The console role-playing genre has been home to many legendary adventures and memorable characters. To say this once limited nook of video games has become an accepted part of the gaming mainstream is an understatement. Every year, loyal fans and followers lie rapt in anticipation for the next release from their favorite series, director, composer, etc. The degree of longing for certain titles spans from months to years, as fans feverishly keep themselves abreast as new screenshots, video clips and production interviews come down the pipeline. This keeps the level of anticipation perpetually high. Many fans will follow the paper trail with such veracity that the final product, no matter how sound, will usually fail to live up to their inflated expectations. Very seldom do titles who have endured this “wait of ages” emerge as legendary on their own auspices, instead of fizzling out of memory as the media frenzy and fanfare dies down.
The latest title to come under such scrutiny has been under the microscope for years. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time was announced for the PlayStation 2 in Japan over two years ago, capturing the imagination of RPG fans on both sides of the Pacific. The Star Ocean series itself was one of the few popular sci-fi console RPGs aside from Sega’s Phantasy Star that ever gained recognition in the United States from the media, as well as fans. The new title promised to bring the innovative gameplay systems tri-Ace founded in the first two Star Ocean titles, and meld it with next generation graphic hardware for an entirely new experience.
With a massive budget and high production values, the game was believed to be a certain success, yet the game was delayed several times in Japan. After some deliberation, the game would finally see a solid release date in spring of 2003. Not surprisingly, Enix USA announced their intention to localize the game for a domestic release later that year. Sadly, this would never happen. When Square Soft and Enix merged in April 2003 to create Square Enix, the fate of the domestic release of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time was left to fate. Many thought the game had slipped through the cracks in favor of more prominent Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest titles. Thankfully, in early 2004, Square Enix made the announcement that the third installment of the Star Ocean series would indeed see a domestic release, but it was not until E3 that a solid release schedule was revealed. Much to the RPG fan community’s delight, Square Enix planned to release the 2 DVD-ROM Director’s Cut that had recently been released in Japan, for the North American territory. This particular version would comprise the creator’s true vision of the game with an expanded storyline, new characters, dungeons and more bonus content than anyone could have ever imagined.
RPG fans have waited in anticipation for Star Ocean: Till the End of Time for what seems like a decade, but is the experience really worth the wait? Let’s take a look at the title that fans have been clamoring for over the last two years.
How far would you go to save the ones you love? Just how much are you willing to risk? Those questions never entered the mind of young Fayt Leingod until recently. Having spent most of his life learning in the footsteps of his brilliant father, an authority on Symbiological Genetics, the college student was more than happy to go on vacation with his parents and childhood friend, Sofia Esteed. Hyda IV was as close to a paradise world as you could imagine. Stretches of beaches as far as the eye could see, under the warm caress of a golden sun. The resort the Leingod family had chosen was posh, but inviting. Fayt was very much the introvert, more content to play his video games in the hotel than bask in the sun with his family and friend. After being badgered by Sofia for missing out on the sunbathing, he apologizes by taking her on an impromptu tour of the hotel. All seemed to be going well, so well in fact, that Fayt convinces Sofia to try out his favorite virtual reality simulator in the lobby.
During their session, they experience seismic activity. Earthquakes on a resort planet; how is that possible? The hotel A.I. informs Fayt and Sofia that Hyda IV has come under attack from unknown forces, and requests that they immediately report to the evacuation shelter. Panicked, both teens race to the shelter transporter, only to find Fayt’s parents waiting in line for them. The evacuation of the facility seemed to be going as planned until the building is rocked by another explosion, filling the hallway with flames and a cacophony of gunfire and shouts. As the enemy drew closer to the refugees, Dr. Leingod and his wife send Fayt and Sofia down a side corridor, promising them they would reunite at the shelter. Within moments of being separated, Fayt and Sofia hear more gunfire, screams and explosions coming from where they had left Fayt’s parents. Fayt tries to go back, but is stopped by one of the performers from the hotel. Fearing for the safety of the bewildered boy, Fayt is knocked unconscious and brought to an alternate shelter transporter.
Against all hope, Fayt inquires about his parents’ safety, but neither the shelter guards nor the facility A.I. can locate Mr. & Mrs. Liengod on the premises, nor on the planet itself. At best — captured, at worst, – slain; Fayt ponders his family’s fate as he watches over an exhausted Sofia, as the enemy continued to bombard the planet. Suddenly, the shelter itself is attacked — Fayt and a bewildered Sofia make their way to the evacuation vessel in hopes of escaping the planet and the battle entirely. Upon arriving on the Galaxy Federation rescue ship, Fayt, Sofia and the remaining survivors look down upon the smoldering surface of what was once Hyda IV. The once lush resort planet was now an erupting nightmare of flames as the enemy continued to barrage the planet from orbit. The ensuing battle between these mysterious forces and the newly arrived Galactic Federation military was ferocious. With regard to the refugees, the rescue vessel turns from the planet and enters Gravidic Warp away from the carnage.
They were finally safe, or were they? Before long, this newfound calm would be shattered as the Federation vessel falls out of warp: preyed upon by the same craft that attacked Hyda IV. The rescue ship is no match for the shadowy armada and their weapons. Soon after they are engaged in battle, the captain orders all civilians to the escape pods before the ship was lost. In the panic, Fayt and Sofia escape from the vessel in separate pods, mere moments before the Federation cruiser explodes as their warp core collapses. Fayt was now truly alone.
Setting his navigator to land on the nearest life-sustaining planet, Fayt falls asleep under the hum of the engine as his pod enters warp. Who were the mysterious forces who attacked Hyda IV? What happened to Dr. Leingod and his wife? Is Sofia safe? These questions and more would haunt Fayt as his journey across the ocean of stars had only just begun. He would find himself caught up in the personal and political struggles of people on other worlds, as he continued to flee from the events on Hyda IV. Slowly, the mystery of the attack would unravel as the fruits of his father’s research would become uncovered. Secrets so terrifying, Fayt would have to make decisions that could save or destroy the Galactic Federation — as well as himself. He would find comradery in the most unlikely places and make an ally out of one of his most deadly enemies before his story can fully unfold.
The story of Fayt is one of the most remarkable adventures ever to grace a console RPG in recent memory. While there are many classic elements to his tale, the scope and depth of the characterization makes the experience more than memorable. From the over-moralizing Fayt, to the easy-go-lucky Cliff, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time does a remarkable job of personalizing characters through impeccable scripting and talented voice-acting. The fact that there are over two dozen well-developed major characters gives the tale a degree of depth that most RPGs aspire to. The story itself is massive with enough plot twists and revelations to compete with the sermonizing cobweb of storytelling found in Xenosaga: Dur Wille zur Macht. Thankfully, one doesn’t need a PhD in theology to fully appreciate Till the End of Time’s appeal. The fast-paced nature of the narrative, the frequent interaction between the main characters, as well as the dramatic changes in locale make Till the End of Time a constantly refreshing and well-paced journey that every RPG fan will enjoy.
Visually, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time still impresses considering its age. While the anime-styled 3D characters do show the limits of the graphics engine when compared to upcoming PS2 titles, the vibrant locales and battle effects still manage to amaze. The massive variety of locations, as well as the enormous bestiary is seldom seen in many RPGs today. As a journey from planet-to-planet – through space and beyond, the attention to artistic detail is enormous. From the overwhelming technology of a Galactic Federation vessel to the medieval charm of the kingdom of Airyglyph, there is such a contextual contrast between places, characters and events that one has to marvel at the artistic scope of tri-Ace’s visual design team.
While the in-game engine is impressive, the pre-rendered CG cinemas are simply fabulous. From the attack on Hyda IV to “the awakening,” graphics snobs will be crying with joy at the cinematic tour-de-force Till the End of Time offers. As the Director’s Cut of the original game, the domestic release of Till the End of Time also includes additional cinema sequences, both CG as well as real-time. The end result is nigh orgasmic.
Yet, with such an amazing story and such capable visuals, how does it all sound? Simply delightful! tri-Ace maestro, Motoi Sakuraba, returns to the series to breathe orchestral life into Till the End of Time. Fans of the series will smile to hear remixed and revived versions of classic Star Ocean melodies, as well as a host of new tracks that bring the game full circle. From the exploration-themed main anthem to the period pieces of each under-developed world Fayt and co. visit, Sakuraba-san’s genius is apparent. The score is heavy on wind and brass instruments, with a hint of percussion — lending to fast-paced scores for a timeless adventure. Fans that have experienced the incredible OST will finally have points of reference for many of the engaging tunes.
With such an engaging storyline, what then of the voice acting? Square Enix spared no expense in selecting voice talent for this title that surpasses the work done in their previous titles. Anime fans will recognize more than one voice actor throughout the course of the game, though players will have to wait until the closing credits roll to answer their suspicions. The selection of actors playing the central roles are not only impeccably type-cast, their performance is equally top-notch. The only complaint that I have is that there are dialogue sequences that continue for much longer than was really necessary. While nowhere near the overly verbose Xenosaga: Episode I, there were a few moments where I felt less like I was playing a game than watching a movie.
Trying to explain the girth of the gameplay systems inherent in Till the End of Time would take more volumes than readers might be capable of enduring, but I’ll make a valiant attempt to summarize. The combat system present in Till the End of Time is reminiscent of the real-time action found in Star Ocean: The Second Story. The player has control over one of the party members while the others are under the guidance of the computer. The player can switch control between any members of the combat party instantly, leaving the others on auto-pilot. This A.I. is based on player-selected modes of action; be it aggressive, defensive or balanced. Since movement and combat takes place in real-time, battles are reminiscent of an arcade-style action game, such as Guardian Heroes, than a traditional RPG, though, players can stop the action at the touch of a button to select commands from a menu ala a turn-based system. Once a command is placed, the action resumes as normal.
As Fayt and company gain levels of experience, they obtain battle points that are used to purchase upgrades to their HP, MP, Strength and Defense. Likewise, as they use their special techniques, they, too, gain levels — either increasing in power or unlocking new attacks. The player can then bind four attack techniques to the primary combat buttons, as well as two support abilities. Since more powerful abilities cost more points to allocate, players will have to be judicious in which attacks they choose to intermingle. Players who wish to gain access to all of the abilities will have to rotate their special moves and level them accordingly. But wait, there’s more. As Fayt and his allies encounter different enemies, different tactics are needed — some enemies will be susceptible to certain elemental-based attacks, while others can only be damaged by MP draining abilities. RPG fans will have to strategize their approach to hostiles in each area, which makes for a very refreshing change of pace.
The combat bonus system is another important facet to the gameplay. As Fayt and company engage in battle, the bonus gauge will fill as the party lands successive blows on the enemy. Once this gauge is filled, a random battle bonus will be assigned. This can be as simple as getting more money per battle, or as dramatic as getting triple experience points. This bonus is carried over for each subsequent engagement. If the gauge is kept full through five successive battles, an additional battle bonus will become active and carried over. Though, if the character currently under the player’s control receives too much damage in a short period of time, the battle bonus gauge will shatter and all accrued battle bonuses are lost. Mastering this system will require players to stay on their toes to maximize their battle efficiency. In the later stages of the game, complete control over the battle bonus gauge is required to gain the necessary experience points to stay at a high enough level to progress. Also, players who push the envelope and meet certain combat criteria will be able to unlock “battle trophies,” which are then used to unlock several of the game’s hidden Director’s Cut features such as a new difficulty mode, character gallery, fighting game and costume selection.
Item creation has also been a hallmark of the Star Ocean series, and Till the End of Time is of no exception. Once players join up with the inventor’s guild, this rather expansive mini-game becomes available. Essentially, the player can assign a team of one to three of his companions to design a certain product in a certain field (cooking, smithing, etc.), given a specific budget as well as timeframe. If successful, the party receives the item and receives a patent on the object. Soon this item begins selling in certain city stores and eventually the patent begins to pay the inventor i.e. the player. There is even an inventor ranking system, as well as contract work involved. As the game progresses, new inventor rivals will appear to challenge your place in the lucrative invention market. In many cases, Fayt can locate an inventor and hire them to work for him. Once a contract has been made, the new hire can be assigned to one of the currently established city workshops, or a dungeon workshop (if they are discovered). Players will have to be careful though, as each inventor has a specialty and not every workshop is equipped to handle specific kinds of inventions. Important to note is that some of the very rare and powerful items and equipment can only be created with specific inventor teams as well as certain budget restrictions. Players can also refine existing gear and improve them through the compounding process.
What would a Star Ocean game be without the infamous “Personal Action” system? In a nutshell, the PA system gives Fayt several dialogue choices throughout the course of the game with key female characters. The player’s choices will affect how well the other character responds to the player and can be a key factor in several scenarios later in the game as well as (supposedly) being an influence on battle performance. I admit, this does sound like a veiled attempt at a dating simulation, but the PA system adds a level of depth that most RPGs don’t even attempt to breach.
With such massive sub-games and an elaborate combat system, how does Till the End of Time hold it all together without a keyboard, flight pedals and an Aldus lamp? Surprisingly, the Dual Shock 2 does a remarkable job of keeping the game and its diverse systems in tune with deft precision. tri-Ace was kind enough to include easy, though occasionally lengthy, tutorials for several of the in-game mechanisms. Players are introduced to combat via Fayt’s VR simulator, and item creation is explained through a very perky female inventor. Combat is thumb blistering, but is handled primarily though the analog stick, the menu button and two attack buttons. Navigating the miasma of menus is a snap thanks to clear labeling and bright colors.
There are so many words one can use to describe just how remarkable Star Ocean: Till the End of Time really is. While the game does show its age with certain graphical antiquities, the overall package is nonetheless incredible. If the phenomenal storyline, eye-popping CG cinemas and soulful orchestration weren’t enough, the plethora of gameplay nuances and player diversions are sure to make the most jaded gamer giggle like a school girl. The title truly stands out as one of the greatest RPG experiences in the last five years, standing shoulder to shoulder with genre legends like Final Fantasy VII and Xenogears. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time was truly worth the wait.