Star Ocean: The Last Hope is one of those games whose plot keeps getting deeper and deeper. It's not clear from the start what your goals are, and they often change and shift like a passing breeze from a taco dispensary. The introduction tells of World War III, which apparently is going to take place in less than half a decade and is going to cause the death of the vast majority of mankind, as well as most of the other flora and fauna on Earth. As a result, the remaining populace banded together, realizing they must seek out a more habitable planet. That's where we meet our main heroes, Edge Maverick (what a name) and Reimi Saionji (which is tough enough to spell, so I'm only going to do it once), ensigns aboard the Calnus, one of five ships exploring space in search of new planets, particularly the nearby Aeos. But will that trip go smoothly? Of course not. Otherwise, there'd be no conflict! Something goes haywire during a warp sequence, and most of the ships end up crashlanding (on Aeos, luckily). Plus, there are gross arachnid creatures roaming the plains, so we have THAT to deal with. Edge and Reimi's adventures begin here, determining what to do next and also how to fend off monsters that don't seem at all fazed by laser fire.
To be honest, having played through Star Ocean: The Second Story (PlayStation) and Star Ocean: Till The End Of Time (PlayStation 2), I had expected there to be a major plot twist halfway through that would blow my mind a bit like these two games. Disappointment fell in my lap: there was no big switcheroo, favouring instead the concept of just having the plot get increasingly complex and weird. Beings who want to destroy the universe to... make way for a lifeless universe? Thaaaaat's a shame. Also, for some reason, this is the only game that mentions, on multiple occasions, the term "star ocean", which makes me titter uncontrollably. "They said the thing like in the title!!"
The characters. Oh, sweet mercy, could they possibly have amassed a group of more vexatious oddballs? When you play a video game, the goal is to feel empowered, to become one with the hero and bask in said hero's strengths. But then we have this ever-expanding party of goofs and The main character, Edge Maverick, isn't the worst lead in the world, but he could sure use an injection of confidence more often than not. Heck, he spends a good chunk of the game feeling like a useless broken emo child than a leader. His first officer, Reimi isn't much of an improvement and has a strong tendency to be overly emotional, arbitrarily wedging in excessively gaggable sentimental speeches when, really, we need to save the universe, not hear her give yet another speech about how she feels she "belongs". Other characters aren't free from silly tropes: Meracle in a catgirl that is overly chipper, childish, and ends too many sentences with "meow" (perhaps appeasing fanboys of such things); Myuria and Arumat cop attitudes whenever they get the chance; and Lymle... oh, Lymle, we must face the facts that nobody likes little girls in RPGs, especially ones that talk extre-e-e-e-e-emely slo-o-o-o-owly and end their sentences with "'kayyyyy?" Ugh. And I'm going to pretend the Of course, this irritation is compounded by voice acting that really grinds on the nerves. More than a few actors need to return to school to take "Appropriate Expressiveness 101". Meanwhile, the script writers can take a course in not having characters in dialogue state the extremely, extremely obvious, even after it's already been MADE obvious.
And there are indeed plenty of cutscenes. Those looking for fleshed out characters and a truly cinematic experience won't be disappointed. Some of them can be VERY lengthy; it's not out of the question to go for upwards of 40 minutes of cutscenes before you can take control of your party again. That drives me nuts, moreso when you are advised you can't shut down your controller during this time to conserve battery power. As in previous Star Ocean games, Private Actions give additional scenes where Edge can interact with his party mates and learn more about them, improving his relationship with them in the process. Having these scenes play out can affect future events, possibly, maybe, sort of.
But where the story and the — ugh — cast falter, the gameplay itself picks up much of the slack. In the same vein as previous Star Ocean games, as well as the fellow tri-Ace-developed Radiata Stories, the focus is on the battle system in which all characters (a maximum of four in any given spar) are active as per the tactics you assign to them. Want to just go batguano crazy on your foes? You can make it happen. Care to be a bit more conservative? They can do that. Want them to...literally do nothing? That's an option for some reason, too. You can switch between characters at will depending on your strategy, and even exchange them for others in the heat of battle. But for the most part, you'll be spending your time swiping and slicing the gooiest and ghastliest of space mutants...
...unless you're me. Once I got myself a worthwhile healer, I spent much of my time stepping back from the action and supporting my fellow warriors with healing and enhancement spells while they performed all of the grunt work. That strategy worked most of the time, except when a few demons decided to home all their energy on me. This sure made the final boss fights less stressful, with my focus on keeping everyone's energy levels well-boosted instead of dealing with the enemy itself.
As is normal in the realm of RPGs, characters aren't limited to their physical attacks. Half the party fails in this regard anyhow. Thanks to the glorious power of symbology, party members can learn spells and cast them as long as their MP meter holds out. For some, spells are replaced or complemented by special moves that can be turned into combos, which also use MP. You can power them up by spending skill points earned from battle or — believe it or not — opening chests.
It's lush, bro.
Developer tri-Ace was not content enough to just let us hack'n'slash our way through each fight or cast Radiant Lancer 'til we're blue in the wrists, so they added a few new battle systems to keep us from getting too smug. First is Rush Mode, which essentially makes you much more powerful for a brief period of time. As the battle progresses, your Rush meter will increase as you successfully land hits and equally take 'em like a hero. Once it's full, releasing your inner Rush and giving you some zany power. Couple that mode up with some of your special moves, and you've got a temporarily unstoppable force, sort of! Also available is the BEAT System, which lets you customize your characters to suit their battle needs. By leveling up your chosen BEAT style, you'll unlock new abilities and enhancements. It's likely a good thing, but it's one of those things in the game that isn't shoved down your throat as a necessity.
But perhaps the biggest change is the ability to Blindside your enemies. Let's see if I can describe this correctly. You'll know you're in the line of sight of an enemy because a reticule will cover your character. When that enemy is close, I can attempt to blindside them by pulling off a unique move whereby you basically side-step/sneak around behind them and wallop their backsides. This is a great way to lop off a large chunk of their health and for some bosses is the primary way of depleting their health bar... unless you like slapping off tiny increments and just spending an hour doing so...
And when you successfully blindside (during which time critical hits are abundant) and defeat an enemy, there's the strong (extremely strong) possibility that you'll add a chip to the Bonus Board. Ah, the Bonus Board. I really like you as a concept. Bottom line is this: if you perform well, you'll get some sweet bonuses, the most likely being additional experience points, which is a godsend. Imagine finishing a battle and earning up to 140% more XP than would typically be gained. That's almost like two-and-a-half battles for the effort of one! That REALLY helps in the grinding department, so much so that grinding isn't often required if you just play your cards right. You can also earn extra money or skill points using the Bonus Board.
...ah yeah, there's also an item creation system where you use materials you find to build new items. But it's only available when you're on your ship, and finding recipes takes a lot of time. It's a nice touch if you want to hunt down all those hard-to-find ingredients, but for those with a thick backlog of games like myself, the effort may not be worth it in the end. Me? Didn't use it once. Got by just fine. Same goes for the various quests you pick up from townsfolk all over the place; the rewards aren't really worth your time more often than not.
Kicking back with Star Ocean, I have to say I was rather impressed with the graphics. It's clear plenty of effort was put in to make this game look nice. Not every area is fully polished, mind you: certain ones with either too bland or too dark. Or too dark and bland. I do like how the characters have been designed, even if Edge is as edgy as plain Melba toast. The enemy designs, meanwhile, are especially creepy; there must be something in the water on those planets because some of those demonic gremlin things are just bizarre. I'm also glad that Motor Sakuraba, the primary sound composer for the series, has returned yet to sprinkle his special musical dust all over this game. It wouldn't be a Star Ocean game without his atmospheric compositions!
Xbox 360 users got this a year earlier, but those who picked up the "International" Edition of Star Ocean: The Last Hope on PlayStation 3 received a few minor bonuses, such as the option of using the Japanese dub (which couldn't possibly be more grating than the English voice acting), additional music tracks, and new character portraits. Plus, it's on one disc instead of three, so it's a matter of convenience. Obviously, the PS3 version is superior, but either one will give you the same basic experience.
Star Ocean is a great series — I consider Star Ocean: The Second Story on PlayStation to be one of my most memorable game-playing experiences. Star Ocean: The Last Hope, even with its narrative flaws, doesn't disappoint and holds the series' name admirably enough. It may have its extremely cringeworthy moments (I didn't even mention the several times Edge is called a "pervert" for no reason), but it's a fun RPG that will definitely take you for a ride on a vast ocean of stars in our universe.