Star Ocean: The Last Hope is chronologically the first story in the Star Ocean franchise. This would matter more if Star Ocean plotlines were even remotely related to each other, but as it is you don't need to know anything about other Star Ocean games to play this one. In the year 2064 the Earth almost destroys itself in a massive nuclear world war, forcing humans to begin searching for a new home in space. Enter Edge Maverick, a seemingly average young pilot in the SRF (Space Reconnaissance Force) with an inferiority complex. Together with his childhood "friend" Reimi Saionji, Edge travels space exploring new planets for potential human colonization. Along the way Edge and Reimi meet the expected anime cliches (the cat girl, the android, the annoying child, the disgruntled badass, etc.) and continue their travels with their ragtag crew. Eventually the inevitable great evil threatening the whole universe pops up, and Edge and crew set out to stop it.
There is nothing extraordinary in the plot, and character development is poor at best. Often characters will actually regress in maturity. Edge spends a few hours halfway through the game being an incredibly annoying and depressed prick, and right as he manages to come out of it another crew member decides to make himself the most annoying character in the game. Some of the character interaction is good, although there are more cringe-worthy moments than genuinely good ones. The plot itself isn't particularly bad, just very predictable. It at least avoids a horrible end-game plot twist like its predecessor used to try and gain attention. That said, the game clearly tries to find a deeper message than it really has to give at the end, and ends up being wordy without really saying much at all. There is enough between the character interaction and the plot to keep the player going, but thankfully The Last Hope has a lot more going for it than its narrative.
Most of The Last Hope's gameplay is spent using your ship, the Calnus, to freely travel between a handful of planets. Some planets are pretty small and linear, but others are full of sidequests and potential exploration for the determined player. The game can be beaten without ever really straying off of the main path, but some of the side quests can be fun and make use of your crafting abilities. Sidequests can range from killing a monster to delivering item orders for a shop. The ability to use the ship to travel freely between world near the beginning of the game is much appreciated, and adds a freedom not found in previous entries in the franchise.
If gameplay is the most important part of a game for you then I have excellent news. Star Ocean: The Last Hope has perhaps the best action combat system in a JRPG. You have eight characters by the end of the game, and can fight with a party of four. You may switch between your active and backup party members at any point in combat, and will be forced to if all four active characters ever become incapacitated. Each individual character can be customized to the extreme. Combat moves can be turned on and off, and special moves (called arts) can be set. Enemies are seen wandering around the world, and most of them can be avoided if the player desires by dashing away from them. Hitting an enemy from behind starts you off at an advantage, and getting attacked from behind does the same for the enemy.
Along with that the effectiveness of each individual ability can be boosted using skill points (SPs). Each character earns SPs when used in combat, but you also earn party SPs, which can be used on any character. SPs can boost both in and out of combat abilities, and allow for an extreme level of party customization. Adding to this customization are skill manuals, which can be taught to characters to give them anything from HP boosts to a bonus in loot drops. Taking this even further, every character has a Beat. Beats determine their combat style, and what kind of stat bonuses they get. There are 3 beats, Beat S (for Strike), Beat B (for Burst), and Beat N (for Neutral). Beat S is very offensive, and focuses on blindsides. Beat B is defensive, and focuses on the rush gauge. Beat N actually combines the stat boosts of both beats, but cannot level up and earn new beat bonuses, nor does it get the more specialized bonuses of the individual beats.
Combat itself is handled in real time. Players move their character freely around an enclosed field with the left joystick, and adjust the camera with the right joystick. You can switch which character you control at any time. Similar to Tales, basic attacks are handled with a single button. The directions of the joystick when using these attacks changes their effect, but basically basic attacks can be spammed at leisure. The character defends automatically, but can only defend if not attacking, and only while facing the opponent. Arts (special attacks) can be equipped to the trigger buttons and used quickly in combat. If you add multiple arts to a single trigger then you can combo them, increasing their overall damage by a set percentage. The more basic attacks done before using arts, the more damage the arts do.
But wait! There's more! As mentioned above, each Beat focuses on a specific combat maneuver. Beat S focuses on blindsides. When players hold down the B button they charge up the rush gauge, but cannot move. While doing this, if the player moves the joystick in any direction the character will dodge in that direction, then dash behind the enemy, performing a blindside. The next hit will automatically be a crit, the enemy will be confused and unable to fight back, and all hits until the enemy finds you again will have a chance at being crits. Some enemies are immune to blindsides until the instant before they attack (requiring you to use it like a counter). Others use attacks that will hit you mid-blindside unless you dodge the right way. The system is very fun to use and looks cool in action.
Beat B on the other hand focuses on rushes. The rush gauge is charged up when the character takes hits or deals damage, but goes up much faster when taking hits. It can also be charged slowly by holding down the B button, as used in blindsides above. When the rush gauge is full, the player can activate rush mode. In rush mode the character no longer flinches from taking hits and has a chance at delivering crits. It fills up frequently in even a standard battle. More importantly though are the rush combos. If a player uses an art right as they begin a rush, they enter a rush combo. Rush combos are ultimate moves, where your character uses one art after another through a series of QTE button press sequences. If you are near another character they may substitute their arts for yours at times. The more QTEs you successfully complete, the more the damage will pile up. If you complete all of them, you finish a perfect combo, and do huge damage to the enemy.
Adding even more depth to the gameplay of Star Ocean is the crafting system. Each character has a crafting specialty from alchemy to smithing. Some characters can gather materials (mine or pick up herbs), and Sarah can synthesize, which allows you to combine items or weapons or both into newly buffed versions. SPs are used to increase crafting ability. New recipes are found in the world and also "invented" by the characters. All the characters can be set in groups of 3 to "invent" recipes. While inventing party SP slowly drains, but new recipes are formed. Certain characters work well with other characters, and some harm others, so forming effective teams is important.
With all this great stuff about the gameplay, you may be wondering if there is anything bad about it. Unfortunately there is. There is no manual targeting in combat. This means that you basically have to either whack whatever the game randomly assigns you to hit, or try and run at a different enemy and hope your target switches. This is a ridiculous issue to have, and can be extremely detrimental in certain fights where it's important to take out a specific enemy first.
As bad as the lack of targeting is, there is something even more frustrating. The pacing of Star Ocean is atrocious. This is both a gameplay and presentation issue, but where it's at its worst is in the gameplay. Many individual boss fights are also 15-20 minutes. These are not difficult encounters. There is no real challenge to the first playthrough of Star Ocean aside from sticking through the tedium of the lengthy fights. Every boss will have an easily identifiable weakpoint and an attack pattern that's easy to memorize. The final boss is 30-45 minutes depending on how over-leveled you are, and because you have to fight a boss before him, if you did somehow lose you would be down over an hour of gameplay.
Pacing in the dungeons is just as bad. Save points are only spaced at the start, halfway point, and end of the dungeons, so in the longer encounters you will have no way to quit. Multiple dungeons exceed an hour and a half in length and one is longer than three hours. Like the boss fights, these dungeons are not difficult nor full of clever puzzles, just tedious length. Adding to that pacing issue, there is a huge leap in enemy level between the second-to-last and the last dungeons, requiring those people who weren't obsessive about fighting every enemy or doing multiple sidequests to grind. Grinding has the edge slightly taken off by the presence of the bonus board, which can give a large consecutive experience bonus if used right.
On the presentation side, cutscene length is painful. Kojima has nothing on Tri-Ace for making tediously long cutscenes that say almost nothing at all. Multiple cutscenes in the game are longer than 30 minutes, and the final cutscene is 45 minutes to an hour depending on how many of the character endings you unlocked. Most of these cutscenes are nothing but characters talking. The actual action ones are usually quite short and disappointing. This wouldn't be so bad if the characters ever had anything worthwhile to say, but as was mentioned at the start of the review, there isn't anything particularly interesting in this narrative.
Graphically, Star Ocean: The Last Hope could easily be considered one of the most beautiful games on 360. Character models are detailed and fun to look at, and the use of the in-game engine for the vast majority of cutscenes is refreshing. This can however be detrimental in the space battles, where the engine fails a bit and it starts to look pretty unnatural. Thankfully some CGI is used for these, and when it is used it looks incredible. The worlds themselves are vibrant, detailed, and varied. There are plenty of "wow" moments both on the planets and in the dungeons. All of this is unfortunately held back by the fact that the game is a ridiculous mess of technical issues. Slowdown is nearly constant, with framerate drops happening in and out of combat, regardless of the situation. Ironically, on the other end of the spectrum, screen tearing is also present.
Neither of these issues are nearly as bad as the freezing. Unless your discs are installed on your 360's hard drive, The Last Hope will freeze multiple times an hour . This issue did not show up until disc 2, but never stopped after that, regardless of circumstance. Yes, Star Ocean 4 is unplayable without a hard drive. This is completely unacceptable. It's amazing that any game can seriously be launched right now with constant crashes. Square-Enix and Tri-Ace have made no attempt to patch it, so you're part of the 30% or so of 360 owners who have no hard drive: Do not buy this game.
From an audio standpoint the presentation is hit and miss. Motoi Sakuraba has composed one of his best soundtracks ever for this game. Unfortunately, it's held back by some of the worst voice acting in the video game industry. While a couple of the characters are competent, most of the voices are bad enough to bring a player to tears. I still have nightmares about Lymle. It doesn't help that the dialog written for them is bad to begin with. Bacchus talks about his cold steel body so much I wanted to send him into cold dark space.
The Last Hope is about a 35 hour game without much time spent on sidequests. For those completionists out there, about twice that can be spent in game doing sidequests and mastering the crafting skills. Harder difficulties are unlocked each time you beat it, and there is some decent post-game content. All told Star Ocean 4 is has pretty good value for a JRPG.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope continues the fine Star Ocean franchise tradition of getting in its own way more often than not. It takes many big steps up from previous entries in the franchise, allowing free use of the ship early on, creating a great combat system, and creating a beautiful and vibrant universe. Unfortunately, the characters, plot, and voice acting deal damage to the presentation. Even worse is the pacing and completely unacceptable level of technical issues, some game-breaking. The combat system would be nearly perfect if it wasn't for the auto-targeting, and the gameplay would be great if it wasn't for unnecessarily lengthy boss fights and poor dungeon design. That's really what Star Ocean comes down to. A lot of "buts." If you can get around all of them and focus on the strong points of the game then there is a great experience buried somewhere in there, and good value for your money. However, action JRPG fans who weren't that interested in Star Ocean in the first place would be better off looking to Tales of Vesperia.