Hands On with Square Enix's The Last Remnant

The Last Remnant, a timed-exclusive roleplaying game for the Xbox 360, promises lots of "stunning" and "moving" and "mind-blowing" things, but doesn't tell you about the bewildering ones. When it comes to perplexing gameplay, it's certainly efficient. You're some kid in a forest, then you're some kid on a battlefield, then you're some incredibly brave or just plain stupid kid tapping buttons haphazardly as a spasmodic steadicam pans and pivots around fuzzy-eared cat-things and lipless floppy-eared frogs wielding swords and axes and guns with spinning barrels, all dressed like runway models in a Parisian fashion show. Why would you charge suicidally onto a battlefield with thousands of alien combatants? Because you're sure you've spotted your missing sister while having your afternoon woodsy stroll, of course.

It's the usual cartoon console RPG logic that gets even loonier as you're given command of awesome military types you've only just met. They're twenty-something going on 200 -- you're 18 years old and sound like Scott Steinger in Disney's Aladdin. You live in the sticks and go for walks in the woods with your sister, then have sudden encounters with apocalyptic abductors who descend from the sky like meteors with wings. You wear a pendant that to your surprise (but not ours) completely atomizes your foes (per The Grand List Of Console Role Playing Game Clichés "Cubic Zirconium Corollary," it'll probably be the key to either saving the world or destroying it). In one of the early tutorial battles, a giant toad-thing drops from the ceiling of a cavern (what was it doing up there?) and the grouchy girl and battle buddy you just met says "I wasn't expecting this." She must not play many console RPGs.

The central draw -- the turn-based battle system -- tries harder than the story to sidestep cliche, but ends up trading conventional antics for baffling ones. The design team wants you to fight large-scale tactical battles against multiple groups or "unions" of creatures, but without orienting overlays, e.g. grids or hexes. Wade into battle and you have to make tactical decisions using only your eyeballs. Had the design team opted for a camera you could position manually, this might've worked out. As it is, the camera whips around the field like an insane shuttlecock and combat animations bang by in microseconds. Good luck keeping up. And pacing advantages are undercut by all the time you'll spend, top of each turn, trying to puzzle out what just happened.

That's too bad, because the battle command system has a few interesting wrinkles. Encounters are static, not random, but the interesting riff is that you can control how many enemies you have to fight at once by drawing certain ones into battles circles. Once a battle's go, you can execute Deadlocks: to-the-death face-offs that trigger when you tag a specific enemy unit for melee. "Interference" lets you force units into Deadlock, while "Interception" is when the enemy does this to you. You've got rear assaults and flank attacks, powerful strikes, and something called "Raidlock" where you can force a unit into Deadlock at range. There's a mini-game where hitting the right button at the right moment triggers attack bonuses, and special techniques called "arts" let you execute special melee, magic, and item abilities.

Head-slapping "I get it!" moment to come? I hope so. Certainly a Square Enix fan here, so fingers crossed.

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