Star Ocean is a series which has often been overlooked in the West.
The series has always managed to achieve just enough to keep itself going throughout the years, perhaps aided by their often unique gameplay elements and promises of multiple different endings. And it’s no different here. Star Ocean: The Last Hope is developed by the team at Tri-Ace whose prior work includes the Valkyrie Profile series and the rather ridiculously titled, and mixed experience of, Infinite Undiscovery. This is a team swimming in JRPG tradition, and to some extent the same holds true for The Last Hope. Be it the clichéd anime style cut-out characters, typical end of the world scenario destined for destruction, or the need for the special intervention of your team of young dreamers–Star Ocean: The Last Hope, at least on the surface, is nothing new.
Where the game does stand out, however, is in its aesthetic. What we have is a merging of traditional Japanese style storytelling with that of a gigantic space opera as humanity searches for a new home following the self-inflicted destruction of the once habitable Earth. Its vision and scale is instantly clear through a rather beautiful opening video sequence which sets the tone and provides the backstory for our entrance to the opera. The game has clearly been given plenty of attention by the publishers and a heftier budget than their last title, Infinite Undiscovery. For the most part, in-game visuals are pretty good, but the shots of outer space leave little to be desired and look like they’ve been tacked on without much care and thought.
Conceptually, The Last Hope offers a unique and interesting take on the typical JRPG sentimentality fuelled story. Whilst its concept and ambition are laudable, its execution in terms of cast are often juxtaposed against those positive points. The characters may be lively, but they are also often annoying, with the young girl Lymle an especially abrasive culprit. It doesn’t help that the original Japanese voice track isn’t available on the Xbox 360 version of the game. That has been rectified with the subsequent international release on PS3, however. The English dub is both ridiculous to watch, and sometimes painful to listen to. Central protagonist, Edge, has a particularly ill-matched manly sounding voice that just doesn’t seem to fit with his young adolescent anime-style looks. The example of Lymle’s incessant use of the word “‘kay” in that squeaky childish tone dampens the mood on your thematically important mission through space. Sometimes the tone that the game sets itself just doesn’t match up with the serious topic at hand, and this is where we get a visible conflict between the JRPG formula and its ambitious ideas.
Thankfully, this ambition does manage to shine through in other aspects of the game. The battle system of The Last Hope is a particular highlight taking place within a battle arena which loads upon contact with an in-field enemy. Battles are accomplished in real-time with a team of up to 4 characters at once, and while only one character can be controlled at a time, it’s easy to switch between controlled characters with the press of a button. They all have their own individual talents and skills which sometimes extend to field use as well.
Battles are not random, and enemies are visible within the field. Upon contact, the battle arena loads and you’re free to run around this limited area at will striking with attacks or casting spells as you see fit. Each character has different styles and tactics, and it’s important to switch between characters depending on the given situation. Reimi, for example, is a ranged attacker, and the catlike Meracle is a nifty mover allowing her to easily blindside enemies where other characters may not.
What provides such intensity, however, is the bonus board which fills up with tiles having completed certain actions or battle maneuvers. Attacking an enemy from behind, defeating an enemy with a skill, or catching an enemy unaware all provide tiles to your board which give additional bonuses at the end of battle. These range from extra experience points (EXP), money, skill points, or HP/MP restoration, depending on the tiles gathered. There are 14 empty slots on the board, so if you manage to gather 14 EXP tiles, then you get an additional 140% experience points at the end of battle. The bonus board remains until you turn off the game, and it can take quite a while to build up which can lead to some elongated play sessions. It should be noted, however, that the bonus board can be broken by certain powerful attacks, which can be quite frustrating if you’ve spent a long time building the board up. The great thing about not having random battles, however, is that you can simply run past the enemies should you want to get to your destination free of hassle.
Outside of battle, certain characters also have skills which can be used for gathering items in the field. For example, Reimi’s harvesting skill increases the amount of items gathered from harvesting points at higher skill levels. Each of the character’s have their own unique skills, and items gathered either from battle or from the field can be utilized within the game’s deep crafting system to create more effective items, weapons, or armour. Some of these created items are the best in the game, especially at higher levels. They’re certainly more effective than those purchased from shops, not to mention cheaper. Specific ingredients can often only be found on certain planets, which means that you can spend a great deal of time hopping between planets trying to scavenge the required materials to upgrade your weapons. This can be time consuming, of course, and it’s not entirely necessary on lower difficulty levels unless you choose to do it.
Each of the different planets are detailed and have characteristics of their own, with different terrains, races, species, and histories. This historical depth may not be up to the standard of something like Mass Effect with its deep engaging glossary, and it’s certainly more innocent in its style than Mass Effect, but it’s engaging enough. The story keeps things moving along, even if the pacing is a little lethargic at times. There are numerous side quests, shop orders, and deliveries that can be done, too. There’s plenty to keep players going, not to mention the hidden affinities and dialogue options which open up depending on the relationship status between characters. There are also multiple endings to the game, but it seems nigh impossible to get the best ones without following a guide since they require very specific actions which players are highly unlikely to stumble upon, which is a shame.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope is a charming title with plenty to offer for fans of the genre. That said, the game suffers from some seriously poor localisation problems, not to mention its pacing issues throughout. Once you get past the novelty of the game’s premise, the overarching narrative rings slightly hollow. Dungeons and locales also often outstay their welcome by many hours, and this sometimes feels like a non-organic way of extending the game’s length. I don’t want to be too hard on The Last Hope, though, because through my time with the game there were plenty of laughs along the way, and certainly a few emotional moments, too. The battle system is genuinely good fun, and it does have its merits. For fans of the genre the game offers plenty of depth and enjoyment through its 40+ hour main narrative. If there’s a completionist within you, then you may find Star Ocean: The Last Hope enduring even longer than that.