Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Game Review: Star Ocean: The Last Hope (XBox)

Star Ocean: The Last Hope is the latest installment of the Star Ocean RPG series from Japan. The Last Hope is actually a prequel to the three other games that came before. It begins with WWIII, and how the ruined Earth prompted humanity to look toward space -- the "star ocean." With the secret help of a race of aliens called the Eldarians, Earthlings develop the hyperspace technology necessary to launch space ships to the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

The main characters in the story, Edge Maverick and Reimi Saionji, are crew members on one of the ships assigned to find a suitable planet for human relocation. As the fleet of ships prepares to launch from the moon base, famous hero Commander Kenny calls the two "Seeds of Hope" in his head. Since Edge is 20 and Reimi is 19, and they're somehow part of a mission where the future of humanity hangs in the balance, that's pretty much a dead giveaway that they're genetically altered to be superior to the rest of humanity.

After this entirely plausible opening scenario that will suck about thirty minutes of your life, The Last Hope's story rapidly goes into a nosedive. First, there's a scene involving giant insects with electromagnetic shields that deflect the crew's guns. So Edge has to fight with a sword and Reimi has to use a bow and arrows for the rest of the game. I think I got whiplash from shaking my head in disgust. Basically, the team landed on a planet judged inhabitable for Earthlings, with conditions similar to a dinosaur era on Earth, and the hostile insects evolved a defense against exactly the kind of high-tech weapons the crew carried? I can't even stop my eye roll right now. Then the writers compound the stupidity by claiming in the in-game manual that Edge has such great reflexes that he would be a poor gunman -- apparently, he's so fast that he'll shoot at where the enemy will be, instead of where it is. Groan.

Soon, a young Eldarian named Faize joins Edge and Reimi. Faize invented a small aircraft called the Sol that can flit easily within a planet and also well outside the planet's atmosphere. Faize, genius alien, fights with a rapier. Double groan. Fortunately, he has Symbology (magic), which is always useful. The trio continue the mission of finding an appropriate planet and meet a young girl named Lymle, who had the potential to be mega-annoying but is only marginally so. I can overlook the foibles of a character with powerful Symbology.

Anyway, eventually the group realizes that something much bigger is afoot in the universe, and off they go on a couple more planets. Along the way, they meet an engineer from an ancient alien race with a self-appointed mission of safeguarding space. Unlike Fiancé, this engineer has zero personality and is completely useless in battle. Reimi can fire off three shots in the time it takes him to launch a beam from his arm. Next, they meet Meracle, who is -- of course -- a scantily clad cat girl. Then they rescue/recruit one of the Featherfolk, Sarah Jerand, who clearly has the brains of a bird, how fitting. Good thing her AI heals the group like a boss. Next up is the impossibly busty Myuria, whose...assets...also include strong magic and playful disdain for all the other characters. Plus, she steals MP from enemies! Beautiful, agile, strong offensive magic, decent healing magic, and can self-supply MP? That's my favorite character right there. Finally, angry Eldarian Arumat joins up, and I mistakenly leveled him up as my secondary Tank without realizing that Meracle had higher attack stats, and she's faster, too. That'll teach me to judge based on appearances.

The cast of characters, combined with the excellent combat system, make The Last Hope super fun. After all, variety is the spice of life. Getting a new character is always a pleasure because all of them have different fighting styles and hilarious battle cries. The graphics during battle are superb. The characters make incredible leaps and dodges and swipes. The Special Attacks help you pwn any enemy in no time flat, especially if you do a Chain Combo. You can also go into Rush Mode if you get hit or strike the enemy enough times, and then your character glows white and goes berserk. It's all very satisfying. Also, it seems Myuria can only cast a spell while posing like she's on the cover of Maxim. I love it, I love it.

Apart from the awesome fighting, The Last Hope continues the franchise's Item Creation, a gameplay element that rewards the obsessive gamer. You can create any item if you have the recipe and the needed materials. Every shop you visit has a list of delivery orders that you can fulfill to gain EXP and money. Naturally, a lot of the items they want must be created, and there must be much fighting, mining, and foraging before Item Creation. I would have wasted away playing this game when I was a teenager. Fortunately, as an adult, I have my priorities in order. I knew that I had to finish this game as soon as possible so I can move on to the next game. (That would be Eiyuu Densetsu: Zero no Kiseki Evolution.)

Anyway, if I had to rank this game, the story would get a 3 out of 10. The writers thought that the characters clearly having a boner for Edge equals character development. They were wrong. Many events were improbable, even for a sci-fi/fantasy game. The cut scenes were unnecessarily long. One cut scene took almost an hour. It also peed all over science. Ugh. The writer(s) of The Last Hope needed to care more. Meanwhile, the music is a solid 8 out of 10. Motoi Sakuraba of Valkyrie Profile fame composed the soundtrack, and he's an old hand at operatic games. I especially enjoyed the mournful theme of Lemuris. The graphics get a 6 out of 10. The palette on the world map made everything look flat. Finally, the combat system is a 9 out of 10 for being fast-paced and fairly challenging. Yay battles!

In conclusion: The Last Hope is a serviceable entry into the Star Ocean series. It will please hardcore RPGers with its traditional story, strong combat system, and clever Item Creation aspect. The character designs will likely creep out or annoy Western RPGers, which is always a bonus.

If you want to try this game, I advise you to skip the cut scenes. Then you can cut out 40% of the time it takes to play this game! And you can go and frolic outside! Frolic, I say! FROLIC!

This review brought to you by too many sugary holiday treats.