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December 2018

Star Ocean: The Last Hope

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: tri-ACE
Release Date: Feb. 24, 2009 (US), June 5, 2009 (EU)


Xbox 360 Review - 'Star Ocean: The Last Hope'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on March 10, 2009 @ 5:43 a.m. PDT

Science fiction and fantasy meld in this continuation of tri-Ace Inc.'s RPG franchise. The refined gameplay features team-oriented combat, while improving upon the innovative real-time battle system that has become a trademark of the Star Ocean franchise.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope opens up in the not-so-distant future. World War III has decimated Earth, killing most of the population and forcing underground all who remained. Humanity's only hope for survival lies among the stars; the Space Reconnaissance Force was created in order to find new worlds to colonize so that humanity can spread out among the stars. Players are put into control of Edge Maverick, an SRF cadet on the one of the maiden ships, the Calnus. Along with the rest of the SRF fleet, the Calnus takes off from Earth to begin its quest, and of course, everything promptly goes sour. A mysterious anomaly occurs while the ships are warping, separating them and forcing the Calnus to make an emergency landing on a hostile planet. This is just the beginning of the story, and before long, Edge is drawn into a quest to save the entire universe.

The Last Hope's basic plot is fairly average RPG fare with a few sci-fi twists. The game either thinks very little of its audience or far too much of itself because it turns the most simple and basic plot points into incredibly long and rambling cut scenes. The Last Hope is absolutely plagued with cut scenes. You'll sometimes be sitting for an hour or more just watching cut scene after cut scene, occasionally punctuated by a few chances to walk around a town to trigger another cut scene. This might be okay if the cut scenes were interesting, but they're long, tedious, rambling and repetitive. Most plot points are also introduced in the most ham-fisted manner possible. To make matters worse, the cut scenes are all voice acted and done so extremely poorly, so you get the "enjoyment" of listening to sub-par voice actors repeat the same boring plot points and over. It is possible to skip the cut scenes and get a summary of the events, but the summaries tend to be inaccurate or unclear, which can be a bit confusing … and having to skip the cinemas in an RPG is just silly.

As if to exacerbate the problem, the plot is a fairly limited "good versus evil" story with a ridiculous amount of padding. For every step you take forward, you're pushed into some inexplicable side-quest that has little to nothing to do with the main game. A vast part of the middle of the game (the longest planet in the game) is taken up by a plot that is an extremely extended reference to Star Ocean 1. You spend all your time meeting cameos and fulfilling quests that have no purpose other than to make players remember the previous titles in the franchise. Considering the infamous Star Ocean 3 plot twist, the already-meandering plot is only further bogged down by the self-referential nonsense.

The Last Hope's combat is a fairly average action-based system. Players take control of one of four party members and can guide them around a 3-D arena at will, while the other three allies beat the living daylights out of anything that gets near them. The A button attacks whatever enemy you're locked on to. The targeting system is a bit wonky, and there is no manual targeting in the game so you have to depend on it to automatically pick a target for you. Fortunately, once you land on the right target, you can choose to "lock" on it, but it's certainly a far more awkward system than simply having a manually designated foe. You can combine your A button attacks, and depending on the enemy's location, you may perform different A button attacks, which can launch enemies into the air or allow you to hop into the air and attack them. The two triggers on your Xbox 360 controller are bound to the character's special moves, and you can assign a special move to each button. As the game progresses, you get Chain Combos, which allow you to assign entire combos of special attacks to the shoulder triggers for easier use.

Defense is perhaps more important than offense in The Last Hope. Your characters don't have a block button but will automatically block attacks based on the difference between the enemy's Hit stat and your Guard stat. The best way to avoid attacks is to jump, which is controlled by the B button; tapping B and a direction allows you to jump in that direction. Some characters can even do attacks while in the air, but the primary use of the jump feature is for blindsiding. When an enemy targets you, a yellow triangle appears around your character. If you do a charged jump while an enemy is nearby and has targeted your character, you'll perform a blindside attack, which instantly moves your character behind the enemy and stuns him, allowing you to perform ridiculously powerful back attacks.

However, there are some downsides to blindsiding. Your character is not invincible while flashing around behind the enemy, so if another enemy is attacking or using an area of effect attack and it hits the blindsiding character, you're knocked out of the attack. Certain enemies can counter blindsides, which is signified by a red triangle instead of a yellow one. If you try to blindside one of these enemies, they'll counter you and cause tremendous damage. It is possible to blindside one of these foes, but you have to do it just before they attack, when the triangle flashes between yellow and red.

There is also Rush mode. When you deal damage, take damage, or use the charging feature, your characters build up Rush, and once the meter is full, your characters can go into one of two abilities. Pressing the X button activates Rush mode, which lets your characters have a chance of performing critical hits that can't be knocked down, allowing you to do some very substantial damage. Be warned that enemies also have a Rush meter and will go into Rush mode if you do too much damage to them, with the exact same effects. Fortunately, your party has a Rush ability that the enemies don't: Rush Chains, which are performed by using a special move while holding the X button. You enter a Quick Time Event sequence, where you and one of the other characters in your party take turns unleashing super-powered versions of your attacks. For each successive QTE you complete, the chain grows longer. These Rush Chains are unblockable and hit from anywhere on the map, making them a great way to deal a lot of damage in a brief period.

One final feature to keep an eye on during battle is the bonus board. When you complete certain objectives in battle, you'll receive a bonus token, which comes in one of four colors: blue, green, purple and yellow. Killing an enemy with a critical hit earns you a blue token, killing enemies with only special moves garners a purple, killing multiple enemies with one attack yields a yellow, and allowing enemies to ambush you earns a green. Each of these color tokens corresponds to a bonus that you earn at the end of combat. Each blue token gives an additional 10 percent EXP, each yellow gives an additional 10 percent cash, each green increases your party's SP, and each purple increases HP/MP regeneration. Once you've earned a bonus board token, you keep it for each successive battle you're in, and you can have around 15 total tokens of varying color combinations, each increasing the bonus further. However, if the character you're controlling is hit by a critical hit or killed, or if you decide to run from battle, the bonus board "breaks," and you lose any and all tokens you've collected. The only way to avoid this is to collect multiple colors of the same token in a row. As long as same-colored tokens are touching on the bonus board, you only lose half of your tokens if the board breaks.

In battle, your allies really aren't that useful. You have extremely limited control over their commands, so they'll mostly do their own things, providing meat shields and occasional damage while the character you're controlling does all of the hard work. The Last Hope encourages constantly switching between characters, but it's a bit of a losing proposition. Switching from one character just makes your other character stand around doing nothing or run around wildly until you decide to switch back. Furthermore, you can't cancel any actions that the AI has taken before you switch, so if you want to switch over to your mage to perform an emergency heal, you'll first have to wait for his previous action to finish. Fortunately, whoever you're controlling is powerful enough to make up for the lackluster AI, but that doesn't change the feeling that you have one competent fighter and three idiots, instead of a fully realized fighting team.

Combat in The Last Hope begins fairly interesting, but as the game progresses, it loses a lot of its luster. Once you begin to get some of the bonus abilities, there isn't much that can threaten you. By the end of the second planet, Edge Maverick had well over 10,000 HP, and by the end of the third, everyone in my party did. Once I got to the fourth planet, I had a character who could win every fight up to the final boss by simply standing still and spamming a single homing attack over and over again. Keep in mind that I wasn't using synthesis or rare items for these challenges. I was using basic store-bought equipment and regular bonuses that I'd earned from the bonus board. It wasn't until the post-game dungeon that I was capable of facing a foe that could remotely challenge me and force me to use blindside attacks again. Tri-Ace games are never particularly difficult, but they usually encourage you to learn the system, and The Last Hope most certainly doesn't. The combat can still be entertaining, and figuring out good combos is fun, even after you get the win button abilities.

You have a surprising amount of customization over your characters in The Last Hope. You can teach your characters special passive abilities by finding various skill manuals scattered around the various worlds. These abilities can then be upgraded to higher levels by spending skill points, which are earned individually by leveling up and fighting enemies, or party skill points, which are earned by completing side-quests or finding items. You can also choose to set your party to Burst, Neutral or Strike combat modes. Burst improves your defense and Rush abilities, Strike improves your attack and blindsiding abilities, and Neutral improves your stats but offers no special benefits to blindsiding or Rush. These combat modes level up the more you use them, gaining greater effects and sometimes new abilities. Strike mode tends to be best for characters you plan to control, while Burst is better for AI-controlled characters, who can take advantage of Rush mode and the improved defensive abilities. I felt that the secondary abilities granted by Strike and Burst were far more useful than any Neutral stat bonuses.

You also have the ability to create and customize special equipment on your ship. Each character has some sort of unique crafting ability, and once you get that character and level up his or her crafting ability with SP, you can begin inventing items by assigning your characters to research items. Once characters have researched an item, you can build it at any time you have the ingredients. More important is the synthesis ability that's granted to you when you recruit Sarah. Synthesis allows you to upgrade and enhance your equipment by adding various attributes to it, such as improved damage, the ability to freeze enemies, or even attributes that can make your characters weaker or your enemies tougher. The only way to create the best equipment in the game is to the synthesize it, and fortunately, the synthesis system is much less frustrating than Star Ocean 3's method, with no chance of failure involved. If you have the ingredients and the levels, you can make anything at the touch of a button.

The dungeon design in The Last Hope is pretty good. The dungeons are quite lengthy and fun to explore, with some basic puzzles to help keeps things fresh. It's reasonably easy to avoid enemies if you don't want to fight, which is a nice bonus. There is even plenty of encouragement to explore, as any items you find also give you experience points and party SP. This feature is quite nice, as it allows gamers who don't want to fight every single random battle a way to keep their characters closer to fighting capacity while still avoiding combat. What the game could really use are a few more dungeons; there are only a handful in the game, and while they're fun, they are few and far between, separated by lots and lots of fetch quests and cut scenes.

The Last Hope is absolutely plagued by bizarre and inexplicable game design choices. These range from the minor to the game-breaking, and it's really quite difficult to overlook them, even if you've enjoyed the rest of the game. An example of a minor problem is that the game doesn't feature a "run" button or simple analog control. Instead, switching between running and walking is done by toggling the "walk/run" option with one of the shoulder buttons, and it defaults back to walk every single time you enter a building. Since there is absolutely no reason to walk anywhere, this just means a small and tedious annoyance for what should be an incredibly basic game feature.

An example of a potential game-breaking annoyance is the disc-swapping feature. The Last Hope is a three-disc game, and as the game progresses, you swap discs. This is a minor annoyance, but you can't bypass this even if you install the game to your Xbox 360 HDD. Once you reach the final dungeon, you unlock a lot of side-quests and the ability to return to earlier planets in the game. Calnus, which has all of your synthesis abilities, is located on Disc 3. The side-quests and other planets, including some of the character's ultimate abilities and at least one of the bonus dungeons, are on Disc 2. Since synthesis is strongly recommended for bonus content, that means you get the fun of switching back and forth between discs every time you want to synthesize equipment. It grows tedious very quickly, especially if your entertainment center is not set up to easily swap discs.

Some games, like Eternal Sonata and Tales of Vesperia, adapt an anime style quite well. The Last Hope really does not. The character designs are caught in an uncanny valley between realistic and anime style, and it makes some of them look really creepy. Repeated close-ups of Lymle's soulless doll eyes are disturbing. A lot of the body language is also pretty bad. For some reason, each character has an off-putting habit of "twitching" and moving very slightly at all times, which seems to be an attempt to reflect natural human mannerisms but looks distinctly unnatural on the large-eyed Star Ocean cast.. The game looks quite good during action scenes, where the cast is moving around and generally being active; the unnatural mannerisms are not quite as apparent here, and the camera isn't heavily focused on the character's faces, but those scenes are unfortunately in the minority. Most of the battle animations and overall visuals are solid; it's simply the character animations that are disappointing.

Unfortunately, there isn't much positive that I can say about the sound. The soundtrack is good, if not hugely memorable, but it is far overshadowed by the extremely lackluster dub. Few of the actors are well-chosen, and even fewer are likeable. Some of your cast is moderately well-voiced, although none of them are particularly great, but the passable voices are tempered by some of the most annoying squeaky-voiced characters I've ever encountered in an RPG. Lymle is particularly aggravating due to her slow and monotonous voice, and she gets more lines than the rest of the cast combined. The game gives you the opportunity to turn off particular character voices during battle, but that does little to make the cut scenes better.

I really wanted to like Star Ocean: The Last Hope. The gameplay systems are rather fun, and once you get the hang of combat, it's fairly rewarding and fun, although a bit awkward in some instances. Customizing and developing your characters is gratifying, and exploring dungeons is also enjoyable. Unfortunately, many of these positive aspects are undone by the game's presentation: bizarre design choices, overly long and deeply uninteresting cut scenes, creepy and off-putting character models and an extremely lackluster dub. It's not a bad RPG; it's simply a mediocre one with a lot of uninteresting filler between enjoyable, if not particularly challenging, gameplay segments. How much fun a gamer will have with Star Ocean: The Last Hope depends almost entirely on his or her ability to work through the cut scenes and plot. If you can do this, you'll find a reasonably fun, if unexceptional game. If you can't, it's best to not even try.

Score: 7.0/10

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