Star Ocean: The Last Hope – Staff Review

Sometimes you have to take a step back to keep going forward, or so Tri-Ace would have players believe with Star Ocean: The Last Hope. The latest entry in one of their signature series, Last Hope is a precursor to the first Star Ocean and deals with mankind’s first forays into uncharted space in search of a world capable of sustaining human life. While the overall gameplay has taken clear strides for the better, the package is underscored by a series of minor to major nuisances — not the least of which being a story prone to ridiculous plot twists — leaving it less a series reboot and more one missed opportunity after another.

A short intro details Earth’s history to date, showing glimpses of a third World War and how the survivors banded together in the aftermath to form one world government. With much of Earth scorched and radioactive, humanity turned skyward in search of a new home. Fast forward a few decades: humanity successfully develops faster-than-light travel and dedicates a division of space ships, the Space Reconnaisance Force, to the exploration of new worlds. Predictably, their debut mission goes south within minutes as they cross paths with an unknown object in mid-warp, disrupting the fleet’s jump and forcing all but one ship to crash land on an undeveloped world.

Enter Edge Maverick, an enthusiastic young ensign with the SRF and one of the survivors of the crash. The crew are suddenly beset by hostile wildlife, and Edge is one of the only crew members who manages to fend them off. As fate would have it, it’s on him and his increasingly colorful companions to rally the remaining ships, find the vessel that went missing, and find out just what brought the fleet down in the first place. Contrary to the usual Star Ocean fare, you do get off the planet and back into space in short order, and will do your share of traveling amongst the stars. This is, sadly, the only real feather in the cap of Last Hope‘s confusing and often contradictory story. More on that later.

Good news: These people speak our language and coincidentally are identical to us in every important respect.  Bad news: They don't take American Express.  Anybody got cash?
Good news: These people speak our language and coincidentally are identical to us in every important respect. Bad news: They don’t take American Express. Anybody got cash?

Good news first. Last Hope‘s gameplay is largely robust and entertaining, with a lot to do, see, and kill, or avoid killing. Series veterans will recognize the basics of combat: real-time and free movement in enclosed terrain, with the player controlling one character and the AI directing the rest. New additions include a Rush mode and a Blindside mechanism. Rush is basically a limit gauge that fills as you take and deal damage, and briefly makes you stronger, faster, and harder to knock down. Blindsides allow you to sidestep enemy attacks and counter with an immediate critical hit. Both become necessary over time to survive and truly gain from battle, and the optional in-game tutorial is helpful in explaining how they work. The Bonus Board feature provides multipliers to experience, money or health recovered from battle, and the board fills depending on how you finish off your enemies; critical hits boost experience, multiple kills in a single strike provide extra money, and so on.

In a big step forward, encounters are no longer random. Enemies can be avoided or even surprised if attacked from behind, and they can also surprise you or attack in tandem if close enough. Combat and field skills can be improved or made more efficient through the use of skill points, which are earned through leveling up and certain field actions. This also applies to special attacks and spells, which is new to the series. Sidequests, shop orders, item harvesting, and a battle arena present useful diversions from the main quest, granting tangible rewards and experience bonuses. Item creation, a series staple, now requires your party to group up and ‘invent’ recipes depending on their combined skill at crafting, medicine synthesis, and so on. Although there is no way to experiment with random item combinations, any known recipes will never fail. Item creation is only accessible through the Calnus, which can lead to a lot of backtracking while running quests.

Visually, the game pulls few punches. Although some dungeons overstay their welcome, most locations are a treat for the eyes. From uninhabited jungle worlds and feudal towns to military bases and a futuristic arcology, the worlds are colorful, logically designed, full of life, and huge. The in-game map (accessible via start button) is extremely useful for getting around, as exploration is encouraged and often rewarded. Treasure chests and important objects are sometimes hard to spot, but points of interest are marked on the map. Additionally, one character’s skill can do the same for chests, mitigating that problem early on. Character designs are generally done well, though animation is often jerky and unconvincing; faces, in particular, don’t convey emotion well.

Some flaws with the combat system will feel familiar to fans of the series. Targeting one specific enemy is a hassle in a crowd, and the camera feels slower than it should be. Some monsters also have weak points which are difficult to strike, occasionally requiring blindsides or simple patience, which is not exactly a virtue when you’re getting pounded. Inventory menus are somewhat complicated and cluttered, specifically when selling or equipping items. Those issues aside, the controls and interface work just fine. Battle controls are fairly intuitive, aided by the aforementioned tutorial, and few will have any difficulty getting around the game world. Healing and status curing items flash in the inventory when someone in the party is afflicted, a helpful reminder for which herb goes where.

And the thing about Lymle is she's got lifeless eyes.  Like a doll's eyes.
And the thing about Lymle is she’s got lifeless eyes. Like a doll’s eyes.

Overall the game portion of Last Hope is good. Not great, and definitely flawed — certain bosses spike in difficulty, punishing the player who hasn’t stopped to grind every now and then — but fine in its own right. However, the story will undoubtedly leave players speechless for all the wrong reasons, and there are definite steps backward in its execution and closure.

The premise and delivery of space exploration is intriguing, and again a first for Star Ocean. However, Last Hope‘s story problems are manifold almost from the start. After surviving the initial jungle world, Edge is given command of the last functional SRF ship for no real reason and told to carry on the mission by himself. What makes this strange is that the current captain and much of the crew are alive and well, and all of them effectively abandon the mission without protest. Just as well, considering they drop space exploration from the to-do list almost immediately and focus instead on tracking down the other ship, piloted by Edge’s rival-slash-best pal Crowe. The real problem is that illogic and absurd coincidence taint almost every major revelation and plot point, which is doubly painful when the story actually does get interesting.

Characters jump to murderous conclusions based on fleeting glimpses and specious reasoning. A party member you just picked up just happens to be carrying an unexplained MacGuffin to keep the plot rolling or save the crew. Party members will flat-out contradict themselves in the same scene, or voice concerns that seem utterly divorced from the real problem. A particularly bad scene has Edge worrying that fighting with all his strength in a medieval arena will expose him as someone from another world. His colorful SRF uniform is apparently of no concern, nor is the techno-sword on his back. The scene is ultimately pointless as Edge decides to fight normally anyway. The reason for the arena fight is itself full of holes above and beyond the usual RPG plot contrivances, and some of the story’s later twists seem to depend on every participant being a complete idiot. This is only highlighted by the lengthy cutscenes, several of which exceed the half-hour mark.

The voice acting, for the most part, doesn’t help this impression. Although Edge’s voice actor delivers his lines capably, there is a noticeable mismatch in the voice and the character; Edge is twenty, he looks fifteen, and his voice sounds thirty. Other voices have bigger problems, with some of the worst either barely acting at all or completely missing their mark. At one end is Lymle, an emotionally and physically stunted child summoner who just sounds like she needs a nap. At the other is Sarah, a painfully thick-headed winged girl whose exaggerated politeness is almost a parody of itself. A handful of actors fit their characters, and ironically they tend to be the more ridiculously designed ones; Myuria, a scantily-clad space elf mage with her own set of jiggle physics, at least sounds like she’s taking this seriously. A handful of the Private Actions and skits on board the Calnus are enjoyable, as if the actors suddenly stopped trying so hard and just rolled with it.

Six bucks for unleaded?!  Man, buncha savages in this town.
Six bucks for unleaded?! Man, buncha savages in this town.

A few saving graces help salvage the experience to a point. The soundtrack is largely solid, with well composed ambient pieces for towns and exploration; the music goes a long way in helping a place feel as living or dead as it needs to. It ably matches the pace of dramatic events and epic space battles, and boss fights tend to be worth listening to. Considerable postgame content lets one mess around after all the serious business is accomplished in the form of bonus dungeons and additional bosses and such. Refresh points out in the field let you completely rejuvenate your party, providing a safe spot to level up. With few exceptions, bosses tend to be manageable by even underleveled parties with the right tactics, and enemies that can counter blindsides can still be tricked if you’re quick. The core plot can take about 45 hours to unearth, with an extra ten to twenty for side areas along the way, and the postgame content can ratchet the playtime still higher.

Sadly, these are just mitigating factors and not the selling points the game really needed. Shutting one’s brain off seems insufficient to ignore the broad, deep pitfalls in the game’s story; its many twists aren’t the worst the genre has to offer, but they’re in the neighborhood. Half the characters drift in and out of being likable, the other half either don’t put in the effort or put it in the wrong place, and they’re all predictable archetypes that have been done better elsewhere. There is enjoyment to be had with the battle system and sense of exploration the game provides, and there is ultimately a lot to see and do. However, for a title that emphasizes mankind chasing its dreams amongst the stars, Star Ocean: The Last Hope just doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing up there.

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