Star Ocean: The Last Hope - Reader Review  

Whenís Valkyrie Profile 3?
by Matthew Rickert

Click here for game information
Xbox 360
40-60 Hours
+ The best battle system in the series
+ Lots and lots of things to do
+ Great graphics
- Mediocre characters and story
- Sketchy animation
- A bit lazy feeling in some areas
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Star Ocean has seen a bit of a resurgence of late, with a huge push by Square-Enix in marketing the series both in Japan and the United States. With the remake of the original Star Ocean just hitting American shores in October of last year, and an enhanced port of Star Ocean: The Second Story nearly two months ago, fans havenít had a lack of the Star Ocean series of late. But between the remakes and ports, fans were yearning for something more. That something is the fourth entry in the acclaimed Star Ocean series (fifth if you include the side story Star Ocean: Blue Sphere). After the division of opinions with Star Ocean: Till the End of Time just 5 years ago, is tri-Ace able to bring back some of the fans it lost, while keeping the new fans gained with the same entry?

   The game quickly introduces you to its premise, bringing us into the downward spiral of mankind. Man is at war, and is evidently shown by a ridiculously over the top scene of an all out nuclear holocaust between seemingly every country. Because of this disaster, man is unable to live upon the Earthís surface, and is forced to retreat underground. As one would imagine, this isnít the most ideal of situations. So the countries join together to figure out how to keep their existence intact. Accordingly, they decide to venture into the great ocean of stars in search for a habitable environment. This exploration team is to be called the SRF (Space Reconnaissance Force), and it possesses the most talented flight crew available. One of which is Edge Maverick, your typical Japanese Role-Playing Game hero.

   Edge isnít the tamest of fellows. He is full of angst, and has trouble deciding, but always strives to be something more. Therefore, his jealousy of newfound Captain and friend Crowe F. Almedio is quite apparent. Keeping him down to Earth is his childhood friend, the more level-headed and calm Reimi Saionji, who is together with Edge the entire way and is willing to do almost anything for him. Together, the Space Reconnaissance Force leaves Earth on a mission to find a planet rich with resources, and one that is able to support human life. Thus begins Edge and Reimiís adventure to discover the contents of the universe, and to unravel the mysteries within the great Star Ocean.

   As is clear from above, there isnít much of an actual story to Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Much of the game involves hopping from planet to planet, solving their problems, and doing very little in way of advancing into a main plot. And this is one of the main problems of Star Ocean 4: its plot elements just arenít entertaining enough to keep complete interest throughout its 40 hour span. And when a central plot finally does develop, it is already 25 hours into the adventure, which is far too long for a storyline to centralize. Even when this main story centralizes, it isnít even a very good one. Consequently, the player spends 25 hours waiting for the gameís mysteries to unfold, only to sit there in disdain as to what they are witnessing, as not only did it take so long, but you predicted them hours before. And with the lack of a ďwowĒ factor in the mysteries themselves to magnetize your interest, and with tri-Ace doing nothing risky with its plot, it just makes cutscenes a dragged out bore.

No, he really isnít. No, he really isnít.

   In its defense, the cutscene direction is fairly nice, with a nice variety of camera angles and lighting effects. What make these cutscenes hard to endure, other than the uninteresting plot elements, are the animations themselves. While longtime tri-Ace players will have grown used to these sketchy animations by now, even the most hardcore fans of tri-Ace wonít deny that they detract from the experience, even just a little bit. Characters will twitch and shake during the worst moments, distracting the player from what could have been a great cutscene. And to accompany the awkward animations, there is the voice acting, which isnít wholly bad. It isnít anything worse than your average Japanese RPG. But it is just thatÖaverage. At its best is when the voice acting is low key, and things are more lighthearted. At its worst is when emotions run heavy, and the characters are forced to overact poorly scripted sequences.

   But, as many would argue, Star Ocean: The Last Hopeís characters and story are just an after thought to what tri-Ace really has in store for us, which is obviously the gameplay. As in most tri-Ace titles, the gameplay is certainly the highlight in Star Ocean 4. And what a highlight it is, as it contains probably the best battle system in the Star Ocean series, and one of the best Real-Time battle systems in the entire genre. If anyone is familiar with the Star Ocean series, or even the Tales series, it is hard to find something not to like. Repetition may run high, but anyone searching for a Real-Time battle system that isnít repetitive will surely be disappointed. And with the addition of two key features, it ramps the battle system up from great, to absolutely amazing.

   The first of these features is probably the most exciting battle feature in the entire game. This feature is ďBlindsidingĒ, and despite its absurd name, it is one of the keys to having success in Star Ocean 4. By holding the B button, the player can charge their blindside, and when a directional button is pressed and the B button is released right before the enemy attacks, the player will soar out of the enemyís sights, causing the enemy to grow confused. In this moment of confusion, the player is guided to the back of the enemy, where they have an opportunity to pull off a combo which guarantees a few critical hits. Blindsiding is an essential feature to anyone using a melee character, and while it is absolutely easy to abuse once learned, it is hard to master. Especially when many enemies have the ability to see your blindside coming, and can counter it with their own set of attacks.

   The second important feature is another great addition, though to a lesser extent. This is known as ďRush ModeĒ, which plays out somewhat similar to an interactive limit break. There are two forms of Rush: the first of which, when activated with the X button, gives the player more speed and can nullify any knockdown attacks. The second is the most important, and is the one the players will use most often. When the X button is pressed with one of the triggers, the player will be brought to a separate screen. Here, the player will use one of the special art connected with the corresponding trigger button they pressed. But it is also here where the player will play a bit of a mini game in similar vein to Resident Evil 4. Here, a button will show up on the lower right corner of the screen, and the player will have to press that corresponding button. If done correctly, it gives the player another chance to pull off a special art, or, if another character in battle is in Rush Mode, then they can connect with them. This combines to create a devastating attack, and while it isnít as effective as blindsiding, it is certainly a great thing to have in tight spots.

Where is everything? Where is everything?

   Even with the addition of these two features, and the flawless nature of the controls and camera, there are slight issues with the battle system. The targeting system, an issue that was mostly non-existent in previous entries, can be a pretty large hassle here. The targeting system automatically targets the nearest enemy, but unlike previous entries which did it with near perfect precision, youíll have to virtually hug the enemy in order to have the targeter move on to it. This can cause many problems, especially with blindsiding and boss battles with multiple enemies, but luckily the game isnít so difficult that youíll lose a battle over it. And it is also a problem that only occurs when targeting matters, which isnít very often. Much of the time youíll just attack whatever enemy the target is on. And to go along with the targeting issues, the AI for your teammates isnít very bright. Healers will take much longer than normal to heal, and more often than wanted, the AI will stand there doing absolutely nothing. Luckily the stupidity of the AI is mirrored in the enemies, who will often stand around as well, so the issue of poor AI isnít nearly as problematic in Star Ocean 3, where your allies are slaughtered from standing around within seconds of the battle being initiated.

   Out of battle gameplay isnít necessarily as exciting as in battle, but it is fairly addicting in itself. There are several sidequests to be had, a few nice bonus dungeons, 900 battle trophies, 50 achievements, many data collection books, four difficulty levels, item creation, and many sights to see. Many people walking the towns will provide pleasant, short sidequests, but it are the shops offer most of the sidequests, which ask you to bring the shop keeper certain ingredients in exchange for a nice little reward. These ingredients can mostly be found by harvesting and mining the environment, which add a little bit of interaction within the fairly empty landscapes. The battle trophies are basically mini-achievements and are fundamentally easier versions of the battle trophies in Star Ocean 3. There are 100 for each of the nine characters, and because the AI cannot obtain the battle trophies by themselves, it adds a nice excuse for the players to use other characters besides Edge. These, mixed with the rest of the things mentioned above, add a replay value mostly unparalleled by any other RPG out there, and make playing Star Ocean 4 a blast, and will keep people playing long after the forty hour storyline is finished.

   Watching Star Ocean 4 isnít too bad either. The graphics are among the best of any JRPG on the Xbox 360, and despite the occasional anti-aliasing issues, tri-Ace provides a huge improvement in the looks department of the Infinite Undiscovery engine. The characters themselves are richly detailed, and though they may look like mannequins out for blood, their textures are smooth and their clothes show that a great deal of work was put into making these look the best that they could. The environments are enormous as well, and offer a large variety of landscapes that range from a Jurassic period jungle to a massive alien mother ship. The huge scope of these environments make it a bit of an annoyance to travel long distances, but even the largest of places only takes a few minutes to traverse. And though the music is a tad lazy a repetitious, it fits most places like a glove.

   Star Ocean: The Last Hope will certainly please those looking for a lengthy game with some great gameplay. Whether or not you enjoy the deathly slow story and the unoriginality of the characters is purely up to you. And despite the small annoyances within the game itself, Star Ocean 4 is certainly a fine, if unmemorable, entry in the Star Ocean series and is perfect for newcomers, current fans of the series, and the fans tri-Ace has lost. Hopefully this is a sign for things to come for future entries, and tri-Ace can improve upon its obvious faults to create something a little more polished and memorableÖ*Cough* Hrist *Cough*

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