Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
This difficult-to-translate Japanese word defines one group of RPG gamers. It means something like, “doing something over and over again, endlessly,” and refers to games that have limitless replay value. Disgaea, with its endless grinding to level 9999 and beyond is a great example. Shin Megami Tensei and tri-Ace are in the same spirit with their multiple endings, difficulty levels, insane skill and fusion systems, and fun combat. In short, yarikomi games are designed for people who want to sink hundreds of hours into one piece of software.
The other main group of RPG players are what I call “story players.” While these folks appreciate a decent difficulty level and a fun game, what really concerns them is the plot and the character development. These players want to identify with the cast and feel genuinely intrigued by the narrative. Localization is paramount; bad voice acting or an uninspiring protagonist can ruin a game for them. They tend to love the Final Fantasy series.
I introduce this dichotomy among RPG fans not to take sides or argue that one group is more “pure” or “hardcore.” If there is anything that the Nintendo Wii has taught us, it is that there are many types of gamers out there. Most RPG players are not purely yarikomi or story gamers. They may gravitate towards one, but generally they are somewhere in the middle.
And herein lies the flaw of Star Ocean: The Last Hope. The truly great RPGs transcend such divisions and earn universal admiration. While I had high hopes for Star Ocean: The Last Hope, it simply does not. It is a fine addition to the series and the most fun RPG I have played this year. Yet sadly, I have already seen the game dismissed and lambasted for its story (a perennial weakness for Star Ocean), characters, and voice acting. Depending on the kind of gamer you are, The Last Hope may either be disappointingly clichéd and thin, or the most fun JRPG in years.
Out of the corner of my eye I notice a desert troll charging toward Meracle. I could try to clip him with an arrow since I am controlling Reimi, but instead I tap the left shoulder button and switch to Meracle. I hold down the B button to set up a blindside evade, time it perfectly, and with a visual flourish I’m behind the troll tearing him to pieces with Meracle’s X-Claw killer move. I switch over to Myuria, noticing that she has some space, and cast Fairy Heal to keep everyone’s HP up, than Thunder Flare to keep a group of bandits in check, lest they gang up on Edge. As a giant pulsating sphere of electrical energy traps them in place, I fly over to Reimi, and have her chain Hunter’s Moon into Chaotic Blossoms to send the lot of them to the next world. Edge, already in rush mode, mops up a few stragglers at the edge of the map, while Meracle has just finished off the troll.
Above is a snapshot of one brief moment in one combat encounter of The Last Hope. You will be hard pressed to find another RPG with combat that is comparable. Every encounter, from first to last, is fraught with endless possibilities. Not content with the simple “select ‘fight’ for each character again and again” menu-based fare typical of the genre, Star Ocean games have always tried to keep the action fast-paced and nerve-racking. The Last Hope transcends all of its predecessors with combat more akin to a good fighting game than a JRPG.
It would take about ten pages to fully explain all of the features that go into Star Ocean’s combat and character customization systems, and then another thousand pages to lay out all of the possibilities. Here’s the short version: Individual characters have passive, combat, field, and special attack skills, as well as magic for some. Each individual skill can be improved through skill points acquired from battles, quests, or treasures. Even characters you do not use in battle will gain experience from treasures, field skill use, and quests. Combat is all in real time, and there are no random encounters. Take in or dish out enough damage and your characters can enter Rush Mode, which increases their critical hit rate and allows them to take hits without being stunned. You can also customize character stats and advancement with the new BEAT system, which offers three different settings each with unique advantages and offsets for fighters and mages.
Outside of battle you have the insanely involved item creation system. This time around, you need to have meetings with team members and create recipes for items before you can make anything. I know I’m in the minority when I say this, but I really liked SO3’s item creation. It was time-consuming, expensive, and a bit frustrating, which seemed fair given how much it allowed you to break the game. The first two games erased any sense of difficulty halfway through once you got the music ability up and running, and they conveniently allowed you to refill item stocks anywhere and make anything from precious stones to steaks in the middle of dungeons. SO3 and SO4 relegate item creation to specific locations and require you to invest some time and thought into how you use it, forcing most people to save the bulk of item creation for the post-game where it is really necessary. SO4’s item creation is more involved than the first two games but easier than the third’s.
Private Actions return as you can decide which characters will share rooms on your ship and enjoy scores of extra cutscenes, conversations, and humorous moments. There are also nearly a dozen extra endings based on character affinity levels. Two hard modes, two massive post-game dungeons, and hundreds of achievement trophies ensure that yarikomi players will be holed up in their rooms away from the hateful sunlight for months. Most story players will be drawn in by how stupidly fun SO4 is, assuming they do not get too distracted by the voice work.
The Last Hope is a beautiful game from the opening cinema straight through to the credits. It is the best-looking RPG on the 360 and possibly of the entire seventh console generation. The game offers several different worlds with massive environments, dungeons, and villages. While Earth is a bit disappointing, the rest of the worlds were well filled out with detailed locales. The movement of clouds and lighting in the open worlds of Lemuris and the futuristic city EnII are personal favorites. Cinemas and cutscenes are generally splendid, and disk 3 offers some spectacular visuals.
The anime style may not be for everyone; Lymle’s massive eyes are a bit creepy, but aside from that, I really appreciated the diverse cast. Faces could have used a bit more expressiveness, and there are occasional pallet swaps among enemies. Still, these are relatively small issues. What you have with The Last Hope is a colorful cast, massive worlds, and some of the most gorgeous spell and skill animations you’ve ever seen.
Music and sound effects should cause few complaints. Many noises have been recycled from earlier games, but they all fit just fine, and the combat effects are splendid. The soundtrack follows the spirit of SO3 with its curious mixture of classical orchestrations and progressive rock. The latter genre may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there are some really cool remixes of the battle themes from the first two Star Ocean games. While I enjoyed the soundtrack on the whole, I liked SO3’s a bit more.
Now let’s get to the real issue: Voice-acting. I have beaten both the English and Japanese versions of the game and the quality difference is like night and day. The vocal performances make sense in Japanese; while some characters sound like anime clichés (Edge in particular), the voices fit, and the little details of expression and inflection suit each personality. Sarah in particular is a lot of fun, as her manner of speech is similar to two popular Japanese TV personalities. Every time she opened her mouth I started cracking up.
None of the vocal performances are bad in any way. Even Lymle’s creepy monotone grows on you. The battle quotes and the unique ways that characters say the names of spells and special attacks is bound to bias you towards certain people. The fact that the Japanese voice work is generally good really frustrates me when I consider how awkward the translation and English dub is. I get why they made Lymle say “kay” at the end of her sentences. The problem is that, while it makes sense, it is an extraordinarily inelegant and ham-fisted way of conveying the effect of “na no yo,” which she says at the end of her sentences in Japanese. To see such a fun game like Star Ocean 4 get such a half-assed translation and dubbing really sucks.
The fact that Edge’s name sounds like a sex term in Japanese (Ecchi) is your first clue. SO4 offers a plot that, while more focused than the previous three games, never attains the sort of depth many of us had hoped for. It is a tale of mankind reaching out to the stars after an apocalyptic war tears the planet apart. It is a tale of intergalactic exploration across uncharted new worlds and into unknown dangers. It is a tale of catgirls, peeping toms, and wide-eyed doll-like children.
More so than the previous three games combined, SO4 deliberately follows a narrative and thematic structure more akin to teenage Japanese anime than a typical JRPG. There are a lot of parallels between the two, to be sure; however, the key difference is that the former genre begs viewers not to take things too seriously. Every Star Ocean game has had odd tangents in other worlds and times, but never like SO4’s first disk. Every Star Ocean game has had cutesy characters (Persisie, Precis, Pepitta – all start with ‘P’ curiously) but prior games made such characters optional and never tied them so closely to the plot.
Edge is a typical JRPG leading man. He’s bursting with confidence and nonchalance until a hilariously bone-headed decision leaves him brooding and self-hating for much of the middle portion of the game. His supporting cast is a mixed bag. Faize feels like the only adult at times, and Bacchus pulls off the emotionless cyborg shtick with mild success. The women, while spectacularly differentiated in combat and aesthetic design, are unfortunately rather shallow. Private actions will add depth to most, but not much. Sarah, Meracle, and Lymle’s incessant cuteness had me longing for the relative seriousness of Nel and Maria from SO3, or even Rena from SO2. Myuria beats out Celine in terms of sexy mages, and Reimi is a passable leading lady. Arumat, however, seems to be phoning in his character when he’s not in battle, and Roger and Leon are far better chibis than Lymle. It is the worst cast in the series’ history, but not on the whole unlikable.
The balance between story sequences and dungeon crawling is very awkward. You have three hour dungeons early in disk 1 and multiple occasions of several cutscenes chained together totaling over 30 minutes. Fortunately, cinema scenes can be skipped or paused using the XBox button, so it really is not a big issue. The third disk has some spectacular moments and the game concludes in typical JRPG fashion with everything unbelievably wrapped up in a neat little bow. Just be sure to free up lots of time for the boss battles and cut scenes.
SO4 controls just fine. From menus to field actions, everything is fairly intuitive. The camera can be a nuisance in certain battle situations, but this is only an occasional issue. The learning curve in combat is a bit steeper than SO3 thanks to blindsides and rush combos. Many boss fights demand specific techniques and strategies, so mastering a variety of techniques is a must.
The Last Hope is an extremely involved game. In any given battle, a lot is going on at once, and even veterans of SO3 will find themselves overwhelmed from time to time. It can be hard to keep an eye on everyone’s health and status in real time, as well as rush mode and blindside opportunities, battle skills, and enemy target priorities. The one control complaint I have concerns enemy targeting. It is not always easy to attack the enemy you want, as the AI will make your character auto-run toward enemies once you select attack. It can be frustrating early on, particularly in crowded fights, but you will adapt with time and learn how to move your character so as to target the enemy you wish.
Were I totally ignorant of Japanese culture and reviewing the English version only, I could see myself giving the game a score in the 80% range. The story is so-so, the English VA is mediocre, the characters are often shallow, and the theme, while not bad in itself, is presented in such a juvenile way that it becomes annoying. That it is an extremely fun game with nice music and graphics is enough to recommend it and put it ahead of a number of seventh generation RPGs that put style over substance.
But since this is the import review, I can say that the voice work is quite good, the writing, while not exactly Asimov, is adequate, the characters are a lot of fun, and the theme is no better or worse than what you get in a typical Shonen anime. The real dilemma for me was comparing the game to SO3. From a gameplay perspective, it is basically a wash. I liked SO3’s cancel combos, item creation, strategic defense system through fury, skill mechanic, and cooler killer moves, while SO4’s BEAT system, blindsides, and rush combos put its combat slightly ahead. Still, SO3 has better characters, an audacious plot twist that has grown on me, better music, a more satisfying post-game, full-active mode, variable costumes, and two-player versus to boot. SO4 looks nicer. While SO4 does not have too much serious competition so far among seventh generation RPGs, time will tell if it can stand up to the likes of a new Shin Megami Tensei, Final Fantasy XIII, an improved Last Remnant on PS3, or the next big WRPG like Mass Effect 2.
Here’s hoping for a PS3 director’s cut with dual audio.