It's historically been eclipsed by Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Tales games, but Tri-Ace's Star Ocean series has somehow managed to trek along. The sci-fi-themed Japanese RPG is taking one more shot at mainstream success with the appropriately-titled Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Can this Xbox 360 exclusive help the series climb out of the shadows and achieve star status?Last Hope is a step above the storytelling found in its predecessors, featuring a richer story focusing on exploration and discovery. Earth has been devastated by a third world war, and mankind's only hope rests in the deep reaches of space. As Edge Maverick, you're part of the SRF mission to find a new haven for humanity. Edge amasses a wacky bunch of companions who must save not only Earth, but the entire galaxy from annihilation at the hands of a mysterious force known as the phantoms.
The plot initially follows a pattern all too familiar to series veterans, but it quickly heads for new territory. Rather than focusing on a central plot throughout the entire game, Last Hope is comprised of several shorter plot arcs that eventually tie into a larger thread. As a result, the pacing is a bit slow early on but significantly improves after a few hours, even if hit-or-miss writing keeps the prose from truly shining.
Character development is a strong point, but the same can't be said for originality. Last Hope features a slightly clichéd anime cast including the hulking robotic Bacchus, cat-girl Meracle, the winged angel Sarah, and underage Loli Lymle. Despite their derivative nature, they end up being a capable crew. With the return of personal actions as well as the introduction of a new roommate system, players can discover hidden affinities between certain characters and unlock hidden character endings.
The Star Ocean series has always delivered solid action RPG experiences, and Last Hope is no different. It follows the typical JRPG formula, with a heavy focus on exploration, character interaction, and combat. What sets Last Hope apart from the rest is the sci-fi element.
Players eventually take command of a spacecraft known as the Calnus and freely travel from planet to planet. Each planet contains a massive overworld, complete with towns, dungeons, and lots of nasty monsters. There's plenty of hidden treasure as well, and you'll need to occasionally return to a previous planet with a new ability in order to unearth some of the better loot.
You're free to explore, but there's actually very little backtracking required, and most of it's strictly for optional content. The emphasis is on pushing forward, and the game's filled with action. Enemies become increasingly difficult, but with enough skill and strategy, you'll be able to come out on top. The numerous boss battles also present significant challenges, with some of the later encounters taking upwards of 30 minutes to finish. It's tough, but emerging victorious truly feels rewarding.
The dungeons are plagued by several issues. Some are just too linear, while others are colossal mazes. It never finds a happy medium. Grinding through remedial battles becomes flat-out frustrating, especially when you're trying to get your bearings. Few puzzles means there's little to do outside combat, and most of the challenge in the more complex dungeons is simply figuring out which way to go.
Towns and villages fill their expected role. It's crucial to spend time purchasing new skills, new weapons, and raw materials for item creation. Players can also accept side quests from various townsfolk to earn precious experience points, money, and sometimes, rare items. Aside from offering a reprieve from arduous exploration and combat, towns are typically the best place to advance the story or find a clue to your next objective.
Last Hope has some impressive moments, but the numerous dungeon segments really drag the experience down. There's also a disappointing lack of co-op multiplayer. The game will easily take 30-40 hours to complete, and if you like a challenge, Last Hope delivers even on the easiest difficulty setting.
Exploring vast worlds and taking on hordes of alien scum represents the lion's share of Last Hope. Players can still casually walk or jog across the various locales like any other RPG, but Last Hope also gives you a somewhat comical rapid dash. It's a little silly, but it's definitely useful as long as you're in open spaces.
Players can control any one of the four active members in combat, with up to four other party members waiting in reserve. You'll be forced to multitask on some of the more intense battles, but toggling between characters is a breeze, and you can pause the game to assign actions to each one. Party members specialize in either melee combat or magic, but their unique fighting styles and animations will cater to different tastes.
The battle system is reminiscent of recent Star Ocean games, with basic attacks, combat arts, and symbology spells at your disposal. You'll still need to effectively use attacks in succession to chain combos and deal the most damage, but a few new elements really spice things up. The coolest is the blindside maneuver--a dodge and parry mechanic that allows characters to gain a distinct advantage in any battle. By executing a specific button combination at the right time, characters will slip behind an enemy undetected, opening up a chance to attack freely. It's powerful, but certain enemies can counter the attack so you need to vary your strategies.
Each character can also utilize one of three different fighting styles known as beats, which can be leveled up to gain new offensive or defensive abilities and increase their effectiveness. The S type focuses on offensive capabilities such as an enhanced blindside. The B type adds defensive traits and enables the new rush mode that puts characters in a powered-up state and unlocks a special attack known as a rush combo. The third and final type combines the two other styles, but keeps characters from leveling up their individual beats any further.
Topping off the battle system is the bonus board mechanic that fills a grid with icons as certain conditions are met in battle. Players earn hefty bonuses such as experience or money multipliers as more icons light up, so keeping the board filled up through skillful fighting can make life a lot easier in the long run.
There's incredible depth to the combat system, and it's definitely one of the best found in any action RPG. It's so addictive that you'll find yourself straying off the path just to take on extra battles.
Last Hope truly strives to achieve the grand visuals that have become a staple of Square-Enix games. The many organic environments look great, and provide some impressive views. On the other hand, many of the dungeons are extremely bland and devoid of any personality. Character designs are rather extravagant and fun to look at.
While CG sequences consistently look fantastic, in-game cutscenes are inconsistent. Things look fine during an exchange between characters, but when the setting shifts to the grand scale of space, the visuals take a serious hit. You can also expect plentiful frame rate drops.
The soundtrack is a passable effort with characteristically upbeat battle music, though it's not series composer Sakuraba's best work. The English voices are horrible for the most part, and they can get downright annoying during battle. A Japanese language track is sorely missed, but you can thankfully mute individual characters.
Tri-ace has made an admirable effort with Last Hope, but the game ultimately just isn't capable of standing out amongst the other giants in the genre. It's enjoyable, but in a way more reminiscent of recent Square-Enix games than its classics. It's not the most epic adventure, but if you seek rich combat experiences in your RPGs, Last Hope certainly delivers.