JRPG fans have always known they could turn to Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest to get their fill of experience grinding and loot collecting, not to mention saving the universe from unspeakable evil time and time again. Another franchise that is often overlooked but fills this same niche is Star Ocean, the sci-fi series that sees characters traveling through space while battling baddies with swords and spells. In spite of its second-tier status, this has always been a rather impressive franchise, and Star Ocean: The Last Hope - International continues to set the bar high. Unfortunately, a few big missteps prove that this series doesn't quite have what it takes to join the ranks of its more popular brethren.
The Last Hope tells the story of a desperate human population ravaged by World War III. Nuclear winter has left the surface of the Earth uninhabitable, so mankind looks to the stars to find a new home. One of the ships sent out on the inaugural search features childhood chums Edge Maverick and Reimi Saionji, the main protagonists. What is meant to be a routine mission quickly becomes anything but, and suddenly Edge, Reimi and the cohort of companions they meet along the way face a much larger quest than finding a new home for humanity.
The Last Hope was released on the Xbox 360 last year as a timed exclusive, so the International Edition features a few new features exclusive to PS3 audiences. The main addition is the inclusion of a Japanese audio track, so players can hear the original voice cast rather than their English counterparts. Normally, this is something only the otaku care about, but for once, the ability to switch over to the native language settings is a near necessity. This is due to the fact that the English voice acting is awful, and every time someone opens his mouth to speak, it's an assault on your ears. Most characters are guilty of the classic over-emoting, while a couple are so stiff and wooden you'd think they just ran the lines through a computer to have them read aloud. The counter argument to this is that some of the characters aren't really supposed to experience emotional highs and lows, but that's a flimsy excuse, to say the least. The characters who do emote jump back and forth from ridiculously giddy to emo-kid somber so quickly that it's hard to take anything they say seriously. Normally, bad voice acting can be somewhat ignored, but in a game that features cut scenes that run over a half hour in length, you'd think some serious attention would be paid to both the actors and the script.
Aside from the audio upgrade, the International Edition plays essentially exactly like its 360 cousin. Battles are conducted in real time, and special attacks and skills are able to be triggered at almost any moment during a fight. The player controls one on-screen character while the others fight based on the behavioral parameters you set for them. Players can switch characters on the fly, though, and even swap party members in the heat of battle. This flowing combat has been a staple of the series for years now, and The Last Hope keeps the mechanic alive and even improves it with a few cool new tweaks.
The first big change is the Blindside system, which allows characters to quickly dodge behind enemies, bewildering foes and opening up time to land a few free shots. Blindsides are handled in a nice risk/reward setup, where players must stop their attacks and hold down the Circle button for a few seconds to set up for the attack. During this time, if a foe interrupts your charge, not only do you take damage, but you'll also likely open yourself up for a wicked combo. Successfully pull off the Blindside, though, and the enemy is temporarily at your mercy. The whole mechanic adds a nice layer of strategy to fights and fixes a traditional problem in the series wherein players would run in and hack away at foes until they died.
Complementing the Blindsides is a new Bonus Board feature that rewards battle prowess. If you finish off an enemy with a critical hit, then you'll earn a blue gem, which will in turn reward your party with an extra 10 percent experience boost at the end of battle. Other gems grant extra cash, bonus skill points or even a partial restoration of your characters' HP and MP. Even better, the rewards are stackable, so you can easily double your party's experience for every battle fought simply by focusing on one specific battle mechanic. The only catch is the board will break anytime your party leader takes a critical hit or becomes incapacitated in battle, so you have to make sure to play it smart around tougher enemies. The Bonus Board is a rather fun way to spice up battles and keep players interested in their fighting style, even during the simplest enemy encounters. The only real problem with the board is that it resets whenever you turn off the game, so all that time spent working to get the perfect combination of bonuses will be lost when you decide to take a break.
There are other great combat wrinkles, such as the BEAT and Rush systems, not to mention positioning your party to engage in preemptive strikes rather than being surprised by foes. Altogether, they create a highly enjoyable gameplay experience that manages to stand apart from most other RPGs. While the story line and characters may be pulled directly out of Game Design 101, the combat and exploration manage to feel fresh and exciting for the duration of the experience.
The game has one tremendously large flaw, though, and that's the way in which it handles save/restoration points. For whatever reason, The Last Hope brings back the antiquated save point system, wherein players can only record their progress at very specific locations. This wouldn't be so bad if these beacons of safety were close together, but they're spread apart by miles, and you can easily go for an hour or more without running into a single save opportunity. Not only is this murder on anyone who suddenly needs to run an errand, take care of a phone call or otherwise walk away from the game for a while, but it also means players are constantly at risk of being one bad outcome away from losing all the progress they had made for their entire gaming session. For a game that does so much right in other gameplay areas, this is a huge misstep and one that has lasting ramifications. The fact that you really have to commit to sitting down to play The Last Hope for extensive periods may lead some less patient gamers to simply avoid it altogether.
A final complaint is that, in spite of the power of the PS3, the game isn't all that visually impressive. Character models look quite nice and the scenery is at no point ugly, but rarely does it stand out and pop either. With the extra time devoted to developing this game for the PS3, I was hoping we'd see an extra layer of polish and maybe a little more effort to build up a "wow factor" around some of the dungeons, towns and enemies. That's simply not the case, though, and the game ends up looking more generic and boring than it really should.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope - International is a solid JRPG and the sort of game in which players could easily lose themselves for days or even weeks. The great combat and lengthy campaign provide plenty to do, and completionists will find over 60 hours worth of dungeons, side-quests and bonus goodies to keep them occupied. Furthermore, the game's trademark private actions and extra difficulty levels will constantly entice you to come back and replay the title again and again. In spite of all this, the game remains very good, but not great, due to some poor design choices. Bland visuals, awful English dialogue and one of the worst save systems ever devised all tarnish this otherwise impressive experience. This game won't go down as one of the classics, but for fans of the genre, it's definitely well worth your time.
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