesting as time goes on, especially the “limit break” casts. Once a decent variety of spellcards is opened up to you, configuring them to optimize your strategy can actually be quite fun and engaging. (It can take a while to get to that point, though.)
As a result, the only difference between party members is stat layout. You have a speedy physical attacker who sucks at magic, a slow-as-molasses physical attacker who hits like a truck but sucks at magic even more, a squishy wizard, a slightly-less-squishy wizard who is more defense-oriented, a jack-of-all-trades, a tank, and a glass cannon. These seem like fairly typical battle roles, but what’s interesting is how they’re distributed. The main character is not the jack-of-all-trades, as you may have expected, the physical powerhouse is a woman (which admittedly is becoming more common these days), the defensive mage (which is pretty much the closest thing you can get to a “healer” character’s stat layout) is a guy, and the tank is the oldest character in the party. The developer clearly enjoys playing with RPG cliches, and that extends even to the gameplay tropes. The characters’ weapons of choice don’t carry the personalities that, for some reason, tend to correspond with them – one thing that many players have pointed out as notable is the fact that the main character doesn’t wield a sword. (Your party does eventually get a sword-wielder, but they’re the very last member to join.)
Oh, and it uses random encounters, eugh. Oddly, I don’t remember being all that bothered by them – maybe I was more tolerant of them when I first played because I hadn’t played as as many of the games with them that made me grow to utterly despise them? I think the encounter rate is fairly low, though, and escape chances are fairly high if it really gets to be too much.
However, there is one other very important thing about the gameplay: it is hair-pullingly difficult. Even regular enemies have no qualms about harassing you with incredibly debilitating status effects, and can really take a toll on your resources if you aren’t careful. However, they’re nothing compared to boss fights, of which I dreaded almost every one. Frequent restarts and rage-quitting are not uncommon responses from players who encounter certain bosses. However, I don’t think it would be quite so frustrating if so many bosses didn’t follow one very annoying JRPG trope: the “Giant Space Flea From Nowhere“. There are many times where it really feels like the game is throwing a boss fight at you just because it’s the end of a dungeon and every dungeon needs a boss at the end, right??? (Bosses which, of course, have nothing to do with the plot and which the characters will make no mention of afterward, even if it took you like five tries to beat them.) For such a story-oriented game, this does feel like a bit of a questionable design choice.
I hesitate to call the extreme difficulty bad, though. It is most definitely real difficulty – those tricky boss battles are won through actual strategy and planning instead of level grinding or waiting for the whims of the Random Number God to favor you. Oh, and those super-powerful healing items you never use in RPGs because what if you might need it later? You’ll be blowing all of those if you want to survive. (Damage items, too – they’re actually handed out in a pretty clever manner, with many of them casting spells of a power level you won’t get until much later, making them actually valuable.) This is a bit hard to get used to at first if you’re used to RPGs where you don’t have to do that, but once you realize that the game tends to hand them out like party favors it gets a bit easier. I actually like this, since it really adds to the sense of tension and actually forces you to use all the means at your disposal instead of having a pile of 99 elixirs in your back pocket because you’ve never been in a situation where you’ve had to actually use them. In sum, though the game can be frustrating at times, it does actually feel very cathartic to win – it’s a victory you earned.
One thing that is poor design choice, though, are the way some stats are calculated. Physical and magical defenses are calculated using a weird percentage-based algorithm, with the end effect of defense stats (and therefore armor) being practically useless up until the endgame. It’s possible that this could be part of the reason why the game feels so difficult for much of the game, yet seems to become easier toward the end. The developer has already acknowledged that this was a terrible idea, though, so there’s no need to harp on it.
And…this is a rather specific nitpick, but it always really bothered me and I want to get it out there. Early in the game, there’s a pretty neat example of gameplay-and-story integration where you have to fight a boss who, in story terms, is far too strong for you, but he’s crippled in a cutscene. As a result, his HP is brought down to a level appropriate for your party – but only his current HP! If you scan him, you’ll see that his maximum HP remains far outside your range, he just starts the battle badly wounded. What’s strange is that there’s a similar situation much later in the game that’s even more extreme, but which does not pull the same trick. The relevant character in this case is delirious, has blood coming from his mouth, and the characters remark that he can “barely stand”…yet he still has more HP than any boss you’ve faced previously. I know RPGs need to have climactic boss battles and all, but that really stretched my suspension of disbelief. I actually think it would have been clever if that battle was a total anticlimax that could have been ended in only a few attacks, but oh well.
However, one minor nitpick that I did enjoy was the level progression! This is fairly minor, but it’s always bothered me how, in most RPGs, you end the game at around level 50, even though the maximum level is 99. It always felt strange how nearly half the possible levels were completely unused. Not so here! By the final story dungeon, your party should be around level 65, and if you take on the game’s multitude of optional dungeons, you can easily get into the 90s (and, indeed, you’ll probably have to in order to face some of the optional superbosses).
I suppose I should comment on the “presentation” – graphics and music – as well, because they’re actually kind of interesting. The developer did use a lot of standard RPG Maker assets for some of the generic monsters and NPCs, but actually made a large amount of the graphics himself. Characters have surprisingly detailed and expressive sprites for their size, and some cutscenes even have special handmade illustrations for appropriately dramatic moments. It seems that the developer made sure to make unique graphics where it counted, and only used stock assets for the unimportant things that most people wouldn’t notice anyway. The music is a different story, though. There’s nothing original in there – it’s all stock RPG Maker tracks. Despite this, though, the developer clearly has a good understanding of music placement and consistency. There were very few scenes where I felt the music didn’t fit, and not having to make his own pieces enabled to developer to attach a large variety of unique battle and dungeon themes to important points. And just because it’s stock music doesn’t mean it’s terrible – many of the themes are quite good. And, the most interesting thing of all is that, because this was my first RPG Maker XP game ever, I didn’t even know they were stock tracks! I’m actually really glad of that, because I worry it would have ruined the experience somewhat. Now, whenever I hear stock RPG Maker tracks used in another game, I associate them with Last Scenario as if they were its original tracks, and can’t help but experience a sense of dissonance when they’re used differently, the same way I feel when hearing music ripped from commercial RPGs I’ve played. The placement and use of the music in this game is that good.
However, though the developer clearly put effort into the gameplay, I really think that the game’s plot is its focus. It starts off as the most unoriginal storm of cliches one could possibly imagine. There was a war between humanity and demons 300 years ago, and the main character, Hilbert, is the descendant of the legendary hero who made a heroic sacrifice to save humanity during that war. He is told this (and given a seal supposedly held by said hero) by a strange robed woman who sets off all the flags for “mysterious cryptic advisor/mentor/benefactor character”. To rise to fame and become strong enough to fight the demons when they inevitably reawaken, Hilbert joins the army of the good Republic to fight against the evil Empire.
Now, what makes the game interesting is that all of these cliches are inevitably turned inside-out. The developer claims that his intention in creating Last Scenario was to start off with all of the most common JRPG cliches, then subvert and deconstruct them and see what came of it. How well he succeeded is certainly up for debate (and the plot does transition into something rather different after the cliche-subverting part is done), but the story is definitely much deeper than at first glance. In fact, I’d say that the writing is probably the game’s strongest point. It certainly has its weak points and parts that definitely could have been done better, but overall I was immensely satisfied by it, so much so that I was willing to wade through its absurd difficulty to get there. I think it’s one of the few stories I’ve seen that hinges on mysteries building up to a big reveal where I felt the reveals were satisfying payoff. Often, I read similar stories and feel that the plot kind of fizzles by the time the revelations come about, because my imagination and speculation eclipsed what the story was actually going to deliver. Not so here – though you may certainly have a different experience.
Despite that, though, I actually felt the last story arc was the weakest one. There’s a plot arc a little over halfway through the game that’s the climax of virtually everything that’s been building up to that point, and as I said before, I felt the final reveals were very well done. However, it’s nowhere near the end of the game, and the plot threads afterwards, though still well-written, just didn’t feel quite as effective as everything prior. I remember getting to the reveals for questions raised in the last part of the game and just going, “Eh, sure, whatever.” They aren’t really as central and thought-consuming as previous plot points. I think the best way to describe them is that they’re answers to questions nobody really asked, as opposed to previous plot points, which definitely had me speculating about what everything meant.
But even without the plotty stuff, I really liked the characters. They feel like well-rounded, personable, believable people instead of the quirky archetypes that so often permeate JRPGs. There are periods where characters go through angst, but it isn’t overdone and is generally over with fairly quickly. In particular, I liked the development of the main villain – I don’t think I’ve seen many antagonists have such an understandable and intriguing motivation for personal power above all else. One major criticism I think I have to deliver, though, is that character development isn’t paced very well. The first half of the story is pretty character-driven, and as a result, the story kind of uses up all its character development by the midpoint (before you get your last party member, even). There are a few halfhearted attempts at more characterization during a few lulls in the plotty stuff, but they don’t really amount to much. Regardless, I still felt the characters were very good and had excellent motivations – there’s a lot of political and personal stuff rather than the magic mumbo-jumbo you may expect.
In truth, I’d say that perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the writing is that it’s able to do both mysterious plot and character interaction very well, but for some reason concentrates them into two halves of the game instead of spacing them more evenly throughout. The game does have a very interesting plot, but it takes a long time for to get there. On the flipside, the excellent character development and interaction throughout the party starts to peter out shortly after the midpoint (especially hard-hitting to the final playable character, who joins after that).
One example in particular I really like are the portrayal of scientist characters in this. One of the playable characters is the head of a research institute, and often provides a reasonable and intellectual point of view in character dialogues. However, he does so without the game portraying him as an unethical mad genius only in it for the science. There’s even a scene where he basically says, “I may have dedicated my life to the pursuit of knowledge, but I have ethics too.” Overall, the game does a good job of portraying him in a fair and balanced way – intelligent and cerebral while still having morals and ethics.
Oh yeah, and there are no stupid, shoehorned-in, story-derailing romance subplots! YES!!! There are two main characters who have a number of interactions that can be interpreted as romantic, but it’s never really shoved in your face or made explicit. The protagonist doesn’t hook up with anyone, either.
However, I do have to say that my feelings are more mixed towards the narrative’s treatment of female characters. It’s clear that the developer does seem to try in most parts – the setting as a whole seems to aim for a “gender is no object” type deal. We frequently see female soldiers without anyone batting an eye and inheritance apparently knows no gender. However, while it could certainly be a lot worse, it could also be a lot better. Though the developer claims to subvert a startling number of cliches, there are some he does not, and, well, there are a lot of negative female archetypes. I felt the female antagonists in particular really got the short end of the stick. One female villain’s death scene in particular really makes me cringe – her killer delivers one of the coldest and most scathing speeches I have ever seen in a video game while she dies, and I can’t help but feel it has narrative support.
There are a decent number of female characters with power, but they’re all under a guy’s thumb. The main villain is a guy, and spends most of his time playing everyone else like a fiddle, including a prominent female villain he manages to dupe into helping him. Also, the rulers of all three nations are all guys. The emperor has no wife to be mentioned, and neither does the king of the neighboring kingdom. The consul of the republic nation is also a guy. Are we really supposed to believe there just happen to be no women with any degree of political power? And so on.
However, I don’t really think the developer was intentionally trying to be misogynistic, he just didn’t realize that some of the tropes he was using for his story were inherently rather sexist. And there are plenty of well-written female characters as well, especially in the playable characters.
One of them does seem like a pretty typical “‘strong’ female character”, but she never gets stupid “HOW DO YOU EMOTIONS” moments like many YA female protagonists – on the contrary, I found that she had a good blend of well-written humanizing moments along with her awesome hotheaded fighter moments. She’s pretty intelligent, too, and often injects much-needed practical insight into the party’s discussions. I think my biggest objection to her character is that she kind of fades into the background during the more plot-heavy arcs, once the plot starts to distance itself more from the politic-y stuff.
The second female PC seems like the poster girl for the “JRPG staff chick” archetype, but she quickly subverts that in her introduction by frying a soldier with lightning when he tries to capture her, and, while she makes it clear that she’s not a fighter by nature, she’s definitely capable of defending herself. And, though she has a personality that’s a pretty typical “shy, quiet girl” (at least at first), she is not the protagonist’s love interest, which is refreshing. I think she goes through some interesting character growth throughout the game as well, though it is subtle. She gradually becomes more independent and assertive, eventually becoming the successful ruler of an entire nation in the ending.
The third female PC is probably the weakest example here, though. Most of her character development happens mostly offscreen before she even joins your party, and she spends most of that as something of a villain, so when she finally joins she has to spend a lot of time apologizing and taking flak from the other characters. She’s a pretty static character after that, and much of her character revolves around her connection to two other male characters.
Well, overall, I’d say that if you can tolerate the game’s difficulty I’d definitely recommend it. It’s freeware, but if you don’t want to put up with the fiendish difficulty and just want to see the plot, you can probably take a look at this let’s play. The story is definitely not one to be missed.