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Star Ocean: The Last Hope International
Graphics: 7.7
Gameplay: 8.2
Sound: 8.4
Control: 7.5
Replay Value: 7.9
Rating: 8

Last year, Star Ocean: The Last Hope launched for the Xbox 360, another in a string of exclusive RPGs that PlayStation 3 owners didn’t receive. Most of these titles did eventually make their way to Sony’s machine but we typically have to wait a while, and Tri-Ace’s effort is no exception. But finally, Square-Enix deigned to release Star Ocean: The Last Hope International for the PS3 in North America and I can now compare it to the 360 version. As expected, the PS3 version is slightly better if only because of the few added pieces of content but beyond that, it’s basically the same game and I still have the same problems with the combat construction. On the plus side, I do enjoy some of the characters (not all, by any means), the story isn’t bad, and the large, lush environments really give me that old-fashioned “explore-and-fight” formula I’ve come to love in my RPGs. Of course, I think I spend about 97% of my time fighting, which gets very tiresome, but it’s not like Star Ocean is a bad game.

Graphically, I wish I still had the 360 version sitting here so I could do a little compare and contrast session. I’ve heard the PS3 version looks a bit better but I can only use my memory on this and as far as I’m concerned, the differences are minimal if they exist at all. That being said, the game still looks quite good; vibrant colors abound and each piece of the natural world appears to be drawn with broad, pleasant brushstrokes. Some of the futuristic sci-fi settings – like the space ships – appear stark and uninviting but then again, that’s sort of the nature of such a style. The cut-scenes aren’t anything to rave about and I still think there’s a lack of detail in some of the more barren worlds and military installations around the galaxy, but it’s only a minor complaint. This isn’t the best-looking RPG you’ll see – especially now that Final Fantasy XIII is out – but the visual palette is decent and perhaps more importantly, enjoyable. The anime constructs are hit-or-miss and it depends almost entirely on whether or not you’re a fan of that type of artistry.

The sound is better in the PS3 version, if only because we get the benefit of the original Japanese voiceovers. The English voice acting in the 360 version was definitely spotty – if I remember correctly – and maybe I shouldn’t be too shocked to learn that the Japanese voices are better. Sure, you have to read the subtitles but if you can’t manage to do that, you shouldn’t be playing an RPG in the first place. The music is also quite good and fitting for the atmosphere, although when you’re out exploring in the large environments, the repetitiveness of the soundtrack quickly begins to chafe after an hour or so. Still, the combat effects are great; they’re clear and resound with the sharpness of an effect that is supposed to be prominent. This lends a sense of urgency to most all encounters, especially boss fights, and I particularly liked the chosen music for certain areas. All in all, the sound is a highlight due to the original voice cast, the music can often add to the experience, and the effects are more than solid.

It won’t take long before you realize that the vast majority of the gameplay is spent in combat. This is both a blessing and a curse: it’s a blessing because it’s almost always fun (until you hit a certain point and things get stupid frustrating) and it’s a curse because you sort of lose sight of the story and other gameplay features. For instance, this franchise has always been known for the highly complex item and equipment creation/invention processes, and we get that once again in The Last Hope International. As expected, it works extremely well and really keeps you on the lookout for special ingredients throughout your travels. It also encourages a lot of experimentation and certainly adds a great deal of longevity to the adventure. Then there are the Private Actions, which can really change how you view your characters and in fact, parts of the surrounding plot. These can only be done at certain times but you should definitely take advantage; speaking to your allies at very specific times can yield eye-opening rewards at a later time.

I loved the Private Actions and invention system in Star Ocean: The 2nd Story and although I think the latter presented us with a better, more accessible set of mechanics for each feature, they’re still huge bonuses in this Star Ocean iteration. Any role-playing fan should indulge to get the most out of what this game has to offer. However, it really does all boil down to the gameplay, which is both complex and entertaining thanks to a robust and relatively well-implemented real-time system. It isn’t strictly real-time as you can pause the combat at any time to issue new commands, and you can also switch characters at any time as well. This gives you full control over the battlefield at all times and in all honesty, this is the kind of control I missed when playing FFXIII. There will be many occurrences where it will behoove you to switch off the character you control; perhaps you need to perform an emergency heal or resurrect, or maybe an ally is simply getting pummeled and he/she can’t seem to escape. Furthermore, with the addition of the Bonus Board, you have every incentive to perform admirably.

The Bonus Board fills as you deal damage and eliminate enemies and once you’ve maxed it, you get a huge boost to your offensive abilities. Now, enemies can shatter a full Bonus Board by nailing you with a combo, so you want to maintain your flurry of activity as long as possible. The Bonus Board is crucial; it can make all the difference and without it, what should’ve been a walk in the park can suddenly become a battle for survival. The only slight issue I have with this is that it sort of discourages the defensive approach, in that you always feel as if you should be building your Board and as a result, you lay off buffs and other supportive maneuvers. I don’t particularly like that; it’s as if Tri-Ace only wanted to encourage the less strategic approach to battle. But outside of that, I think it’s a nice little feature that spices up the gameplay. I really have no problem with the basics and fundamentals; my primary issue lies with the one-sidedness I often feel when fighting tougher enemies. Perhaps some won’t complain of this, but I can only comment on my play time.

Thing is, towards the middle of the adventure, the enemies suddenly seem to gain an unseen advantage. The majority seem to be faster than any of your characters, they seem to be able to rebound faster after attacks and the limits of the battlefield start to cause serious problems. Too many times, I found myself jammed into one of the invisible walls, surrounded by a horde of foes, unable to free myself until I’m dead. He’ll just keep getting popped in the air over and over and I have to watch helplessly. On top of which, because the AI almost never changes and a group of enemies will focus on one of your characters, combat can quickly become an exercise in frustration. Granted, you can always level up and gain fancy new pieces of equipment through the creating process, and that’s the best part of RPGs. But at the same time, the balance of battle never really felt right after the halfway point and at that point, I almost started to dread fighting. In other words, it starts fun and gets annoying.

But like I said, that could be a personal thing; you may not notice. In addition, though, I think the game’s pacing feels very slow in terms of the storyline. It takes quite a while for anything significant to happen and none of it was interesting enough to keep me intrigued. All I really wanted to do was run around, explore, fight, handle some side-quests in the towns, engage in Private Actions, and invent some cool new stuff. That’s enough to keep you playing but after a while, the lack of a cohesive plot makes the game feel a little boring and you don’t care so much about the characters, either. Unfortunately, that’s really what drags The Last Hope down. However, if you can enjoy the combat for longer than I did, and if you really dive into the exploration and intricate creating processes, and you appreciate the story more, than this one is for you. It doesn’t have the glitz of FFXIII, nor does it have the polish or appeal, in my eyes. But as far as RPGs go, this is a solid one and probably worth your time and money.

Then again, with the number of RPGs available nowadays, you might want to think twice before dropping the full amount. I still have to look into Resonance of Fate, for instance. But if you do the research and decide that Star Ocean: The Last Hope International would be interesting and you love the series, I certainly wouldn’t dissuade you.

3/23/2010   Ben Dutka