When it comes to the more traditional RPGs, and the ever poplar JRPG (that’s Japanese RPG, in case you were wondering), the 360 isn’t exactly well-endowed with the cream of the crop.
Tri-Ace, the same developer behind Infinite Undiscovery (reviewed here), along with Square Enix aim to remedy this situation with a new outing in the popular, long-running series, Star Ocean, and The Last Hope is the result.
Expanding and improving upon the existing Star Ocean formula, this time events take place in a parallel universe to the one seen in previous games, and serve as a prequel of sorts. Here, mankind, having decimated much of the planet Earth after triggering World War III, are on the verge of expanding into the Galaxy, thanks to the governments of the world forming an alliance. With peace finally achieved, humanity began an epic space program, with the aim of finding and colonising other inhabitable planets. We pick up the story as this mission is just about to begin, and the protagonist, the ridiculously named, Edge Maverick, is preparing to disembark on this historical quest.
As is to be predicted with these kinds of excursions, things don’t go as smoothly as expected, and it’s not long before the mission hits problems, and the need to bear arms and do battle with a range of weird and wonderful creatures rears its head.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope is an epic RPG spanning three discs, and it runs on an enhanced version of the same engine that powered Infinite Undiscovery. This allows for a large improvement in the visual element of the game, including real time lighting, and it also brings plenty of the familiar Star Ocean gameplay along, with some great features.
As is the norm with JRPGS, Star Ocean is populated almost entirely by colourful, spiky haired, twenty-something-year-olds, each of which has the usual cookie cutter personality we often see in this kind of fare (along with poor to average voice work). The game is split between exploration and battle, with the former letting you explore the game’s attractive landscapes and settlements, converse with locals, trade at shops and, of course, trudge around the many fields and dungeons.
Thankfully however, Star Ocean doesn’t use the archaic and outdated random battle encounter system we see so often, but instead lets you see your foes on the field, meaning you can avoid battles if you wish. Even better, if you manage to approach an enemy from behind, you’ll stage a pre-emptive attack, which leaves your foes defenceless for a while. If an enemy does the same to you though, you’ll be surprised, and your foes will start with an advantage.
Once in battle, SO:TLH also goes against tradition and, like its predecessors and more recent titles like Final Fantasy XII and Infinite Undiscovery, it does away with turn-based combat, instead allowing total, real-time control – control that works better here than I’ve seen in most other similar titles.
Unlike FFXII’s half-baked manual combat and Undiscovery‘s clunky system, here combat is fast, fluid and very, very enjoyable. You have full control over Edge and his allies, and the whole system hangs together very well.
Attacking foes with combo attacks is easy, as is launching special attacks, which simply require a quick trigger press. Using items and casting spells is handled by a simple menu system (which also pauses the action, making it easier to manage) and you can even fully control any teammates by pressing the LB or RB buttons to cycle through each character.
Each of your team uses their own attack styles and weapons, and this switching of combatants is an important aspect to the game’s combat, as some foes can be dealt with far easier with certain characters.
A hugely important and impressive feature is your allies’ AI, which is spot on. When you leave them to fight alongside you, they really do contribute to the skirmish, defeating foes and actually helping out in a big way. You can still control their actions while not directly under manual input to a degree, and can change their tactics to make them stay out of trouble, conserve magic and so on.
A major addition to the battle mechanic lies with the game’s ‘blindside’ system. Using careful timing, and a simple control scheme, your characters are able to quickly evade an attack and then rush around to the enemy’s rear, or blind spot. Once there, they’re free to attack without fear or reprisal for a few seconds, and attacks do more damage. This may sound like a simple feature, but it adds a major tactical element to the game, and works very well indeed, especially in later, more difficult battles where blindsides really can help turn the tide.
Out of battle, Star Ocean also features some interesting elements, many of which have been seen before in the series, but still seem relatively fresh when compared with most titles of its ilk.
For example, the game features an impressive item creation system, which allows you and your allies to concoct and invent new items, weapons, armour and food. This is implemented using your ship’s classroom-style inventing area, where you can assign teams of characters to sit down and come up with new ‘recipes’. Once a new creation is invented, you’re informed of what items are needed to make it. If you have the items you can create it there and then, otherwise you’ll need to go hunting for the raw materials needed to get the job done.
This is a great way of getting some of the better, more powerful weapons and other items, and gives you a real reason to explore and fight foes, so you can locate and collect ingredients and materials.
Underneath this is a deep and rewarding levelling and management system. You can learn new skills, magic and abilities, create unique attribute boosting gemstones using data from monsters you defeat, equip custom combo special attack sequences, forge friendships with your allies through choice conversions, mine for ore, harvest supplies and more. The game really is a deep and rewarding RPG, and one that plays as well and as smoothly as it is complex.
Flaws do pick away at the game from time to time, but most of these are nothing more than simple annoyances rather than game-breaking problems. For example, it’s often very difficult to pick up items without having to reposition your character precisely in front of a chest or other spot of importance, and for some odd reason, you can’t actually scroll the map when viewing it on the map screen. This means you can’t even look back to check where you’ve been, and you actually have to travel to the section of the area you’re in before you can see the layout. The other usual niggles for this breed of game are here, and include the previously mentioned iffy voice acting, and some downright annoying characters that you’ll wish you could meet in battle just to shut them up.
Another more notable problem with the game that detracts from the enjoyment somewhat is the game’s tendency to leave you wandering around without a clue as to what you’re actually supposed to do. Granted, this is usually remedied by a little exploration or finding the right character to talk to, but a little guidance from time to time would help. The Item creation is also a little on the clunky side, and unless you scout the universe for hard to find materials, creating your own weapons and armour will be difficult. This will please the hardcore collection freaks, but many players will end up ignoring this key feature, which is a shame.
Despite these flaws, I found Star Ocean: The Last Hope to be a hugely enjoyable JRPG romp, and one that finally delivers a truly great, traditional 360 RPG experience. It’s not a revolution, by any means, and isn’t the best RPG ever, but it does almost everything right, and isn’t mired in archaic JRPG conventions.
This is a worthy addition to any RPG fan’s collection, and thanks to the addictive and enjoyable combat, it should even have plenty of appeal for those new to RPGs, who want to see what all the fuss is about.