The wonderful cinematic that opens Star Ocean: The Last Hope gives you a quick rundown on where mankind is at after surviving a nuclear world war in the later stages of the 21st century. After ruining the surface area of planet Earth, and in the process making it uninhabitable, the human race begins to look to the stars; in search of new worlds. This setting gives the game its title, exploration across a vast ocean of stars, as the last hope of humanity attempts to find a new planet and world to call home. And although Star Ocean: The Last Hope does feature spaceships with warp travel capabilities, government colonisation missions, multiple planets, florae and alien races, the game quickly devolves into standard fantasy fare, with a slight science-fiction influence and an even bigger over-the-top quirky Japanese one. In fact, after the high water-mark of the introductory sequence the rest of the story can be summed up in a single word - boring.
It's disappointing to say the least, as there is a clear shortage of any sort of science-fiction based RPG, especially an Eastern developed one. Speaking of which, Star Ocean features a laundry list of ridiculous and outdated concepts that have plagued the traditional Japanese developed role-playing game for many years. Many might put blame at poor localisation, and in the past this has been a cause for concern for those fans of this sub genre within the RPG realm, however, when you need to ride a giant pink fluffy bunny to cross an impassable desert to reach a large breasted fortune teller who will give you access to the 'Purgatorium', the problem lies directly with the source. In fact, one of the first planets you land on features a human-like civilisation in a medieval setting, with standard monsters and goblins to fight and a quest-line to cure some disease plaguing its people. For a game that does feature some interesting science fiction concepts as a basis, it's unusually quick to revert to staple and generic gameplay experiences and settings traditionally associated with this genre.
When it comes to crossing paths with 'aliens' and other races the situation is basically the same. One of the first characters to join your party early on when you save her village is a small girl dressed like a doll, no older than seven or eight. She speaks in an annoyingly high-pitched monotonous voice, finishes each sentence with the abbreviated word "'kay", and gives each character a nickname. It is as annoying as it sounds, and although tolerable (barely) and not uncommon in Eastern developed RPGs for a small child to join your party, it brings to the front one of the main problems with the game. And that is, the main protagonist and cast of characters. Well, they all basically suck, and the 'bad ass' saving grace caricature doesn't show his face until you've clocked in at least thirty or so hours with the 'whine patrol'.
Take a similar game like Lost Odyssey for example - a Microsoft published, Japanese developed RPG for the 360 that featured a traditional turn-based battle system and a similar setting that blended science fiction with fantasy. However, whereas Lost Odysssey succeeded in creating an engaging cast of characters, and world to explore, Star Ocean features perhaps one of the least engaging casts ever seen in a role-playing game. The main protagonist, Edge Maverick, is prime example of this.
At one point in the game, he triggers an event that causes the destruction of an entire planet, and it's pretty obvious that it wasn't his fault and that he was merely a pawn. He chooses to react to this chain of events in the worst possible way - he basically cries and becomes depressed and whiny for the next 10-15 hours of game-time. Now couple this with the fact that the party in which you travel features mostly female characters, each with their own distinctly annoying personality traits, and there are sections where you'll be watching one of the many long, boring, drawn out cinematic sequences literally trying to will Edge Maverick to draw his sword and take his own life.
Ok so playing Star Ocean may sound like a somewhat torturous experience, but the game's saving grace comes in the form of the actual gameplay, that being the battle and character building system. As you'll be spending most of your game-time fighting various monsters as you explore each world, it comes as a huge relief that what the game lacks in overall story, coherence, and character development it makes up for with the battle system. Unfortunately it takes about an hour or so of boring story sequences to get to the first one. Battles themselves take place in real-time and are triggered when you engage an enemy in the world-map. With up to four members available in your party at any one time, players can switch freely between one of these four characters (with the AI controlling the remaining members of your party) and use the game's simple yet rewarding combat system.
Early on in the game your party is small, and you'll most likely find yourself coasting on using the main attack button - hacking away at enemies, performing a simple combo or two, and casting when the time is right. But before long as your party grows, so do the tactics you can deploy and before long you'll be engaging in battles just as rewarding, tactically, as those seen in similar turn-based titles. It's actually quite impressive how the game eases you into the battle system. Concepts that at first seem complicated make perfect sense as your experience and party grows. The combo system becomes configurable as you play, paving the way for bonuses and adding a richness to simple time and proximity-based attacks.
During each battle players can also earn bonuses for performing certain finishing moves, adding to a dynamic bonus board that rewards you at the end of each round. This can range from bonuses given in fol (aka gold) and experience points, to a percentage of health being regenerated. So, after investing a few hours into the game it wouldn't be uncommon to be earning 50% bonuses to both experience and fol after each fight, making level grinding actually quite fun. Companion AI is generally flawless, with your party performing as expected, healing when they need to and providing assistance if you find yourself in a spot of trouble. You can also change individual party member tactics or take control of them seamlessly to utilise any special abilities. Levelling, learning and upgrading skills is kept intuitive and players are encouraged and rewarded to switch between characters and play styles.
This makes playing Star Ocean a love/hate affair in the truest sense, as the game's story and characters are in turn both boring and annoying, with very few moments of genuine excitement (with the standout being the return to an 'alternate' Earth). The gameplay mechanics on the other hand are the polar opposite, providing an addictive battle system that rewards the utilisation of various tactics and character skills, and a character building aspect that progressively adds layers to the game as you level up. When these two equally important aspects of an RPG are in harmony, you're left with a stand-out title, one worthy of recommendation.
Given a story and cast of characters to match the game mechanics, perhaps this would have been a stand out title. But when you have a scantily clad half-girl half-cat in your party who acts like an excited mental patient whenever given any attention, then things tend to fall apart pretty quickly.