Star Ocean 4: The Last Hope isn’t a direct sequel to any of the previous titles that tri-Ace has developed over the course of its star crossed history which is something of a blessing and a curse. On one hand, players that have never experienced its mix of sci-fi and medieval mysticism should be in for a treat. On the other, it also has one of the most weakest stories out of the entire franchise.
Starting out as a prequel, Edge Maverick and his childhood friend and shipmate, Reimi Saionji, are part of Earth’s Space Reconnaissance Force tasked to go beyond the Solar System in order to find a new home for humanity. The surface of Earth had been ravaged by the Third World War, forcing the survivors that now live underground to focus their efforts at reaching for the stars. Of course, things don’t always go as planned and before long, Edge and Reimi eventually find themselves engaged in a struggle to save the universe from certain annihilation.
Although the lavishly detailed and chillingly animated intro brings everyone up to speed with what happened up to the construction of the Moonbase housing the headquarters of the SRF, the underlying story will require you to exercise a great deal of patience in dealing with the heavy serving of cheese that it delivers with every cutscene. I had lived through the controversial ‘twist’ to the Star Ocean universe in SO3: Til the End of Time and am probably one of the few that didn’t think it was offensively evil despite laying the groundwork for continuity issues. But the heavily cliched quality of the story in SO4 only reinforces the continuing disappointment that I’ve had with tri-Ace’s storytelling since Infinite Undiscovery.
The titles that have fun with the familiar stereotypes from japanese animation and manage to make them feel as if they are moving the story along succeed in making us forget for a moment that we’ve seen them everywhere before, but SO4′s dialogue and the shallow characterizations make the same things much harder to digest. Angst filled characters, massive melodrama, and saccharine coated dialogue are all included in this trip to space filled with enough holes to orbit Jupiter through, all of which are shared within the heavy number of cutscenes filling the game. Having many of these isn’t in itself a bad thing, but what should be rewarding milestones in the story feel like trials of patience.
Seasoned voice actors such as the as the ever-versatile Michael McConnohie put in what can sound like solid performances only for me to discover that many of the characters have as much emotional range as a wheel of cheese, but SO4 manages to shine through when it focuses on its sci-fi roots with bizarre settings and even stranger oddness in the great beyond. Unfortunately, not all of the characters are as fun to have around as Edge and Reimi are. The cliches even extend right into the character designs with Myuria as the anime-standard femme fatale whose half-naked appearance is predictably pre-ordained by the material. The list goes on into the NPCs and I found myself wishing for someone from the previous SOs such as Cliff, Fayt, or Nel Zepher to break into this game and set everything right, but that’s just silly thinking.
The good news is that there are special interludes aboard the Calnus, your ship, that provide opportunities to interact with each of the characters that have joined up to find out more about them and even make a decision or two that may affect your ‘relationship’ contributing to the endings that you may see. These tend to be cozy, compact scenes in which the awkwardness gives way to charming moments that are actually fun to explore. These do a far better job in portraying the characters than the main story will until the very end and I found myself looking forward to heading for other worlds if only to see what else I could learn about the others in my party.
Unlike the troubled story, SO4 builds on the lessons learned from its previous efforts making it familiar to Star Ocean fans with only a slight learning curve for newcomers to grapple with. Combat in the game is in real-time with visible encounters allowing the player to pick and choose what they want to fight, although certain battles can’t be avoided such as when a boss is discovered. Much of the fighting consists of a button mashing exercise in controlled chaos with everything at the player’s fingertips. Basic attacks are easily initiated allowing whatever character you decide to control slash, kick, pummel, or shoot their way through the enemy.
The AI controlling the rest of the party actually does a decent job in staying alive and players can always set the kind of behavior that they want them to follow, such as telling them to pile on one enemy or to stay away from the fighting. Healers, however, tend to lose out as there is no setting that you can assign to a character to tell them to heal or cast support buffs and ignore combat. This can have the annoying tendency to have them rotate through combat and support spells (referred to as symbology), sometimes to the detriment of a party member that is bleeding all over the floor. But veterans will find that the AI does an exceptionally decent job in doing what it is supposed to, especially when the characters begin to earn more of their special attacks as they level up, which is something of a nice change from the spotty performance that they were usually blamed for in the previous installments.
Calling up the combat menu during the battle freezes the action and allows the player to switch from character to character, although that’s something that they can do while running around the battlefield anyways. Special attacks are easily assigned to and tripped by the trigger buttons allowing you to chain together a string of devastating moves complimenting the basics that your chosen hero is able to perform. Everyone has a shared inventory of goodies and if you’ve played Infinite Undiscovery, you’ll find that SO4 continues to break past the 10K hit point barrier with plenty of room for everyone to keep growing.
One of the biggest changes to the combat system is the use of blindsides which are special moves that every character can perform in battle. When enemies target the player’s character, a highlighting cursor appears giving the player a chance to blindside the enemy if their timing is right. If pulled off correctly, the character will sweep in behind the enemy and deal critical damage with every strike while the surprise lasts. However, certain foes can blindside the character back and this is indicated by the color of the cursor. Even so, the player still has a chance to blindside them anyway although the timing required is a bit trickier. Blindsiding enemies adds an exciting dimension to the typical real-time combat formula in SO4 as getting the drop on an enemy with this technique never gets old. Even the bosses aren’t immune to blindsiding attacks and a few can only be defeated using it. Chain it with regular and special attacks along with everything else that the party can throw at a monster, and your screen will literally explode with special effects and plenty of eye blistering action.
Characters also have a ‘rush’ gauge which slowly builds up in combat as they do damage and get tossed around at the same time. When it’s full, the player can activate it making the hero that they are currently controlling temporarily resistant to most damage while making their attacks even deadlier as the gauge quickly burns down. Spellcasters have the added benefit of being able to resist interruptions while casting spells as long as they’re in this mode. Enemies also have a rush gauge and will do the same thing to your party making them, and especially bosses, doubly dangerous opponents.
There are also combat ‘styles’ that can be leveled, one that focuses on striking damage while another concentrates on defensive abilities and a middle version that doesn’t level up but provides a balance between the two. The two skills that can be improved grant the character they are assigned to additional bonuses to certain statistics as well as other benefits such as reduced damage during rush mode or additional chain attacks. You can switch between any of these styles at any time and the game defaults each character to a particular one when they are first introduced. For the most part, I didn’t think much of this and kept every character at their default combat style, although it’s a nice option for players that love to tinker.
SO4 also does away with the bonus gauge which I had hated from SO3, replacing it with the Bonus Board. Certain conditions in combat, such as killing an enemy with a critical attack or getting ambushed in the same battle because another batch of baddies was near enough to your first encounter, fill in spots on the board with gems that can bestow a variety of effects such as an increased percentage of experience, bonus cash, or valuable skill points. The effects can also be stacked as long as you can get the right combat conditions, creating a huge advantage that can carry through multiple battles as long as it’s kept intact. Being able to build up and keep the board from disintegrating from enraged enemy attacks can add to the challenge of every fight, but unlike the gauge from SO3, the board won’t completely fall apart on the first lucky hit making it a lot more forgiving and more fun to have around.
Skills also make a huge return in SO4. Characters can learn a variety of skills in addition to the ones that they already have, such as being able to mine hotspots on the world map for valuable materials or in being able to dish out more critical attacks. Skill points are earned at every level up, although they are also earned from opening chests, harvesting materials on the world map, or in completing one of the many side quests that can be found in the game. They’re also used in improving combat skills and the effectiveness of spells, leaving it completely up to the player to decide what they should focus on and how best to tune their party into a monster mashing engine. For someone that loves character customization, this can easily make the game an addicting exercise.
What all of these features mean in the end is that combat never really gets old. Skills, the bonus board, and the fast paced nature of every battle ensures that even grinding your characters through to the next level doesn’t really become a boring exercise. The bad news is that while you can have four members of your party active at any one time, any character that has to sit out doesn’t earn any of the valuable experience that the others do from fighting. While many RPGs today and in the past have followed the most user-friendly trend of sharing the experience with everyone whether they are in the active party or not, SO4 doesn’t which can be an irritating throwback that will force you to rotate nearly every character in and out so that they don’t fall too far behind. If you’re coming in from Tales of Vesperia, this can come as a rude, and inconvenient, shock.
Outside of combat, the visuals of the worlds that the player will journey through are a mix of the fantastic and grotesque. The outdoor areas have plenty of eye candy effects and the character models look great, but some of them can appear slightly bizarre when viewed close up as they come across as CG dolls with eerie stares. Tri-Ace’s artists also demonstrate their knack for creating lush interiors filled with plenty of detail, whether it is on the party’s ship, the Calnus, or a medieval weapons store. The areas are huge, including the dungeons, which gives the player plenty of reasons to go exploring. The downside to all of this openness is that there is no easy way to quickly go from one location to the next meaning that you will be doing a lot of running around which can be aggravating.
The monsters are also fantastic, although they become recycled late in the game with reskinned versions that can take away some of the surprise. Animation wise, most of it looks good but there are issues that are hard to ignore…such as the horrid lip syncing. Combat effects are also spectacular to watch, especially with some of the more brilliant powers that players can throw at the enemy, turning simple confrontations into what can appear to be epic clashes of unbridled power.
On the planets that players will also be exploring, there are plenty of things to do. Ingredients can be gathered up for the game’s crafting system along with recipes that can be discovered, creating another option for players to sink even more time into. Welch Vineyard, who must be an immortal at this point or appearing in every SO game, acts as the interface to the deep crafting system allowing you to assign characters into groups to invent things and build items. Crafting is far more streamlined this time around and it draws from the party’s pool of skill points to come up with new ideas. The problem is that you have to return to the Calnus every time you want to use the system. While it may make sense from a logical point of view, running across an entire world just to use it can quickly drag the pace of the game down into boredom.
The game is also not without its technical issues. The game had frozen up on me several times during my playthrough meaning that you should save and save often. Save points also tend to be spaced haphazardly, with a few close together while others tend to be so far apart in some instances that you might spend an hour searching a dungeon for one wondering if you’ll find it before the game freezes on you.
Along with the in-game trophies that players can earn, unlocked difficulty levels that are a staple of the series, a soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba, and a bonus dungeon with even more dangerous monsters within just waiting to chew the party apart, SO4 manages to delivers nearly everything that Star Ocean fans can look forward to although it also comes off as the weakest chapter of the series’ ongoing narrative. The gameplay demonstrates tri-Ace’s ability to polish that part of its art to a fine sheen, but as with most RPGs, a good, strong story is also required for players looking to get more out of the experience than some loot and a few levels. It can provide the emotional bridge and driving reason to accomplish the impossible and when that falls by the wayside, it can often feel like half a game.
Even at the end, depending on an uncertain set of variables secretly triggered throughout the game, players may miss out on seeing the true fates of each of the main characters by witholding certain twists. It’s not as bad as what tri-Ace had done with Valkyrie Profile’s “true” ending…there is a solid ending if you aren’t concerned about the individual characters’ epilogues…but this may irk some players expecting to see everything.
If you can tune out the story, however, the game can be an exciting experience standing atop everything that tri-Ace has learned…and for fans that have followed the series’ adventures, that might just be enough to hope for in the end.