Title Drop 4: The Prequel

Originally Posted 29 July 2010

Last night, I finished up Star Ocean: The Last Hope. It is the fourth in a long spanning series of actiony RPGs going back to the SNES era. The series tends to focus on spacefaring humans who end up trying to save the universe/galaxy/world but inexplicably end up on planents with medieval fantasy levels of development.

The Last Hope is actually the chronologically first game in the series, taking place right as humanity is beginning to seriously begin extrasolar exploration. Later games take place once humanity is already an established power in the galaxy. The story here follows Edge Maverick, a bridge officer in the new Space Reconnaissance Force, who quickly ends up the captain of his ship due to field promotion. You’re then tasked with searching out new worlds fit for human colonization due to the Earth being in something of a bad way after all the wars and such. Of course, you quickly become aware of threats to the galaxy and are off to save it as in the other games.

The game uses the rather standard JRPG division of overworld and battle modes. The overworld contains visible enemies who you can encounter to enter battle and all of the other trappings of a JRPG–scattered treasure chests, sidequests, item creation, etc. The battle system is highly similar to the previous games and is nearly identical to Star Ocean 3’s system in terms of control and flow. Luckily, they’ve done away with the idea of being able to either “MP kill” or “HP kill” characters and use the more familiar HP is for damage and MP is for casting. Otherwise, you are simply able to move around the map, carry out special attacks or magic, and otherwise fight. The game up battle slightly by incorporating the “battle gauge”. This guage allows you to gain special benefits by completing certain conditions. The guage contains 14 slots which get filled as these conditions are met: killing an enemy with a critical hit gives an experience bonus slot, killing multiple enemies at once gives a money bonus slot, getting ambushed (being in two consecutive fights) gives a skill point bonus, and killing an enemy using only skill results in an HP/MP regen bonus.

This is where the first noticable bad design decision appears. For the battle gauge bonuses, the level of utility varries massively: for XP and Money, each slot gives a 10% bonus. This means that maxing the guage with one of them would results in getting as much as 240% of base XP or money for a fight. For SP, which is relatively common, but vital to both character advancement and item creation, each slot gives one additional skill point per battle. In the early game, this allows for very fast advancement and access to special abilities. For HP/MP regen, however, you get 1% per battle per slot. This last bonus is completely worthless for the cost of carrying it out. Given the choice of getting to recover 14% of your health and MP after every fight without expending items or getting a 140% bonus to XP, the answer is completely obvious. Furthermore, given how common healing items are in general, this shouldn’t even be an issue. That isn’t the only problem with the battle gauge though. The gauge is not retained when you save and load. This led me (and I suspect others) to simply leaving their system on when they had acquired a relatively large bonus. Since it can take a fair amount of time to aquire certain bonuses (SP especially), this is the only pragmatic solution offered.

Of course, this wouldn’t be such an issue if the game were more stable. At this moment, I’ll say that I played the game on the 360 and that I have not played the PS3 (International) version. I had at least a dozen hard locks of my console while playing this game. Every single one happened during a battle and every single one was frustrating. Worst of all, I had one hard lock occur during my first attempt at the final boss resulting in me having to go back and beat its first form again. Luckily, I was able to skip the pile of cutscenes ahead of it.

Less annoyingly, but still evidence of poor thinking, is the late game transit system. Once you are able to access the final area, you can return to most of the areas previously available. In total, this consists of 5 worlds. Going to the first three worlds requires you have the game using disc 2 and going to the last two requires you to use disc 3. This is completely unacceptable. I shouldn’t have to wander around my apartment playing disc caddy in the late game.

As much as these technical issues grated on me, by far my biggest complaint against the game is from a particular section of the plot. At one point, you end up in a situation with a person who is so obviously evil that from the first word the character spoke, I knew they were out to betray the party. I was then forced to watch as my characters happily hand over the giant world-ending bomb to the obviously evil character who proceeds to blow up the planet. Worse, I then got to listen to the character who did it angst about it for the next fifth or so of the game. I understand that the characters should get tricked sometimes and that the narrative may drive things, but at least write a plot where I can maybe see myself getting tricked in their place. Genre saviness isn’t even required!

Overall, between the grating technical issues and the (mostly) lackluster plot, I can’t recommend the game. I’ve played all of the Star Ocean games at this point and this is the least compelling of them. Also, since it is a prequel, that means that it ultimately has no actually effect on the ongoing progress of the game’s story (aside from providing more backstory for established elements), so it can be skipped without too much trouble.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope: 0

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