A game that's about as frustrating as it is fun and addictive.
When the JRPG genre is mentioned, a lot of people just think about crazy anime style aesthetics, random battles, a below average story, a lot of grinding, and weird dialogue. From my experience, this ends up being pretty polarizing for them. It feels like the developers tried hard to get rid of the above mentioned stereotype, and for better or worse they did, as The Last Remnant is mostly exempt from these factors. It's set in a fantasy world that may as well have been conceived by any western developer. It has rich lore and a number of races. Some of the character designs do have that unique eastern touch but nothing extensive, so if you're a person who is for some reason alienated by the usual overflow of creativity, you can probably put that aside in this case.
In the game, you follow the story of Rush Sykes, a young guy who easily makes friends and is looking for his kidnapped sister. His parents are famous, so when he ends up in a town, the local landlord decides to help him as it would be mutually beneficial for them. Meanwhile there is turmoil in the rest of the world as someone named the Conqueror appears and, well, conquers. So yeah, the premise isn't too interesting but trust me, this is a jrpg that doesn't disappoint when it comes to story. The plot twists are mostly predictable, but the mysteries and the political intrigue will have you hooked and you'll want your questions answered. The cinematics are done on the in-game engine and are excellent, as most would expect from Square Enix. You might feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of cutscenes in the first hour of the game, but the rest of the game allows a lot of freedom so you can go at it at your own pace and they will feel really satisfying and rewarding when they happen. I must also mention that the musical score is absolutely wonderful.
During his journey, Rush will gather companions who fight with him. The game uses a unique party system and a unique battle system as well. Your companions are organized into 'unions', which are 5-man groups of combat units who fight together in unison. You are free to compose these as you will, there are lots of different formations with different benefits as well and you gain access to more available slots during the game until you will eventually be allowed to have 5 unions and 18 active party members. The enemies also come in higher numbers and act as unions. A union can only act once a turn and can 'deadlock' an enemy union while another friendly union can attack the flanks for increased damage. Except for bosses and large monsters who can deadlock multiple unions and retaliate each time.
Encounters are not random, as you always see one monster representing an encounter like in Blue Dragon. Battles are turn-based but you have to give out your orders before the whole turn's events are played out instead of the usual way of doing it right before the given character's turn comes. This means if your 3rd union gets severely damaged and may get taken out by a flank attack soon, your 4th union won't do anything about it if they ordered to attack so you have to plan well. In larger fights this system can also lead to pretty boring and long cinematics of up to 50 individual units attacking each other. To keep you on your toes, SE decided to implement a random quick time event feature that quickens the individual units' turn if you succeed but it just ended up being annoying for me. Thankfully, you can turn the QTE to randomly succeed or fail in the background without your involvement and the PC version can speed up the game with the press of a button, but only between turns and not during them.
There is also a minimap to show you the location of units to better decide who to deadlock and attack with a given union. It's not as useful as it sounds as it is tiny and only visible when the characters are standing still. Furthermore, unions have different speed and since you can't see it real time and pause to give other orders at will, the map is about 10% as useful as it could be. You will get intercepted by the enemy many times. Being interrupted leads to a loss of morale. Morale is displayed at the top as a bar and having low morale decreases your units' performance. A unit dying, getting flanked, getting hit with criticals and various other factors affect morale, as well as the strength of the enemy monster(s) you're fighting. Bosses and rare monsters get a huge boost and your maximum of 5 unions will get easily overwhelmed at the flanks when fighting a lot of enemy unions at once, so really the morale bar is geared against the player as much as possible in story driven encounters.
Now if the battle system doesn't seem complicated and bothersome as it is, it's time to get to the worst part. Randomness of the player's influence. Your soldiers can learn a lot of abilities: Offensive magic, special attacks, healing magic, healing herbs, buff potions, wards, hexes, etc etc. But you, on the other hand, are only allowed to select 5-6 commands when giving orders. So the game tries to predict what would be useful for you in the given situation and select those few commands from your massive arsenal for the union. And then within that command, distribute the orders among the units. "Keep your HP up!" for example, means attack and heal so a number of your units in a union will use healing abilities while the rest attack. And the game often fails hard with its predictions. A command you want not showing up in a boss fight can simply ruin your battle and you'll want to kick whoever thought this was a good idea in the teeth. Similarly, an offensive character also doing healing in a situation where your HP isn't critical will annoy you to no end. You could create specialized unions and turn off the abilities you don't want to use in hopes of the ones you want coming up more often but in my experience, aside from a few useless arts, you cripple your army this way more than just having all-rounders and wishing for the best.
When you're not fighting and unraveling mysteries in the story, you can do side quests and guild quests. Side quests are usually found in each town's taverns and instantly teleport you to the area you need to go to and then teleport you back to the quest giver as soon as your objective is done. Side quests are varied: from escorting someone to boss battles, to just talking to someone in area; they are mostly interesting and often net you a unique party member in the long run. Guild quests are more generic tasks. Kill x amount of y monster, kill z rare monster, have this item in your inventory, etc etc. There are a lot of them across multiple guilds but the rewards aren't very compelling. Some of your party members also have personal quests but these are very easily missed as the game doesn't let you know when and how you get these. As with a lot of things, your best bet is looking at the wikia for the game.
The menu system is slick and really responsive and your inventory space is only limited at stack sizes but not how many individual item types you carry. There are lots of items as the game has a really extensive crafting system with tons of weapon types and accessories. You get materials from slain monsters or from using a unique helper called Mr. Diggs to extract raw minerals, plants and other stuff while roaming around. You can also capture monsters. This is your primary gold income source and selling a lot of them unlocks more buyable items in stores. At the same time, captured monsters also give a lot of rare ingredients if you decide to split them and not sell them so you'll have to make a strategic choice each time you capture one. Your party members also craft things, which is the only way of changing their equipment. Yep, Rush is the only one you can freely equip and all the other people will constantly nag on you to get them the materials they want or ask for a certain weapon and accessory that's compatible with them. How do you know what's compatible? You don't. They even ask for materials that you already have in your inventory and they often replace items they took from you with worse ones for no reason.
The game is rendered in Unreal Engine 3 and it looks great. The models and particle effects don't leave much to be desired. Aside from the occasional low quality texture here and there, the art style is consistent and the environments look breathtaking at times. As a downside of using UE3 though, you will have those notorious texture streaming issues where you'll be looking at a blurry mess for about 1-2 seconds after an area loads. And loadings are frequent as the game is broken down into areas that you select on the map and quick-travel to, even within the cities that you can visit. An area is about as large as they were in Final Fantasy XII and is often separated into "zones" just like back then, but after you leave a certain area, you are put back on the map instead of seamlessly moving to another like in FFXII. There is also a chaining mechanic that increases rewards like FFXII's but now it counts all kills in an area and not just a given monster type. Most dungeons have a teleporter at the end, so thankfully you won't have to backtrack to exit. There are certainly lots of very distinct and unique places you can visit and most areas expand over the course of the game. New routes open up and reveal new monsters and raw materials; sometimes they even interconnect with other dungeons. Some of them are entirely missable.
So between the crafting system, the side quests, the avoidable encounters, the better rewards for clearing areas, the beautiful sights to see and the ever expanding game world, the game invites you to constantly explore and immerse yourself in it with one hand... while slapping you in the face for taking it up on its invitation with the other. Unlike in most RPGs, your stats don't level up along with your overall level (called Battle Rank in this game) but instead level up based on... I have no idea, honestly, the stat that levels up seems mostly based on the abilities you use but the frequency of stat gains has to do with the strength of the monsters you're fighting while BR increases based on the amount of monsters you fight. This is all based on speculation as the game doesn't explain this, as usual. Stats are the single most important thing in the game. Your equipment and abilities seem to matter much less and factor in about roughly 30% of your performance where the other 70% are stats. The higher your Battle Rank is, the less frequent are the gains. And every monster scales to your battle rank. Which means if you went out early in the game and fought lots of monsters around your current level, a boss will probably tear your face off soon enough and there is absolutely no way you can fix your game from that point on without hours of trying to fight single rare monsters at which point you'll probably want to give up instead. And the bosses in this game have devastating special attacks and are tough as nails even if you play it while keeping in mind the fact that your BR is basically the sword of Damocles. Final Fantasy X's notorious boss encounters have nothing on this game. An early boss called the Fiery Idol, one of the first few bosses, instantly wiped my unions in a single attack. I got extremely lucky and so beat it a few tries later but I was curious so I searched for strategies and the only one that came up was "reload and hope it doesn't happen next time". Really? And let me tell you, it gets worse.
Your weapons also level up but again, I have no idea how as the game doesn't explain squat about it. It just happens and you will be happy. Abilities level up by simply using them like in The Elder Scrolls games and they unlock more powerful abilities in the same tree but you will have absolutely no idea what gets unlocked and how is your current progress.
You know how a lot of software are advertised as user-friendly and some games are called accessible? The Last Remnant is anything but. All these flat out bad design decisions that lead to uncertainty about the game mechanics and all the randomness in the battles make this game about as frustrating and needlessly annoying as a game can get. At the same time it is definitely fun, offers a large and immersive game world with a tremendous amount of content, but each time you try to have fun, you'll run into some frustration and this makes the title really hard to recommend to anyone except some hardcore RPG nuts looking for something new and challenging. But for the people that stick with it, the high production values and the addictive meta-games will likely keep you coming back like they did in my case.