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March 20, 2009

Xbox 360 Review – Star Ocean: The Last Hope (2009)

by Master Pillow

I have always loved a good space opera. From Star Trek to Babylon 5 right up to the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, this subgenre featuring a high degree of action adventure coupled with melodrama amongst the vastness of space has never failed to get my blood boiling. That is not to say that every episode or show is engaging but the concept itself is rife with a myriad possibilities that have kept me fantasizing about “Trekking” to the stars since I was a wee lad.

Veteran developer Square Enix has always been at the forefront of RPG design with their major twin franchises of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy ruling the industry for what seem like forever. Still, the developer, like many other Japanese game houses, has struggled during the transition to the current generation platforms such as the Xbox 360 and PS3. Just exactly why this is so is a subject for another day but there’s no denying that Western developers such as Canada’s Bioware have made giant strides in evolving the genre so much so that game critics have begun to spurn Japanese products. Is this fair? Well, maybe yes or maybe no but there’s no denying that Japan’s seemingly rock solid lock on the genre is fast eroding.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope is perhaps Square Enix’s biggest game for current generation consoles until the inevitable launch of franchise stalwart Final Fantasy XIII. Until then, it serves as the best example of the JRPG state of the union. Fans of past titles will lap this up without even thinking and though it retains enough charm and is loaded with considerable depth there’s no doubt that there are many cracks present to make anyone wonder if the developers have been stuck in some sort of temporal time loop.

The game itself resides firmly within established JRPG mores and is inundated with an overall anime style and mentality. I for one love anime and more than relish its, at times, odd quirks and foibles but others who aren’t so inclined will find nothing here to suddenly make them converts. The story itself presents an alternate take on our own universe showing a future Earth that has been devastated by nuclear war. Indeed the opening CG cinemas, done with glorious care and intricate detail to Square Enix’s previous high standards, is actually quite riveting and altogether depressing as nuclear mushrooms lay waste to major cities.

With the planet basically blasted to hell and the surface completely irradiated the nations realize the folly of their ways and make peace. Joining forces with one another Earth comes together to form a space faring organization in order to explore the universe and other inhabitable planets which can be colonized.

The player controls our hero who, in the grand tradition of JRPGs, is saddled with the unintentionally comical name, Edge Maverick. You almost expect Kenny Loggin’s “Danger Zone” rock song to blare on whenever he’s on screen or perhaps Iceman or Goose will make cameos. Anyways, he’s initially joined by one of his best friends and obvious future love interest, Reimi Saionji, as the two have been assigned to the Calnus, one of the initial ships to be sent off on their space exploration mission. Edge has a bit of a chip on his shoulder as he finds himself lagging behind his rival Crowe who has already become Captain of his own vessel. We discover that Edge, Reimi and Crowe have all grown up together and share strong bonds of friendship between them. The Earth ships depart for their destination but along the way an unknown entity forces them out of warp scattering the fleet and stranding our heroes on a distant world filled with monsters and a powerful evil crystal that can corrupt anything it touches.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope has many positives but unfortunately the key element of narrative heft is not one of them. This is a really flat and downright traditional yarn that rarely excites or throws any sort of twist at the player. It’s too bad really since the quest itself that spans three DVDs is certainly long and epic but there’s never any instant when it truly clicks and makes you excited to discover what lies around the corner. Part of the problem lies squarely with the fact that the bulk of the game takes place on planets instead of outer space. Without spoiling story elements our heroes find themselves journeying to new planets in an attempt to piece together the history of these evil crystals. Each planet falls within traditional motifs such as the medieval inspired area replete with stone castles and knights in shining armor. Others are desert landscapes with nomadic tribes or rustic Viking inspired log cabins and sprawling dungeons.

Of course there are giant space stations and futuristic ships to traverse but too much time is spent amongst fantasy archetypes that one begins to wonder if they are not playing any standard RPG with dimly lit dungeons and fire spewing dragons. It’s also a bit of an oversight to allow items to have the same name on every planet or for the tired old cliché of having exactly identical treasure chests scattered all over the environment for you to discover. Perhaps someone can excuse the items all having the same name by attributing it to some sort of Star Trek universal translator in action but having the same model treasure chest on planets light years apart is plain lazy programming.

Then again, repeating chests is the least of the problems. Though there is a lot of written dialogue and descriptions the bulk of the narrative is told through cut scenes, most of which use the ingame assets except for a few completely CGI sequences. The quality and direction of the scenes remains excellent but the dialogue is often stilted and unintentionally funny. When Edge pounds his fist in frustration on a computer console or laments about his current predicament it made me think he had somehow graduated from the William Shatner school of overacting. Characters will often times repeat themselves or labour over the same point ad infinitum until you can’t help but want to hit the fast forward button on your controller which, by the way, doesn’t exist. Sometimes, instead of being insightful, the story lurches into banality and the comedic moments rarely hit your funny bone.

Worse still, there will be many situations that arise that make one scratch their head in amazement such as the inherently broken logic used to promote Edge to Captain that relies on pure convenience – the previous Captain has his arm in a sling after a nasty accident and for no apparent reason gives the command to Edge who, at that point in the narrative, has done precious little to deserve it. Of course, he in turn promotes Reimi to first officer as well in order to keep the duo together. This bewildering behavior pops up all throughout the tale as characters lurch all over the emotional map with neither rhyme or reason.

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Hand in hand with the potboiler story is a cast of truly stereotypical characters that seem ripped from the generic anime of the week. Although each is given enough of a backstory and motivation to join the crew some of them are just plain annoying especially if anime is not your bag of tea. Japan has been on some sort of effeminate kick lately featuring heroes that are incredibly androgynous. Just pop open any male fashion magazine or turn on the latest drama and you’ll see a penchant for pretty boys who are wearing as much makeup as the women. Muscle and toned bods seem to be passé and it’s no big deal to see men in flamboyant hairdos or wearing a thousand shades of pink.

Edge Maverick certainly fits this mould although, thankfully, the pendulum doesn’t swing too far. There are certain points in the plot where he lurches into full emo mode where he throws a hissy fit but there is actually a very good reason for it. Of all the characters Edge is obviously the glue that holds the crew together and his character arc is the most developed and by the end it makes for a satisfying closure. His best friend turned lover Reimi Saionji has her moments to shine as well although one can’t help but chuckle at the fan service here whenever the camera swings to a glorious shot of her ass or her offbeat uniform that no military in the world would ever deem appropriate – thigh high boots and armor plated skirt?

These two characters form the backbone of the narrative but just about everyone else is incredibly hit or miss depending on your taste. There’s Bacchus the hulking cyborg, Faize, the even more effeminate science officer and the elf like magician Myuria who is scantily clad and amply endowed with a watermelon sized chest that it’s a wonder she doesn’t have a hunched back. The last three characters are ones that will send you up the wall since they are prone to extreme bouts of cheesiness. The first is Meracle, the cat-like girl who appears to be four feet tall but is outfitted in a revealing one-piece swimsuit who spends nearly every cutscene pretending to purr and run around with a knife and fork attempting to eat another crewmember. Then there’s Sarah, a complete ditzy dame with angelic wings who is so air-headed that it’s a wonder she can even walk in a straight line. Finally, there’s Lymle who, depending on your take, is either the greatest RPG character ever devised or the most aggravating fifteen year old stuck in a six year old child’s body you’ve ever imagined. Yeah it sounds weird but there is an explanation for this.

In her case, it really boils down to the voice actress forcing her to speak in an unemotional monotone that always ends with the word, “Kay” that will have you reaching for some earplugs. Then again, she gets a lot of screentime and actually plays an important though understated role throughout the quest much more so than similar child characters in other games (here’s looking at you Infinite Undiscovery and Lost Odyssey) who seem to be there for no other reason than to annoy the heck out of you and wear a failed fashion student’s reject designs. I truly dare any parent to go tailor those outfits and submit a photo – I have a feeling no one will take me up on that one for fear of sheer embarrassment. The poor kid will have a complex for life.

Part of the disconnect lies in the game’s graphic engine and style that is an odd amalgamation of old school ideas and modern tech. All the characters look solid with fully realized anime models and though the costumes occasionally are ostentatious you can make out individual pieces of armor such as Edge’s leg or arm guards or Reimi’s multilayered outfit that is made up of differing fabrics. The core issue is in the total lack of emotive facial response that really drives home the melodrama in other contemporary games such as Mass Effect where eyes realistically blink and track to whoever is talking. Whenever someone, human or alien, is sad or happy the animators work wonders to portray even the slightest facial tick or furrowed brow.

In contrast, Star Ocean: The Last Hope feels like it is populated with a bunch of beautiful store mannequins or Precious Moments figurines that basically remain expressionless throughout the game. Sure, sometimes they’ll blink or their mouths will kinda move but never in sync with the spoken dialogue. Instead the animators rely on over-exaggerated body movements such as excessive shaking of one’s head to show affirmative intent. It’s a bit of a letdown considering that tech is no longer holding back anyone’s creative goal and though I like the anime style it might have served developer Tri-Ace better to push the envelope a bit rather than leaving everyone to compensate with broad body language.

The environments are also a mixed bag with some gorgeously realized art design and sharp texture work that will leave you breathless coupled with some stages which make you wonder if someone got lazy and merely repeated the same tiles over and over again. The biggest culprits here seem to be some of the huge dungeons such as an alien ship or underground cavern where every corridor or alleyway looks so similar you might think you’re running in circles.

Some of the dungeons are huge and will take many hours to traverse but in keeping with established design rules you can’t save at any time. Instead you need to find preset save orbs that are scattered throughout the stages. With all this next gen technology it’s a rather archaic paradigm to keep in use as there is really no reason to prevent the user from saving anywhere.

Then again, most of the other outer space settings, though laced with a lot of metallic sheen, show some fully realized design work such as the Calnus, the spaceship you command.

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The bridge of the Calnus is made up of some complex geometry and detail which drills down to different holoscreens and panels that are made up of easily discernible buttons and levers. You can even make out individual rivets and screws in even the futuristic chairs in the item creation room or even the floor that is made up of different metallic plates and grates. The next time you’re in there just stop and look at the chairs carefully and you’ll realize that they are all connected to what looks like a mechanical track which would let them move back and forth like the ones you find in expensive cars that let you move the seats with the push of a button. The chairs in the game don’t move but the graphics are detailed enough that you can see that the developers have put a lot of careful thought into devising the minute details of a spaceship environment.

While the story is merely passable the one area where the game truly shines is in the combat. Unlike most JRPGs of old which featured invisible enemies that suddenly forced you into combat, Star Ocean: The Last Hope mercifully lets you see monsters going about their business roaming the various landscapes. While you can avoid most of them by careful maneuvering you’ll inevitably find that doing so for long periods of time will be a detriment to your leveling up process. Simply put, the more monsters you kill the more experience points you receive. Earn enough and your characters level up making them stronger in the process.

Like any RPG there’s a lot of monsters you need to kill in order to gain enough exp and if you are familiar to MMORPGs then you’ll easily understand the need sometimes to stay in one area and grind mobs for hours with no real purpose but to gain experience or hope for item drops. While this process can be absolutely dull and tedious the combat engine here really works wonders. First of all this is not a turn based game meaning that you can plan your strategy and take as long as you want giving commands before finishing and letting the AI take their turn. This is real time so you gain complete control of one character at a time from a party of four and it’s up to you to run them around and either partake in close combat melee, long range suppression fire or sit back and cast devastating magic spells.

You can easily switch between any four characters in your primary party on the fly with the simple press of a button meaning those who love to micromanage can really have a field day juggling back and forth to maximize everyone’s actions. If you find that any of the four you initially selected for your primary party is suddenly lacking or that you need a certain skill you can also switch with anyone in your auxiliary party as well basically meaning you have access to every character unlike other JRPGs which limit you to only your primary choices. Just remember that those characters in your auxiliary party do not gain experience points unless they enter combat.

All of the characters have different styles and attacks and there’s a ton of variety here so that anyone can find the person that best suits their play style. If you like to hang back and blast magic then Lymle of Myuria works best or if you prefer in your face melee then there’s always Edge or Meracle. Don’t like magic but want range attackers then go for Bacchus or Reimi. Most regular fights don’t last too long so battles never drag on for long and though boss fights can be tough they are probably the most fun as you are constantly faced with seemingly tough foes as they bash you around before you realize their weaknesses.

Your teammate’s AI is actually not too bad and though none will rival a human they know enough to move out of the way or attack targets without being told. Indeed you can choose from a number of preset battle strategies depending on your choice. This way you can order the AI to use a character solely for melee attacks and to never try magic or vice versa. This adds much strategy to the game as you can custom the AI for each character in your arsenal. Sure, you can mess up if you want like ordering a weak magic user like Edge to do nothing but spam spells till his mana is dry but that’s completely up to the player.

Combat also works on a quasi-MMORPG aggro motif which works well if you can plan things out in advance. Basically, if a boss or other mob is focused on one of your characters and begins to chase them you can always take control of another member and do damage to them until they break off from their initial target to come after the new one. Smart players can juggle enemies back and forth between targets although if you are sufficiently over-levelled you can basically just pound them into submission at any time.

One cool addition to combat is an evade/dodge move called a blindside. Simply put, if you time it right you can avoid an enemy attack and in a Matrix movie inspired sequence, slip behind them in slow motion to perform a devastating rear attack that does tons of damage. This works wonders on regular monsters and even on bosses although the timing is significantly harder to take those down.

The other novel approach to combat is what is called the bonus board. This is a 14 hexagonal shaped board that shows up on your heads up display during fights. When you start combat the entire board is empty meaning that there are no bonus effects added to your party. By fighting battles and meeting certain criteria such as vanquishing a monster with a critical attack or hitting many targets at once you’ll gain pieces to fill up this bonus board. Some of these pieces add a percentage extra experience or give you more money for each kill. It’s conceivable to fill the entire board up and come out with some truly spectacular prizes such as experience up 100% or gain a few percentage points of health and mana back after each battle. The downside is that if your current controlled character gets knocked down hard the board can be broken and you’ll usually lose half the pieces meaning you have to gain them back again.

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Tri-Ace has also fashioned a deep and sometimes obtuse item creation system which can hook you into finding rare materials in order to craft better weapons, food or armor. Each character has one trade skill such as engineering that they are proficient in. Once you enter the item creation screen while you are on the Calnus you can assign different characters to teams in order to brainstorm and invent new objects. If you are successful the new recipes are automatically saved but then you’ll need to either buy the raw materials in a store or go and kill the appropriate monsters and hope for drops. Either way the amount of items you can create is staggering and I’ve lost countless hours just messing around with the system in place.

About the only downside is that the item creation is hosted by a virtual hologram named Welch who is basically an overly ditzy girl who seems to be on drugs as she’s always overexcited and bouncing around like a human pogo stick. Some people might take a liking to her character but I found her high-pitched voice extremely grating not to mention her constant hints that Edge is falling for Reimi ring false and do nothing more than add to the fan service present. If any military in the world would program Welch into their computers I think all the soldiers would need a professional shrink.

With such a deep item creation system, character leveling customization and an epic quest that spans three DVDs that’s already a lot of play time. That’s not all though. There are tons of side quests that you can follow and many bonus dungeons which feature some truly tough bosses. Also, there’s a hidden setting called the Private Action system that shows how well the various characters are relating to Edge. The more they like him the greater chance you’ll get an extended ending sequence showing you what happened to them after you finish the game. This is based solely on your conversations with the crew when you are on board the Calnus that take place while you are in transit between planets. Although you can skip all these events it really adds to the various personalities and provides the best opportunity to learn what makes your crew members tick.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope features a ton of real voice work especially during the cutscenes. It’s too bad that Square Enix didn’t include a Japanese voice over option but I can’t say that the English ones were really that bad. Most of the character voices sound adequate although Sarah and Welch made me think someone was scratching their nails over the blackboard. Thankfully, the sound effects and the orchestral score by veteran Motoi Sakuraba (Valkyrie Profile, Eternal Sonata, Infinite Undiscovery, Tales of Destiny) adds immensely to the game’s atmosphere especially as the third DVD rolls around and the action kicks into overdrive with a ton of spectacular CG battles that will get any space opera fan jumping for joy.

At the final count I finished the game at around 38 hours of play time and that’s just the first playthrough. Those people who are hooked on Xbox achievements are really going to have to work to get all 1000 as many of them will take a considerable effort to unlock. I wouldn’t be surprised if the total playtime would be in excess of 100 hours especially if you take into account that some require multiple playthroughs at higher difficulty levels. Although the story was not exactly riveting the mostly high production values and enjoyable combat system made the game feel fresh and never once did I ever get the feeling I was spinning my wheels on some endless grind. Star Ocean: The Last Hope might not be the greatest RPG of all time nor is it a poster child for current gen RPG excellence but it certainly is a solid experience that will please existing genre fans and more than tide them over till the much-anticipated release of Final Fantasy XIII.

*** out of ****

Developer: Tri-Ace
Publisher: Square Enix
Released US: 02/23/09
Released Europe: 04/24/09
Released Japan: 02/19/09
ESRB: Teen

© 2009 The Galactic Pillow

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