Get your Japanese on.
We had to go and destroy the Earth now, didn’t we? With World War III having ripped the planet to its core and polluted every last inch of the once-beautiful land, the surviving inhabitants in the year 2087 now look to the stars for refuge and restitution. An international space force, the SRF (Space Reconnaissance Force), has been founded to explore surrounding galactic environments in search of a new habitable world for humans to call their home. And rising through the ranks of this new organization is a young man named Edge Maverick (how’s that for a Japanese RPG name?)—an impulsive, forward-thinking, and optimistic soon-to-be leader who once dreamed of holding the position to which he’s now been assigned.
Accompanying him is his childhood friend Reimi, a comparatively brave adventurer who was herself so taken by the aspirations they two shared in their youth that she followed him into the force. Together, they embark on a lengthy adventure riddled with surprises and leading to revelations far beyond the scope of anything one would expect.
Epic Japanese RPG seekers, this is Star Ocean: The Last Hope. It’s an overwhelmingly massive, mind-bogglingly deep journey through a sci-fi world dominated by both treacherous creatures and (generally) beautiful landscapes alike. Clocking in at upwards of 60 hours play time (plus side quests and other supplemental content), the original release was one of the lengthiest games to grace the Xbox 360 last year. It’s got its flaws, yes—not least of which are directly due to the fact that it so heavily relies on the traditional jRPG formula. And true, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time essentially renders everything you’re doing in this game irrelevant. But who cares? Taken as a compartmentalized experience, Star Ocean: The Last Hope is a very competent title, offering an excellent amount of content for the price.
Supposing you have already acquainted yourself with the 360 version of the game, you might simply be wondering what’s new in this PS3 “International” port. The new sub-subtitle references the six different languages included in this version of the game—though only Japanese likely appeals to you, as it should. The characters just seem more suited to their native language, and it only makes sense when you consider the strong Japanese undertones lining the entire game.
In addition to this, you can also now customize the HUD to feature the original anime-style character designs. And finally, the entire adventure is now crammed onto a single PS3 disc, eliminating the need for annoying disc-swapping (you know, the distracting “I’m not even to the second disc yet” mentality). Nothing major to be certain, but still tangible improvement.
Right from the start, there are two difficulty settings to choose from (and two more unlockable in case you happen to be bordering on insanity). If you’re looking for a challenge, however, don’t despair; there’s plenty to be serviced by the Normal game difficulty, and there’s even more to experience post-ending—and as touched upon earlier, the length of the experience is no pushover, either. Fortunately, the gameplay never sours over the course of the adventure. This is partially thanks to an addictive real-time battle system and a complete lack of random battles (as with many modern RPGs, enemies instead roam the environment actively and visibly, and you can choose whether to engage them or avoid them). As a long-time fan of the genre, I’ve grown tired of the random battle approach myself, and thus I personally consider any movement away from that relic of RPG lore to be a positive one.
Most of The Last Hope is spent commanding your ever-expanding crew through space, hopping from planet to planet in search of a suitable environment for future human life—and eventually (predictably), focusing on even more pressing issues. It’s true that the game follows the so-called “town, dungeon, town, dungeon” structure, but whether that qualifies as a negative really is a matter of taste. Plus, every environment you visit is considerably different from the last, generally both in terms of climate and culture—so that helps to keep the experience fresh. In fact, the true antagonist (and thus your primary mission) isn’t even revealed until midway through the adventure, so for the longest time you’re actually just traveling to and fro, solving myriad problems indigenous to whatever area you happen to be visiting and building on character development and the foundational plot in the process. But that isn’t a bad thing, because—as generic as it is—the storyline is fairly well-integrated into practically everything you undertake, even if the integration isn’t apparent until later on.
As for the aforementioned real-time battles, if you’ve ever played a Star Ocean or Tales game before, you’ll feel right at home with The Last Hope’s approach. Parties consist of up to four characters, three of whom are controlled (in battle) by the CPU at any given time (and the fourth which you command). Of course, it’s possible to cycle through characters for sequential control of each of them, and you can set tactical predispositions (stay out of trouble, attack freestyle, etc.) and “beat styles” (offensive, neutral, or defensive) for each of your allies, but for the most part, you’re left to rely on the AI for your backup. Unfortunately, it isn’t always so dependable, often neglecting to heal itself and seemingly managing to get itself killed at the most inopportune times. Nevertheless, most of the time, the support from your teammates is sufficient enough, and the battles are usually pretty exciting and addictive.
Speaking of battle, controlling your characters during combat is straightforward and intuitive. The left analog stick moves, while the right controls the camera, an arrangement which generally works well. You can also click the right stick to fix the camera at a specific angle of your choice. Meanwhile, A attacks and B jumps in any direction. If you time it correctly, you can jump out of the way just before being attacked, leading to a Blindside, which is a few choice moments where the enemy is caught off-guard and you are thus guaranteed to land a critical hit. You can also guard against attacks by simply standing still, though not all attacks can be guarded (your proficiency with this skill is directly determined by the nature of the attack and your stats). Special attacks are executed by the RT and LT buttons, which you customize to reference chosen techniques via the game menu. A little later on, it’s possible to chain techniques together, resulting in some interesting combos and truly devastating attacks. Finally, each character has a Rush Meter, which is charged by either taking damage or standing still and holding B. Once it’s full, you can press X to enter Rush Mode for a short period of time, where your abilities are enhanced and knockback is non-existent.
It hurts to move
As for the gameplay outside of battle, it isn’t quite as logical. The two analog sticks again serve the same purpose, but unfortunately, the camera is much more of an obstacle, frequently getting caught behind objects and just generally in need of a lot of babysitting. This makes navigation through the game’s environments considerably more tiring than it should be; especially when you’re working toward a specific point on the map and, say, you’re hoping to avoid the enemies along the way, it’s irritating having to reposition the camera actively as you progress while simultaneously trying to pay attention to what’s happening around you. Fortunately, you do have an optional on-screen radar at your disposal, as well as a full-sized map that can be summoned at the press of the Start button. You’re also soon introduced to the ability to display important items on your radar/map, which makes finding treasures and other goodies simple (and don’t worry; not everything shows up).
Meanwhile, mobility through the game’s environments comes at only two speeds: walk and run. There’s no in-between; gently pressing the analog stick will simply send you careening at whichever of the two speeds you’ve currently chosen. This might not be so bad if running were as simple as holding a button (like in many role-playing games), but in The Last Hope, the run/walk system is relegated to a toggle via the right trigger button. This means you’ve got to switch it on and off to get around, and that makes precise movement, such as approaching a treasure chest, a pain in the rear. One aspect of navigation that is particularly useful, however, is the sprint feature. By simply pressing X, you can sprint for a short burst of distance—and there’s no limit to how often or where this can be used. That makes traversing the game’s vast landscapes much more manageable, even if you are wrestling with the camera the entire trip.
Also, to touch a bit more on the not-so-random battles, you’ll see any number of enemies roaming around you during travel. Should you approach an enemy from their back, you invoke a Preemptive Attack, opening the way for some early offensive strikes. Likewise, however, if an enemy manages to tag you from behind, you’ll be Surprised, which grants the monsters a half-full Rush meter from the beginning of battle (yes, they can execute Rush Mode also). Another unique and rather interesting feature is the Ambush system, which strings multiple battles back to back if you happen to enter into a fight near a second enemy. All of these elements lead to an interesting out-of-battle experience which strongly encourages exploration while simultaneously keeping the player on their toes.
Don’t know much about Symbology
Each character in The Last Hope naturally has his/her own unique set of abilities, most of which come in the way of skills. Edge, for instance, learns a breadth of sword techniques, while Lymle can summon Cerberus and practice powerful Symbology. These skills are learned as you level up, and you can enhance them by allocating Skill Points. Along with money and experience, the party and each individual character also earn Skill Points through battles; you can choose which skills to assign these to and boost most of them to as high as Level 10. A character’s skill points are only assignable to their own skills, but the supplemental party pool of points can be used anywhere. Character skills go beyond battle as well; each party member also possesses a unique set of field skills. These provide help outside of combat, and allow you to, for instance, harvest berries or mine for ore in special areas. They also include the ability to “stealth” yourself from the sights of enemies and improve your proclivity to synthesize useful items.
Tactful combat is awarded with the growth of the Bonus Board, a novel feature that provides percentage bonuses to your earned EXP, Skill Points, and money, or replenishes HP/MP at the end of battles. Depending on how you fight, you’ll receive different types of bonuses. But if you’re nailed too many times by an enemy, the bonus board is broken, and some of the bonus multipliers disappear. This is a cool addition that helps to encourage attentive and careful gameplay.
The depth of Star Ocean
Beyond the stock set of learnable techniques that each character inherently possesses, there are literally tons of ways you can further customize your party’s abilities—almost too many to mention. The first is through the use of skill manuals, which are single-use items that compatible characters can use to expand their repertoire of skills. Each character’s equipment is, of course, selectable as well (and each member requires his/her own unique type of weapon and other items). These items themselves can be customized and even synthesized through the use of the Item Creation system, which is remarkably versatile (just to give you an idea of how complex this is, your Item Creation aptitude is directly dependent upon the skill level of each individual’s associated field skill, and the invention of new recipes is further influenced by your party members’ affinity with one another… yeah). Characters also improve their fighting style (similar to gaining a level) with associated stat boosts specifically related to the “beat style” you choose for them (as mentioned earlier). This is all probably way too much to digest, but the gist of what I’m trying to communicate here is that the game is tremendously deep.
And that’s not all. Interspace travel sees you spending a portion of your time socializing with your crew members on board your ship. Speaking with certain members at random times results in so-called Private Actions, which are essentially wholly optional cut scenes that build on characters’ affinity for one another. The game even goes so far as to allow you to assign roommates on board your ship—and your selections directly influence the characters’ relationships and even their compatibility in other areas of the game.
As expected, The Last Hope delivers a larger-than-life (yet fairly generic) storyline, held together by one of the most expansive collections of cinematic voice-acted cut scenes in recent memory. Most of these are done in real-time to help prevent the “break” in immersion that occurs in many games when the transition from gameplay to FMV takes place. But even what FMV is put to use in The Last Hope so closely resembles the quality of the actual gameplay and other cut scenes that the difference is almost indiscernible.
There’s a lot of video to be had, too. Some cut scenes go on for twenty minutes, so be prepared for a lot of watching in-between gameplay. This is all part of the embracing of the traditionalist “jRPG” formula, relying on colossal environments, sprawling story arcs and side quests, plenty of (occasionally excessively) challenging boss battles, and a heavy emphasis on level-gaining. There’s also the common theme of lighthearted dialogue and interaction intermingling with a much darker underlying plot… for such commonly heavy subject matter, it’s surprising to find a regular dose of humor. If that’s what you’re into, you’re in luck.
Star Ocean’s rocky at times, too, though. While it’s hard to call it a genuine negative that it’s so heavily reliant on these traditional RPG elements, chances are it is going to bug you. Nearly everything in the game is overlong—and while in terms of value, The Last Hope is a steal, it isn’t always a good thing when you’re spending two hours in a dungeon doing the exact same thing the entire time. Likewise, some of the cut scenes will wear on your patience, and there’s a choice selection of disproportionate boss battles sprinkled throughout. If your disposition is generally one of persistence and tolerance, however, you may view these as merely minor bumps along a delightfully lengthy road.
One particular battle takes the cake, though, when it comes to provoking the heaviest incidence of internet forum rants and shocked facial expressions. It’s near the middle of the adventure, and is the subject of much contention and criticism. I won’t spoil the details here, but if you’re within the unlucky subset of the gaming population who happens to be using the “wrong” characters at this point in the experience, you’ll know when you reach it. The inclusion of this moment alone brings into question the balance of the game’s difficulty curve, which spikes quite dramatically during the course of the second disc. Having said that, however, upon visiting a popular online gaming community, my cries of criticism were quickly met with (warranted?) belittlement and honest advice from others who had experienced no such frustration with this event. Further investigation seems to suggest that this challenge is considerably more troubling if you happen to be using certain party members and don’t take advantage of a particular class of item. Regardless, while shifting your strategy according to these guidelines is a recipe for success, there are six battles back-to-back which are essentially all the same thing—same enemies, same disappointing problems with the friendly AI, and same endless barrage of deadly projectiles which stop you in your tracks—and no matter how you slice it, the word that applies here is excessive. While such concepts aren’t exactly unheard of in these old-school Japanese RPGs, that still doesn’t make them desirable. There are better, classier ways to present a challenge.
Other minor complaints regarding the gameplay include a general lack of save points (they’re often hours apart) and the persistent camera problems and movement quirks… but apart from those, the biggest issues are really all centered on this ubiquitous sense of excessiveness. When is it that developers will realize that it’s possible to create an enormous and engaging RPG that isn’t weighed down by endlessly extrapolated dungeons and unreasonably long, rinse-and-repeat boss battles? If you’re hoping for some progress in that regard beyond the typical fare, you absolutely will not find it here.
Beyond gameplay grievances, The Last Hope suffers from some presentational problems as well. Firstly, while the voice acting is greatly appreciated (especially considering the sheer length of many cut scenes), it can get to be pretty rigid and exaggerated at times, making it seem unnatural. The plot, as previously mentioned, while definitely epic, isn’t exactly fresh material. And while the visuals are generally quite impressive, there is a high frequency of repeating textures, intrusive pop-in, and occasionally stuttering frame rate. But these are all quite small complaints when taken in conjunction with the entire package. Some of the later environments are simply stunningly beautiful (my favorite planet features expansive desert rolling up into lush forest and jungles, and the music is simply awesome), and it’s hard to complain about voice acting when there’s just so much of it (reading through everything, in comparison, would be awful). It’s safe to say, then, that if you can look past the voice acting alone you ought to be pretty happy with the presentation side of things.
The Last is worth the time
Prepare yourself for the unpredictably volatile difficulty, the massive length, and the somewhat lacking spoken dialogue and you’ll find plenty to love in The Last Hope. It’s a pleasantly big-budget, impressively cinematic, seemingly never-ending RPG that offers some of the most compelling real-time combat in the genre to date. And although I have been consciously resisting it, over the course of my review (and the nearly 35 hours I’ve spent with the game in preparation), I’ve become hopelessly addicted.