May 8, 2015 5:45 AM | Lena LeRay
RPGs tend to lean heavily on certain tropes, both mechanically and in terms of story. Oftentimes, doing something different in one of those areas results in breaking away from tradition in the other area as well. Twelve Tiles's Last Word takes place in a setting where getting in the last word in an argument puts your conversation partner under your power temporarily. Correspondingly, the battle system is a strategic duel of discourse and extracting information from the environment is important for advancing the game.
The famous and well-respected Professor Chatters has invited you, a member of a middle class family (which once belonged to the upper class but somehow fell), to one of his exclusive upper class parties. At first you don't know why he called you there, but by gossiping with the guests you find out that he has a new invention to show off. This invention turns out to be a one-way intercom, allowing Chatters to always get in the last word and placing everyone at the party under his control. His command? Hang out and enjoy the wine.
Your goal is therefore to figure out how to stop Chatters so that everyone can leave. This can only be done by discovering and leveling up topics of conversation so that you can unlock new chapters of the story. To do so, you must check out things around the house, gossip with other guests about topics you're aware of, and listen to people chatter so you can find out more.
Once you've found the information that will unlock the next chapter, you get a scene which culminates in discourse with one of the other guests. Discourse is the battle system in Last Word. Your character is on one side of the screen and your opponent on the other, with your goal being to move a peg at the bottom to the opponent's side before they can shove it over to your side.
Both player and opponent have three resources: power, tact, and composure. Power and tact are generated and consumed by actions taken, while composure is a buffer against the opponent's attempts to advance the peg. The player goes first in every round and must select a type of comment (disruptive, submissive, or aggressive) to say and a tone (subtle, common, or overt) in which to say it. Disruptive comments generate power and can move the peg a little; submissive actions spend power to generate tact; and aggressive actions spend tact to move the peg. The tone used determines the strength of the action (amount of the resource spent or generated, how far the peg moves) and assigns a star, circle, or square symbol to the action taken. The symbols are linked in a rock-paper-scissors chain, and hitting the opponent with an action whose symbol trumps their most recent one has a negative effect on their composure, making them more vulnerable to aggressive actions.
At all times, the stats and symbols of both parties are visible to the player, which is what makes discourse an exercise of strategy. You know how much power is required to generate a certain amount of tact and how much tact is required to move the peg, as well as which actions generate which symbols. You can also bring up a list of the enemy's special abilities. This means that you can plan for what your opponent is capable of and make educated guesses about how they'll react to your actions.
Win or lose a discourse, you gain experience, which both goes towards leveling up and stores the experience for use as currency. Leveling is important because a difference in levels affects the starting position of the peg at the start of discourse. You can engage any guest near or below your level in discourse at any time, but exploring the environment and unlocking optional pieces of story gets you experience at a faster rate than does grinding. One of the other guests is special, though; his family used to own the house in which the game takes place. You can level him up by fighting him, and the reward for doing so is special discourse challenges. The fact that he can level with you also makes him the best grinding opponent if grinding is needed.
There are two stores in the game, the main servant and the household cat. The former allows you to spend stored experience on new skills and the latter lets you buy upgrades for things. Spending stored experience does not drop your level, but more must be acquired once it's used up. Skills to things like providing a bonus to starting resources or positively affecting resource pools under certain conditions.
Aesthetically, the music for the game is just about perfect. The character sprites are stylized silhouettes in bright colors, a different color for each character with a black outline and a black accessory appropriate to the character. No two characters are identical in shape, either, making it colorblind friendly. Overall, the mystery-solving tone of the story matches well with the strange setting and the colorful characters to create a tone like that of the board game Clue, but minus the murder and with very different mechanics.
I've played a lot of RPGs in my time, but I've never played one like Last Word. It's always nice to see an RPG use an unusual setting, and one in which veteran military linguists are revered as paragons of citizenry is a rare thing indeed. The custom battle system uses a rock-paper-scissors element, but as part of a resource-based system that makes choosing to use or ignore the rock-paper-scissors elements on a given turn an important decision in both the short and mid- to long-term. It's not a tens-of-hours affair, but it does take several hours, and you spend the whole time learning new things about the characters and the world they live in. I recommend it to anyone who likes their RPGs to mix things up.
The Last Word comes out today and will be available via Steam for Windows. The regular price is $9.99.