Star Ocean: The Last Hope
Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 2/23/09
How do you make a sequel to a series with an ending like what happened in Star Ocean 3? You make a prequel of course. Star Ocean: The Last Hope takes the action/RPG series back to the beginning to mankind’s first forays into deep space.
It’s just a shame the interesting setting doesn’t create an interesting story.
One of the things that have always been compelling about the Star Ocean games as a series is seeing the odd interpretation of western sci-fi themes in a Japanese role-playing game setting. Star Ocean: TLH isn’t any different in that sense as it takes an extremely odd blend of Anime, Sci-Fi, and JRPG cliches and throws them in a blender to see what pops out. Apparently if you mix these cliches together wrong you get what are probably some of the most annoying video game characters ever created along with a story that just sort of limps along.
This game features a main character named Edge Maverick. Just digest that for a second. Sure, it’s not as if there haven’t been some goofy names in a Star Ocean game before, after all the name of the main character in Star Ocean 3 was named Fayt, but the absurdity doesn’t just end with the main character’s name. Edge is pretty much the stereotypical JRPG main character, he’s a slightly androgynous whiny male with blond hair. At one point someone walked into the room as I was playing and said “So, that’s Squall?”. Here’s a character we are supposed to believe is someone chosen by the government to help pilot one of the first spaceships even though he acts more like an immature child in the beginning than like someone who is awed with the importance of what he is apart of. He has jealousy issues with his big brother and is blind to the affection of a female friend despite the fact that it’s obvious to anyone with eyes.
Add to that a cast which includes an extremely annoying character who helps you create items and is one huge anime cliche, and later on some even MORE annoying characters, like an autistic child (I’m assuming based on how she acts) with some of the most grating dialog ever, or the ever overused female with animal ears character. Even the strongest characters are cliches that are so beaten to death in other forms that even the first time you see them in Star Ocean: The Last Hope they’re already old news. Please Tri-Ace, stop with the child characters. I’m begging you.
The story doesn’t help this at all either. I honestly felt bad for some of the characters since in the beginning they are sent to a planet that’s supposed to be safe, crash into it and then there are monsters all over the planet. When Edge asks the high command what’s up with all of the hostile activity they pretty much just tell Edge to deal with it. Then you find out they’re hiding the existence of other alien life forms from your crew, and after that ask Edge to take command of a ship and take on a mission for the SRF. Except they let him know that they never would let him be a captain but everyone else is injured or busy, and even though Edge’s friends are his crew the main captain apologizes for the fact that the crew is insufficient.
Is that what people want out of main characters, to only to be in command because everyone else with half a brain is injured? Who thought this was a good idea? There are some sub-plots on different planets that are somewhat interesting and they help give an excuse as to why the characters are doing some of the things they have to do throughout the game and to introduce other characters.
While graphically the game looks fantastic, it doesn’t help the plot that the main characters also look like unemotional dolls. The game appears to be going for a 3D anime style, and if you took a still image of a cut scene it would look great. In motion as the characters are talking they hardly emote and always have a sort of detached emotionless look to their faces that just kills moments of high tension or emotion. It’s as if the characters all took a whole bottle of Xanax before getting shot out into space. The voice acting is actually pretty decent overall, however the dialog and pacing are all kinds of messed up. The voice work is not synced well with the lip movement and some of the dialog is beyond bad at times.
It also doesn’t help that these cut scenes can last up to 40+ agonizingly long minutes without the ability to pause them (unless you press the guide button). However you can choose to skip them completely, and if you do you will generally get a short text description of the scene. I highly recommend just doing that over sitting through some of the cut scenes since the characters and plot seemed less annoying in text form than actually watching them.
Graphically the game is beautiful otherwise. There is a good variety to the different planets and locations that you visit and they all look great. One amazing thing about how good the graphics are is how small the load times are. It takes only a couple of seconds to load an area or to switch from the world screen to the battle screen. During a battle there will often be a lot of creatures and characters all on the screen at once with a lot of different spell effects flying around and there wasn’t a single time I ran into slowdown because of this. The monsters all look well detailed, and if there’s a complaint to be had about the creatures it’s only that I wish there were a high variety of things to fight.
The only graphical issues I came across where monsters popping up when roaming around and the camera flipping out in tight corridors. Either on the ship or in a tight dungeon area the camera doesn’t work very well in these spaces, either zooming in too far or constantly shifting around. In battle there are two different camera angles to choose from and there are pros and cons to using either, but it never got in the way of playing the game for me.
As mentioned before the voice acting isn’t that bad, it’s the dialog. There’s some flat voice acting in places, but due to the emotionless faces of the characters it would’ve looked awkward if the voice acting was highly emotional while the characters are not. After battling creatures different characters will say something different, except each appears to only have one or two lines. Considering the time spent fighting in this game this got old very, very quickly. Hearing, “I’m just glad everyone is ok.” once was fine, the hundredth time I heard it made me want to shut the game off. Luckily there is an option to mute battle voices, which takes care of this. Well mostly. For some reason Lymle, who is by far one of the more annoying characters with an obnoxious voice, isn’t muted by this when she levels up or gains another skill level. She does this several times after she joins your party and made me mute my TV.
Otherwise the music is fantastic, just like it is in most of the Star Ocean games, and the sound effects during the battles sound just fine.
Man, after reading most of that you probably wonder if I have anything positive at all to say about the game. I do.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope has by far the best gameplay of any of the Star Ocean games.
In the previous games the action was decent and was a great alternative to turn based role playing games, but at least to me it always felt slightly clunky and the AI teammates were always an issue. Most of the issues from previous titles have been solved, making the battle system in this game one of the most enjoyable out of not just Star Ocean games, but most action/RPG’s period.
Moving across the world map is separate from the battle screen. There is no random battles, you walk around the world map and can see enemies and engage them. If you run into them you will transition to the battle screen. Run into an enemy from behind and you will be granted a pre-emptive attack and if they run into you from behind it initiates a surprise attack for the enemy. If another enemy is close when you run into a creature then they’ll ambush you at the end of the first battle.
In battle the A button controls attacks. Attacks are context sensitive to the distance between you and the enemy. Every character has special attacks mapped to the left and right trigger that can be chained together with regular attacks. This game does not have a meter like the last one where you need to rest. Instead there is a Rush meter that fills when attacked or when you land a hit. Pressing X activates Rush mode which makes a character attack faster, take less damage and will no longer be knocked back. There are also Rush Combos, activated by pressing X and a trigger at the same time these are small Quick Time Events that add a lot of damage though use up the entire Rush meter. Then there are Blindside attacks. B is used for jumping by pressing the button and a direction, but if you hold it down the character will start charging up for a blindside attack. The character has to be targeted by an enemy first and then you hold down B. When the character glows you have to flick the joystick in a direction and press A before the enemy attack, then you’ll do a Blindside attack by moving around behind the enemy. This is always a critical hit. Hold it too long though and the character becomes dizzy.
Pressing the Y button pauses the action and lets you select from a menu of different choices, like different abilities to use such as healing, or choosing to flee a battle. The left and right bumpers let you play as another character of your party. This is great because the different characters actually control and play differently whether you are a ranged fighter, magic user or if the character is all about melee combat. Each have different abilities and combos to use, and they all have different Blindside animations and even move around differently. Because they’re all useful and interesting even parts where you might be grinding enemies for levels/items feel less dull since you can switch to a different character if you get bored of one of them.
Then there is the bonus board, which depending on certain actions during the battle will give different bonuses. It adds depth to the battle system since it will influence how you attack. I personally like to throw some skill-only finishes in with some critical finishes so that I load the bonus board with experience and health bonuses.
Aside from the level advancement and advancing individual skills there’s also another advancement system called Battle Enhancement Attribute Type, or BEAT as it’s called in the game, which adds another layer to how you play the game. You can assign one of three styles to the active party members: BEAT.S (Strike) style which is more focused on blindside attacks. BEAT.B (Burst) style is more focused on the Rush meter. Choosing one of these will gain skill levels in a particular style and gain special skills as they advance through the ranks, which include the ability to use multiple Blindside Attacks or decrease the time it takes to fill the Rush meter. Then there is BEAT.N (Neutral) which allows skill progression in both styles, however this doesn’t grant any special skills when leveling up.
As the characters level up new skills are learned, or can be purchased in stores. There’s an experience point system for the individual characters to level up skills, and a party experience system that can also be used, but is more gaining new item recipes. With new characters, skills, enemies along with the battle system and there’s a lot of different strategy to use throughout the game. The AI of the computer controlled characters in battle is so much better than before. The only exception is the magic users just tend to use MP until they have none to even heal the other characters with though. In the menu you can assign different tactics for the AI to take, but it’s a pretty simplified tactics system unlike something like Final Fantasy XII.
Another addition to the battle system is the MMORPG system of aggression (or aggro) management. The monsters will target whoever is giving them the most damage, and from the start of a battle the ranged characters usually hit the enemy first, so if you are controlling a melee character it’s a good tactic to try to try and get the aggro off of the ranged or magic user and onto your character. Boss battles especially are a game of aggro management and pattern recognition.
Crafting items was an important piece of the previous Star Ocean games and it returns in this one. In order to get new recipes for new items, you must go to a part of the space ship and separate your characters into different brainstorming parties who will then come up with different ideas to craft new objects out of some of the items you have. While it doesn’t feel as necessary as the previous title, it is still an important way to gain more powerful weapons and armor.
There are four difficulty levels in the game, with 2 unlocked right away. The easiest mode is a little too easy as you can get through a lot of it by just mashing the A button and Galaxy mode is still pretty easy to get through provided you understand the battle system.
For those that like to collect everything Star Ocean: The Last Hope will provide a lot of gameplay to complete everything. Instead of there being 100 battle trophies overall, there are 100 battle trophies per character, including some random once like bring an enemy down to two hit points. There’s crafting all the items, a lot of different sidequests to do for the merchants in the game, though they’re just delivery quests. Getting 100% off all the monster data, all of the ships, etc…this is a game that could easily last over 80 hours for those who need to collect everything. Even for those who just play through the story it will last about 40 hours over three disks.
Another thing to do for completionist is the Private Actions (or PA). You can talk to different characters on the ship throughout the game to give further backstory for some characters and to increase affinity between Edge and the rest of the crew. Depending on the amount of Private Actions it will change what ending you get.
With Star Ocean: The Last Hope they’ve created an RPG I actually enjoy grinding through, it’s the non-gameplay parts of the game that I found to be annoying. If you are a gamer who likes to play RPG’s for their story, then this Star Ocean game is probably not for you. However if you’re someone who enjoys a good battle system in an RPG, especially since battle is most of the game, then you’ll likely love this game. I wish they had included an option for online multiplayer with other people taking over the other characters in your party because I think that there are a lot of different tactics that would open up that way. Maybe it’s just because of the MMO aspect of the battle system that makes me think that way though.
Game Modes/Story: Poor
Graphics: Very Good
Originality: Above Average
Appeal: Above Average
Final Score: GOOD GAME
Short Attention Span Summary:
A cliche plot and annoying characters might ruin any other RPG, thankfully the incredibly fun battle system saves Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Do yourself a favor and just skip the story parts and read the summaries. Now where’s my Rogue Galaxy sequel?