[Break Time! is a series of posts about video games that Rick has spent entirely too much time with over the years.]
The current generation of game consoles has not been very kind to gamers who enjoy Japanese-style role-playing games (JRPGs). If you like JRPGs, you’re better off having merely a Playstation 2 rather than the current offerings from Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo.
Finally, some of the big names are coming to the current generation of consoles. Star Ocean: The Last Hope is here.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope is the fourth major Star Ocean game from Tri-Ace. (So, I’ll call it SO4 from now on.) Since the previous game (Star Ocean: Til the End of Time) ended rather strangely, Tri-Ace decided to make this game a prequel to the previous three games. The game is set shortly after the third world war has made Earth practically uninhabitable. Earthlings are using newly developed “warp” technology to find a new planet to live on. I should also mention that the Earthlings have made contact with an older spacefaring race who look like humans but wear things on their ears that give the earlobes a pointy appearance. If that last bit sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because the Star Ocean universe is what you would get if you took Star Trek and dressed it up with magic (“symbology” or “heraldry” in Star Ocean) and swords.
Read my spoiler-free review of the game below the jump.
Story and characters
You play the role of Edge Maverick, an officer on one of Earth’s first warp-capable exploration vessels. Due to a subspace anomaly, Earth’s new fleet gets spread all over the place and half-destroyed. (Isn’t that the way these things always go?) After killing some overly large man-eating bugs that are impervious to advanced weapons but easy prey to swords, Edge finds himself in command of one of the surviving Earth ships. He then assembles a ragtag crew of humans, aliens, and alien cyborgs ranging in age from 6 to 35 years old to explore the universe. From there it gets weird…
Now I’m not all the way through the game yet, but the main problem I see with the story is that it can’t decide whether or not it’s supposed to serious or campy. For the first fifteen or so hours, you’ll likely be shaking your head at how preposterous the plot is.
So, the plot’s a little thin. How are the characters? To get a feel for Edge Maverick, the character you’ll be playing, imagine Luke Skywalker from the original Star Wars. Now imagine a character so self-absorbed and whiny that Luke looks calm and restrained in comparison. That character is Edge Maverick. If there ever was a video game protagonist in more need of a slap in the face than Edge Maverick, I have yet to see him. Add to the mix a six-year-old girl (who the game says is 15) who ends every sentence with the word “‘kay”, a cat-girl with Stockholm syndrome, and a cyborg who drones on about his “cold, steel body” and you have quite the annoying mix. While not every moment with SO4‘s heroes is as gut-wrenchingly awful as I’ve implied above, nearly every character has an attribute on constant display that will grate on your nerves.
The plot and characters work best, I think, if you just play the game and not try to get overly involved with either. It’s true that I might be giving SO4 a bit of a hard time here. The last two games I completed before playing SO4 were Persona 3: FES and Persona 4 – both of which had better-than-average stories. Even compared to the previous three Star Ocean games, SO4‘s plot and characters come up short.
The A/V Experience
The atmosphere of a game isn’t strictly defined by how much sense its story makes. While the Star Ocean games are not well-known for stellar graphics, they have always been friendly to those of us with modern TV sets. The previous Star Ocean game ran on the Playstation 2 in 480P and could be set to 16:9 for widescreen sets. The first two Star Ocean games were remade for the PSP (and can thus be properly displayed on widescreen TVs). SO4 is made for widescreen HDTVs and does not acknowledge the existence of old, square TV sets. What does that mean? It means that if you have a small standard definition set, don’t buy SO4. You won’t be able to see the in-game text or some of the menus, rendering the game practically unplayable.
So how do the high definition visuals look? Quite good, for the most part. I have some problems with how lighting is used in parts of the game. The first planet’s sky and reflections are so bright, for instance, that I want to put on sunglasses, even though the brightness and contrast settings on my TV are fine for everything else. There aren’t any immediately obvious ways to fix this in the game’s settings menu, either. You’ll see some minor pop-in issues with vegetation and enemies on the fields
Those gripes aside, the game looks great. There’s lots of detail in the landscapes, and in the character and enemy models. People and enemies move around naturally on the screen. You can rotate the camera to see the scenery from many angles. Streams and rivers have swimming fish and good-looking rippling water. Very nice.
Sadly, only weapon changes are reflected in the character models. Your new fancy armor won’t change the appearance of your character at all. This is a bit jarring because the characters say that they want to blend in with the locals on backwater planets, yet they always walk around these planets in their Glowing Futuristic Space ArmorTM. It’s time for JRPG developers to get with the program. It’s the 21st century. A character’s appearance should change with his equipment.
Cutscenes are usually rendered with the game engine. Despite some rumors going around on to the contrary, it’s possible to pause cutscenes. Just hit the Guide button. Some cutscenes are long enough so that the controller turns itself off. This will pause the cutscene, too.
The sound is servicable. It does what it’s supposed to do, and sounds come from the appropriate speakers in a Dolby Digital home theater setup. Most major scenes and a few minor ones are voiced. Unlike some other reviewers, I think the voice acting is passable. That said, you will want to have the mute button around for some of the more eccentric characters. ‘kay? I don’t fault the voice actors for this, since there is only so much a voice actor can do with horrible, cringe-worthy dialogue.
I should also mention that Tri-Ace has not yet learned the fine art of lip-sync, but that’s a fairly easy issue to ignore.
Tri-Ace is not known for gripping dialogue and intriguing stories. Tri-Ace, and especially its Star Ocean games, are known for innovative gameplay elements and combat systems that replace the monotonous task of selecting your attacks from a menu by something more action-oriented. This is where SO4 really shines – gameplay. Sure, the story is thin and the characters can get annoying, but despite this the game is still addicting and fun to play.
The basic flow of the game involves going to different planets with your starship and exploring them. On each planet, you’ll go to towns or dungeons to explore and advance the plot. As in the previous Star Ocean game, there’s no world map. Each planet gives you a large area to explore, and the way to do that is to walk from one place to another. Along the way, you can hunt for treasure, admire the scenery, and fight. The fighting is one of the better parts of the game.
You control one of your party members during each fight, out of a total of four on the battlefield. You can switch freely between the people you control, and let the computer take care of the rest. The battles take place in real time, and pause only when you want to use an item or cast certain spells. You can use simple attacks, perform combos, use special attacks, and chain all of them together to inflict severe damage onto your enemies. There’s a “rush mode”, where you can attack more effectively for a time after hitting or being hit enough times. You can sneak up behind an enemy and “blindside” him, enabling you to score critical hits without risk of counterattack – usually.
Want to do more in battle? Buy skills and enhance them using “skill points”, which you earn with level-ups and from treasure chests.
There’s a “bonus board”, where you can earn extra rewards after battle for doing certain things in battle. For instance, you can
- earn more experience points by finishing an enemy with a critical hit
- earn more skill points by fighting a chain of battles without resting in between (called an “ambush”)
- earn more cash by defeating two enemies at once
- recover hit points by defeating an enemy using only special attacks
The bonuses persist from battle to battle, but are lost if you save and reload the game.
If you’re familiar with the third Star Ocean game, the combat in SO4 is an improved version of that system, but without MP death.
Outside of battle, there is plenty to do. You can perform sidequests for various rewards. You can collect data on the different monsters and weapons of the SO4 universe. You can also hang out on your starship and do things.
On your spaceship, you can create new items from raw materials using the item creation system. To do this, you put your characters together into teams who develop “recipes” for new items. If you have the raw materials on hand, you can then make the new items using the recipe. In previous Star Ocean games, this involved a lot more trial and error (and frustration) than it does here. The only drawback to this simpler item creation system is that needed raw materials are harder to find than in the previous games.
You can also initiate “private actions” while on the ship. Private actions let you change the relationships between your main character and the other characters – which can in turn affect other parts of the game like the endings. You initiate a private action by talking to one of your party members on your ship. Different things might happen. You might watch a scene, answer questions, or even battle. You might even find yourself meowing like a cat. Meowing aside, though, the private actions develop the characters in the story better than the main story does, so you will want to see them.
There are a lot of things to do in SO4 – more than I’ve mentioned above. If you get lost, you can always check the menus for a synopsis of the game so far and for details on any sidequests you’re currently working on.
I do have an issue with a few aspects of the gameplay.
First: save points. Or rather, the lack of save points in some areas. There are parts of this game where you can play for two hours plus without finding a single save point. It’s as if not a lot of thought was given to allowing the gamer to take a break or get to sleep at a proper hour. If the lack of save points in some dungeons was meant to increase the difficulty, then Tri-Ace could have at least provided a quick-save feature – basically a temporary save that loads then deletes itself when you re-load the game. After all, fans of the Star Ocean series (which started in the 90s) are likely to be older gamers who might have to stop playing because something needs doing in real life.
Second: the walking/running system. The 360 has analog controls standard, as did the previous generation of game systems. So why is it that you can’t push the analog stick a little make your character walk and a little more to make him run? Instead, you have to use a separate button to switch modes between a glacially slow “walk” mode and a “run” mode that’s too fast to open chests or interact with the environment.
Next: the targeting system. Rather than a targeting system where you use buttons or the d-pad to change targets, Tri-Ace decided to use an automatic line-of-sight system. While this works fairly well for melee characters, it’s a pain in the rear to target the right enemy using a character like Reimi who uses ranged attacks.
Finally: disc swapping. I’ve got all three discs copied to the hard drive. Why am I being asked to change discs? This is probably as much Microsoft’s fault as it is Tri-Ace’s, but it’s still an annoyance.
There are unlockable difficulty levels, multiple endings, and bonus dungeons to explore – as well as a ton of things to collect. So this game will have plenty of replay value. Provided you can stand listening to Edge whine all over again, ‘kay?
I’ve been a little hard on this game in the sections above. The story and characters of the game aren’t memorable, and the game has some annoying defects in design. Even so, Star Ocean: The Last Hope is a fun addition to the Star Ocean series. It’s a must-have game if you like JRPGs and have an Xbox 360.
If you enjoyed any of the past Star Ocean games, you’ll like this. It’s a good game, and I’d give it a solid 7 on a 10 point scale. But it could have been so much better with better writing and a little more playtesting…