As spring begins to rear its beautiful, beautiful head, a new string of games prepares themselves for release towards the final half of the first quarter. With releases like Street Fighter IV, Resident Evil 5, Halo Wars, and Guitar Hero: Metallica, many titles will inevitably be overlooked. Titles that will offer closure; that will offer innovation; that will not be the afterbirth of Age of Empires (yes, I’m talking to you Halo Wars).
Fear not though, my young gaming padawans, for I am your guide amongst these highly anticipated beasts, and promise you will not get lost in the fray, nor will you be consumed by the hype being vomited out faster than Lindsay Lohan can binge and purge her last supper.
Whether you simply just enjoy an RPG, get totally batshit loco over them, or loathe them with every living breath, Square Enix is set to release Star Ocean: The Last Hope (a week ahead of schedule by the way); the series’ “final” installment, one that will wow even the most devoted “hater.” The Last Hope will actually be the beginning of the entire Star Ocean story, chronicling the consequences, and subsequently, the discoveries, that followed the third World War and led up to the first SO. The game will provide much background information for veterans of the series, for it takes place well over 300 hundred years prior to the first game, just as the occupants of planet Earth begin anew.
Shortly after World War III and the complete devastation of Earth, society is left to pick up the pieces of a dying planet, and begins work on interstellar exploration. By the year 2087, the Universal Science and Technology Administration, or USTA, has established a type of light speed, enabling almost instant traveling among vast areas of space. The first successful space warp ushers in a new age for humanity, one aptly named “Star Date,” referred to as SD. With the ability to travel vast distances in very short time periods, USTA creates the Space Reconnaissance Force (SRF), and their first official mission, SD 0010, is the start of Star Ocean: The Last Hope.
Taking on the role of main protagonist Edge Maverick, you’ll be able to explore the vastness of space using the Calnus, an interstellar ship, the exploration being new to the series. Star Ocean has always been popular because of its science fiction setting, a stark contrast to the overexposed fantasy backdrop that we’ve become so accustomed to; however, the player was never given the ability to actually explore space at the helm of a ship. Previous SO games have included multiple planets, but generally in a linear and non-exploratory manner. The Last Hope will allow the player to travel from planet to planet in the comfort of the Calnus (some will remember the ship from the first two games), and hopefully will allow for non-linear exploration. The ship is equipped with the battle arena (as seen in all previous installments) and an item creation center, a major staple of the series, as well as being a source for Private Actions.
For those not familiar with the Star Ocean universe, Item Creation (IC) and Private Actions (PA) are two major game mechanics that SO revolves around, and ones that have been rooted into the series since the very beginning. Item creation is fairly straight forward; players have the options of creating pieces of armor, upgrading or creating weapons, alchemy, and many other various creation techniques. The first two games allowed of item creation at any given point in the game, given you acquired the correct abilities and items. Till the End of Time introduced the idea of a forgery or “creation center” in order to create new items, which returns in The Last Hope. New to IC is the aesthetic designs used to decorate the ship. Such decorations include vending machines, new furniture, and a jukebox that will play unlocked tracks found within the game.
Private Actions provide some background information on characters, planets, and story, yet, they are primarily used to build rapport with your teammates. If the right dialog options are chosen, further cutscenes or special events will be unlocked, providing detail on your companions and their backgrounds. By completing more and more private actions, players will build affinity with their teammates and most importantly, and this single notion can make or break a game for some RPG enthusiasts, character affinity has an impact on what you will see or won’t see during the ending of the game. The more PAs you complete, the more in depth your ending will become. Square Enix has promised nearly 100 PAs to complete (you achievement whores are gonna have your work cut out for you), and with a probable “directors cut” or possible DLC, I hope to only see more.
Now what really makes Star Ocean stand out as a series is the real time combat that has makes you feel all warm and gooey inside. Encounters occur randomly in dungeons, much like most other RPGs, but as you’ll see, thats about as far as the similarities go. Battles are smooth and very fluid, allowing the player to freely roam the battlefield on all axises and attack in combinations, as well as unleash special attacks, all with quick strikes of a couple buttons. Menus, besides selecting items and the new feature of swapping members out on the fly, are nonexistent, which will allure many new gamers who hate the slow, menu driven style of combat that has dominated the RPG genre. For veterans, you’ll notice some new actions available in combat. For one, a jump action has (FINALLY) been added. The second change brings back the fourth party member into battles, reverting to the original formula. The third, and biggest change to combat, is the all new “Rush Mode.” Once the player fills their rush meter, they’ll be able to unleash powerful special or preemptive attacks, allowing for more dynamic battles.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope looks to be an extremely promising title, hoping to provide an engrossing experience that will attract not only fans of the series, but newcomers as well. Square Enix took a very interesting risk by exclusively release the game on the Xbox 360. The general public, at least in the US, who owns a 360 are people who want to play Halo 3 and Left 4 Dead; yet with the recent success of RPGs such as Lost Odyssey and sister-series Tales of Vesperia, this prequel hopes to do the same. And if the recent revivals of the first two games on the PSP have any indication of success, then The Last Hope is gonna rock yo’ face.