Above all others, Last Dream has always served as the game against which all other RPGMaker clones should be measured against. Closely following classic RPG tropes and qualities without using them as a crutch, it struck a very precise balance between paying tribute to SNES era releases while displaying surprising level mechanical innovation. Well, after several years the stand-alone expansion World Unknown has finally hit shelves, and it was more than worth the wait.
Set almost immediately following Gabriel's defeat, the protagonist's return to his world is rudely interrupted by a cataclysm. As visions of his family disappear even as he returns home, he finds himself dragged by an unknown power to an entirely new world along with his comrades from Terra. One that is in an even worse state than the realm they just saved.
The story, at its core, hinges upon more than a few well-known clichés, but that's part of its beauty. It executes so many of them so perfectly that you're often reminded of just why they became overused in the first place, but they never lose their charm despite this. In addition to this, World Unknown isn't afraid of subverting expectations, or offering you the freedom of choice absent in so many similar RPG remakes. It is, after all, perfectly viable to threaten an inn owner into allowing you to stay for free, and taking the wrong chest can horrifically backfire on you in the wrong town.
The game also keeps many strengths of its predecessor, as it allows you to control many basic stages and design elements from the start. The exact encounter rate, when and where you can save, the overall strength of enemies, and even the ability to completely omit cut-scenes for those focusing purely upon the gameplay are all present. Atop of this though, World Unknown also starts off exactly where the last one ended mechanically, and you will find many late game elements (such as tunnelling to reach new areas or blowing open walls) present from the very start. Furthermore, the same sense of exploration and hidden quests are present even in the starting town, as you can bump into a Thieves' Guild dungeon and be pitted into a boss fight to take back some of your old gear.
Even without the story elements and open world mechanics, World Unknown's combat nevertheless stands out thanks to its complexity and broad character classes. You have all the expected tropes and types from the Fighter to White Mage, but each offers such a broad range of skills that there is a surprising amount of crossover between each one's specialties. The Knight might be a tank, but besides merely dealing damage he can breach the armour of foes and hinder their movements, while the White Mage has access to any number of buffs from basic healing to preventing anyone dying in the turn she casts a spell. Even the Engineer has some fun with the likes of smoke bombs and an ability titled ICBM along with their usual class elements. All of which you will need to emerge victorious, as the enemies here are relentlessly unforgiving, with many retaining abilities capable of totally healing one another in a split-second or dropping a dozen debuffs on members of your party. As such, it takes a fair bit of tinkering and intelligence to start regularly winning fights without any difficulty.
However, more so than anything else here, World Unknown seems to have been made with satisfying old hands of RPGs with new ideas. There are plenty of opportunities to break story sequences and skip ahead, or avoid intended meetings entirely for speed-runs, and earning renown will be reflected in NPC dialogue. Unlike the Elder Scrolls series, if you take on a giant world threatening kraken with naught but a sword and win, they're going to praise you in the street for it.
If there is a negative point to cite in World Unknown, it's that it takes a few hours for the developer's true genius to shine through. During the opening segments of your quest, the abrupt beginning and almost generic town elements can make this easy to write off as merely another by-the-numbers RPGMaker clone, and even without that there are obvious major benefits to transferring a save file from Last Dream over starting anew. As relatively minor as these are, it can make life difficult for anyone looking to get into this game without having experienced the first instalment.
Still, no matter its flaws, Last Dream: World Unknown is still a monumental success and a true hidden gem on Steam. This is an essential purchase for any fan of classic 16-bit RPGs and one of the single best releases of 2017 so far. Make this an essential purchase for this month.
LAST DREAM: WORLD UNKNOWN / DEVELOPER & PUBLISHER: WHITE GIANT STUDIOS / PLATFORMS: MICROSOFT WINDOWS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW