I realize I am a little late to the party with this game. Considering my old love affair with JRPGs and the considerable lack thereof in this generation of gaming, I’m shocked at myself for not picking this game up sooner. Especially since I did enjoy my time with Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (minus the whole “Deux-Ex Machina” crap in the end) back in the PS2 days. This entry is written as a prequel to the rest of the Star Ocean games. The Last Hope has a considerable amount of playable content and things to rant (I mean write) about. From the story, to the large cast of characters, to the large maps to explore, to the layered battle system, to the post-game content, there’s enough to keep me busy on this blog post for a while.
For those of you familiar with the Star Ocean games, I am happy to say this entry preserves the overall atmosphere of the previous installments. Between the sound effects, skills, battle system, and overall atmosphere, I knew this was a Star Ocean game through and through. And, more than TTEOT, I felt completely overwhelmed with the game’s enormous scope and layered battle system at the onset of the journey.
One of the first things you do when beginning TLH is partake in a battle simulator/tutorial. While I don’t dislike tutorials, I dislike it when a game teaches you everything it’s going to teach you in the first half an hour. I’m one of those people who needs time to absorb and learn new information and would rather be shown and taught different elements of the battle system over the course of my journey. There are plenty of new battle aspects Star Ocean veterans will have to learn, mainly the new Rush Gauge and Blindside mechanics.
The Rush Gauge is your typical rage/limit/overdrive meter. As the characters do damage to enemies or receive damage, their Rush increases. When it reaches 100 you can activate it, causing the character to do more damage and if you’re controlling said character you can initiate special moves that do a metric crap ton of damage, especially if another character joins in on the fun. Keep in mind enemies have Rush capabilities as well. Bosses LOVE to Rush and pound you when they do so. It is also nearly impossible to strategically stop them from doing so. Unless your idea of fun is constantly swapping between characters set to “Manual” to keep them from getting the boss to Rage status within the first 5 seconds of a battle. One of the only good things I have to say about this game’s AI setting is that characters will go into Rage on their own and make themselves useful.
The new Blindside mechanic is a whole different beast that definitely takes time to practice and master. If you like changing up your gaming experience and controlling different character just for fun (though you will for necessity’s sake at times also), this is even more true. Each character’s Blindside animation is different. Basically, “Blindsiding” an enemy is like a fancy dodge/counter. Instead of incorporating a more sensible dodge and/or counter for the player-controlled character, someone thought it would be a good idea to make the player stand still and charge a button. Then, when the indicator changes, releasing the button prompts an animation that gives the character a chance to initiate an attack or special attack on the enemy. As characters level their BEAT, they unlock abilities that can enhance Blindsides if they are in the Strike BEAT. My main problem with this was, again, the lack of instruction about what it all meant. Each BEAT has 20 levels which increase through participating in battles. The Strike BEAT enhances Blindsides for when the player is controlling said character. Call me stupid, but I was never able to figure out if the enhancements I unlocked were passive, initiated, or just plain fell out of the sky.
There’s also a neat feature called the “Bonus Board.” Performing certain actions in battle will place colored tiles on the Bonus Board and grant you different perks after battle. There are four different types of bonuses: Experience increase, Fol increase, HP/MP regeneration, and Skill Point rewards. It is fun trying to get the ideal Bonus Board for whatever you’re currently trying to achieve. It is equally frustrating to lose half the Bonus Board you spent twenty minutes meticulously filling because an enemy happened to get a critical hit on you, or, gods-forbid, real life interrupted and you had to turn the game off. Running away from battles, getting critically hit and turning the game off are ways to reset the Bonus Board. Of course, getting critically hit is really the only factor you don’t have much control over. I don’t suggest spending too much time building the Board before a boss fight to get oodles of experience. Chances are, the boss will kick your pretty rainbow-colored Bonus Board to the curb faster than you can say “Blindside.”
The rest of the things I have to say about the battle system are not happy in the slightest. Check out my list of gripes that make this game a huge step backwards for action-RPGs everywhere:
1.) Using items in battle isn’t as fluid as it should be. There is a an annoying cooldown. You will also most likely spend five minutes going through your inventory because a.) Due to Item Creation I was too afraid to dump any items, b.) You can’t manually organize your inventory like every other RPG in the world, and, c.) You can only carry up to 20 of any one item. The game’s idea of making up for this arbitrary inventory cap is to give you five different items that essentially do the same thing.
2.) Casting magic is painfully slow and boring. The only time I had a mage in my active party was when I was being forced, or when I really needed a healer. The charge time for spells is ridiculously long for such a fast-paced game. There is also no “I changed my mind I’d rather use an item instead” button. This also makes switching between characters annoying because if you’re in dire straits and absolutely need a character to cast a spell or use an item, too bad! You have to wait at least 5 seconds for the computer to finish doing whatever it wants to do. Oh, and the dedicated healer doesn’t learn Fast Cast. Makes perfect sense to me.
3.) There is no manual targeting. Really. No, I am not telling you some sick joke. You have to rely on the game’s terrible discretion about what it decides you want to kill instead of letting one of the trigger buttons swap between targets. Because that would make sense. It is forgivable in the beginning of the game and against easy enemies. But when you get to difficult boss fights, bosses that spawn ads, random fights with over half a dozen enemies protecting one troublesome mage, and post-game content, it is downright asinine. Almost as if the developers went out of their way to frustrate gamers. You’d think manual targeting would be a no-brainer in a game like this. The closest you get to deciding what you want to attack is choosing to “Lock On” to something once the computer finally decides to target it. And good luck switching to something else if you so choose.
4.) The AI in this game, is, well… special, if you get my drift. The following scenario solidified the fact that I couldn’t rely on the AI to do anything remotely helpful: While fighting Gabriel Celeste, a post-game boss, the AI healer decided it was more important to Attack buff a character than resurrect the character who had been dead for well over 30 seconds. Nice priorities. Again, this is a fluke that is forgivable during the first half of the game, but end and post game content are difficult enough where I found myself yelling obscenities at the unreliable AI. Especially for healing. There isn’t even a “prioritize healing” tactical option for characters with healing spells! The best option available is to turn off all of the healer’s offensive spells and cross your fingers. A BIG step backwards for Square Enix. Hard to believe this came out after Final Fantasy XII. While not high on my Final Fantasy favorites list, I can’t argue that it has the best AI set up I’ve ever seen in a video game.
As I mentioned earlier, this game looks enormous and intimidating in the beginning. The maps and dungeons are of considerable size. The exploration is akin to playing a MMORPG. You have great environments to explore and monsters to farm. NPCs in villages and towns will give you side quests to complete that usually involve obtaining a certain number of items like in typical MMORPGs. Except, unlike smart MMORPGs and other RPGs, there is NO fast travel until the final dungeon. Nor do NPCs with quests to pick up or complete have indicators above their heads like most games nowadays. Honestly, these are two more big missteps that I think should come without question. In a game of this scope, how could the developers not give you the option to go back to your ship (the only place you can access Item Creation) through the main menu, a hearthstone-like item, or a freaking save point for crying out loud? Remember Final Fantasy X? How could you guys forget something you already did right in one of your best selling games?
Traversing planets before being able to fast travel to specific towns is a nightmare. Especially on the planet Roak, where you need to find a Bunny (this game’s approach to Chocobos) to cross the desert quicksands to get from point A to point B. Obtaining Meracle’s optional skill Ocarina on your first trip to Roak is painful. Don’t be a masochist. Wait until Sarah learns “Bunny Call” or until you get the transporter. The same can be said for the enormous dungeons. Whoever designed these needs to have their head examined. I’m all for having puzzles in dungeons that help you feel like you accomplished something or to access really good loot. But this game has you pulling your hair out at times just to get to the next floor or to access a treasure chest only to find out it has boring old berries you could just purchase in your ship for a paltry amount of fol if you wanted them (chances are you’ll already be carrying the maximum amount of said item anyway). You’re also up to your own devices to figure out how to surpass the puzzles. Most of the time it isn’t an issue, but there are a couple of instances that were more than slightly frustrating.
Following this train of thought, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of the dungeon designs include very narrow, linear hallways. This makes it difficult to avoid fights or intentionally set up ambushes to acquire green tiles on the Bonus Board. Coming fresh from post-game, I’m still frustrated with this because utilizing the Stealth skill to avoid encounters didn’t work in the post-game dungeons. Even when I THOUGHT my active party members were at max level and most random encounters were a big waste of time.
True Story: While taking advantage of farming Metal Scumbags for experience and fol, the game said the characters were at max level when they hit 200. I was confused because I read the max level was 255. Assuming it was something else they changed for the International version, we carried on with the game, only to shake our heads in confusion when Meracle leveled up again! Sure enough, going back into the main menu her experience bar no longer said “Max.” Turns out you have to unlock the level cap by performing (mostly) random feats in battle when you’re controlling the character to get the battle trophies. To give you an idea of how random some of them are, one of Armuat’s battle trophies is “Survive with 4 HP.” No thanks. I am not going to finish a whole bunch of fights as characters I don’t particularly like to remove their level caps and mindlessly grind some more.
Back to my stealth rant. I still don’t know if the skill takes into account the non-active members (the characters I didn’t use were at pretty low levels), or if it really is that worthless. I shouldn’t have let it get to me because at that point I already knew the game was full of hour-padding and the extra dungeons certainly shouldn’t be any exception. This goes back to one of my core complaints about this game. There’s a metric ton of content, but the battle simulator and Item Creation launch guides are all you get for tutorials. I would’ve appreciated tutorials on equipping/leveling skills with better explanations. Oh, and numbers/percentages for equipment factors that say things like “Increases critical hit chance.”
I’m sure you’re dying to hear about the riveting characters and plot by now. This game puts the “J” in JRPG. The characters fit all your standard anime stereotypes. I almost thought to commend this game for having a high number of playable female characters. Then, after acquiring said characters, I realized each one fits into the annoying female stereotypes I’ve come to furrow my eyebrows at. To be fair, they didn’t miss any stereotypes with the males either. There’s even the annoying child who has a penchant for using the same word over and over. In this case, it happens to be a girl named Lymle. A mage/summoner, surprise surprise. Then there’s Sarah: the innocent virginal character politely described as being naive when she’s actually a clueless airhead. I know she is a virgin because the game said so (the revelation was in context, at least). She also has wings, wears all white, and is a healer. Gasp! Her foil is Myuria: another mage. Whose absurdly generous breasts leave little to the imagination. She has a tragic back story, thus giving her the license to act like a mature relationship know-it-all who enjoys insufferably teasing the main character. Don’t forget Meracle, the cat chick. She’s funny, half-naked but flat as a board. Last but not least, we have Reimi Saionji. Or, as we appropriately named her, “Hot Ass,” because the game is more interested in showing off her perfectly sculpted behind than her face. She’s a conglomeration of the previously neglected stereotypes: childhood friend/girl next door submissive/apologetic tease who suddenly turns maternal whenever there is a child in the room.
Phew! And that’s not even getting into the male characters. I’m sure you can already guess what those include: Mysterious bad boy, androgynous alien-elf thing, matter-of-fact robot man, and the obnoxious main character with blond hair, semi-effeminate, who becomes everyone else’s hero through no fault of his own. And he has an obnoxious name to boot. Edge Maverick. Oh please. There’s nothing “edgy” about him. Actually, he spends half the game moping about like an emo thirteen year old. Oh, and his sword is strapped horizontally across his butt. Like Lightning in Final Fantasy XIII. Not functional in the slightest. The tip of his sword conveniently disappears whenever walking through doorways instead of appropriately jamming and getting him stuck.
The plot isn’t inherently bad. You’ve got a standard sci-fi anime with RPG “Save Mankind” syndrome. It’s just that the character development and dialogue are laughable. I spent most of the lengthy cutscenes chuckling and mocking them. Speaking of cutscenes, be prepared to sit through some pretty hefty ones. I’m a Xenosaga fan so I’m not going to say this is necessarily bad. There’s just more comic relief than the writers intended, is all. Stuff that isn’t supposed to be funny is, and stuff that is supposed to be funny is obnoxious. I like anime and manga so I’m pretty sensitive to translation and cultural mixups… but that still didn’t stop me from wanting to choke Welch, Sarah and Lymle every time they spoke. And Reimi whenever she was acting all “Oh Edge, do me now!” in response to him acting like a total toolbox.
Post-game in TLH holds a considerable amount of content. Mainly in terms of Item Creation and dungeons. It is impossible to make a lot of high end gear without spending a considerable amount of time in the extra dungeons. Cave of Seven Stars is the first post-game dungeon you’ll want to visit. It isn’t too painful. Which is good, because chances are you’ll be revisiting it to stock up on Magical Clay or to do some fol and experience grinding. The only real obnoxious part about it is having to backtrack the entire dungeon after getting an item near the end. As if this game needed any more pointless hour-padding. But you may as well enjoy your time in Seven Stars because the Wandering Dungeon is a masochist’s dream. It is 20+ floors of complete randomness that can easily set off a completionist’s OCD. Each floor has randomized loot (most of it is insulting) with the potential of having a really good piece of equipment. If you don’t get the specific item on its designated floor, you have to exit the dungeon and start all over again. No elevators, no save points, no healing spots. The even numbered floors have random criteria you must meet to go to the next floor. Some you will complete in five minutes, others could take as long as half an hour. Plus, if you’re looking for the Santa shop, once you give him all of your money, you have to leave the dungeon to go synth the crap you just bought! Plan on spending more than one gaming session in the Wandering Dungeon if you want to find and defeat this game’s ultimate boss.
Overall, SO:TLH suffers from a lot of oversights and/or laziness on the developer’s end. The super-cheesy dialogue is typical for what I come to expect out of Square-Enix nowadays. The amount of potential grind-happy hours in this game are bound to excite any content or trophy-hungry gamer. But the amount of hours spent with mindless repitition are more apt to turn gamers like myself off. The Last Hope is one step forward for the Star Ocean series, but a big step backwards for the action-RPG genre.