Star Ocean: The Last Hope ReviewBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Feb 20, 2009
In this X-Play Review, we take a look at the new Xbox 360 game 'Star Ocean: The Last Hope'. Will the last game in the series be a welcome addition or more of the same? Find out in this Review!
- Epic, engaging and well paced story from start to finish
- Insane amount of things to see, do, make, kill, etc.
- Frenetic, complex and smooth combat
- Gorgeous and diverse environments
- Painfully bad voice acting
- Redundant dialogue
- Objectives aren't always clear
While it might not carry the same JRPG clout enjoyed by Final Fantasy, Square Enix’s latest RPG romp for the Xbox 360, Star Ocean: The Last Hope, does pretty much everything it can to make the last journey through in the Star Ocean franchise (which is actually the first journey, since it’s a prequel to the other games) as memorable, enjoyable and engaging as possible. It might not be for everyone, but you’d be surprised at how close it comes.
The New Last Hope
The Last Hope follows the adventures of Edge Maverick, a classically androgynous lad of 20, aboard one of the Earth’s first intergalactic spaceships tasked with exploring new worlds in the hopes of finding a new beginning for humanity. Several decades earlier, World War III essentially destroyed Earth, which forced people to live underground and eventually look towards the vast star ocean for real estate ideas (“What’s My Name?” Achievement Unlocked: Invoke the game’s title in its review. Sweet.).
The expedition quickly turns into a search and rescue mission after the ships encounter an unknown object during warp speed that scatters the ships to parts unknown. Edge takes over as captain shortly thereafter, and with the help of his interstellar crew (which grows and changes several times throughout the game), it is up to him to track down the rest of the ships and their crews. This scenario alone would make for a pretty fun little story, but of course, this is just the beginning. I won’t say too much about the rest of the plot since watching it unfold and trying to figure out where it’s all headed is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game and the story. Just know that there is a lot at stake here, not everyone will survive, and I hope you have a lot of time on your hands, because it’s a long journey. I also hope you like cutscenes, because not only are they lengthy, but they are plentiful as well.
The only major downside of the game’s narrative is the horrendous voice acting and, at times, the redundant and uninspired dialogue that accompanies it. Three of the five female characters in your crew have voices that sound like Michael Jackson gargling fire-engulfed cats, and their acting is equally painful to endure, especially since the frequent cutscenes are so lengthy. At a certain point, you learn to filter out all the annoying bits and focus on the essence of what’s going on and where the story is headed. Surprisingly, for as bad as the voice work and the script are, they only rarely ruin the narrative flow. This is due mostly to the fact that the pacing is fantastic, and the story unfolds at a great clip, with each beat feeling perfectly contained and leading nicely into the next one. There are a few twists along the way, but nothing so severe that it negates what has happened leading up to them. Despite the heavy-handedness of the game’s themes, it’s as compelling a game story as I’ve come across in a while.
Of All the Planets, In All the Solar Systems…
Over the course of the game, you travel between several planets and space stations. Some of the destinations are only visited once, while a few remain unlocked for most of the game. Traveling between planets is as easy as pulling up the planet map in the ship’s control room and selecting where you want to go. The areas available for you to explore on each planet are limited to dungeon-esque layouts (interiors as well as exteriors), but there are plenty of wide-open and expansive sections as well.
It doesn’t help that occasionally your next objective isn’t always that clear, so you’ll find yourself wandering around a lot without any real sense of whether you’re going the right way. One particularly frustrating section occurs in the next to last dungeon in the game, and it requires you to locate invisible doorways in order to proceed. Of course, the only way you find that out is by accidentally running into them. Fortunately, these instances are rare.
The diversity of each planet’s ecology (combined with the pace of the story) keeps you from having to stay in one place for too long. It also doesn’t hurt that the settings (ranging from lush beaches and forests to snow capped mountains to dilapidated space stations) are all beautifully designed, and they all just pop off the screen, due in large part to the stunning HDR lighting effects. Wet stone glimmers, light twinkles off water, metal shines, while wood and vegetation absorb light and stay muted. It’s all pretty spectacular, especially given how massive and diverse the environments are.
Scattered around each beautiful setting are plenty of goodies to reward exploration (treasure chests to unlock, minerals to mine, and food items to harvest). Each character has a set of field abilities that help with these various tasks. Item creation, a series staple, is back again and just as important and robust as ever. Since each character possesses strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the various item creation skills, there is a ridiculous amount of variety in the types of items you can build as well as what attributes those items carry. You can mix and match up to four groups of three characters, which again just adds tons of variety to the whole process. Between gathering the raw materials, creating recipes and building items, you could easily kill a dozen or so hours, and all of that is just one slice of the overall experience. The same can be said for the countless side quests that you stumble upon in every town and village you come across. You can also decorate your ship, tweak room assignments to unlock special side-story cutscenes, shop, trade, collect/create items for shopkeepers and so on. If you plow through the story and take up a side quest here and there, you’re looking at around 40 hours. With everything else, you could easily kill more than twice that without even noticing.
Trigger the Fight!
Of course, the real star of this ocean is the combat. As in previous entrants in the series, you initiate battles by approaching enemies in the field and then fighting in real-time in a separate arena. If I had one complaint about the combat, it’s that it isn’t carried out entirely in real-time in the field, especially since you have to listen to the same sound effect and watch the same battle-signaling graphic every single time you start a fight (so plan on hearing it and seeing it hundreds and hundreds of times).
In no way does this take away from the combat that’s here. It’s just something to consider.
Hardcore turn-basers might feel differently, but Star Ocean does a great job of making sure strategy factors in heavily with the real-time combat, especially when it comes to how you start fights. For instance, running into an enemy from behind means you get to attack first and the enemies will also have their backs turned for a few seconds when the fight begins. This can also happen to you, so staying alert in the field is important as well. There is also quite a bit of strategy involved in picking the battle strategies for your teammates. Not only can you decide whether you want them charging with full force or attacking without magic, you can also assign them general “BEAT” styles that can be leveled up throughout the game (except for the neutral style). So if you want two people to play offense while another plays defense, or the other way around, so be it. It’s just another fantastic way of giving players complete control over everything that transpires on the battlefield.
Can’t I Just Stab Stuff?
You also have the option of creating your own combos by mixing and matching up to three attacks, which are then linked to the trigger buttons. These combos can lead to some absolutely devastating onscreen mayhem, especially later on the game when you have four characters with three or four unholy abilities all fighting at the same time against swarms of enemies (By the way, the enemies are ridiculously detailed and include some amazingly quirky and terrifying designs). At times, the combat also feels a bit like the newest Prince of Persia, since it’s quite common to see one character launch an enemy into the air while another (often computer controlled) volleys the enemy with an attack of their own just before another character finishes it off with one final death flurry. There are times when the frame rate suffers from so much chaos, but fortunately, those instances are as rare as they are brief.
The new Rush gauge adds even more devastation to the mix. The meter fills any time you hit an enemy, get hit by an enemy or are preparing for a blindside (more on that in a second). When it fills up, it acts like an adrenaline boost, and when used with combo attacks, it causes a brief button-matching cutscene to appear. During these scenes, all of your characters join in on the attack and you are impervious to damage. The results of these attacks can be catastrophic and ever so delightful.
As if there weren’t enough tactical options already, you can also employ blindside attacks. These are time-sensitive maneuvers that require you to leave yourself vulnerable to attack for a set amount of time, while you charge the attack after an enemy has targeted you. Once you’re ready, you simply nudge the left thumbstick and a slow-mo sequence triggers as your character sprints into position behind the enemy. From here, you can unleash deadly combos with increased damage and efficiency. Blindsides can be difficult to pull off, especially when the screen is filled with enemies, but that just makes them all the more satisfying when you do.
To reward you for your battle prowess, the game features a bonus board, which tracks your performance during combat. Each time you meet a requirement (kill multiple enemies, deal certain amount of damage, avoid taking damage, etc.), a new jewel is placed on the board. Linking these jewels results in multipliers that help you rack up money, experience and health/magic boosts at an accelerated rate. The board can be broken if the character you’re controlling suffers a critical hit during battle, which adds yet another layer of complexity and engagement to the already insanely robust combat system.
Final Fantasy Who?
Star Ocean: Last Hope won’t make anyone forget that FF XIII is on the horizon. But as far as holding us over in the meantime, this game more than succeeds. Even if it wasn’t intended as such, this would still be an incredibly solid title, which is exactly what it is. Everything about the game feels epic, from the story to the exploration to the combat. It all has a fantastic sense of scope to it that really makes you feel like you are part of this universe-sized adventure. There are tons of places to go, people to meet, things to build, enemies to kill, skills to learn, sights to see, and on top of it all, some of the smoothest and most satisfying (not to mention downright nutty) combat you’re likely to see this year. If you can get past the annoying character voices and bad acting, and you have a few dozen hours to spare, then you should give Last Hope a chance. Even if you aren’t a fan of the genre (and believe me I have my issues with it), you owe it to yourself to check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
Article Written By: Jake Gaskill