Who knew that all it would take for me to enjoy a Star Ocean game was fancy 3D graphics and a fast-moving plotline? After recently playing through both Star Ocean: First Departure and The Second Story, I had my doubts about this fourth installment. I'm not one of those people who immediately took to the unorthodox combat and the franchise's soap opera stories. I wanted to like them, but there was always something about them that pushed me away. Thankfully all that changed with Star Ocean: The Last Hope. For the first time ever I feel like I truly "get" this series, and it's all thanks to great graphics, a memorable storyline and combat mechanics that works exactly as promised. It's not perfect, but this fourth console Star Ocean game is easily Square Enix's best console role-playing game since Final Fantasy XII.
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 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 B 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 clichés, 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 an RPG. These people are memorable for all the wrong reasons.
The game's 50+ hour story is told over three discs, mostly due to the lengthy cinema scenes. 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 last year's 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 when you move on to the second disc.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.
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.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope is exactly what most role-playing gamers have been waiting for. The game is enormous, beautiful to look at and offers a fascinating (albeit cliché) story. Yes, some of the characters are a little hard to take and you can see the twists coming a mile away, but that shouldn't stop you from having a great time in the action-packed battles. The game is full of little touches that make it shine, even for somebody who had resigned himself to a life of not understanding the Star Ocean series. It's a little flawed, but Star Ocean is easily Square Enix's best console game in years.