March 18, 2009
Star Ocean: The Last Hope is the fourth installment in a series of RPGs by developer tri-Ace and publisher Square-Enix, though it actually serves as a prequel to the entire series' timeline. Truth be told this was my first experience with the series and with developer tri-Ace, having purchased but yet to play their other 360 title Infinite Undiscovery, and I dare say it was quite a good first impression.
The name "Star Ocean: The Last Hope" is more than flash, serving as an entrance to the game's plot. The "Star Ocean" is simply what the inhabitants of Earth have taken to calling the night sky and "The Last Hope" is exactly what that star ocean is for them. Having neglected their planet and ravaged it with war, it has quickly become inhospitable, forcing those who survived to live underground. The people of Earth decide to set out for space and search for a planet that could sustain life, effectively uprooting and moving their entire species.
The main characters are Edge Maverick (which just so happens to be the worst name ever) and his childhood friend Reimi Saionji (totally a platonic relationship), who through certain events beyond their control take over the spaceship they once served on. The idea of simply searching for a new home is obviously not enough to drive a fifty hour gaming experience, so it soon devolves into a few RPG clichés, albeit with a sci-fi, existential twist that eventually devolve into a cataclysmic fight for the survival of the entire universe.
Further debasing the plot are cut-scenes that drag for more than a half hour at times, each riddled with awkward dialogue pauses while the characters on screen simply make faces at each other. Being a bit of an RPG nut, I am quite used to over-the-top, clichéd storylines and the general feel of a JRPG experience and, despite all the clichés I see over and over, I am generally interested in and can enjoy them regardless, but sadly this one was just not well executed. I found myself on multiple occasions using the "skip cutscene" feature, even late into the game when things should be revving up for a climactic ending.
Also not helping things much are a collection of rather generic characters. You've got your childhood friends, a sexy chick with gravity-defying boobs, a robot, an emotionless badass; all the usual suspects really. Nothing special on any front there. Then tri-Ace makes things worse with two of the most annoying characters ever. Lymle, a teenage girl with emotions frozen in the state of a five-year old is downright painful to hear talk, speaking in a slow and monotonous manner, ending every sentence with "'kay?" as if it were a question. Then there is Sarah, her voice probably even worse than Lymle's but without any frozen emotions to explain the annoying nature.
Taking the complete opposite stance, the actual game-play was extremely deep and addictive. The free-action battle is laid out well and keeps you going through the multitude of battles you'll fight over the course. If you've played Tales of Vesperia or Eternal Sonata you'll have a good idea of what to expect. You can have an active party of four (choosing from eight playable characters once you gain all your comrades through the story progression) and are able to control any of them you want. You can even set them all to manual and try to frantically cast spells and launch attacks, switching through each one in turn if you'd like, but I wouldn't expect anyone to live very long in a real battle like that.
There are a few unique aspects of this battle system, the first being the Rush gauge, which is very similar to Tales of Vesperia's Overlimit gauge. All damage dealt and received will fill the gauge and once it hits maximum you can either activate it to give you a short time of stagger-free attacks and quick movement, or launch into a deadly Rush combo which can link together special attacks with your allies, dealing out serious damage while your foe can do nothing but take it like a ... well they just sit there and take it.
The Bonus Board is a collection of 14 colored tiles that give bonuses after each battle. There are four different types of tiles to be earned in different manners (such as killing an enemy with a critical hit), each giving benefits from extra experience or gold to refreshing your party's HP/MP slightly after battle. Gaining and protecting these tiles (getting hit too violently will break the board and force you to re-earn your tiles) can really make things easier for you. For instance, racking up a full board of blue tiles (extra experience) will help you level quickly, increasing experience gained by up to 140% for a full board.
Blindsides are my favorite part of the battle system. You can hold the B button to ready yourself (but not too long or you'll get stunned), then flick the control stick in any direction when an enemy attacks to dodge and slip in behind them if timed correctly. You can then get in a few quick hits that will all be criticals. Each character has their own unique blindside animation and various special abilities during the manoeuvre such as invulnerability to other enemies attacks while you slide in behind your target.
The rest of the battle system is fairly generic with various spells, special attacks and item use. The only other quirk is how you set each character up before battle. There are three "BEAT" settings (short for the awful acronym 'Battle Enhancement Attribute Type') to choose from that grant various bonuses and stat increases based on how you'll play. There are offensive and defensive settings, as well as a neutral setting that will give the stat increases from both offensive and defensive modes but leave off the extra bonus skills earned from the two defined settings. Such bonuses are often hard to give up, such as quicker charging and slower draining of the Rush gauge.
tri-Ace's famous Item Creation system is back with a vengeance. There are 321 items available; from high-end weapons and armor, to food that increases battle stats, to a Jukebox for your ship to listen to with the game's musical tracks on. You have the ability to harvest and mine for ingredients, many can be purchased and the rest you'll have to kill monsters and hope for good drops. Luckily your characters can learn various skills to increase item drop rates; Edge for instance knowing Anthropology which will increase drops from humanoid foes. For most of the game the IC system isn't much of a help, but toward the end and during the post-game content it will almost be a necessity.
Speaking of the end-game, two other tri-Ace staples are back: multiple endings and bonus dungeons. There are nine total endings in the game, one for each of your friends. To earn them, a number of "Private Actions" will need to be triggered during the game (mostly during "down-time" on your ship) that will increase the friendship between the cast. A few of them can be quite tricky to earn and considering each "ending" is really just a few seconds of extra cutscene, they may be more trouble than they're worth aside from the achievements that go along with them. There are two bonus dungeons that are much more challenging than the game itself by a long-shot. Whereas you might finish the main story at level 65-80 with ease, don't expect to beat the first dungeon until at least level 130. They are pretty good add-ons to the game though.
Unfortunately the end-game content brings in the most annoying thing about the game for me; disc swapping. Either to save money on producing a fourth disc or simply because they didn't think much of it, you'll only have access to two of the game's five planets if you are using the third and final disc. If you need to travel back to one of the first three, a dead screen pops up and asks you to insert Disc 2. This is especially troublesome since your ship is stuck on Disc 3 at the end of the game which is where the Item Creation terminal is. You also need to board your ship to re-spawn any harvesting or mining points in the game. So when you are mining a section on the first planet to collect enough materials to create something from the terminal in your ship, you need to transport back and forth between planets and swap out discs until you're done. Very annoying.
Another extra feature that can be found a bit earlier during the story and might provide a little entertainment is the Colosseum. There you can participate in either solo, team or survival battles (each being exactly what they sound like) or bunny races. Yes, that's right, you can be the proud owner of a giant pink bunny, feed it pies to increase its stats and then race it against other giant bunnies. Truly the most epic bonus feature you'll see this year.
Another positive point is the excellent graphics. With those half hour cut-scenes I mentioned earlier, even if you can't stand the plot you can at least watch some good cinema. The field and battle graphics are just as good, especially the symbology and special attack animations. Sadly a big negative has to be the voice acting though. As I mentioned earlier, Sarah and Lymle are just awful. The other characters don't have much heart behind them, though they tend to get the job done. With no option to have the original Japanese voices on you'll be stuck with them though. The overall soundtrack is fairly decent, so it is hard to play completely muted, but I wouldn't hold it against anyone.
And as for our good friends, the achievements, you won't be finding a much more time-consuming list out there. The game will require three playthroughs; one being a "completion" playthrough that will suck up most of the time for all the 100% collection achievements, the other two being quick runs on two harder difficulties. You'll also need to earn all of the game's nine endings at some point, though it is possible to earn all of them in one playthrough since they are just bonus vignettes before and after the credits roll, as well as beating the Colosseum and winning 100 of those silly bunny races. Then on top of all that there are 900 "Battle Trophies," broken up 100 for each character that can range on the absurd. Many are unfortunately luck-based, such as dealing exactly 55,555 damage or healing yourself exactly to 100% health. Aside from swapping out equipment there isn't much you can do to affect those two factors, leaving the rest to blind luck. I can't say for sure just yet, but you'll probably be looking at 200 hours, if not more. For completionists and RPG fans, this list will either have you reveling in the time you get to spend with the game, or pulling your hair out in frustration.
I suppose the list of pros for Star Ocean: The Last Hope is definitely longer than the cons, though neither list is short by any means. The game is extremely fun, but unfortunately it just does not have the engrossing story I was hoping for. I could easily play this again in the future, but in no way would I watch the cut-scenes. The achievement list adds both frustration and replay value, but the disc swapping makes that frustration two-fold and that replay value longer in a bad way. If you're an RPG fan there is no excuse not to pick this up, for the uninitiated, perhaps try one of the other RPGs on our beloved 360 first before swinging this way.
Annoying character voices and all-around bland voice acting with no option for the original Japanese is an epic fail. The rest of the soundtrack is decent, but definitely nothing special there either.
The spells and special skills all look amazing and the cutscenes are rendered nicely. There is a bit of a frame rate loss in those longer cutscenes when it switches views but that is not often or very noticeable.
The battle system is fantastic. Both deep and entertaining to keep you interested despite the poor story. This score does unfortunately take a hit for the whole disc-swapping fiasco.
The story and characters are supposed to be what drives an RPG home, but this is all about the battle system. Luckily the battle overrides the poor story and keeps you interested.
Yet another clichéd, time-intensive RPG list. We've seen all these 100% collection achievements before, and they are truly just a time-sink. Forcing multiple plays is never welcome either. Add in the 900 battle trophies and you're looking at weeks upon weeks of straight grinding to finish this off.
If you're already a fan of the RPG genre, this will both disappoint and entice you but in the end leave you satisfied. If you're an RPG newbie, you'll more than likely be a little turned off to the genre, not quite getting an accurate depiction of what it can offer.