Star Ocean: The Last Hope is the latest game from Square Enix to hit the XBox360. It has been a great year for role playing game fans as this is the third Square Enix title to hit the console since last summer. Though this is the fourth Star Ocean title it is indeed a prequel. The Earth is being destroyed with World War III taking place so humans venture out into space, also known as the “star ocean”, to try and find a new planet to call home. This is the basic synopsis of the game, however, as with all Square Enix titles the story becomes deeper as you progress through your adventure. You begin the story as Edge Maverick along with your lifelong friend Reimi Saionji. It isn’t long before you find others that you will join your party as well. While you only directly control one character at a time, you can choose which character you would like to control and you can set what type of battle style the other characters will use. If you want them to conserve their magic you can tell them to fight freestyle but without using magic. You can also have all members of your party gang up on an enemy or allow them to roam the battlefield to take out whomever they want, whenever they want. With a quick hit of the two “bumpers” you can instantaneously change who you are controlling and therefore what they will be doing. In this sense you can control the type of combat that you are participating in. Edge has more of a melee style and runs right up to an enemy to try and take them out. If you are more of a ranged fighter then you can control Reimi and shoot arrows at enemies from a distance.
Star Ocean is a very deep experience. I briefly talked about the combat above, however, there is so much more. You have a wide variety of skills that you will learn as you progress such as “heal”, “harvesting,” “antidote” and much more. As you progress and level up you will earn individual SP as well as team SP. You use this SP to level up your different skills. An example would be that your healing is only at level one but if you have enough SP you could level it all the way up to level ten. There are “field skills,” “symbols,” “special arts” and “battle skills” that need to be leveled up so you control the progress of your character and what areas they will specialize in. There is also a data section that fans will find extremely useful. If you walked away from the game for a bit and want to get caught up on the story they do offer a “synopsis” option in the menu where you can go and read about what is currently happening in the game. If people in the game start talking about someone or something you don’t know then you can go to the dictionary and look it up to see what they are talking about. You also have your recipes stored here which is what you use to create food and other items to help you out on your journey. On board your space ship you have an item creator that serves two functions. You can split your characters up into groups and have a session where you will “invent” recipes. Different combinations will yield different results so be sure to try everything. Once a item or recipe has been “invented” then you can look to see what items you will need to create it. There are many different categories to choose from such as “smithery,” cooking,” “engineering” and “synthesis” to name a few. If you have the required ingredients this is a great place to create a stronger weapon for you and your allies or perhaps a potent potion that will help you in the heat of battle. Every time you participate in a battle there is data collected. You have these battle trophies that you can earn whenever you achieve a milestone. There is also monster data taken from each and every battle. Once a monster has been 100% analyzed it can be transferred to a monster jewel to create an accessory for your party. It is a fairly deep item creation process that can give you a lot of flexibility.
The overall story for Star Ocean starts out relatively slow but after the first few hours it starts to pick up steam. One annoyance that I had was the world map on the game. You can bring up the world map at any time as long as you are not in a battle. The thing with the world map is you can’t scroll around to see everything. If you want to check out the upper right hand corner of the map and you are currently in the lower left hand corner than chances are likely that you won’t be able to see the upper right hand corner until your party is closer to that location. It can be very annoying if you are trying to look at the map to see if you have missed anything and I have no idea what the development team was thinking when they did that. The voice acting for the characters is decent although there are a few characters that will quickly get on your nerves. The save system is also out dated. Instead of saving whenever you want like in “The Last Remnant” you have to wait until you get to a save point. Dungeons in this game are pretty big and if you fully explore them they will take hours to get through. Not having the ability to save when you want to compounded with the fact that you can’t even search the world map to see if there might be a save spot coming up is either a big oversight by Tri Ace or just a really dumb design decision. One thing gamers will be happy to hear is that there are no random battles. A battle with an enemy can be avoided if you want simply by keeping your distance. Now, of course, there are some battles that can’t be avoided such as boss battles but the majority of the time you can choose whether you want to fight or not. The battles are all in real time and you can bring up a menu at any point to use a special skill whether it be to harm an enemy or heal an ally. There is also a bit of a risk/reward system that they have installed into the combat. If you are brave enough you can go right up to the enemies and charge an attack. Right before they start their attack you can quickly hit left on the analog stick and if you did it successfully you will run behind an enemy and land a blindside attack. Successfully doing this can net you some additional experience, fol(the game’s currency), sp and other items. You have a “bonus board” on the right of the screen that keeps track of what you have accomplished in this regard. If you are able to land two blindside attacks that take out two enemies then two of the slots will be filled up with a blue diamond. Each blue diamond represents 10% experience so with two of them you would get 20% more experience points in a battle then you normally would. Of course the risk part comes in when if an enemy is allowed to hit you with a critical attack then your bonus board could be “broken” and you have to start building it up again. It’s a fantastic idea and for the more daring players it can result in gaining a lot of experience, among other things, really quickly.
Overall Star Ocean is a fantastic game. I could go on and on for pages about how deep this game is and it is one that I definitely recommend. If you are a Square-Enix fan and/or a Tri-Ace fan then you will feel right at home with the game’s presentation and the way everything works. If you are a j-rpg fan in general you owe it to yourself to try this game out. As I mentioned above it does have its own share of annoyances but they aren’t anything that breaks the game. The combat system is a lot of fun and the way you can control what gets leveled up will keep gamers busy plotting their next move. Keep in mind that this is not one of those games where you can sit down and play for thirty minutes. You will need to dedicate a block of time to make any progress in a play session. The game spans three discs giving you a lot of story and action to back it up. If you are a fan of the series or of j-rpg’s in general be sure to try this one out.