My Review- Star Ocean: The Last Hope (PS3)
NOTE- This is a review of the International version of SO4 that was released on PS3. The game was originally released on Xbox 360 in 2009. There aren’t very many differences between the two versions- the International version is on one Blu-ray instead of three DVDs, there’s a slight (miniscule) graphical update, and the option for Japanese audio, but that’s about it.
Tri-Ace is an interesting developer. Most of their games were published by Enix, and now are associated primarily with Square Enix. They’ve made numerous classic games over the years, such as Valkyrie Profile, but their most famous achievement is the Star Ocean series of action-RPGs. Beginning as a Super Famicom game that never saw release in North America, the Star Ocean series has seen installments on the PS1 (The Second Story), the PS2 (Till The End Of Time), and now the fourth game in the series, The Last Hope, see’s it’s release on the 360 and PS3. A prequel to the other Star Ocean games, how does Tri-Ace’s latest fare?
The Last Hope is a prequel to the other Star Ocean games, telling the tale of mankind’s first venture into the sea of stars. In the aftermath of World War III, Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by nuclear holocaust. The leaders of the remaining nations band together and begin an expansive space program, turning their eyes to space in the hope of finding a new home for humanity. The protagonist, the unfortunately named Edge Maverick, is a participant in the SRF (Space Reconnaissance Force) mission, seeking out new worlds for human colonization. But these things are never easy, and soon Edge and his crew are caught up in a battle for the safety of the entire universe, battling a malevolent force known as the Phantoms.
Star Ocean- The Last Hope initially seems very similar to other Star Ocean games- a unique blend of science-fiction and fantasy- but the plot quickly charts new territory. There are several interesting plot twists, and unique themes concerning humankind and their place in the universe come up frequently. However, the story loses a lot of its potential thanks to its characters. Put simply, The Last Hope features what is quite possibly the worst RPG cast in recent memory. Now, many RPGs feature clichéd or generic casts, and Star Ocean’s main characters (Edge, Reimi, and Faize) are certainly that- not awful, but certainly not anything special-, but some of the characters are almost offensively bad. Some of them don’t even seem to be of any real importance to the story, coming across as pathetic excuses for cheap fanservice (Myuria, Meracle), or merely to drag the plot out (Lymle, Serah). Hours of the game are dedicated to these inane, pointless characters, and it really drags the game down. A terrible English dub doesn’t help matters much, but I can’t imagine some of these characters were any better in the original Japanese translation. Tri-Ace games are rarely renowned for their stories, and while the overarching narrative of The Last Hope is fairly interesting, whenever the focus shifts to the characters, the story suffers as a result of it.
The Last Hope follows a traditional JRPG formula in its gameplay, but what sets it apart from the pack are the sci-fi elements and its great action-RPG combat. Players eventually obtain a spaceship known as the Calnus, and are then able to freely travel from planet to planet. Once there, each planet serves as a massive overworld filled with towns, dungeons, and lots of monsters and treasure. It’s usually fairly easy to figure out where to go, but the maps are wide-open enough to make exploration a fun, and often rewarding, experience. The dungeon design is rather inconsistent- some are very linear, simple affairs, while others are colossal mazes, where save points are spaced by hours of play. These prolonged sections can be frustrating, and with very few puzzles, the dungeons sometimes feel like a chore to get through.
It wouldn’t be a Tri-Ace game without deep crafting and character systems, and these are certainly accounted for in The Last Hope. Each character knows a variety of noncombat skills in addition to battle ones, and points earned in battle can be spent on leveling up these skills. These skills often allow characters to find synthesis materials in the overworld, as well as create different kinds of items. While on the ship, characters can donate recipes for various weapons and items, and combining their skills to create a vast array of useful gear. Like other Tri-Ace games, the item crafting system can be exploited to grant powerful weapons and items very early in the game, making the game a whole lot easier. Characters learn new skills as they level up, but each character also has a fighting style known as a Beat, three types of fighting (S-type, B-type, and N-type) which levels up independently of the character. Each Beat focuses on leveling up different stats and abilities, and taking advantage of them effectively allows a character to grow very powerful.
Combat is another strong point for the game. Enemies are visible in the field, and coming into contact with one triggers a battle. When the battle begins, you control one of your four active party members, although switching between them is a breeze. You can pause the game to issue orders to your party, but the AI is usually quite capable of controlling them, and while it may not be quite as customizable as, say, the Gambits in Final Fantasy XII or the Tactics in Dragon Age, you can still set various behavior patterns to each of your characters. While basic attacks and skills mapped to the shoulder buttons make up the majority of your characters actions, there are a couple new additions that add considerable depth. The first is the Blindside, a dodge-and-parry mechanist leveled up by S-type Beats, which allows a character to slip behind an enemy unnoticed and inflict a massive amount of damage. The other is Rush mode, a powered-up state that can be triggered when the player inflicts or receives enough damage, which is leveled up by B-types. If a character is within range of a character entering Rush Mode, a powered up attack known as a Rush Combo can be performed. Some enemies can counter Blindsides or enter Rush Mode themselves, so skillful fighting is a must. To assist this, there is the Bonus Board, a set of tokens which stack up as various conditions are met in battle, granting various bonuses upon victory such as extra experience or some restored MP. If you take too much damage in battle, your Bonus Board will ‘break’, and you’ll lose tokens, so keeping the board filled can be challenging.
Star Ocean- The Last Hope is a challenging and enjoyable action-RPG, and if one tinkers with the crafting and combat systems, there is a lot of depth to be found here.
Being published by Square Enix, The Last Hope features some wonderful graphics. The vast maps are beautifully rendered, with several unique landmarks and areas, and exploring them can be a very pleasurable activity. It’s not quite Gran Pulse, but it still looks great. The characters models look fine on a technical level (even if they are a bit overdesigned), but their often exaggerated, anime-like animation doesn’t suit the usually realistic look of the game. The presentation takes a step in the wrong direction with the voicework, which is almost entirely awful. The PS3 version offers a Japanese language track, which sounds a bit better, but the subtitles were difficult to read on my television, so I largely put up with the dub. The music, composed by Tri-Ace standby Motoi Sakuraba, is decent enough, although it’s not his best work. Overall, the presentation is flawed, but adequate.
Star Ocean- The Last Hope may not hit the same high notes as classic Square Enix games, but it’s still enjoyable. Despite the horrendous characters, the story can be interesting, and the gameplay is deep and engaging. If you’re looking for a current-gen, traditional RPG and a great combat experience, The Last Hope will deliver.