Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
The Star Ocean series has managed one iteration per console generation since the SNES era, and each time it has stood out as one of the best JRPGs in its class. The first Star Ocean, arriving late in the SNES’ lifespan and thus never seeing a North American release, remains to this day as one of the most complex and engaging JRPGs ever made. The sequel, Star Ocean: The Second Story, is a PlayStation classic, often short listed among other greats like Final Fantasy VII and Xenogears as the best the system has to offer for RPG gamers. With Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, tri-Ace pulled out all the stops gameplay-wise, and perfected the battle and skill systems making the game damn near incapable of becoming stale.
…And then folks started noticing the bugs. The Japanese original had a tendency to freeze at inconvenient times. Add to that glitchy battles and the fact that the game didn’t even work on older models of the PS2 and you have a recipe for serious consumer resentment. Enix responded by fixing the bugs (well, most of them) and adding new characters, dungeons, and other such things in a Director’s Cut version. The North American version was based on this improvement, so westerners need not worry about having missed out.
When it comes to SO3’s gameplay, the biggest challenge for me is finding a meaningful criticism. Some people do not like the fact that characters can die if they run out of MP. Others take issue with the guard system or the more complex item creation method. Ultimately, I think MP death and more difficult item creation add unique challenges to a series that has never been too difficult. The original Star Ocean was fantastic but not too hard to beat. The second game’s normal difficulty was a cakewalk if you exploited item creation. Till the End of Time finally requires more time and investment in learning how to utilize the invention system. You have to find inventors, figure out what they want, then experiment with different prices and teams of inventors to try to improve or create original items. Unless you use a strategy guide, it is much harder to manipulate item creation early on because of the expense, which preserves the game’s difficulty and reserves extensive item creation for the bonus dungeons, where you will really need it.
The fights are harder too but this is also where the game shines. Battles are so fast-paced and hectic that a second of carelessness can lead to a game over. The number of potential strategies is infinite. You can keep one character stationary and use his 100% fury guard to counter enemies using weak attacks. You can set everyone to “Attack with all your might” and charge the enemy, hoping for the best. Or you can mix it up by setting up chains of battle skills.
Being able to switch characters on the fly with the L and R is marvelous. The director’s cut of the game offers a bonus for battle skills canceled during their animation, which creates an incentive to set up long combos of attacks. For example, you can: set up a series of close range cancel combos with Fayt; tap L, go to Nel and make her cast healing to prevent Fayt from getting KO’d; then tap L again to make Maria snipe the enemy that was trying to sneak up on Nel; then go back to Fayt since his combo is probably finishing up, and set up something else. All of this happens in a matter of seconds, yet this level of micro-management is not always necessary, as the AI improves as you allocate skill points to their attack and defense slots. The AI learns to cancel bonus skills and will heal itself predictably. For me though, the real fun is full active manual play with one or two characters.
The diversity among characters is also very strong. While in most RPGs, diversity is a matter of skills, Star Ocean goes further. Normal attacks, aerials, charges, and other basic techniques all vary greatly from character to character. Spell casting and item usage times are distinct, and every battle skill has its own advantages and disadvantages and can be improved with greater usage. Character by character, you have to set up which battle skills to equip, whether to set them for long or short range (or in the weak or powerful slot), then consider what support skills to use if any. You also can allocate skill points to improve HP, MP, attack or defense, then choose a counter attack aura, and finally select armor, weapons, and what spells to use and which to unequip. Add to that, item customization and refinement, and what you get is SRPG OCD level character management with top tier fighting game level combat, as opposed to the menu by menu turn-based / random encounter affair of the majority of JRPGs.
I could go on forever about the battle system, but let me wrap up this section with a few points. This director’s cut version adds two optional dungeons, two new characters, an improved battle trophy system, new music, new voiced cut scenes, and a two player battle mode. This is what gives SO3 such absurdly high replay value. The battle trophies really test your ingenuity and dedication, as some are really fricking hard to obtain. The universe and 4D difficulties are also marvelous fun, frustratingly difficult for the casual gamer and exhilarating for those who perfect the game. Most RPGs do not even bother with difficulty levels, as their design assumes one or two playthroughs tops. Thanks to an event skip feature, additional playthroughs of SO3 are very easy to manage. With four optional dungeons, dozens of super bosses, four difficulty levels, a variable cast of characters, 10 different endings, 300 battle achievements, a VS. mode, and one of the most fun and deep battle systems ever designed in a JRPG, SO3 gets my vote for the most replayable RPG of all time award.
I really like SO3’s graphics. I’ve played it both on the PS2 and PS3, the latter looking much sharper on a decent TV. The character models have an obvious anime style, with Sophia’s freaky huge eyes typifying the genre. NPCs also look decent, though more expressive range for faces during story sequences would have been a big improvement. The additional 2P, 3P, and 4P costumes for battles add a bit of zest to multiple runs through the game. The towns are not huge, but there is a good diversity of music and architectural style for each location. In particular, Aquios and Airyglyph looked good from overhead, and have plenty of detail in random civilian homes and shops. The only really disappointing location was the 4D world, which was quite plain. Maybe it was meant to be a commentary on their stale society, or perhaps it suggests that they are SO advanced that they do not even need intricately designed cities and flying cars. Graphically, it isn’t impressive.
Later PS2 RPGs like Xenosaga III and Final Fantasy XII both trump SO3 graphically, but not by so much that it makes them seem that much better. SO3 graphics are consistently good for PS2, though not superlative in any way.
This is the game’s biggest weak point, which, depending on the type of RPG gamer you are, may not be such a bad thing. I will not bother outlining the plot (try one of this sites’ other reviews if you are interested) but suffice it to say, it is underwhelming. The game’s subtitle is completely meaningless. Fayt is an unimpressive main character. He has the personality of any generic whiny teen protagonist. More frustratingly, the plot suggests a number of interesting conflicts and potential worlds to explore, but ignores most of them in favor of random fetch quests on an undeveloped planet. We never learn much about the Aldians, the Vendeeni, and the Federation’s motives. A massive galaxy spanning conspiracy revolving around forbidden genetic research, hostages, and anti-Federation activists is put on hold so that the player can go copper mining and rescue random NPCs.
Besides Cliff and Nel, none of the characters are particularly intriguing. What makes them interesting and what will attract you to one character or another is their combat potential and skills. The people who absolutely love Maria, Roger, or Pepitta rarely cite their depth as characters as reasons why they use them.
The big simulated reality twist in the game’s final quarter is completely out of left field and unnecessary given the amazing potential of the series’ established universe. It’s a strange twist for a JRPG series; the earlier games all have a weird undercurrent to them now, as will any future games. The earlier games had the same pacing problem too; you only learn of the real villain at the very end, and their connection to all that you had done up to that point is tenuous at best.
On the positive side, Star Ocean’s mediocre story does prove one thing with absolute certainty: An RPG can be amazing without having a great story. Gameplay is vastly more important, and if Till the End of Time does not prove that to you, then no game will.
Till the End of Time has an amazing soundtrack. The mixture of styles is one of the best I have seen in a JRPG. The game features gorgeous string music and orchestrations, such as the Castle Aquios theme. There’s random yet awesome jazz and rap in the later boss fights, and a number of catchy rock tunes during dungeon exploration and boss battles. The opening theme is also marvelous, and was one of the reasons that this game’s soundtrack was one of the first I took the trouble to import back when I lived in New York. The director’s cut offers a few new songs, none of them terribly noticeable but none of them bad either. Check the soundtrack reviews section if you’re curious. The sound effects and environmental noises are also detailed and generally good.
The voice work is top notch. The developers brought in heavyweights from the anime world to voice several characters. Fans of Love Hina or Bubblegum Crisis may recognize Nel and Pepitta’s actresses. The production value is pretty high, and there is a great deal of nuance and subtlety in each performance, from Roger’s often incomprehensible country grammar, to Cliff’s tough guy Tokyo accent. The English version was also generally good, to be fair. I really liked Nel, Cliff, and Albel’s voices in the North American edition. As is often the case, the characters come across differently in the respective versions. The Japanese Albel strikes me as elitist and bored, while the American one really has a profound sense of contempt for his inferiors.
To make a long story short, the sound is dead on both in terms of voice work and music.
Star Ocean 3 continues its glorious reign as my favorite PS2 RPG because it is just so much fun. The silver lining to the cruddy story is that the developers clearly focused on making the game endlessly playable. It’s a gamer’s game; it demands multiple run-throughs to see and unlock everything, and even then, there are a number of challenges that await. The director’s cut only adds more to an already overflowing package of goodies. Thanks to an exciting battle system, the game has the tactile appeal and satisfaction found in a good fighting game, only the battles are ultimately much more rewarding as you unlock difficulty levels and new abilities. I find myself constantly just in the mood for Star Ocean the same way I get a craving for Smash Brothers or Soul Caliber. RPGs are generally a story-driven genre. Star Ocean 3 is gameplay driven, through and through, and that’s what makes it so ageless compared to other 5th and 6th generation games. The subtitle “Till the End of Time” may very well refer to the game’s undying appeal and fun.