One of the first things you’ll notice about The Last Hope when you look at a screenshot is that Edge, and his steady compatriots, tend to fight with rather outdated-looking weaponry. Archery and swordplay in the future? Normally this would be an easy thing to dismiss as a kind of JRPG-idiosyncrasy. But it’s rather hard to ignore the anachronisms in The Last Hope when the game goes out of its way to point them out—and then, promptly and miserably, fails to adequately explain the anachronism. Why do Edge and his fellow deep-space warriors, fight with Medieval weapons? Because, on the very first planet you visit, a single species of alien insects are inexplicably immune to firearms. I would suggest you not think about that too much because it’s bloody stupid—but the game wants you to think about it, so it’s pretty hard not to.
Star Ocean’s explanation of why swords are better than guns is a bit indicative of The Last Hope’s overall problem: the writing staff is constantly shooting the story and the universe in the foot. While, thankfully, there’s nothing so bad as the nut-punching plot twist from Star Ocean 3, The Last Hope does stumble through what would have otherwise been a very engaging tale.
The Last Hope may be a very detailed, involved game with a ton of things to occupy the typical gamer, and it does, in fact, offer a compelling narrative with interesting characters, gracefully mixing drama, romance and humor in a blend few other games can manage. Unfortunately, The Last Hope seems to constantly trip over itself, stumbling incessantly as it tries to tell its story. A large bit of blame rests with the English-language localization team, who must have set out with the intention of sabotaging the game—there can be no other explanation for such poor, shoddy delivery. The Japanese developers who crafted the story are not without blame, either: it seems they went out of their way to rob several key scenes of tension (and sometimes context) stumbling their way through the delivery of an otherwise wholly engaging tale.
The Last Hope gives you a pretty fair idea of what to expect, and what not to expect, as soon as you start. First, read the back of the box. My eyes were drawn immediately to the part that read: “Explore the galaxy on your quest, make allies and enemies among the alien races you encounter, and uncover a threat so great it threatens all creation.”
The cliche is nearly permeable. But, rest assured, the story is delivered in several related mini-arcs that are very compelling, despite the archetypal nature of the overall narrative. The characters, though a bit derivative, can be both amusing and compelling, ensuring that your journey through the Star Ocean is, if nothing else, an enjoyable one. Unfortunately, the voice acting for the characters is terrible. I don’t mean the voices per-se are bad (no one’s acting, like The Last Remnant, is a Saturday morning cartoon, thank God), it’s just that the delivery sucks. It really, really sucks.
Nearly every line in the game feels like it was phoned it—one word at a time. What’s more, many of the characters sound bored with their dialog. Why should we gamers care what a character is saying when that character doesn’t seem to? And it’s filled with unnatural pauses, almost as though each lone word were a sentence unto itself. Basically. It. Makes. The. Dialog. Feel. Extremely. Disjointed. Unnatural. And. Jarring. And, just like that, the immersion is gone.
The execution of the main plot also leaves a lot to be desired. Obviously, Edge is going to encounter some aliens on his journey. Naturally, you’d think the first time you meet a genuine extra-terrestrial would be a seriously major experience, right? Not so for Edge. He takes such knowledge in stride, saying little more than, “Oh.” The whole scene is anticlimactic and underwhelming and does a lot to taint the whole feeling of exploring the unknown. The thing is, we Gamers take it for granted that there will be aliens out there. The developers of The Last Hope, coming from the previous three Star Oceans, also take it for granted that there will be aliens out there. The problem is, the actual characters in the game should NOT take extra-terrestrial life for granted. The story makes a huge stumble with the horridly-executed first-contact scene, and makes several similar stumbles that mar the otherwise well-handled narrative.
The Last Hope is also sorely deficient in the areas of level-design and character design. The worlds you discover, you will find, are all strikingly similar to Earth. And the aliens you meet? They’re all strikingly similar to humans. Hell, sometimes the two are indistinguishable. Oh—and all life in the galaxy exists in your standard carbon/nitrogen-based atmosphere. Gee golly, can’t you feel the homogeneity? The levels you explore oscillate wildly between labyrinthine sprawls and overly simple, linear traverses. Navigating can be difficult, but you get the feeling that, even if they weren’t quite up to the task, the level designers actually tried. When it comes to character design, I don’t think any effort was put into it at all. Actually, I seriously doubt tri-Ace bothered to hire any artists at all. One race of aliens has pointed ears. Another angelic wings. Oh—and catgirls, of course. Sometimes aliens settle for mutton-chops, or tattoos. It’s ridiculous, and, frankly, so low a level of creativity is inexcusable in a video game. If this were a low-budget television series from 1966, I might be able to overlook insipid alien designs. A pair of prosthetic ears, or a man with half his face painted solid black, the other half white, would be more than forgivable. But even Star Trek managed a few crazy-weird alien designs (Andorians, Tholians and Gorn, anyone?). The only obstacle The Last Hope faced was time and effort—and laziness is no excuse for lack of imagination.
In the end, despite (or perhaps in spite of) the various stumbling, bumbling and shoddy execution, The Last Hope still manages to be an immensely satisfying experience. RPG-fans have been burned several times this generation, with lackluster titles like The Last Remnant and Infinite Undiscovery, so it’s nice to see an RPG that finally delivers. It is, perhaps, a testament to The Last Hope’s quality that it’s able to overcome so many great flaws that could so easily break lesser games. Star Ocean: The Last Hope is an enjoyable game. It is an infuriating game. It can be funny, it can be annoying. It can be addictive, it can be tedious. But when all is said and done, what matters is not how you feel as you play the game—it’s how you feel after you play the game. And, mark my words, after you close the disc tray and shut-off your console, you’ll be left with a feeling of satisfaction. This Star Ocean isn’t merely a fun game, it’s a complete game. Despite its flaws, it’s very much a “whole” experience. You can play it in chunks of any length, and when you leave you’ll always have had fun. You’ll always be placing your game disc near to your console, because even when you play something else, you know it’s only a matter of time before you venture, once more, into the Star Ocean.
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The world of The Last Hope is stunning and animations are solid. Environmental textures could use some work, however, and the character design—particularly for aliens—is severely uninspired.
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Fast-paced real-time combat with a lot of depth and style. Different playable characters offer a nice variety of playstyles.
The soundrack is spectacular, but the English-language dub is absolutely, inexcusably atrocious.
A seriously long game, filled with stuff to do and see, this Star Ocean will soak up more hours than any other.
Though it has more than its fair share of flaws, The Last Hope remains a jewel, nonetheless.