[29 March 2009]
I have never played a game in the Star Ocean series. Depending on your viewpoint, that will either validate or invalidate everything you’re about to read. That said, I’ve recently played Lost Odyssey and some of Mass Effect, I love Square Enix and have played nearly every Final Fantasy game. I like RPGs as much, if not more than, many gamers, and I could not stand Star Ocean: The Last Hope, a prequel to series.
I shouldn’t say “couldn’t stand.” More like “had very little interest in.” And it’s odd because SO:TLH does quite a few things very well. It just gets many of the crucial elements of what makes a good RPG horribly wrong.
The back story of SO:TLH is quite interesting. Earth has been devastated by nuclear war and pollution. As a result, man has turned to the stars in order to survive. But instead of being an interesting exploration of what we may have to do if Earth indeed goes south, players will soon forget what their original mission was in the first place as the game devolves into typical RPG schlock.
Early on you will notice SO:TLH eschews some RPG conventions by avoiding the traditional medieval fantasy setting for one that is science fiction. The developers have cited Star Trek has a huge influence on the Star Ocean universe and it shows. While there are a number of alien races traversing the stars with our protagonist Edge Maverick (really, that’s his name) and company, there are also primitive civilizations that you will come across who have no idea about black holes and star ships.
But while the world is varied and intriguing, it is also incredibly narrow for a game spanning three discs. Edge will only come across a handful of planets during his journey, and almost all the “aliens” are distinctly humanoid. The Cardianons, for example, just have elf ears and a quiet disposition. While the Featherfolk (of which there is only one) have feathered wings. The game would have lost little if instead of planets, these were medieval countries. There is just so little history, personality, and back story provided for these supposed alien species that it’s hard to care. It’s sad that an opportunity to create some interesting and striking characters was lost.
And this loss is not just suffered visually. Nearly all the characters’ personalities are forgettable with a number of them blending together in each character. Do we really need three cute female support characters who are goofy and absent-minded? Edge and the female lead, Reimi, are typical RPG characters. He’s a reluctant leader burdened by sudden responsibility. She is a childhood friend who has stuck by his side no matter what. The relationships in the game are either shallow, transparent, superficial, or some combination of all three.
But, hey, this is a JRPG, a genre steeped in tradition and tropes. And SO:TLH wouldn’t be so bad if it’s message wasn’t so damn sappy. The overarching theme is “friendship above all” and you will meet nearly all the characters in the game by conveniently becoming fast friends.
The formula goes something like this: go to new planet, find a new buddy to help, stop some faceless evil while you’re there, and convince this newly introduced person to become best friends forever. That is exactly how you will recruit nearly every new party member in the game. Many of the cut scenes are filled with lines like, “We did it because that’s what friends do!” It’s annoying, childish, and repetitive. It was clear after the first few hours that friends are important, so why force it every single time I meet someone new?
In most RPGs, you have to stop some evil from destroying the universe. This game is, ultimately, no different. I say ultimately because for the first two discs, it’s unclear exactly what you’re doing on all these planets. Yeah, there are these spirits possessing things and making general mischief, but the sole reason you move from planet to planet is simply because one of your party members says so.
I don’t know if the game would have been better if the player knew what they were up against from the beginning, chasing evil from planet to planet, but fighting enemies through what boils down to performing odd jobs is just awful.
Though, how you perform these odd jobs is at least entertaining. Combat is real time with you piloting any one of your characters at any one time. Players control movement, attack, magic, and item usage all in real time with the ability to pause and set up actions between multiple characters. Special attacks or magic can be mapped to the triggers, with the ability to chain them later in the game.
With ranged attacks, magic, specials, chain combos, and multiple enemies, it can all feel very chaotic. There were many times when I was unsure who was attacking who—the screen blurred by flashes of light. After a while, I figured out getting in close with a melee character and spamming either specials or regular attacks while my A.I. teammates did whatever they wanted worked just fine.
One wrinkle in combat is blindside attacks. Requiring timing and patience, blindsides allow characters to evade attacks and end up behind an enemy, ready to strike. These are integral during boss battles and against tougher enemies. This made close-quarter combat less tedious and is a nice feature.
In the end, the game’s combat system suffers from lack of control. The other three characters in your party are A.I. controlled and leave much to be desired. They either wantonly waste MP by using magic to their hearts’ content or run around not doing their relegated job—fighters sometimes cast healing spells for example. There are very crude commands you can set (stay out of trouble, don’t use MP), but they are very limiting and imprecise.
I rarely felt the need to switch out of Edge’s shoes, happy to let the A.I. do their own thing while I melee’d the hell out of every enemy in the game. Plus, the A.I. can’t blindside, so I obviously had to do it when that was the only path to victory. The A.I. does sometimes nail enemies on their elemental weaknesses, though, so there’s that.
What SO:TLH does get right are a lot of the little things. The item creation system is unbelievably deep, almost intimidatingly so. Each character has an innate item creation ability (smithing, cooking, etc.) to create recipes with, but they can’t do it alone. In groups of up to three, the characters put their heads together to come up with a recipe from which an item can be created. Oh, and the ingredients can be super hard to find—some requiring another skill (mining, harvesting) in order to obtain them.
Graphically, the game is an achievement. Character models emote in gorgeous cut scenes while combat between varied and wild looking enemies in numerous environments gives the player a lot to look at. Skill building is also handled well with individual as well as party experience that can be spent by anyone, allowing for quite a bit of customization.
But the minuses outweigh the pluses. Voice acting can be atrocious more often than not, especially concerning Edge. There were times during cut scenes when I actually cringed at what was said because it was so ham fisted. He actually tells the final boss to “Bring it on!” Speaking of cut scenes, there are plenty of them. And they’re long—many of them pushing past the 15-20 minute mark and some going on over half an hour. While the combat is fun, it is also not very challenging. I only died a handful of times with an actual difficult fight appearing only after over the twenty-hour mark.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope simply provides more ammo for people who cannot stand RPGs. Except for turn-based, random battles (which I was pining for after disc one), nearly every awful trapping that the genre is criticized for is present. Sappy story, cookie-cutter characters, long cut scenes—it’s all here.
The worst part? I actually like those things, and I couldn’t stand this game.