Space: the final frontier. Let’s face it: outer space is awesome. The reality, the possibility, everything about the universe beyond our small blue planet is infinitely compelling and interesting. And the vehicle we use to traverse this great expanse of pulsars, nebulae and impenetrably dark black holes—science fiction—has infinite reach. Enter the universe of Star Ocean: The Last Hope, and prepare to take those bold first steps beyond the Oort Cloud.*
To the uninitiated, the Star Ocean series occurs in a universe very-similar to that of Star Trek. You have analogous versions of the United Federation of Planets, the Prime Directive, and Vulcans. But The Last Hope is a prequel to the other three Star Ocean titles, and it takes place long before any of those exist. The story opens at the dawn of human space exploration—the protagonist, Edge Maverick, is one of the first humans to travel aboard a faster-than-light Starship. You leave Earth wholly ignorant of the great universe beyond, on a mission of discovery. Of course, this premise is entirely reminiscent of the oft-maligned Star Trek prequel, Enterprise. You’re on your own out there, with no one to rely on but yourself.
My merging a Roddenberry-esque Star Trek setting with typical Japanese panache and role-playing staples, Star Ocean creates a setting that is familiar to the average gamer, but still retains a unique character—and even charm—all its own. To those who have played through previous iteration in the series, The Last Hope is precisely what you’d expect to see in a Star Ocean game: it deftly manages to be both insanely enjoyable and utterly infuriating, in equal measure. Is The Last Hope a fun game? Yes, by the Tycho Magnetic Anomaly, it most certainly is. But is it a good game? That, dear friends, may well be an entirely different matter.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope is a role-playing game with real-time combo-based combat. Ten years ago, that would have been a huge badge of honor. These days, real-time combat in an RPG is pretty old-hat. And to be fair, the way in which The Last Hope implements the combat system is fairly archaic in its own right. When you run across the field, you encounter monsters. Once you encounter monsters, you leave the field and transition to a special combat-arena: a small enclosed space (generally only one per area). After you load the fight, the game’s camera will zoom in on each enemy individually. Ostensibly this would happen to alert the player to the type of enemies he or she will be fighting, so the player can plan accordingly… only there’s really not a lot of room to plan in an action-RPG. Frequently, you will be spending more time waiting for combat-areas to load and the camera to display each enemy than you will actually fighting those enemies. And once you win, you must endure the typical post-victory fanfare—all of which consumes just a little bit more time than it ought to, and quickly becomes no more than an annoyance.
The combat itself is fast-paced and fun, though there are a few things I didn’t care for with the basic mechanics and controls. Fortunately, all of the buttons can be assigned to different commands, so most issues are easy to resolve. You can directly control any of the party-members, almost all of which are fun (and effective) to use, and can switch between them mid-battle with ease. Combos can be built up with normal attacks, special attacks and various symbolic (read: magic) techniques, and can be quite rewarding depending on how much time you invest. The addition of several other elements—rush mode and and blindsiding—make combat a whole lot of fun. Though, admittedly, at the easier difficulties most battles entail little more than tapping the attack button and waiting for everything to die.
Similar to the other big science-fiction epic role-playing game on the Xbox 360, Mass Effect, The Last Hope gives the player a galaxy map and several different planets to explore. The number of locations you can visit is rather limited, though each planet has a unique “identity” to it, but each area is very large with tons of areas to explore–and rest assured, you will be revisiting planets plenty of times, finding new treasures and toppling new foes.
The areas you’ll be running around are enormous and look fantastic. Though many of the basic terrain textures and models are overly simple (the world can look very outdated at times) the water and lighting effects can be astonishing—and the level of detail in the design, textures and animation of the various monsters you’ll encounter can be downright jaw-dropping. The various magic-attacks are equally impressive, and make exploring and fighting a visual feast. Just exploring the world at a leisurely pace, and watching the various creatures dart about their world, can be entertaining. The one concern I have is that, perhaps, the areas are too big. You can spend a great deal of time running around, exploring every little nook and cranny of the map, without really getting much of a reward. There are a few items you can find in the dimmest periphery, but they’re typically the same generic items you can buy in a store for a lot less trouble.
As amazing as the exterior environments are, I feel The Last Hope’s interior levels could use a bit of work. My problem is twofold: first, though we can rotate the camera, we cannot set the camera’s distance from the player character, which can make narrow interior areas feel incredibly claustrophobic. Navigating these narrow paths is also a bit iffy as Edge never seems to move at the right pace. You can toggle between walking and running, but walking always feels a bit too slow to me, and running a bit too fast. Because the interior environments are just as detailed as the outside environments—lots of tiny details, blinking lights, consoles, etc.—running can be dizzying, but if you walk it’ll take forever to get anywhere.
Outside of the strong, central storyline that will take anywhere from 40-50 hours to complete, The Last Hope holds a breadth of additional content for players to wade through. There are tons of side-quests to complete, tasks to take, character-based ending to unlock (there are a total of nine), items to craft (and invent) and various interactive scenes with your party members to participate in. There’s a lot to do, and all of it’s fun. One of the first things that stood out to me was that the jokes in The Last Hope can actually be funny, and it’s been a long time since I’ve played an RPG that made me laugh. The entire game is infused with Aoi Sakuraba’s soundtrack, which makes even the most mundane of scenes seem, somehow, epic. The Last Hope is the kind of game where you can have a great deal of fun, no matter what you’re doing.
But not every star shines brightly in this Star Ocean. While a vast majority of the game can be insanely fun and enjoyable, just enough flys off in the opposite direction—aspects that are irritating, infuriating, and downright bad.
*The Oort Cloud is a hypothetical spherical-shaped cloud of comets surrounding Sol, whose outer extent defines our Sun’s gravitational boundary. Also called the Hill’s Cloud, it is supposed to exist 50,000 AU (slightly less than 1LY) beyond the Sun.
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