After a painfully long wait for many, the PS3’s version of Star Ocean: The Last Hope is finally here with Star Ocean: The Last Hope International. The new edition of the game boasts Japanese voice tracks and anime menus that were cut out of the English version. Even with the late port and high price, this action RPG is worth a look.
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 clichés (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. 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 are fun. They range from killing a monster to delivering item orders for a shop. The ability to use the ship to travel freely between worlds 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 have their combat behavior customized. 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.
The effectiveness of each 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 a lot 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 specialized bonuses of the individual beats.
Combat in Star Ocean is real time. Similar to Tales games, players move their character freely around an enclosed field, and can switch characters at any time. The direction of the analog when using attacks changes the effect, but 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.
As mentioned above, each Beat focuses on a specific combat maneuver. Beat S focuses on blindsides. When players hold down the Circle button they charge up the rush gauge, but cannot move. While doing this, if the player moves the analog 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. It’s a fun and cinematic system, and difficult to master.
Beat B focuses on Rushes. The rush gauge is charged up when the character takes hits, charges with Circle, or deals damage. When the rush gauge is full, the player can activate rush mode. In rush mode the character crits more often and doesn’t flinch. 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.
Unfortunately not everything about Star Ocean’s gameplay is sunshine and daisies. The pacing of Star Ocean is atrocious. This is both a gameplay and presentation issue, but the effect is most poignant in gameplay. Many individual boss fights are also 15-20 minutes, but not difficult. 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 weak point 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 placed 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 neither difficult nor full of clever puzzles, just tedious in 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.
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 action scenes are usually quite short and disappointing.
Graphically, Star Ocean 4 is still a beautiful game, but not quite as impressive as back when it was released, because of increasing standards. Character models are detailed, and the use of the in-game engine in most cutscenes is nice… most of the time. The space battles are unfortunately ugly on the in-game engine. 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. However, almost none of the technical issues of the 360 version have been fixed. Slowdown and screen tearing are still present, but thankfully I didn’t experience any of the freezing crashes.
Audio is the biggest improvement in the international addition. Motoi Sakuraba has composed one of his best soundtracks ever for this game, and most of the music is great. The English voice acting is still almost criminally awful, but thankfully the Japanese fares significantly better. Sadly there’s no fix for the poorly written dialog, but that’s not the fault of the voice actors.
The Last Hope is about a 35-40 hour game for the main story, depending on how much you die. 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. There is no added content to this port aside from the voice acting and anime images, and it’s being sold at $60 despite the age of the port.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope International is an improvement over the 360 version, but not as big of one as many hoped it would be. While the characters and plot are still mediocre, the Japanese voice acting is a huge improvement. The dungeon layouts however are still awful, and save points are still sparse. It’s also sad that the technical issues weren’t fixed, aside from the crashing. The biggest bonus you get here is that it’s on one disc, which saves you the pain of heavy disc swapping at the end of the game to explore. If you have yet to play Star Ocean: The Last Hope, this is certainly the best version to buy.