Review by nintendosega

"I'm surprised at how much I enjoyed it; large amounts of character interaction and unbelievably fun combat carry this game to the stars"

Who'd think that the only good Square-Enix console RPG in years would be from Tri-Ace? It's hard to believe, but yes, Star Ocean: The Last Hope not only completely tops Tri-Ace's previous Star Ocean game, (Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, for the rest of the review known as “Star Ocean 3”), but it's really the only Square-Enix console release I've really enjoyed since (and it hurts to say it) Final Fantasy 10 in 2001. No, this is not an RPG classic, but it's a damn good game and easily the most fun I've had playing an RPG in years.

Graphics: Star Ocean: The Last Hope is somewhat of a mixed bag as far as visuals are concerned. The environments often look very nice, and the lighting effects are actually some of the best I've seen in an RPG. The game's got a large cast of fightable enemies as well, with almost no instances of color-swapping, and they all look very nice. The spells during battle, too, are inventive-looking and pretty spectacular. Load times are also fairly short. On the other hand, though, The Last Hope features some awful character design; the main characters all look generic and their facial expressions are fairly last-gen. This makes cutscenes seem much more low-budget than they actually are, and I have no idea who approved these designs. Things aren't exactly smooth-sailing in the framerate department, either; this thing's all over the place, with scattered amounts of poor framerate both in battle and when walking around. Some areas (such as the ship) also look pretty ugly. So it's a bit of a mixed bag. The art direction could at times I think be more inventive, though the game's handicapped by its focus on “under-developed” planets. Some of the more sci-fi settings look pretty interesting but there's very little of this. It's definitely not as pretty as Lost Odyssey on the same system, (though it still looks downright beautiful at times,) but then again it has significantly fewer load times and much bigger areas to explore. Overall, it's a warm, inviting world and ends up being a lot of fun to explore, minus the technical issues, which at least don't affect the gameplay much.

Note; Standard definition TV owners might want to beware; the text in the game's menu is small and some of it pretty illegible. Some of the text dialogue also may require you to lean forward a bit to read it. Half of the 4th character's HP/MP gauge doesn't fit on the screen when in battle, and while none of this is game-ruining (I got the hang of the menu text eventually with basic memorization,) it's irritating when developers don't consider those still gaming on a standard definition TV. Ends up being a pretty big barrier that just shouldn't be there.

Story Presentation; (Voice acting, cutscenes, plot,): Let's get the totally inexcusable out of the way first…whoever handled this game's Western release went to great lengths to remove any anime-inspired visuals. The anime-styled character portraits in the menu, text boxes, and when in battle have been replaced in the Western releases by the characters' CG images. The main menu has also been totally reworked. It's as if whoever localized this was afraid that Western gamers wouldn't buy this if they realized that it was a Japanese game. This is ridiculous for two reasons. First of all, this game features bright-eyed protagonists with swords, cat people who meow frequently, ditzy female characters, and the cast at one point uses giant fluffy pink bunny rabbits as a means of transportation: without a doubt, this is a Japanese game. There isn't a single person out there who's going to think that this is Mass Effect 2….so the efforts to disguise its Japanese roots seem pretty meaningless. Making the issue all the more puzzling is that this effort to “Westernize” the game clearly never seeped into the voice acting budget and translation. Again, I have no idea who was in charge of this localization (Square-Enix or developer Tri-Ace) but apparently they were under the impression that anime influenced character *pictures* on the battle screen would scare people away and yet ….a terrible dub wouldn't. Granted, it's not absolutely awful, (and it's a pretty big improvement on Star Ocean 3's, if you can believe it) but simply put...the quality of this dubbing is just unacceptable in this day and age. And the spotty quality's evident almost immediately; I doubt any type of gamer who would refuse to play a game due to Japanese-styled character portraits would continue playing one with such a sub-par dub. Several of the main characters are voiced decently, (Reimi and Faize's voices handle emotional moments surprisingly well,) but some (Lymle, Sarah, and Meracle, for example) are so unbelievably irritating that I'm amazed that anyone would approve it. These characters are annoyingly written to begin with, and the irritating tones the voice actresses use do not help. The good news, though, is that the main characters who do play a big part in the storyline (Edge, Faize, Bacchus, Reimi, etc) are about 100 times more likable than anyone in Star Ocean 3, their voices are solid, and it becomes very fun to see these characters interact with each other on this adventure.

And that's what makes Star Ocean: The Last Hope such a rewarding game. It's true that there's certainly no shortage of battles, but unlike many recent JRPGs, The Last Hope doesn't neglect its characters, giving us plenty of scenes showcasing them interacting over the course of the adventure. The storyline's pretty much centered on the characters and their journey together; there's not much in the way of villains, come to think of it, The Last Hope's focus is pretty much set entirely on its cast's development. The story told here is mostly about this group of main characters exploring the galaxy and trying to find a new home for the residents of Earth: watching them discover the universe and seeing their relationships grow. I actually loved the way the storyline slowly revealed itself and its characters over the course of the game, and at times it genuinely had me on the edge of my seat. That said, it does take a while to get going; at first the main characters land on one disconnected planet after another, and there doesn't seem to be much happening. It's still enjoyable, but things really lock into place when you arrive at your first real city about 10 hours in, and from there the game finds its groove and until the end never lets up.

The scenario; Earthlings have destroyed their planet in nuclear war, and due to the new threat of impending doom, peace was reached. But it was reached too late; now, the residents of the devastated planet must seek out a new home in the galaxy. That's where Edge and Reimi, childhood friends who now work in the space program, come in, and their mission is to journey into the galaxy to find a new home. As the game progresses, strange forces somewhat reminiscent of the Gnosis from Xenosaga eventually get involved, but overall this isn't a game loaded with plot ideas, (though the ending twist and the way it plays out caught me completely by surprise and I praise the writers for what they did there,) it's instead focused mostly on the characters and their relationships, pasts, and futures, which ends up being the complete opposite of Star Ocean 3. And it works so much better. The game's also surprisingly loaded with humor and while most of it's of the quirky Japanese variety, (some will like it, some will hate it,) I actually laughed out loud a few times; it's pretty charming.

By far the best parts in the game, for me, take place on the Calnus. When traveling from planet to planet, you're free to wander this ship talking to your party members. You can choose to go to sleep and arrive at your destination, of course, or, you can learn much more about the rest of your party. When you talk to someone, (often text, but sometimes full cutscenes,) time advances, and then everyone (including the person you just talked to) are in different areas of the ship, and the conversations are all new. I once spent over 30 minutes venturing through the ship, following the sequences of conversation for well over a half hour. It's almost like an adventure itself. This type of characterization is incredibly welcome, as it focuses very much on the characters' relationships to each other, something lacking in most recent RPGs. Like usual with Star Ocean games, part of the ending's influenced by your relationships to certain characters, and everything from this interaction to the rooms you assign them on the ship have an impact. And what makes the buildup to the ending so powerful is that we care so much about these characters by this point, and we know them so well. No, this story doesn't have the emotional pull of a Final Fantasy game, but simply through character interaction, we get to feel like we know this cast, and my motivation to fight the final battle was actually some of the best I think I've ever had in a video game. The ending itself goes on for way too long, though, and the “character-specific” endings you unlock are just thrown one right after another before the credits screen. It's the only weak aspect of the final couple hours of this game, which otherwise are excellent.

Sub-par voice acting and a somewhat iffy translation, as well as many corny and heavy-handed moments are ever-present, which sadly gives this big-budget game a very low-rent feel. But if you get past that you'll find a great adventure here with (mostly) charming and interesting characters, some great planets, lots and lots of cutscenes, and, once it gets going, great pacing. Definitely a success.

Gameplay; This is yet another gigantic step up from Star Ocean 3 and I'd say action RPGs in general; this game's got I think the best battle system I've ever experienced in a real-time RPG. Blindsides, (maneuvers in which you time yourself right, charge, and slide right behind the enemy for critical damage) are very fun to pull off. The lock-on has improved greatly; I was almost never swinging at air, almost all my hits connected. There's a surprisingly large amount of aerial combat too, and knocking enemies into the air and slamming them back down never seems to get old. Other things, like combining special moves into combos, the fact that losing MP no longer kills you, the ability to have a 4-person party, the ease of leveling up (and the full display of your stats as they increase) make combat a complete blast to play almost through the game's entirety. Unlike recent JRPGs, such as Tales of Vesperia, enemies when wandering the field are very easy to avoid, and while it's not recommended, you can blast through dungeons avoiding most, if not all, encounters. The difficulty's also been vastly toned down from the brutally tough (and, in my case, unbeatable) 3rd installment, and it reaches a perfect level. The main game's not too challenging overall, though the final boss was so unbelievably tough and intense for me that I literally screamed at the top of my lungs in triumph when I finally brought him down.

What's so noteworthy is the AI of your partners; so often a source of frustration in action-based JRPGs, (especially Star Ocean 3,) here it's actually pretty fantastic and always reliable, definitely a step forward for the genre. As far as the "dungeon overkill" that seems so common in JRPG's today...there's a couple annoying dungeons early on but these decrease in frequency as the game progresses, and aren't too bothersome due to the fun combat. Instead, often you'll be wandering across beautiful fields in varied environments, getting into these very fun battles, and building your characters up. In addition to EXP, battles give you points to level up individual skills, you can of course customize equipment, and all that good stuff. There's also a meter you build up as you fight enemies that carries from battle to battle. If the enemies hit you hard, though, it goes back to the beginning. But if it gets to the top, you'll get huge bonuses, among other things, after each battle. So in the event that you have to stop and level up, (as I did before the final boss) it's actually a painless, and, believe it or not, fun, experience. Though the game does make you walk back out of a dungeon yourself after the boss, luckily your character has a “sprint” button similar to Lost Odyssey's, which allows you to blast through the environments. Aside from that, there's significantly less backtracking in this game than Star Ocean 3, and it's all the better for it.

Unlike Star Ocean 3, which drew in the map as you went, The Last Hope gives you the entire map of your immediate area from the start, as well as the locations of treasures, mining spots, etc. Opening treasure chests, as well as mining and harvesting items at these points, gives you a pretty decent amount of EXP, as well as the items collected. So there's always plenty of incentive to go out of your way to collect these items. It ends up being one of the more clever things I've seen a JRPG developer do.

Unfortunately, though, Tri-Ace's usual tendency to poorly place save points occasionally becomes a problem. Every so often, especially in big dungeons, there's an annoying lack of save points. While getting a “game over” is not a particularly big concern with regular encounters, I at one point had to leave my 360 on for 6+ hours (always great to do with a 360…) while I had to go to work, simply because I had spent a long time in the final dungeon but couldn't get to the save point (at the end) in time. For this reason I highly recommend installing the game to the HDD instead of playing it off the disc, as this is not a game that you'd want to freeze. But other than that, it's a fun game to play almost constantly, and the great gameplay and fun story make for an epic JRPG experience that I think fans of the genre will really enjoy...

... you just have to get past the opening act. The battle tutorial's confusing and a drag, the text can be tiny (on an SDTV) the voice acting takes some time to get used to, and the controls at first also feel a bit odd. The ship, too, is one of the uglier environments in the game, and that's where it begins. They then dump you into an area of enemies and pretty much make you learn the combat system with few items (and no item shop) and I died several times in the opening hour of the game simply because I had no idea what I was doing with the combat system, (and I hadn't died after that point for another 10+ hours…) so…admittedly, not the most graceful start. (Don't just hit A when attacking enemies, point the analog stick in different directions too, to knock them around.) But please stick with it, at least until 10 hours in, and you'll get to experience a greatly rewarding Japanese RPG. I did wish the game had some more civilized locations, (especially in the way of futuristic environments,) and I reached the final boss (before my long leveling up session) at around 38 hours in (much shorter than part 3) so they had plenty of room for another fully-developed city or two. On the other hand, I'm glad they didn't extend this game with meaningless filler (aside from one long ship dungeon,) I'm glad tedious puzzles were kept to a minimum, and I'm glad they didn't turn this into a generic town-hopper. So mixed emotions with that.

Overall, I really couldn't be much happier with the gameplay here in Star Ocean: The Last Hope. It's taken the huge flaws in the previous installment of the series and removed them, while replacing them with new and very fun features. As a result this is easily the best action-driven JRPG I think I've ever played as of this writing.

Music; All that said, Star Ocean: The Last Hope ends up being a bit of a disappointment musically. While Motoi Sakuraba doesn't put anything in as bad as that rap song he had in Star Ocean 3, some of the event music here feels like a bad soap opera (the violins in particular are totally out of place) and that's too bad. Seeming to know this, the developers lower the volume of the music in the cutscenes to the point where it's barely audible, which is more than a bit bizarre. As for gameplay, we've still got the guitar-heavy grooves in dungeons, we've still got those forgettable battle themes, and overall there's not much new here. I loved the music when inside the Calnus, but the 1 futuristic town's song has a very soft, almost “throwaway” sound to it when I think it should have been epic, and a lot of the other locations' music is pretty indistinguishable from other RPG's. It's not a bad soundtrack but doesn't particularly do much for the game, which is too bad, because Star Ocean 3's soundtrack actually had some amazing songs, and not a single track here matches the excellence of a couple of those.

Overall; Though I was braced for the worst going in, Star Ocean: The Last Hope ended up being one of the more pleasant surprises I've had in a long time. The story, with its focus on the characters, is well paced once it gets going and very memorable, with the focus on character interaction being the game's best feature. The gameplay's a blast almost constantly, and though it gets off to a pretty iffy start, once things begin to lock into place the pacing never seems to let up. It's too bad, in a way, that it was held from getting a possible “9/10” score by something as superficial as the English dub and translation, but that's unfortunately what happens here, and that's a huge downer. Similarly, Tri-Ace can't seem to stop themselves from throwing in unbelievably annoying female characters, (Reimi and Myuria aside) and it brings the quality of any scene down whenever they speak. But if you're able to get past that and the somewhat slow first couple of hours, you'll be rewarded with a very epic RPG that I think fans of the genre will have a lot of fun with. I know this prequel is intended to be the last installment of the series, but I'd have no problem whatsoever seeing these characters back again for more adventures through the vast and ever-expanding Star Ocean. Hopefully we'll see future JRPGs move back in this more plot and character-focused direction instead of being the dull dungeon crawlers they've been turning into. Star Ocean: The Last Hope, along with Lost Odyssey and Eternal Sonata, have been only medium-sized steps in JRPG's returning to their former glory; let's hope Final Fantasy 13 and Tri-Ace's own upcoming Resonance of Fate, both of which look very promising, follow through.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 06/30/09, Updated 05/25/12

Game Release: Star Ocean: The Last Hope (US, 02/23/09)


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