Square Enix and tri-Ace have brought their latest RPG to the masses and to be completely honest, I was quite worried that it was going to have the same technical problems that the previous title; The Last Remnant had. Luckily about 5 years of development of this entry in the Star Ocean series has seemed to pay off from a technical standpoint, but nothing is without its flaws. Great gameplay and a crafting system mixes things up and keeps everything interesting but only if you are able to swallow some appalling voice work on top of a notably slow pace of story.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope takes place many years before the original sequel and is a prequel that gives some back-story if youre knowledgeable of the story in the series so far. You arent required to know or understand the stories from the whole franchise to undertake this adventure, but knowing the basics is interesting since there are a few moments where you suddenly realize who someone is (or related to) or will become in the future.
The timeline can be a little confusing at first, so I will explain the main events so that you can understand a little clearer of what happens and when. World War 3 occurs in 2064 A.D and the much of Earths population is decimated by nuclear devastation almost instantly. Shortly after, a cease-fire is negotiated and although the War is abruptly over, the lasting effects wreak havoc the planets environment. Normal people survive by living underground and its decided that the planets population needs a new habitat; so now its time to find a new home somewhere out in the ocean of stars.
In 2087 A.D, Space Reconnaissance Force (the SRF) is formed and due to a sudden surge of warp drive technology, the prospect of finding a new home among the stars in space comes closer to reality. This accomplishment sets the new Spacedate Calendar (S.D) in place from here on. Ten years later (10 S.D), the first SRF mission gets its official beginning.
Edge Maverick (The typical honest and good doer) and Reimi Saionji (Who follows everything by the books) who are childhood friends, are members of the SRF and given the daunting task of exploring the galaxy for a habitable new home for mankind. Apart from this great beginning to the main plot, the remainder of the overall story is quite cliché and filled with the typical JRPG plot twists, never-give-up attitudes, plethora of friends that will stick by your side no matter what, and of course the predictable entity that can destroy all life that must be stopped no matter what.
Edge will gather and make new friends along the way of course, but I needed to specially mention Lymle (Who is a friendly child that tags along early on to save her Grandpa) and instantly suggest turning off her in-battle voice as it was simply the most annoying repetitive catch phrases Ive heard in quite awhile, and this is even after 40 hours of playing The Last Remnant!
Even though youll most likely sense what is going to happen next, or even know what the next paragraph of dialogue will be, Star Ocean is built as a very traditional RPG and comes complete with battling monsters (though not enough variety overall) and searching for treasure chests in the oddest places. A Square Enix RPG wouldnt be complete either without the numerous and sometimes overly long cutscenes that are very beautiful to watch, but enjoying them can be impossible at times due to the terrible script coupled with some voice acting that may make you cringe at times.
I found the pacing of the story to flesh out was way too long and I really didnt even start to become interested in the overall plot until 6 to 8 hours in once you start to piece together everything and start to learn the Why of it all.
While running around the world, you will see monsters appear along the way and they can be avoided or fought against if you engage them (or if they attack you from getting too close). Battles are fought in real time with a party of four. You manually control one character at a time and the other members will automatically follow what directions you have given them (Attack all out, Attack without using MP, Play Defensively, etc). You can switch to any of your party members at any time should you choose to rather play a caster or ranged player instead of the standard sword wielder; you are also able to change your AIs commands whenever as well if the need arises to change your strategy.
Every character seems to play differently, so finding a play style that suits you when you have multiple party members isnt too difficult. It makes it enjoyable trying to find that perfect party that suits your style and works efficiently together, but luckily you can even swap in and out characters in battle at will as well if needed. Even a characters fighting style can be changed at any time with the BEAT (Battle Enhancement Attribute Type) system should you want the stats of a more aggressive attacker or defense of staying out of the heat of battle. Your BEAT levels increase with experience as well and you are able to even have a mixture of the offence and defense stats should you want (and keep both your BEAT styles leveled). It makes for a slightly more customized fighting style and choosing the correct BEAT that matches your style can make a huge difference in battles.
Attacking a monster constantly will most likely make them have more aggression towards you (agro for short) and this is quite a useful tool when used properly. You can keep monsters off of your hitpoint-weak caster characters by using attacks and skills to gain more agro on your beefier attacker type of character. Once a monster is focused on you, its possible to dodge out of the way completely or even perform a Blindside with the perfect timing which will have you counter an attack by running behind the monster and attacking it from behind for much more damage. Its a necessary battle tool to learn to use well as some monsters and bosses will take quite a while to defeat if not using Blindsides properly.
Rush Mode is another option you have that can land a sequence of special attacks with other party members for absolute massive damage, though this is only possible and activated once you have dealt or taken enough damage in a battle. The timing and button combination to use Rush Mode can be a little tricky to get the hang of, but once learned this is invaluable against many bosses.
The Bonus Board is another feature that can make the monotonous fighting a little more exciting if you choose it to be. There is a whole board of empty tiles on the side of the screen, and these can be filled by fulfilling certain requirements in battle (such as using certain attacks or killing multiple enemies at once etc), this in turn will give you bonus rewards after battle such as extra experience, more money, more skill points and even more. Tiles can also be taken away from getting hit or fighting poorly, but it helps to keep you somewhat more focused on battle should you want more experience rather than just pressing the attack button over and over.
In addition to a battle system that can keep you engrossed, you are also able to make your own items, food, and equipment. Skills can be increased to be very powerful, or you can choose to have many lower tier skills and spells instead, its completely up to you how you wish to develop your characters. It was a little disappointing that each character is preset to be a certain role and can only use weapons and armor specifically for them (in general), but the customization that each character can be tailored to your liking makes up for it in some ways.
Winning battles isnt the only way to gain money and experience in Star Ocean. There are many side quests to be done and are completely optional but sadly the vast majority of them are simple vendor Bring X amount of Y to me and accepting every side quest has no downfall if not completed, so grab every one that you can because you never know when youll finally have 12 Blueberries to give to that shopkeeper. Usually the rewards are a minimal amount of experience and money, but sometimes you get items or part to create a much more powerful item.
Along with these trivial side quests are the main optional quests called the Private Action system which will determine relationships between characters and give more back-story to them as well. The main reasons to doing these PAs though is that they will give you new skills and even determine the different endings that are available to see.
With all these optional quests to do alongside the main story, having a save system that is available at anytime (or even somewhat limited) would have been very useful to have. The Last Hope still has save spots at certain places and that is the only way to save your game. This isnt something new, but the issue being that the pace of the game is so poorly laid out that sometimes when you are playing just to get to the next save point so you can go to bed you can be playing for more than an hour at a time just trying to finish that dungeon and save.
Another quite frustrating aspect were two of the simplest things that youll have to deal with and fight through the whole game; the movement and camera. Moving has you either running full speed (also being able to do short running bursts) or walking so slowly that its painful just to watch. This coupled with a camera that seems to have a mind of its own in tight places or when near stairs, makes it near impossible to see whats ahead at times and you will get ambushed at times because of this. Not being able to invert the camera as well if you choose to will sure to add more frustration for some players.
The complete soundtrack was done by the same composer that did the other Star Oceans so the quality in the musical department is top notch as always. I wish I could say the same for the voice acting though. With a lackluster dialogue it might have been forgivable with voice acting that sounded believable, but even this isnt the case. Some of the characters voices and catch phrases are so annoying that I believe this is the single reason why there is an option to mute them or not (outside of cutscenes). If there was an option to have Japanese voiceovers in lieu of English, it may have been bearable, but this wasnt even included and you are forced to continue listening to the subpar voicing throughout the whole campaign.
Its also quite a shame that the design of the main characters tend to be very generic and overall. Youve got your skinny spiky haired protagonist with his childhood friend that looks like shes straight out of an anime manga book. Some of the other main characters are also your typical JRPG stereotypes without much thought behind their looks.
The Last Hope spans onto 3 discs and will give you more than 30 hours of content if you strictly keep to the main storyline; doing multiple side quests will add many more hours on top of this. Normally once you get far enough long in the story and complete a disc, you are done that disc and dont have to think of it again as you are moving on. With this title, should you want to go back to one of the earlier planets for whatever reason like dungeons, items, or quests later on, you need to manually swap the disc each time. Its not a huge hassle, but it is another one of those things that just seem to add to more frustration overall for the player.
Typically I play an RPG; especially a Square Enix title, for its engrossing and interesting story, with the gameplay mechanics being a secondary feature I look to enjoy. Oddly enough, I found that around half way through The Last Hope I was playing for the gameplay itself instead of the what and why while trying to still ignore the voice acting throughout. It can frankly be that awful at times, which was a complete shame. If there was an option to choose Japanese voices instead, I think it would have helped my experience and match the soundtrack more appropriately.
It was without a doubt the battle mechanics and being able to swap to any character at any time that helped me keep interest for the long term. I do worry that the average gamer will have a hard time swallowing the first 10 hours or so until things get more interesting, but even from that point, the pacing is just too off the mark to keep it interesting continuously.
With plenty of side quests to do, extra difficulty modes to unlock, and multiple endings to gain, there is no shortage of anything to strive for to prolong gameplay, as long as you have the patience to stick with it through the first few hours until it starts to get interesting and you learn how to play much more efficiently. Star Ocean: The Last Hope delivers tremendous gameplay and you will get out of it as much as you want to put into it. Hardcore RPG gamers might strive for more in the end but anyone starved for a decent RPG title will find an adequate title here, so strap in and head towards the endless star ocean.
Suggestions: Please, if we aren't going to get the option for non English voicing, then make sure that it's done well, especially when we have to sit through it for 40 hours or more.