Star Ocean: The Last Hope [360]

17 Jun 2009  by   Paul Younger
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Publisher Square Enix, the daddy of all things Japanese and role-playing, are back along with devs Tri-Ace to bring us the fifth instalment of their sci-fi RPG franchise, Star Ocean: The Last Hope (SO:TLH), and this time an Xbox 360 exclusive. Anyone who has felt that there has been a distinct lack of quality JRPG’s in recent times can feel rejoiced, SO: TLH albeit flawed is actually rather enjoyable, due to some great battle mechanics and good old monster grinding.

Although set in space, SO: TLH does not escape the trappings of other fantasy inspired JRPG’s: The main character is a cute wide-eyed, young man on the brink of manhood, who has many tough choices to make before gaining hair on his chest. Check. Cute wide-eyed young girl who is the love interest of said boy, who is both shy and very wise. Check. Loads of chests (although set in space) containing treasure to find and open. Check. Your party member’s turn green and emit bubbles when poisoned. Check. Well you get the picture, SO: TLH does not break the mould here and I found it all really comforting like a nice hug rather than an over familiar slap in the face. The story itself is actually quite interesting, but unfortunately how it’s told that is one of the games major flaws. When a game comes on three discs, you know you are going to be in for a lot of cut-scenes.

In the SO: TLH universe, Earth has been rendered pretty much useless by World War III. The warring sides, having kissed and made up, embark on a space program in order to develop space craft that can travel to and investigate distant worlds in the hope that mankind can one day colonise them. The main character Edge Maverick (not quite Luke Skywalker) and his childhood friend Reimi Saionji are introduced as crewmembers of one of these deep space reconnaissance craft. Pretty soon Edge takes command of the ship and sets off on an epic journey , realising that Earth is just a tiny drop in a very large star ocean, and that there is a lot more at stake than just the fate of mankind. The whole of the universe is in some pretty deep sh*t and you and your burgeoning party are the ones that are going to have to save the day. There is a lot to like here, freaky bad guys, arch-demons, false religions and prophets, even time-travel. At one point you get to travel to a pre-space flight 1950’s Earth and unwittingly help… (sorry no spoilers). The problem is the execution of the story through the unnecessarily long moralising and philosophising cut-scenes. There were times that I wished I was on board the Calnus (your space ship) so I could give Edge Maverick a good kick up the arse to get things moving, particularly at the times that he thought he had let his team members down and was doubting his abilities as a leader (poor Edgie! Jesus just get on with it you knob!).

I know it is a cultural thing, but the emphasis on team building and friendship became tiring after a while, although the bizarre sex references did not. I lost count of the times Reimi called Edge a pervert, still she did stand up naked in front of him, oh and you do get the option to spy on her whilst she is showering, nice! However I did find the amount of time the in-game camera spent lingering on Reimi’s bottom and the gravity defying breasts of another party member somewhat disconcerting. Another frustration was the endless repeating of the same plotline within the cut-scenes, you have to bear in mind that some of them run for longer than 30 minutes and could easily have conveyed the same message in 3.  All of these cut-scenes wouldn’t be so bad if the voice work was up to par or an original Japanese dialogue option had shipped with the game. Sadly the voice work at best is mediocre but mostly utterly crap and extremely annoying. I seriously think that Square Enix and Tri-Ace raided the local crack house for the actors. Take Lymle for example (one of the first characters to join your party), a weird, porcelain doll like looking little girl, who quite possibly has the most f*cking annoying voice in video game history. No seriously, even more so than Slippy the (high-pitched) Toad from Star Fox 64. I removed her from my party as soon as humanly possible, just so I would not hear her voice when she stated up, and much to my chagrin as her symbology skills are none to shabby. Why a company as big as Square Enix could not have invested more cash in the voice talent for the localisation is beyond me, why not just leave the original Japanese voices in place?
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However, the game is visually sound, although the cut-scenes are at times a little lifeless, it does not help that the characters all resemble doe-eyed dolls. However there are some very beautifully rendered environments to explore, the worlds and dungeons are all very individual and some quite stunning. The combat graphics and animations run smoothly, although not ground breaking, some of them are very cool. The soundtrack too for SO: TLH is okay, there is not a huge variety in tracks, but considering the amount of time spent repetitively grinding and levelling up, none of them became intrusive or offensive to my ears.

It is in the battles, monster grinding and levelling up that SO: TLH really shines. There are gladly no random battles, in order to kick off with a monster simply walk into it, you will then be warped to a battle arena where up to four of your eight party members will do combat. This is a lot of fun and something that has yet to lose any of its initial entertainment value. Once in the battle arena you can swap back and forth through your chosen team members. Whoever you have selected is controlled in real time by you and can  move anywhere within the battle arena, with the others being controlled by the AI. You can set the AI on team members to different settings varying their defensive and offensive tendencies. As well as your normal attacks, characters have various powers like symbology, which is basically spell casting, to unlockable super moves that can be chain combo’d for some really impressive arse kicking, very useful against some of the tougher bosses. There is also a bonus board that, depending on how well you fight in a battle, will give you bonuses to your XP and other attributes. Also being introduced is a type of counter system called a Blindside. In order to pull this off you need to be holding the ‘B’ button down (which puts you in a stationary charging state) and flick the control stick within a specific time frame once an enemy has locked onto you. This triggers a Blindside animation and leaves your enemy open for a really strong attack dealing critical hits. This is a lot of fun, especially as each character has different animations and moves to experiment with. Levelling up is cool, it’s not just a case of level up and a few stat increases here and the like; rather as you progress you will open up more and more special moves and abilities that can in turn be stated up. It is a statistician’s wet dream.

What you put into a game is what you get out of it, and this is none more so true than in Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Sure you can blaze through on the easy setting, skipping the cut-scenes along the way and complete it in 25 hours or so, but that just is not what this game is about. For the truly anal retentive among us there is a plenty to do to keep it going a lot longer.  Whether it’s returning to worlds to get chests that you could not access before, completing the myriad of side quests, levelling up in order to tackle the über dungeons or inventing and creating new items, armour and weapons, there is still a lot of mileage to be had. These are elements that should keep even the most ardent RPG fan, whether of the Japanese variety or not, very happy. Sure it may be flawed, it is a rough diamond, but the more I played it the more I liked it.

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