With all of the excitement surrounding the upcoming release of Final Fantasy XIII, it's easy to overlook some of the other quality adventure games coming out at the same time. Despite coming from Square Enix, Tri-Ace's Star Ocean: The Last Hope International is a perfect example of a game that will likely get lost in the stampede for a bigger, flashier role-playing game. But don't overlook this gem; it may not have the big budget and huge name behind it, but this fourth Star Ocean is every bit as good as any recent Final Fantasy outing.
This is not the first time Square Enix has released Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Last year the company silenced the doubters (including me
) by releasing this incredible adventure game for the Xbox 360. Even though I could never warm up to the older games (including two PSP remakes I reviewed
only months earlier), I was won over by this game's amazing combat, fast-paced story and great graphics. Fast forward twelve months and Square Enix has decided to port this RPG to the PlayStation 3. The good news is that you still get the beautiful graphics, great combat system and fast-paced story. But what's even better, is that this "International" version of the game adds some nifty content to the game, easily making this the most comprehensive version of the game available anywhere.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope takes place about a hundred years in the future, after World War III rips the Earth apart and makes life on the planet unlivable. Humanity has been forced to take refuge in space, colonizing various other planets and living on space stations. In a lot of ways the game plays out like an extended episode of Star Trek written by the world's biggest Neon Genesis Evangelion fanboy. It's about an unlikely hero with a laughably stupid name (Edge Maverick) who, do to circumstances out of his control, becomes the captain of a small transport vessel. From there his job seems to be to go from planet to planet helping everybody he runs into, conveniently picking up more crewmates along the way.
Before long you'll realize that you actually care about Edge's plight. He is aided by his childhood friend Reimi, a pointy-eared Spock-like alien named Faize, and a whole bunch of other weirdoes (who we'll get into in a bit). After crash landing on a mysterious planet, Edge and his crew realize that there seems to be a sinister force trying to control the universe. They don't know just what it is, but they know that it has something to do with this powerful crystal that they keep running into.
The brilliance of Star Ocean is that we never spend too much time in any one place. This is not one of those role-playing games where we spend all our time in the same sorts of environments. Instead we find that each planet is just different enough to keep us intrigued. We go from one planet that is nothing but ice and cold weather to a tropical planet full of palm trees. At one point we actually go back to 1950s Earth, showing Edge the very origins of the technology that would later doom the planet. Now be honest, aren't you even a little bit interested to know how the game can go from a desert planet to an Eisenhower-era Earth?
It's not just the difference in look and feel that makes each planet so interesting; it's also the various people that populate the world. While most of the stories feel like they're straight out of older Square Enix games, Star Ocean: The Last Hope manages to make me care for the various people on each planet. Everybody (for the most part) seems likable enough and I genuinely wanted to help these people. Of course, while I was helping them out I realized that I could spend the rest of my life fighting other people's battles for them, but that is neither here nor there in the context of a science fiction space opera.It's also worth mentioning that each of the game's worlds contain a different set of bad guys, each based on the type of climate they live in. It's not uncommon to see a saber tooth tiger or what looks like a mutated polar bear on the ice-filled planet of Lemuris, just as it's common to see tropical birds and bees in the hotter climates. One of the biggest complaints people have with role-playing games is the idea of having to kill the same enemy over and over again. That's not the case here, as soon as you get tired of a group of bad guys you're off to the next planet dealing with something else.
Speaking of things people don't like about traditional role-playing games, there are a lot of western gamers that, for whatever reason, feel that turn-based adventure games are a little too slow for their own good. That is certainly not the case with Star Ocean: The Last Hope. The combat in this Xbox 360 game is surprisingly close to that of the Super NES original (and its PSP remake). This is not a turn-based affair; instead the battles are fought in real time. Even though your party can be as large as four people, you only have control over one person at a time. That means that while you control that one person, three other characters end up being controlled by the computer.
That doesn't mean that you can't control the other person; you certainly aren't handcuffed to any one person. Instead you can switch between the four combatants at any time, which actually adds a lot of strategy to each battle. For the most part the computer-controlled back-up characters do exactly what they need to do at any given time - they heal you when needed, they use magic and they dodge the enemy's in a realistic manner. But no matter how good the AI is, there's nothing quite like a human being in control. Being able to switch characters on the fly is really exciting, especially when it comes to the lengthy boss battles. It all adds up to some of the most thrilling action scenes I've ever had in a Japanese role-playing game.
The combat itself isn't too shabby, either. You control your character's attack (be it long or short range) by pushing the X button. You can always tell when an enemy is targeting you, so that if you hold down the "O" button and charge right when they are about to attack, you can pull off what is called a blindside attack. Basically this means that you will run around the enemy, dodging his attack, while giving him a real good smack on the back that can turn into an effective combo. On top of the blindside technique, each of the characters has their own magic/special attack that they can pull off by using the control's two trigger buttons. The combat really makes you feel like you're right in the action, and in a lot of ways it feels like a slightly more adult version of the Kingdom Hearts series.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope tells a wonderful story, has all sorts of great sci-fi references and a combat system that even non-adventure gamers would love. Yet despite all of these good things, Square Enix insists on ruining the experience with a number of terrible decisions. The first one is a cast of characters that feels like they were ripped out of every Japanese RPG cliche you could think off. There's the metrosexual hero, there's the half-naked girl with double-D breasts, there's a cat-woman thing, there's your typical anime girl, there's a robot-man and, worst of all, there's a pre-school age magic user. Maybe this stuff plays better in the land of the rising sun, but to my eyes it just felt corny.
Unfortunately it's worse than just a few cliches; a big problem I have is that I genuinely despise most of the characters. Edge, for example, spends most of the game second-guessing his actions. His indecisiveness is just annoying, especially when he brings it up every cinema scene. And what's with the baby? Was it really necessary to bring an infant on board? Thankfully she says more than "goo goo, gah gah," but that doesn't stop her from being one of the lamest characters I've ever seen in a role-playing game. These people are memorable for all the wrong reasons.On the Xbox 360 this massive 50 hour plus adventure was told over three separate discs, mostly due to the lengthy cinema sequences. Thankfully PlayStation 3 owners won't have to keep getting up and changing discs. Thanks to the massive size of a Blu-ray disc, Star Ocean: The Last Hope neatly fits on one really, really dense disc. If you plan on playing through Star Ocean: The Last Hope (and I recommend you do), then you should be warned that there are long stretches of time when you won't need the control in your hand. Like Xenosaga and Metal Gear Solid 4, Star Ocean is not afraid of the half hour cut scene. Some of these are made even more pointless because of the lame characters, but you should still watch them (if for no other reason than to figure out what you need to do next). To be fair to Tri-Ace, these cinemas are at their most obnoxious early on. Things die down a little as you progress through the adventure.
In true Square Enix fashion, Star Ocean looks absolutely unbelievable. The worlds are full of detail and life, and the combat is action-packed and full of extremely cool attacks. Unfortunately not everything looks as good as the battles, though. Oddly enough, the character models in the cinemas look doll-like and lifeless. They try to show emotion, but it comes off as creepy (especially the young magic user). Thankfully you can't tell how disturbing the character models are when you're in combat, and that's what you'll be doing for most of the time.
The weird character models are only made worse when you hear them speak. I'm not sure if it's a lack of time or what, but something funky happened to the voice actors right before they delivered their lines. Some characters sound like they don't want to be there, while others are so excited that it makes me want to muzzle them. And then there's Reimi's friend that we keep seeing over the picture phone. Let me tell you, her voice alone marks a new low for annoying video game voice acting. It's impossible to overstate how awful the voice acting is, and with so many hours of cinemas it's impossible to escape.
But there's good news, PlayStation 3 owners. If you simply can't handle the terrible, no-good, very bad English voice acting, then maybe you should switch it to Japanese or one of the other languages found on this International disc. I was surprised at how customizable this PlayStation 3 version was when compared to the year-old Xbox 360 game. Not only can you switch the audio to a different language, but you can switch the entire heads-up display around and add a more anime look to your crew.
Perhaps the best part of Star Ocean: The Last Hope is the fact that the game never really ends. Oh sure, you can beat the final boss and become a true hero ... but there's so much more to do after that. The game is filled to the brim with side-quests and secrets to discover. You can go back to just about any planet you visited on your journey, just in case you missed something. There are also dozens of battle trophies (achievements for the things you do in combat) that you and your team can earn, which makes leveling up really exciting. There's just a lot open to you, which is uncommon in most Square Enix published role-playing games.
It's a shame that Square Enix didn't add more content to the actual disc. While I'm certainly not complaining about the minor changes and additions, I would have liked to see another world to explore or more characters to level up. Instead we get changes to the HUD and audio. If you're one of those people who blasted through the Xbox 360 game last year, then there's very little reason for you to rush out and pick up this PlayStation 3 edition. On the other hand, if you missed out on the game when it first came out then there's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't check it out on the PlayStation 3. Star Ocean: The Last Hope International proves yet again that Square Enix is good at making more than Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts games. Now if only they could do something about the annoying cast of characters ...