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Which Console Did You Buy/Receive Over The Holidays?

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PLAYERS:   1-2
August 31, 2004
Star Ocean: The Last Hope International

Star Ocean: The Last Hope

Star Ocean 2: Second Evolution

Star Ocean: First Departure

 Written by Chris Reiter  on September 13, 2004

Full Review: My grand pappy?makes games faster than you become one, and he's dead!

I must be dreaming. If I wasn't, then what I see before my very eyes is a game that's taken longer to get here than it has the four years it's taken for our next Presidential battle to arrive. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time's production began exactly about five years ago. Five years ago, Enix was still known as Enix. Five years ago, Squaresoft just released Final Fantasy VIII. Five years ago, the Dreamcast had just been received by America. Five years ago, there was no PlayStation 2, or GameCube, or Xbox, or even a Game Boy Advance. Five years ago was a long time ago, and after numerous delays starting from the canceled 2003 arrival of the game to its middle of 2004 debut, the RPG of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time has certainly stuck by its subtitle. Somebody pinch me.

A long time also means Enix...or Square Enix (to be precise) must have been doing things, special things, to the game in that time. And that's just what they did. Star Ocean initially launched in Japan early last year. Reportedly, the game was lacking. But then, Square Enix decided to tweak this flawed batch to perfection, by incorporating two new playable characters and a two-player battle arena for which gamers can choose amongst some of the game's stars and attempt to crush one another RPG-like. This version of Star Ocean: Till the End of the Time, dubbed the Director's Cut, is the same iteration Americans are able to play in full now. Square Enix figured instead of giving to us the brunt version, they'll just frill us with the new. Or more like...we've been waiting so freaking long that it's about time they done gave us our due.

There is a time. There is a place. There is a now and a then. There is an action and a reaction; a cause and effect. The place is set, and the time hasn't happened, but in the now there lies Fayt Leingod on vacation with his parents and his best friend he's known since childhood, Sophia Esteed. Located on the resort planet of Hyda IV, the area Fayt and the others are stationed on unexpectedly comes under attack by an unidentified militaristic force. In the midst of fear and hurried choices, Fayt's parents are suddenly separated from Sophia and him as danger drew near. What became of his parents was unknown. What lied ahead was a path chosen for him. Fayt never wanted this, though. Now, he'll be lead on an epic journey to help out his fellow comrades he'll meet along the road of many faces in his ultimate search to get back to the ones he loves from an evil who's motive to kill is as unclear as what is and what has yet to come.

Remember Star Ocean 2: The Second Story? It was an RPG for the PlayStation console released by Enix back in 1999. If that's not ringing any bells, you're probably in the same boat as a lot of other people. When the Star Ocean sequel was brought over to America, it wasn't well known a name as some other RPGs were at the time. Probably because Enix never released the Super NES first on our side of the world. Thus, those who've played the second game (like me) have experienced the first and only Star Ocean title to reach a market at a point where it was destined to overshadowing. Still, even as something of a sleeper hit, the game itself was entertaining and colorful. Though the action-oriented battling and two-way adventure as the male or female lead (depending on which character you picked, the plot would slightly differ) didn't meet the expectancy level of a Final Fantasy game, Star Ocean 2 was a great experience overall for RPG fans looking for something on the lighter side of the scale.

Star Ocean: Till the End of Time continues the tradition of what its former entry started. Battles, for instance, are conducted via visible enemies on the map that can be approached and then confronted a top a flat and 3D box-shaped plane where both sides of good and evil can cross paths against one another with standard and magical abilities. Obviously, there are also changes made to the gameplay style for it to break out of its former shell in order to create something unlike the other. One of those changes is that the amount of team members you can enable in battle has been reduced to three (it was originally four). Another is that each of your team mates has their own bar for MP, or Mental Points. These Mental Points are another name for supplemented magic. But unlike other RPG games, when the MP disappears your character becomes immobilized from further activity in a fight. Which can be a little annoying, especially when the computer (who does the fighting on its own if you stage it that way) repeatedly doesn't mind expending its magical feats (which it usually does).

Characters also operate off of a new stamina gauge called Fury. Working through a percentage meter that decreases the more actions are taken in combat situations now, your team will eventually find themselves limited toward the ever-mounting abilities they can dish out onto the enemies faced. How this method is perceived is that with each offensive stance performed, the numbers will slide from 100 to zero. Once that happens, only pausing and waiting for the numbers to quickly risen again is the only option you've got. When a character is stationary and the meter is full, this stature enables a shielding (or a means of blocking attacks) against baser enemy actions, where only major incursions will be able to cut through this closure. But even if a minor hit is taken when the shield is at full, it's not without a purpose, as say a poisonous reaction can be unleashed from within so that cheap shots are penalized. Working on the enemy's side as well, the Fury percentage is a useful element of strategy players can use and reuse throughout tactical defeat.

And in most ways really, the whole tactical arrangement Star Ocean sticks to is like an advanced game of "rock, paper, scissors." Essentially you're given a quick but standard attack with the X button. The circle button activates a stronger but slower-to-process attack. Then all that's left is the block besides the Mental Points mentioned above. Each of the battle actions is portrayed through distance. If you cruise around the battle window, you can get closer or shorter in distance from the enemy's position, who will also maneuver around anywhere you can. Range factors in for a reason, though, and that reason is to carry out your characters' lists of skills. Leveling up character experience beefs up the stats of health (HP) and magic (MP), and everything...but with that, characters will soon start to gain new skills that can be allocated within their own personal profile outlines. Having a sword evoke fire from inside itself, to dash attacks, to flip attacks, to ice and rock-based aggressions are some of the different and several abilities enacted on behalf of the skill's list. When positioned some ways away from an enemy and holding down onto either the X or circle buttons will activate a long-based attack, whereas when nearer and completing the same response will follow through with the shorter one. Choosing which set of skills for which mode of an onslaught can be tooled within the game menu, as long as each character is properly attuned to the qualifications of the capacity point information (every skill is given a number of skill points for which weighs into the overall containment output of abilities). Learning and burning these skills into battle is always fun, as they're a big part of what keeps the intuitive battle operations interesting. The only sad thing is that you can only assign up to four skills for the four button ranges, and then two more for support skills when the overall outcome will result in more than what the application calls for.

When not crossing the channels over open fields from one area to the next or burrowing into the depths of a dungeon past dangers and treasures, the town locales of Star Ocean hold their own pursuable activities, including the return of Star Ocean 2's system for item creation. Stocking up on new weapons and status ailments from various item shops is one option. The other is readied by you or others in your same field of gravity. There are workshop buildings found inside each town square. After meeting with the creation guild in the game, these workshops are places where you can customize weaponry, armors, items, accessories, and more. Not just that, but it's also possible to manifest unique inventions all together. It's with the item creation guild too that you can also patent items and even run into competition or cosign with these opponents to become partners in the vein of conceptual mastery. Unfortunately, most of these unsigned partners will need a hefty amount of Fol (money) before they'll close a deal with you. Item creation in itself is expensive. So is purchasing any kind of item. Earning Fol isn't exactly easy either, when very little is usually obtained after most battles. And when it's sometimes better to avoid dueling all together because the computer enjoys overdoing the magic making (meaning you have to continue replenishing their meters), money becomes an issue at some points in the game.

Getting accustomed to how the game runs its course isn't very tough or confusing after about maybe an hour of practice, though. Entering battles means you'll mostly be running around (left analog), switching between characters (L1/R1), or offensively thwarting your foes with either the X and circle buttons to diving into the battle menu for swapping character formations/tactics and using items or symbology feats (magic) with the triangle button. Dungeon crawling and solving riddles aren't a pain (or at least not much of one), as some enigmas like one that requires learning to pace yourself through an icy cavern and another where you have to turn off and on lights in a certain order as to unseal the doors ahead shouldn't take more than a few attempts to finally unravel their mysteries. Also on Star Ocean's mini-map, an arrow displays an icon for your character and an accumulative color marking for all the zones you've visited so for you to know where you have and haven't been to. However, sometimes you'll become bewildered when story-wise the game tells you to head to a certain location without means of direction. A general world map isn't provided in the game that depicts your location from certain places. So let's say you've already trekked across a field and the mini-map saves all the highlighted information as to where you've walked past. Now let's say you've just exited a dungeon and the story tells you to backtrack to some area without specifying directions. It's more of a guessing game sometimes. Without a properly descriptive map and a compass, you really have to commit to memory more often than you should.

Graphical techniques today go either one way or another. One game has this thing, another has that thing, and then the ones that set the standards often base their engine off of that game. A lot of times it seems as though too many games look too much the same. For one of the most underused styles, this is probably a good thing as to not get caught up in the "clone wars." Games like Zone of the Enders and Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht have warped their worlds into one of a 3D anime. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time now falls into the same league, and in doing so only continues the always mesmerizing features this type of digital craftsmanship can generate. On the level through everything in sight, there are distinctive towns, dungeons, and fields established to pitch a suitably detailed presence to each of the navigational spots found in the game. Up from outer space where the bright white tiles and translucent windows panel your view to an opposite reign of blackness, stars, and futuristic architectures outside, all the way down to medieval planets of grass, stone, snow, mountainous and forest surroundings that depict a natural selection of props and places.

As such, the modeling and textures used are solid and without hindrance. The particulars to that end are that Star Ocean isn't razzle dazzle with its traits elevated to astounding heights never before realized in an RPG game. Rather, the general bulk is fitting and its balance isn't upset by outstanding flaws, not even minor ones. This happens in other spots as well. Characters for the most part are seen from a 3D overhead isometric perspective (even engaged in combat), except when it comes to traveling across the map or viewing a story segment (which is really the only major complaint to think about, since the game zooms out on the finer attributes only fleshed within the storybook window). Stationed in feudal positions, every character drags with them pureed animations and effects. Fiery, icy, electrical and many other elemental effects along with the running, jumping, sliding and other such motions that enable these powers all transition smoothly and are colorfully gratifying toward the enhancement of the game's good looks. All you need to know really is that if you're worried Star Ocean will disappoint you with visual imperfections, don't be.

Some RPGs have it. Others don't. I'm talking about that classic music score you just can't get out of your head. Star Ocean's soundtrack does actually feature in its main theme a climatic orchestrated number that will get stuck in your head for a while (or, maybe it's just me). But other themes, however, aren't given the same time of day. Not bothersome, but more like they're there and they're good enough not to ignore or praise for more. They're just a small set of emotionally pitched tunes (energetic, depressing, dramatic, etc.) that serves as a basis for both plot development and furthering progression in the game, and that's okay. Audio is another such aspect that really provides enough to its work limit, instead of trying to be over-the-top or anything like that. It's in the clashing and smashing weapon onsets sent onto enemies, it's in the twinkling and stinging magical forces, and it's in jogging around the battleground. Otherwise, outside of battle there isn't as much to hear so much other than yours or others' movements, and the calm environmental effects like water flowing through a stream.

Evolving the process of voice, Star Ocean takes its ability to tell a tale of a revolving adventure -- emotionally -- to the next level. Star Ocean 2 did pivot around a range of characters struggling against villains, but small doses of voice work were only sampled during the game's combat scenarios. Fortunately for Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, a likable cast has signed on to step into the shoes of the many heroes and heroines in this game's narration. These talents mostly hail from various anime cartoons, so in actuality some of the spoken English in the game is a little awkward and a bit too squeaky, irksomely even. Although, most of the game's voiced attributes are surprisingly well diverse, rich, even funny, and just so perfect. There's not a whole lot to complain about with Star Ocean's audible cast, and nuts to anyone who says differently.

Bottom Line
We've been waiting. We've been hoping. We've been wondering. And now, all of our patience has at last paid off. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time took its sweet ass time to get here. Now that the game has at long last arrived, it's literally an achievement worth every penny. There's an abundance of strategic flavor in the battles, well articulated graphical feats, an apt cementing in sounds, and a nice collection of extras for the truest of role-playing fans -- deep enough to go overboard with more than 80 hours of gameplay. Were you, or are you, or would you want to be one of the individuals interested in picking up Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, no matter what, you should get the game anyway. It's that good.

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