IGN Review of Star Ocean: The Last Hope
The Star Ocean franchise hasn't exactly been a household name here in the States. The first two entrants to the series have only just recently made their way over from Japan as ports on the PSP and the third was a PS2 exclusive. Just to make sure things get extra muddled for fans, this latest saga, The Last Hope, is an Xbox 360 exclusive. Don't let the system hopping deter you. Despite some rough pacing and a story that could be told in a much more engaging manner, tri-Ace and Square Enix's latest RPG holds together quite well thanks to some action-packed gameplay. Those who have been starved for a solid Japanese role-playing game in recent months will find a lot to like here.
The Last Hope is a prequel saga, laying the groundwork for the previous three games. There is no knowledge needed of those past entrants to the franchise to enjoy this game, but you will recognize a few nods towards the future if you're in the know. This game details mankind's first steps into space after World War III has left Earth's surface inhospitable.
It all picks up after a quick rundown of the devastating war with the introduction of the main character, Edge Maverick, and his childhood friend, Reimi Saionji. These two are members of a select group that will scour the galaxy in search of a new homeland for humanity. They are, in effect, our last hope now that Earth has been ravaged. Of course, things don't go smoothly from the opening faster-than-light jump and the two are quickly thrust into a series of events that finds the search for a new home planet a small problem in the grand scheme of things.
Even though Star Ocean carries a sci-fi motif, it can't escape many of the clichés made infamous by other anime-inspired fantasy RPGs. You'll have to deal with arch-demons, characters getting poisoned in battle and turning green, and unguarded chests filled with goodies in the most random of locations. And you'll get to do it while playing as a band of merry young heroes, led by a wide-eyed fellow with spiky blond hair, on the cusp of adulthood who still have so much to learn. In other words, don't go into Star Ocean expecting a revolutionary game. This is very much a traditional JRPG that fans of past entrants to the franchise, or past Square Enix games in general, will feel right at home with.
The themes of this tale -- friendship, evolution and growth to name a few -- are pounded home with bluntness and tempo that can be off-putting, particularly when you consider that cutscenes can last upwards of 30 or 40 minutes. The story isn't necessarily bad and there are a few genuinely tender moments towards the end of the game, but the way it is delivered through extended scenes that feature stiff and overdramatic animations, unnatural dialogue, and a tendency to restate the same plot development several times mute its strengths.
Some of these long cutscenes feel needlessly drawn out and only amplify one of the biggest problems with Star Ocean: Pacing. Dungeons, if fully explored, can take hours to complete. These are then followed by story segments that seem to last forever. The delineation between gameplay and storytelling couldn't be more distinct which is in stark contrast to the overall direction of game design these days. None of this would be as noticeable if you could save anywhere you wanted but that option isn't present. Star Ocean: The Last Hope uses the outdated save point system where you can only back up your progress at predetermined places.
While I find a compelling story, delivery, and character evolution to be critical to the overall experience in a JRPG, their shortcomings in Star Ocean: The Last Hope are not large enough to spoil the overall game. That's all thanks to the combat and leveling mechanics, two aspects that had me completely engrossed and kept me coming back for more.
The action is all real-time with the option to pause and issue specific commands and you won't run into any random battles. Fights do take place on a separate battle arena that you warp to upon running into a monster, but you'll have complete control over your combatant throughout the fight. The rest of your squad (up to four of the eight members can be brought into battles at one time) is controlled by AI, but you are free to swap from one character to the next at any time during the fight. Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, allowing you to shape a team to your specific style of play quite easily.
A few new additions have been added to the formula for this outing, including a jump ability that lets you dodge attacks or swoop around behind enemies for a blindside strike. For me, the craziest part about Star Ocean: The Last Hope is that I was still excited about fights at the end of the game after battling through thousands upon thousands of baddies. With the Bonus Board -- a reward system for finishing off enemies in specific ways during fights -- I found myself power leveling in tough dungeons just to continue improving skills and unlocking new ones. Even at level 70, my squad still has room to grow and is continuing to unlock new symbology spells and special attack arts.
There is a lot of depth to the character building that, combined with the great combat, really sold me on Star Ocean. This isn't the sort of game where you'll level up and just watch a few stats increase, then rinse and repeat. Alongside that standard is a complex item creation system, the ability to combine weapons and items to make more potent equipment, a great deal of optional skills that you can purchase and improve, and more. Though each character holds a preset role and can only equip specific equipment, I still found that there was quite a bit of hands-on building and management of the squad to be had.
It isn't a JRPG if it doesn't have side quests and boy does Star Ocean have those in droves. The vast majority of these are simple fetch quests. Just about every single shop you come across in Star Ocean offers a half dozen or so delivery orders. Complete them and you'll get some cash, experience, and the sense of satisfaction that comes with helping a faceless character in a videogame. Don't knock it 'til you try it.
There are other side quests, too, that can be found by talking to various town folk. These are generally fetch quests as well, though they feel more rewarding than the delivery orders since they come with a small tale rather than a text listing. Look a little bit more and you'll find some larger side quests with more meat on them, including a coliseum to test your strength against a variety of opponents. Also, there are races atop giant pink bunnies.
Then there are the bonus dungeons and bosses to tackle. These really drive home one of Star Ocean's best qualities: You can get out of the game as much as you choose to put into it. I very rarely found myself confused as to where I should head next or how to tackle a particular section of the game, which makes this a nice pickup for the average gamer. Yet, lying beneath that straightforward game is a slew of reasons to keep playing and exploring for those of us that are a bit more hardcore.
And if you fall into that hardcore category, you'll likely take solace in the knowledge that you'll have to play through the entire game multiple times to see everything. Beat the game once and you'll unlock a harder difficulty. Beat that to unlock the ultimate mode. You can carry all of your collection data (Battle Trophies are back and boy are they ever numerous) over from one play through to the next -- something you'll have to do if you want all of the achievements. But the best reason to play the game a second or third time is to see the different endings.
The Private Action system, a series of optional story sequences that help to flesh out characters and determine which game ending you see, which you may remember from Star Ocean: 'Til the End of Time, is back here in a more accessible form. The last Star Ocean game was notorious for forcing players to do lots and lots of backtracking, wasting hours wandering the game at specific times to get Private Actions and collect other hidden goodies. There is very little back tracking in The Last Hope at all and most of the Private Actions can be done on board your starship, the Calnus. With this streamlined approach and the Private Actions emphasis on relationships between characters, the whole system feels like a rudimentary form of what we saw in Mass Effect.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope clocks in at 30-40 hours of playtime if you stick to the beaten path and power through it. That saga spans a packed three discs worth of content, but it probably should have been expanded to four. There are no obvious compression artifacts and one of the climactic cutscenes at the end is downright awesome. However, the last disc is so packed with end-game cinemas that there isn't enough room for the universe worth of content. That means if you want to go back to a planet from the beginning of the game to complete a side quest, grab an item for synthesis, or look for bonus bosses and dungeons, you'll be prompted to insert one of the previous discs.
That disc changing annoyance is an example of one of the few small oddities that you'll experience throughout Star Ocean. They aren't anything that should deter RPG fans from picking this game up, but they are the sort of things that prevent Star Ocean from sitting in the elite level of timeless classics. Movement can be awkward with only two speeds --a full stride and a slow walk -- that makes precision a pain. You can't change the inversion on the camera control. You can only save 20 files before overwriting past ones. There is no original Japanese voice track included. Again, these aren't game killing oversights, but they're still oversights.
It's truly a shame that the Japanese voice work didn't make it into the US release. The lip synching in cutscenes is painfully bad with English dialogue and the voice work itself is not good. Some of the characters are just plain annoying to listen to. That's a pretty stark contrast from the musical score which I found soothing and, despite putting in over 40 hours with the game, never stale.
There's more to like in the graphics department, though not everything is perfect. The character designs seriously look like somebody just randomly generated a group of Phantasy Star Universe characters and called it a day. Talk about generic. Though the design on these guys and dolls isn't the hottest, the visuals in the rest of the game are pretty darn good. There isn't anything here that will blow you away and everything has a bit of a feathery, shimmering look to it, but everything looks attractive and runs smoothly. The thing that impresses me the most is the great variety in locations that tri-Ace included in this expansive game. The barren, cookie-cutter fields and dungeons that dominate so many RPGs have little play here. Most of the game is spent in nicely detailed settings with almost no backtracking, topped off at the end with an awesome looking final dungeon. I won't spoil it, but the climax of the game is a sight to behold.
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