Update: So I finished the game, you can read my followup post and final thoughts on it by clicking here.
After seeing the highly emotional and generally well put together trailer to the PSP RPG Last Ranker, I was quite hyped to give it a try myself. There seemed to be a fairly personal story with some good ol’ Japanese melodrama, decent graphics and a seemingly strong and determined protagonist who also happens to be the doppelganger of Yuri Hyuga of Shadow Hearts fame. And we have a heroine voiced by Marina Inoue. What more could I want?
Right, so the game is actually far from perfect, but my general impressions so far could still be summarized as “cautiously optimistic”. It’s a fairly refreshing title on the PSP which sadly was never localized. Now if it would only give me a bit more plot and less fetch-quests… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Like I said, the game has been pretty enjoyable so far.
So anyway, below are my impressions of Last Ranker after roughly 15-20 hours of gameplay. (this might differ for others, I’m actually a fairly slow player…)
The initial premise is fairly simple: having gotten bored of an eventless, idle life, Zig leaves his home village for good in order to become a Ranker – a mercenary, more or less. Well, they do take a special oath and everything, but still. In any case, his best friend Faz opposes his decision but cannot stop him from leaving. The trailer pretty much summed it up already.
Based on the time I spent so far with the game, Last Ranker’s main selling point appears to be its battle system. The primary goal of the game is to defeat other “Rankers” and advance through the ranks, eventually making it to the top. A Ranker battle is basically a one-on-one fight consisting you and your enemy. A bossfight, simply put – these sort of battles are what you’ll be doing most of the time. There are, of course, normal battles as well against regular old monsters, but these are mostly brainless, “mash one button until you win” sort of affairs. It’s the Ranker battles you’ll be looking forward to.
The combat system itself is not turn based. Each of your regular attacks cost a certain amount of SP – these are the green bars in the top right corner of the screen. After using up all your SP, you will have to wait a bit for it to regenerate. You can also block, which stops your SP regeneration, and each strike that you deflect consumes one point of SP. If you run out of SP while blocking, you take full damage, so it’s advisable not to block major attacks while you’re low on SP. (Here’s a video of a Ranker battle for reference: click.)
Aside from normal attacks and blocking, you also have access to special skills (spells, basically) – the game calls them “R-skills” because you bring up the skill menu by holding down the R button mid-battle. And so, the real meat of the combat system lies in customizing and using your R-skill palette: you can only have five of them equipped at one time (assigned to the four main buttons of the PSP + the L button). Think of it like assigning Artes in Tales games.
You learn R-skills from the other Rankers you defeat, so the further you advance in the game and the more enemies you topple, the more varied your options will become. Among your R-skills are the more traditional ones like powerful damage-dealing attacks, buffs, debuffs, healing, and so on. You also have, however, more specialized R-skills – for example, one of my favorites: counterattacking. This is basically a skill that you have to use with perfect timing, unleashing it only a few moments before the enemy’s strike would connect in order to repel it. (If you play fighting games, this is basically like Gouken’s counter move in Street Fighter 4.). The most important thing to note here is that while regular attacks can be performed infinitely (since your SP regenerates), R-skills only have a limited number of uses (usually between 1-3), and they do not get replenished after a battle. There are, of course, consumable items to replenish “uses”, but the point is that you can’t just spam R-skills and hope for the best in longer, drawn-out boss battles. Planning ahead is the name of the game.
One more thing to mention is the Break system, which works a bit like this: if the enemy’s Break gauge depletes (this happens simply by landing hits on him; it’s the red bar at the bottom of the screen), he gets stunned and becomes more vulnerable for a few seconds. This is your chance to deal massive damage. However, note that you have your own Break gauge (the blue bar at the bottom), so your foe might very well give you a taste of your own medicine if you aren’t cautious.
Later on you will also be able to switch between skill palettes mid-battle to change between your various “Styles”. Styles are basically different combat stances: dual-wielding swords, handguns, hand-to-hand combat, so on, with their appropriate skill sets and advantages/disadvantages. You can basically switch between these to adjust to your enemy and find the best way to defeat him/her. A combination of all I explained above therefore make bossfights fairly intense, and your victory all the more satisfying.
The only problem with the above is that after putting a significant amount of hours into the game, I have been able to defeat almost all enemy Rankers with the same old strategy – that is, switching to hand-to-hand Style, (a special stance that lets you deplete the enemy’s Break gauge considerably faster compared to normal attacks), then punching him until he’s stunned. Once you do this, unleash your strongest skill for massive damage. Rinse and repeat until you win. There might have been a few battles where it didn’t work, but still – all this resulted in me completely ignoring certain Styles (handguns, for example) simply because I could easily win even without them. However, keep in mind that I’m still not at the end of the game, so things might get tougher later on. Despite the above, I still found the combat system highly enjoyable, as it revolves around the careful timing of your R-skills and planning what to do and when.
I wish I could comment a bit more on the story aspect of the game, but even after all these hours, there hasn’t been much development. Most of the early game actual focuses on you going around doing assignments and fighting Ranker battles, and there’s the occasional cutscene here and there, but after my 15-20 hours, nothing significant has really happened yet. Which is a shame, but hopefully the plot is just a late bloomer.
The major characters you do meet during your adventures seem fairly interesting, though – primarily Ren, Makis and Tylong-, so I’m hoping to get to know more of them as I progress through the game. Still, the lack of a “party” (as the entire game so far has been you going solo, controlling Zig and him only), and deeper character interaction so far wasn’t really to my liking. After doing some reading on forums, it seems like the first half of the game is indeed going to be spent in such a plot-less state, which is a bummer, but is also makes me anticipate the later bits. We’ll see.
Other than what I’ve discussed above, there are also so-called friendship events: as usual, I’m going to draw a parallel between this and the Social Link events of Persona 3 and 4. You basically invite a side-character to your room where you get a mini-event with them: the two of you talk, and you choose a dialogue option to respond. The downside is that many of these are easily missable as far as I know, so you’d have to follow a guide to see all of them. (Which is what I did.). However, this naturally means that they’re also completely optional, so it’s up to you whether or not you want to unlock them.
On the visual side of things, I felt the graphics and overall presentation were mostly okay, but there are certainly prettier games out there for the system – while the character models of the main heroes and heroines were fine for the most part, the environments themselves could’ve used a bit more polish. The soundtrack itself is a mixed bag, there are a few great songs, but a number of forgettable tracks as well.
In summary, this is a pretty decent title for the PSP with a refreshing battle system – its biggest problem so far is simply its lack of an engaging story or character development. However, that might be remedied as I play more (in fact, there have already been some cool pieces of foreshadowing, so I’m hopeful), and the Ranker battles themselves are addictive enough to want you to keep playing.
If I ever get around to finishing this, I’ll update my review and give my final thoughts.
(Oh, and apparently the game has a manga adaptation, so you could check that out. There’s an English translation.)