Review: Star Ocean

There is a dearth of good JRPGs on the PlayStation 3 at the moment, so for those of you familiar with the genre be prepared to read a lot of obvious stuff while I break it down for newcomers. For the rest of you, I hope this review serves as a good introduction to the genre and lets you know what to expect.

Reviewing an RPG on the basis of only the first part of the game is quite risky as the gameplay mechanics tend to change as the story unfolds, so this article may not be fully representative of what’s on offer. I have played to the point where all the important gameplay elements are unlocked.

So what’s it all about? Star Ocean: The Last Hope is the 4th game in the series from Square Enix – the makers of Final Fantasy, and one year after its release in Japan has now been localized and made available in English-speaking territories. Chronologically, it is the first, set shortly after World War III and covering man’s tentative first steps into space to look for other planets suitable for colonization. To be honest, the story isn’t important; Star Ocean plays like most JRPGs: excessive amounts of dungeon crawling blended with excessive amounts of cut scenes. And if you like that sort of thing, you’ll be right at home with this game.

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A quick summary of JRPGs for the uninitiated. You control one or more characters who start off as humble plebs, and gradually build up their levels and experience – usually by killing things – which makes them more powerful. The basic process is, kill things, gain XP, loot and items, train new skills, learn new abilities and spells, watch the story evolve a little and repeat ad nauseum until you have finished the game.

Of course, it is a little more interesting than that. In Star Ocean you start off on your lonesome as the brilliantly named Edge Maverick – captain of the USF 003 Calnus starship – and gradually pick up new characters as the game goes along. There are 8 or 9 playable characters, up to 4 of which you can have in your party at any one time. There are no classes as such although each character learns some specific fixed skills as they level which makes them better for some tasks than others. Of course you can also loot and buy skill books, some of which can be learned by any character.

Star Ocean Screenshot 1

Walking around the map shows encounters in the form of individual NPCs which indicate the overall difficulty of the encounter. There are no random encounters, however once you leave and re-enter a dungeon, everything will re-spawn. Touching a non-friendly NPC will trigger the encounter and load the battle area (you can gain an advantage or suffer disadvantage depending on how exactly the contact is made).

In battle mode you have active control of one character who you can command as you wish, and the others will follow the AI setups you have created for them. Star Ocean gives a bit of variety here, allowing the setting of overall tactics for each character, aggression through the so-called BEAT system, setting each character’s preferred skill use order, and when you learn the skill, automatic chain combos.

During battle you can switch between characters at any time, change tactics, and use your various spells and items once the relevant re-use timer has expired. Edge and Faize are warrior types, Reimi is deft with long range attacks and Lymie is a whizz at magic and healing. All the usual suspects you’d expect to find among your skills, spells and potions are present and correct.

Performing certain actions during battle can earn you bonuses which stack between battles, boosting your XP, Fol (money), SP (skill points) and so on.

The game features unfold slowly and meaningfully, gradually allowing access to harvesting, treasure hunting, symbology (spells), combos, item creation (recipes) and your first quests as the first 15 hours elapse.

The graphics are pretty but not groundbreaking. There are some beautiful vistas and forests to be seen and the first planet Aeos is distinctly reminiscent of James Cameron’s world of Pandora in Avatar. The indoor areas are less attractive, with some horrible cheap textures and anti-aliasing in your ship, which forms your base of operations throughout the game. Other indoor areas have similarly poor textures and detailing, but not everywhere. Overall though, the pitch is about what you’d expect from an RPG and it doesn’t really take away from the game itself.

Star Ocean Screenshot 2

The sound is a mixed bag. There is some wonderful music and some incredibly annoying music that will grate very quickly, especially the battle music which doesn’t change at all except in boss fights. The mellow tranquil jungle background music is broken up by a disturbing cacophony of heavy metal every time you go into battle. The characters also repeated the same canned phrases at the end of each battle.

Purists will probably like all this, but fortunately for everyone else, all the sounds and music can be tweaked or disabled, including on a per character basis. You can also choose to hear the original Japanese voice overs rather than the English localization, which many will appreciate. The English voice acting has been criticised elsewhere online but I honestly didn’t think it was that bad.

The interface can be a little overwhelming at first but you will get to grips with it within a couple of hours. There are a couple of problems. When browsing in a shop, it’s not possible to directly compare the stats of a weapon or armor piece with what your characters are currently using; instead each character is simply marked with ‘Up!’, ‘Down’ or ‘Equip!’ to let you know if it is usable.

A similar story with recipes, you cannot access your recipe book to see which ingredients you need while browsing a store. There are some similar issues elsewhere which can be quite frustrating and lead to a lot of needless flicking backwards and forwards between screens, although you do get used to it after a while, it was an unnecessary complication.

Now let’s come to the real problems, and there are quite a few. The initial pacing of the game is very poor, with a good hour of cut scenes and minimal walking around, followed by talking to a large number of people, followed by an excessive amount of dungeon crawling. When I say excessive, I’m talking in the order of 6-8 hours before you can upgrade any skills, get any gear or basically do anything except kill things with your default character and skill set. Fortunately the pace eases up after this and the mix of storytelling and hack’n’slash becomes more balanced. If I had reviewed this game based on the first 8 hours alone, I probably would have said it became quite tedious. Prepare to have your patience tested.

The save points are also punishingly far apart. Prepare at times to play for between 1 hour and 90 minutes before you are able to find a save point. If all your characters die in the meanwhile, it’s game over and you are back to the last save. This is particularly frustrating because at least in the case of the first boss, there is no save point after you beat it, and you will be quite battered after that (the same is not true of the 2nd boss).

No opportunity to grind XP should be missed: NPCs are quite easy to avoid and will generally not chase you immediately, and when they do you can outrun them and they will give up after a short time; but if you do this, you will fail at the next boss. I reached the 2nd boss at level 17 and had to go back and level up to 21 before being able to take it down.

The camera has its moments of miscreant behaviour too – often being quite annoying to control – although there are a few customisation options which make this less painful once you get used to it.

Finally, at times you feel as if the battles are too short and too easy. There is some backtracking but not too much (assuming you take the most linear path to completion) so most of your time is spent grinding up XP; that would be fine except that once you have overcome the initial hurdle of getting a few skills and weapons, most battles can be defeated simply by using a standard attack or alternating your combos, or even just doing nothing – though you won’t get so many bonuses or battle trophies if you do that.

The boss fights are much more challenging and fun, requiring you to use proper strategy, stay out of the enemy’s line of sight and frequently switch between characters micro-managing the right item, spell usage and tactics settings. But, these battles are few and far between.

Star Ocean Screenshot 3

There aren’t many side quests beyond the main storyline and those which do exist are generally of the fetch-and-return variety. One nice touch is that you can accept orders from shops for items then go and farm or craft them. These quests can be very time-consuming but give quite large XP and Fol rewards.

Whether or not you get engaged in the story depends on your pre-disposition to suspending reality. Some will find it emotional and touching; others a cheesy unnecessary diversion from dragon slaying. One nice feature is that cut scenes can be skipped, and when you do so a one-paragraph summary appears explaining what happened. All the NPCs in the game are voiced so there’s no need for lots of dry reading, though if you get stuck you can quickly review the storyline so far on the synopsis screen, which can be handy.

There are a lot of nice touches. For example each time your party kills a monster its “analysis level” goes up. When it reaches 100% you can obtain a monster jewel and transfer the monster’s stats into it, then equip it to give one of your characters a stat boost in line with the monster’s capabilities. Recipes can sometimes be invented (rather than acquired) via brainstorming sessions with your party. Your characters can be arranged into groups of up to three each, and their combined crafting skills will determine which recipes they invent. The battle system incorporates rush mode and blindsides – specific attack types which make battle more varied. And so on.

Finally, if you’re a completist, this game is going to suck up an awful lot of your time. There are hundreds of battle trophies, monster data, recipes and other items to collect, with PSN trophies attached to milestone achievements including opening every treasure chest in the game which certainly can’t be accomplished in one play-through without enormous amounts of backtracking. Getting platinum on this game will likely be harder than Dragon Age: Origins and Fallout 3 combined.

Pros:

  • Long story which will chew up quite a bit of your time (although perhaps not compared to some other RPGs)
  • Interesting and highly customizable battle system
  • Beautiful graphics in places

Cons:

  • Terrible pacing in places; too many cut scenes in some areas, too much dungeon crawling in others
  • Trash mobs are too easy and too frequent
  • Save points are too sparse
  • Camera controls can be annoying

Make no mistake, Star Ocean The Last Hope is no Final Fantasy, but is it worth buying to pass the time until Final Fantasy XIII makes its debut? This depends highly on the individual. JRPGs are an acquired taste; fans of this game will rate it a 9, twitchy FPS-ers who find it draining on patience and tediously repetitive will give it a 3. The reality is somewhere in between.

It is important to know when you buy a game like Star Ocean exactly what you’re getting into, and that makes it hard to recommend to an audience not already familiar with the genre. It’s interesting to note that RPGs are not my favourite genre, and while I was palpitating over Dante’s Inferno and Bioshock 2, it was Star Ocean that I wound up frittering away the last few days over.

It can be gruelingly repetitive. But it’s a game with quirky charm; if you are persistent, you are always compelled to see what happens next, and what the next dungeon looks like. It doesn’t have the best graphics, or sound, or gameplay, in fact it doesn’t really do anything spectacular or particularly better than any other JRPG out there; but if you let it get its hooks into you, you may find it hard to put down.

Score: 7/10

NOTE: This review is based on the first 20 hours of gameplay and was written by Katy Coe.

Full collection, score, trophy and achievement tracking, contests and social networking for SingStar, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Lips, DJ Hero, Band Hero and Karaoke Revolution players at Katy’s own website: www.totalmusicgaming.com.

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