Star Ocean: The Last Hope
Star Ocean: The Last Hope is not a hugely serious videogame. It strives to be, of course - and is at times successful - but it never reaches the narrative heights of something like BioShock, or contains the kind of scenes prevalent in the Team ICO games, or the majority of Final Fantasy titles. Perhaps itís because the charactersí collective hair colour is that of a particularly alien rainbow, or that they all dress in attire that transcends outlandish taste. Certain characters seem to be made of plastic yet live their lives like itís an unending gravy train, and almost every cast member graduated from university with joint honours in over-acting and candy-coating speech. Despite all this, and quite emphatically, youíll come to appreciate Star Ocean: The Last Hope, and understand that itís an extremely competent JRPG.
And thatís a big ĎJí, as from the moment you meet the gameís two protagonists, their huge eyes, silky smooth skin and drunk on life attitude give off that perfect person ideal that anime character designs display. Edge Maverick and Reimi Saionji are their names, and while not instantly likeable, their personalities soon shine through and youíll end up warming to them. They may fill the tedious roles of two childhood friends with feelings for each other, but their sensitive mentality means youíll only spur them on, even if it literally takes until the latter end of the game to see any real progress in their relationship. As with all RPGs, you meet more characters along the way, and each of these is as weird and wacky as the last. The voices that accompany each differ immensely in quality, and a certain trio of friends that form in your group have voices that take a lot of getting used to. Itís both a shame and a blessing in disguise that the voice acting is so hit and miss as some of the intended emotion is lacking because of it. You canít help but laugh and love the speech however Ė it certainly serves to add humour and warmth to the story.
Itís a story that comes into effect after youíve played for a respectable amount of time. The back-story informs that Earth was decimated in the epic World War III, and as such sustained a mass amount of damage. The population thus took for the stars in the search for a new planet to live on. Initially the mission entrusted to Edge is the exploration of unknown planets - to see if any are habitable so that Earthlings can rebuild their lives. It is when exploring these planets that they uncover a plot that threatens to destroy the universe. Itís pure hokum, but intriguing and enjoyable. While itís easy to summarise the story in one line, the story holds weight in that there are motives and detailed explanations for all the happenings that relate to this threat of a destroyed universe. Sometimes the cutscenes stretch a little too far explaining things, particularly when theyíre not told interestingly, but at least itís all easy to understand instead of being a convoluted mess.
Youíll be seeing a lot of cutscenes, too. While the FMVs are a lot more infrequent, yet always impressive Ė thanks to CG stalwarts Visual Works - the standard cutscenes are out in abundance. There is a fair amount of filler and duff material, and times when youíll be aching for it to finish, but for the most part youíll be happy when a new one starts, because theyíre often interesting, humorous and well shot. Highlights include a truly epic space battle between the two opposing forces, and the many private action cutscenes available to you when in your ship Ė where they differ depending on your character relationships. These usually involve two characters, and such scenes as hero Edge walking in on Reimi in the shower is done with humour and care, with an added spoonful of Japanese influence. Simple things like changing the rooms in which each person sleeps has an effect on what scenes youíll see, and itís always fun seeing their friendships blossom.
Unlike other Star Ocean games Ė especially Second Story, the Calnus (the main spacecraft of the series) is very much one of The Last Hopeís stars. It is used to traverse the realms of space and youíll often find yourself wandering around it while you wait for the ship to warp out and land at your destination. Thereís a wonderful sense of intrigue and excitement as you wait in the middle of space, resting and talking and the like, just picturing where your ship will take you next.
The game is home to a decent amount of planets, but like the cutscenes these vary in quality. The more natural locales are effective, with lush foliage and picturesque views, and many of the towns are built with character and charm Ė the brick and mortar villages are quaint and ideal, and even the futuristic mega city you encounter toward the closing stages of the game is clean and inspired. Unfortunately the areas you often need to traverse before a boss battle are terribly uninteresting. Recurring corridors, endless dungeons, repetitive styling Ė it is in these places where you truly long for the end. The game is at its worst when there are numerous floors, as every time you feel youíre at the end the game throws another tedious section for you to trudge through. Uninspired and torturous puzzles litter these areas, too, and while inherently easy, they stall gameplay flow and feel unnecessary. There are dips in quality regarding invisible barriers, awkward jumps and a lack of interactivity seen in most RPGs, but you come to expect it with these games.
Dotted around each planet are treasures and quest opportunities, and these make up an array of diversions that includes earning battle trophies, accumulating a bestiary, finding weapon data and creating items. This game really is the collectors dream, and purists will have a hard time getting 100% - the achievements certainly say as much. The amount of depth and customisation to the game is extremely impressive, with weapons able to be enhanced, recipes to be uncovered, materials to hoard in order to create the rarer items - and thatís just touching the surface. Developers tri-Ace need to be applauded for giving great replay value and fan-service.
To expand on the battle trophies, there are one hundred for each of the eight characters, and they include both accumulative and skilled criteria. From registering fifty pre-emptive battles to defeating an enemy with a special skill while theyíre in the air, you could spend years trying to achieve them all, and itís a great feeling for every one you unlock.
These trophies would be a little redundant if the battle system was poor, but thankfully tri-Ace have developed a fantastic mechanic of real-time battling greater than its peers and the best of the Star Ocean series so far. Enemies roam the planets, and a battle will start if you run into them. This is great for those wide expanses when you donít want to fight and just want to get to the next save point or cutscene, but in the smaller corridor ridden areas, it becomes a burden as they prove hard to dodge. Still, it towers above the concept of random battles.
Once engaged in battle the screen lights up in a profusion of high-octane action. Characters zip around the screen and pummel the enemy in a flurry of moves, and surprisingly while there are four characters in your party, the action never feels bloated. The action takes place in an invisible arena with lots of space, and you control one character while the others are automatic. You can switch between characters with ease, and choose to switch in someone from the Ďbackí of your party if needed. While you fight you can set behaviours for your accompanying characters, and on the whole they display intelligence, apart from the odd inconsistency. Characters learn fighting moves and symbology spells that dazzle the screen in an orgasmic firework of light. Later you are able to chain together these moves and that is when the action really heats up and the spectacle reaches the stratosphere. Itís a great feeling to see all your characters casting their spells and jumping around the place, and thanks to the stellar animation and effects you donít experience any slowdown. The action flows superbly well and sets the benchmark for RPGs across the board.
Enhancing the battling aspect of the game, characters can be set one of three fighting styles that dictate whether that individual will be more evasive or ruthless. The former means they can counter more effectively in a technique called Ďblindsidingí - which makes the enemy more susceptible to a critical hit, while the latter gives the character an easier time charging their rush meter, which once full enables them to do much more damage. If youíre undecided you can go for the neutral style. Both the blindsiding and rush meter add lots to the combat, and you can chain together some devastating combos once youíve polished the system.
The shortcomings of the game are unfortunate Ė save points are sometimes placed too far apart, and the developers should have let you save after successions of lengthy cutscenes. The camera is awkward when roaming the many planets, and sometimes the game loves a little too much bloom. Some issues with disk-swapping mean purists will need plenty of patience regarding post-game objectives, as you need to change disks when returning to certain planets. Badly designed dungeons and frustrating puzzles stop the game mar an otherwise pleasant experience, and some questionable character design choices mean the gameís population isnít perfect.
Visuals are generally sumptuous, despite the bloom, and cutscenes are delivered with conviction and flair. Due to the doll-like nature of the characters itís hard for any true emotion to show in their faces, and sometimes the desired effect of a scene completely misses the point. The worlds are filled with colour and vibrancy, and the Calnus, with its crisp blue and white interior, is beautifully designed. Save for some dungeons that lack any design ambition, the game world is solid. Audio is similarly impressive, with a massive soundtrack of orchestral scores and sounds. The music that plays as you journey across the battlefields often irritates, unfortunately, and character one liners after victory wear thin, but for the most part they can be excused.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope is a game that deserves to be played till the end. Its sheer amount of cutscenes will please many RPG fans, and the colourful cast warms after initial scepticism. The humour is genuine and usually comes at the right times, and gives the game a light-hearted edge while it attempts to be serious. The combat is a fantastic achievement that helps the times when youíll need to grind a little, and on top of the thirty hour bulk of the story, another seventy is available for side-quests and the like. Apparently The Last Hope will be the last Star Ocean game to be released - if thatís the case then itís a fitting swansong.
Eight out of ten