I’m having a feeling of déjà vu, but in a good way. There was a time, not all that long ago, where I was really hurting for some decent JRPGs. To my surprise, they turned up exclusively on the Xbox 360. With that in mind, I purchased my little Microsoft box in late 2008, because I knew what was coming up – the latest Star Ocean game by tri-Ace, one of my favorite JRPG franchises. I pre-ordered and played the game on the 360 and really enjoyed it, for the most part. I was so enraptured by actually having a fresh JRPG to play that I let a lot of things slip by in my mind, possibly putting the game up on a higher pedestal than it really should have been located. How did my second encounter with this latest Star Ocean game fare, taking into consideration all the additions to the PS3 iteration? Read on to find out!
I’m innately drawn to just about any form of entertainment with a sci-fi setting. I grew up on watching reruns of the original Star Trek and then spent my teenage years watching The Next Generation. I’m in awe of space exploration in general, seeing new things, finding out what is out there, beyond the blue jewel we call our home. Star Ocean: The Last Hope really catches my imagination in that way, because it sees humanity reaching toward the stars to find a new home after they destroyed Earth in a massive nuclear holocaust. That foray away from home is led by several ships, one of which is the Calnus. On that ship we find our two main characters – Edge and Reimi – a couple of childhood friends that are tossed into space on a mission to find humanity a new home. Naturally, that mission goes horribly wrong at the outset, and Edge and Reimi get embroiled in events that could determine the very fate of the entire universe.
The story is pretty cliché, in a way, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. It’s hard to understand at times, but that is the way of the JRPG. The characters are interesting, at least for a little while, even though they are typically huddled into JRPG stereotypes. All this combines to make an entertaining romp across the galaxy, if not unique or fulfilling. It’s kind of like when you go to see a movie, and you could care less about the plot because it’s bad, or the characters, because they’re written pretty horribly, but there are lots of explosions and cool visual effects. The movie is entertaining, but that’s about all it is.
There are side plots in this story that, even to this day, I wonder what reason they have to be in the game at all. Let’s look at an example, and I’ll give a spoiler warning here, as I will mention a few story points, but because they hardly relate to the game’s main plot at all, probably won’t matter. About 20 hours into the game (give or take), you’ll run into a horrible sci-fi cliché, your ship, the Calnus, and its entire crew, will be tossed through a black hole and spewed out on the other side. Let’s suspend belief for now and imagine that that is even possible. We are dealing with a work of fiction here, after all. On the other side of this black hole is an alternate-reality Earth. It isn’t the earth of the present, the year is 1947 (if I remember correctly). You land your ship in what appears to be the Southwest U.S., and explore this poor excuse for a town. That town has a military base in it and, to make a long story short, they do scientific testing on aliens to find a power source strong enough to ensure that they will conquer the world. I kid you not. It’s like the U.S. is being depicted as a Nazi-like government or something. So, anyway, our hero, Mr. Edge Maverick, hands over the power source of the Calnus, the crazy lady who runs the base uses it in her big machine and destroys the entire planet. The Calnus and crew escape, picking up an extra member, another main playable character, the cat-lady Meracle.
Throughout the entire rest of the game you will be sitting there wondering what the hell you just spent those two or three hours of game play on the alternate Earth accomplishing. The answer? Absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. It has no bearing on the main story. Period. You pick up a new party member, Edge gets all butt-hurt for the next 10 hours of story, brooding around spatting at anyone and anything because he blew up a planet. If he would have just gone off and slit his wrist in a corner somewhere, leaving Reimi in charge, I would have enjoyed the rest of the game much more, I’m sure. What is unfortunate is, just about this point in the game is when things really get rolling, and I enjoyed the story elements, side quests and general visual detail of the planet you arrive on after the alternate Earth incident more than any other part of the game. Now, I know what the writers were trying to do here, but the way it is done and, especially, the god-awful whining that is the voice actor for Edge just makes it come off as them trying too hard to transmit emotions and it just does not work. It turns me off more than it makes me feel for the poor boy. In fact, they do a much better job of expressing the emotions Edge is supposedly feeling through Reimi and her empathy for him as shown on her face and in her vocal inflections.
All that aside, this game isn’t bad. The high point for most JRPG fanatics will be the pseudo-action battle system. If you’ve played previous Star Ocean titles, you’ll know about what to expect here, with a few obvious additions and tweaks. One of the most notable additions to this battle system over that of previous franchise titles is the blindsides. If an enemy is coming right for you, when it gets close enough you can hold down circle and whip the left stick in either direction to prance behind the enemy and hit it where the sun don’t shine, giving you a higher chance of performing a critical hit and throwing the enemy off balance. What’s more is they’re a joy to watch – I’m constantly enthralled by everyone’s blindside animations, and I can’t stop switching between characters to check them all out, especially Reimi and Meracle’s.
You also have your bonus board, which is a hold-over from previous titles. By performing various actions during battle (critical hits, getting ambushed, etc.) you generate tiles in the bonus board which have various effects. My favorites are the red and blue ones, which regenerate health/mana after each fight and improve the experience yield you receive after battle, respectively. This leads me to why I dislike playing with melee characters, because if the enemy gets a critical hit on you, your bonus board will break, dropping half your tiles off the board. My preference was to play with a ranged character like Faize, Myuria or, especially, Reimi. Reimi can kite enemies around the battlefield like no one’s business if you get into tight situations.
Finally, an aspect of the battle system that was improved upon in the international release was that you can now target whatever enemy you want. In the Xbox 360 release last spring you automatically targeted whichever enemy was closest to you, and to switch you’d have to run around and position yourself near your preferred target, which was a pain. Now you can hit the Start button to toggle through the available targets, setting your preference relatively easy. Kudos for that change.
Item creation returns from the previous titles, and it is again very deep and involving, requiring you to expend mild amounts of effort to make some of the most powerful weapons in the game, and this continues far beyond the ending of the story, as well. Speaking of that, the game doesn’t end when you finish the story. You’re prompted to save after you beat the “final” boss, and have the option of returning to space and taking part in optional dungeon crawling, item creation, leveling up and boss killing to your little heart’s content. Combine that with all the side questing there is to do during the game proper, and you could spend upwards of 100 hours embroiled in this universe, which definitely gives you a nice bang for your buck. These tried and true JRPG developers sure know how to give you more than enough play time by packing games to the brim with content. If you say nothing else good about the genre, you have to say that.
Another high point of the game is the visuals – from the vast ocean on the beaches of Roak to the wind-swept fields of Lemuris to the technological marvel that is ENII – everything is a joy to look at and experience. I could spend a lot of time on the beaches there on Roak just staring out into the water watching fish swim past and whale-like creatures spout plumes of water and air into the sky. The music is passable, but it isn’t anything to get up and write home about. It’s up-tempo when it needs to be and solemn when the situation calls for it. If you didn’t quite get what I was hinting at earlier, the voice acting is pretty terrible across the board. With some characters it’s passable, like Reimi and Myuria, with others we would be better off if that character just used text boxes when their dialog came around, like Meracle and Edge. A lot of people complain about Lymle’s voice and over-use of the word “kay” on the end of everything. “I want to go with you guys, kay?” “I could have handled them myself, kay?” “It’s nappy-time, kay?” I personally think it’s endearing, and there’s a reason she doesn’t show much emotion in her voice, as well, if you examine her back story and what she has gone through. She’s likely quite emotionally scarred from losing all those people in her life in such a short period of time. You would be too, so don’t judge.
Speaking of dialog, some of the best in the game comes from the scenes with Welch, your contact back on Earth who shows up in hologram form on board the Calnus to help guide your item creation exploits. She is frakking hilarious. If you don’t pay attention to any other dialog, you have to pay attention to her’s, because she will crack you up.
A few things I’m glad they took the time to add back in for the PS3 or “International” release is the Japanese voice acting and the anime character portraits and Japanese-version menu art. First off, I can understand why they didn’t put the Japanese dialog in the original Xbox 360 version, it’s likely a logistical reason, as the game was already spread across two discs and that audio takes a lot of room. I’m glad it was added back in for the PS3 release. However, that understanding doesn’t extend to why they took the awesome anime portraits and menu art out of the original release, and replaced it with 3D models on both the menu screens and the dialog boxes. But, this isn’t about the 360 release, this is about the PS3 release, and Square-Enix gets bonus points for adding those back in, they give the game character and attitude.
Overall, Star Ocean: The Last Hope was improved a bit by this international release, adding some of that Japanese flair back into the game. While this definitely is a great game for a JRPG fan, other gamers probably won’t get as much out of it, even with the improved battle system and visuals over previous titles in the series. Some character and voice actor combinations work reasonably well, some tend to detract from the story, which I’m pretty sure is in direct contradiction to what the developers wanted. That’s what happens when you get voice actors who over-act and sound like they’re a whiny 12-year-old. I did find the game overall to be an enjoyable experience, both times I played it. I may be a bit more lenient because I’m a JRPG, Star Ocean and tri-Ace fan, but hey, that comes with the territory. I’d definitely recommend it for JRPG fans who owns only a PS3 and are starved for games in their favorite genre, although it may be hard to find a place in this great spring line-up of slick JRPGs coming to that console.