Star Ocean: The Last Hope (Xbox 360)
Released: February 24th, 2009
Take a few moments to watch the opening sequence of The Last Hope before pressing the A button and getting your game started, and you'll surely feel you are in for nothing less than a grand adventure. It all begins a few centuries before the first Star Ocean, placing you in the role of Edge Maverick (a name even Iceman and Goose would have been proud of), your typical young spiky-haired kid trying to find his place in the world after World War III effectively destroyed the planet we know as Earth. I know, you can feel the cliche coming already, can't you?
The truth of the matter is, at first (and for the first five or six hours), The Last Hope feels like a solid entry into the RPG genre, but it also feels generic in that way that too many RPGs do these days. The interaction between Edge and his childhood friend, Reimi Saionji, for instance, points in a direction that we've traversed many times before, and I found myself wondering if the descent into boredom was inevitable regardless of how good the gameplay itself might be. Call me crazy, but I need a good story to keep me hooked.
If you stick with it though, you'll find there's enough reward there to keep you interested, especially as your party grows and their interactions become more engaging. Speaking of your party, you will meet quite a few people on your travels who will join you, allowing you to make a pretty varied party whenever you want. Also worth mentioning is the fact that you can switch out between these characters in battle and actually play as all of them, and you have something on your hands that's a little cooler than toting around a cast of characters you can't truly play as.
Speaking of battle, the way you level your characters in Star Ocean games is a little different from the usual grind. To engage in an encounter, you actually have to touch an enemy on the field (and if you choose not to fight something, for example, you can just run away and let the beast chase you until it tires and throws in the towel). Once you engage, you find your party on a circular field in which you can actively move. A click of the shoulder buttons allows you to jump from character to character in a flowing and seamless fashion. Both these things sit incredibly well with me, since the days of forced random battles always take a lot of fun out of RPGs for my personal experience.
The Last Hope differs from previous Star Ocean games in that a new fighting technique has been added called Blindside. By pressing certain buttons at a key moment when an enemy is targeting you, you can perform a Blindside move, which means you leap out of the way of your enemy, effectively stunning it and leaving it wide open for you to unload on its ass. I got quickly addicted to Blindsides and found myself trying to perform them on any and everything. There are times later in the game when this technique will be key to winning a battle, so don't skimp on the tutorial when it's teaching you how to use them!
Another feature that helps to break up the grind and present a bit more variety to the battle experience is the Battle Board, which is on thefar right side of the screen below the mini map. By satisfying certain conditions in battle such as finishing with a critical hit or defeating multiple enemies at once, you can earn a tile for the board. It's really fun to stack these, and each one you earn gives you a bonus such as a boost to your experience or Fol (money). Along with the Rush Gauge, yet another feature that allows you to fill it up and then unleash extra-powerful attacks in what's called Rush Mode, battle definitely gets an A in my book -- it's just a lot of fun to fight, and it makes grinding feel a lot less like a chore. Hooray for that!
Outside of battle, you have a new customization option for your characters called BEAT (Battle Enhancement Attribute Type). This allows you to have certain characters focus on certain things, like becoming an expert at Blindsides or focusing on their special moves instead. This is wholly optional -- if you want to get in there and customize things down to the last degree, you certainly can, but if you want to set character's BEATs and forget about them for the rest of the game, you can do that too.
Item creation is back and and is more a world of its own than ever (and one you can choose to participate in or ignore). There's a room on the ship you can go to when you want to create something, and the way it works is that you will have to choose characters who will first go through. Welch returns from Star Ocean: Till The End of Time to assist you, and your groups will have to put their heads together to invent and then create items. You can make a wide range of things (and some of them are quite useless), but keep in mind that this process consumes your party SP, so be careful what you're spending!
I found exploring landscapes and dungeons in The Last Hope to be adventurous and engaging, and I even noticed that while in some of the alien ships I actually experienced some feelings of slight discomfort, which I marveled over -- that's how being in an alien surrounding SHOULD feel! I've heard mixed things about the way the game looks, but I thought the landscape especially was beautiful and did an effective job immersing me into the story. Edge also has a sprint feature, which you can use to dart across large expanses of land in no time, helping to keep the boredom of endless travel at bay.
For completionists who like to amass large collections of items while playing a game, you're in luck: there is a metric fuck-ton of things to collect in The Last Hope. Battle Trophies return and are always fun to watch pop up onscreen as you complete battles. Spaceship data is something you can also collect by reading books, examining your surroundings, which is a really fun challenge for completionists to take on, along with Monster Collecting. By far the most titanic challenge is Weapon Collection, which includes weapons you make and find in chests, and if you want to complete it you'll have to be brutally diligent to find everything there is to find.
If you have played Star Ocean games before, you will be familiar with Private Actions, which allow you to build relationships between your characters. On the ship, you'll have the option of assigning 2 people to each room, which can have a direct effect on how these relationships develop (and can also affect the ending of the game). I love this option and feel spoiled on it thanks to the Persona games, so I'm thrilled to see it here, even though it's only a small part of the game. Be warned, however: if you choose the "sleep until arrival" option when traveling to a new planet, you can miss out on many of the opportunities to build the relationships, so stay awake!
Some of the only complaints I have about the game are little things, like the fact that I feel like my emotions are being manipulated because of certain storytelling tactics the game implements, and I wish that developers could reach beyond these things and attempt a bit more creativity. The biggest example of this is Lymle, the young girl you meet on a planet called Triom who will become a part of your party. While she is adorable, her use of the catchphrase "kay?" at the end of her sentences and her overly childlike behavor (she is fifteen, but could be mistaken for nine or ten) make her borderline cliche all on her own. Must there always be a child in your party? Is there another way to make us feel and care for the characters then using this cheap tactic? She isn't an unlikeable character, but rather an example of an element in RPGs I personally don't care for.
As a whole, The Last Hope is well crafted and presents a huge adventure for you to lose yourself in. With everything from solid dungeons to exciting battles and sidequests, the game has a ton to offer for your buck and stands as a worthwhile entry in the genre. If you're looking to have a groundbreaking new RPG experience it probably isn't the game for you, but otherwise I think it'd be a great addition to any collection.
Score: 8.5 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)
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