Star Ocean: The Last Hope International

It's not every day that North America receives director's cuts of Japanese RPGs, for instance, the "international" versions of Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy X-2, and Final Fantasy XII, with the last game, for instance, having significant gameplay changes from the original version, but nonetheless not seeing release outside Japan. There are some exceptions, for example, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time for the PlayStation 2, and in the beginning of 2010, North America, Europe, and Japan saw the near-simultaneous release of Star Ocean: The Last Hope International exclusively for the PlayStation 3 , which provides an experience on par with its predecessors.

Like the third installment, the fourth features visible enemies on fields and in dungeons, and running into them naturally triggers battles; depending upon how the player runs into the enemy, fights can begin with the player, enemy, or neither side getting a preemptive strike. Like the other Star Ocean games, battles play out in real time, with active party size at four characters again and the player controlling one character while the A.I. controls the others. In the game menus, the player can adjust A.I. settings and assign skills to the L2 and R2 buttons, with player ultimately able to assign up to three skills per button thanks to the Chain Combos ability.

Aside from executing MP-using skills with L2 and R2 buttons (with the Chain Combos ability allowing the player to chain more than one skill together for extra damage), characters can attack enemies normally with their equipped weapons with the X button or jump by holding down the Circle button and pushing the left analog stick in the desired leaping direction. As players and enemies attack one another, their Rush gauges build up to a hundred points, with the player's characters able to enter Rush mode with the Square button, in which case they move and attack more quickly, they take less damage, and enemies won't be able to knock them down with their attacks; enemies too can enter Rush mode.

Another feature is the ability to "blindside" enemies, with the player needing to hold down the Circle button, in which case they "charge," although holding down the button for too long will temporarily stun the character. When an enemy targets the charging character, indicated by a flashing target cursor, the player needs to press the left analog stick, in which case the character will go behind the enemy's back and attack, in which case their first attack is a guaranteed critical strike. However, if the targeting cursor is red, then the enemy will counterattack. Blindsiding is actually necessary to beat certain bosses, although the A.I. unfortunately doesn't allow allies to blindside enemies automatically.

Yet another feature is the Bonus Board, its panels filling up with different colors depending upon feats performed in battle such as defeating an enemy with a critical hit (another useful effect of Blindsides) or slaying multiple foes at once; bonuses include increased experience and money. However, the Bonus Board can "break," losing half its panels, whenever the enemy lands a critical attack or kills the controlled character; the Board also resets whenever the player quits the game. The death of all active characters in combat results in a dreaded Game Over screen.

Winning a battle, conversely, nets all participating characters experience for occasional level-ups and money, with individual and party skill points also provided. Opening treasure chests also nets party skill points in addition to experience for every character. Outside battle, the player can invest skill points into each character's skills, be they for item creation, combat skills, or innate skills. While equipping active and passive skills, Capacity Points dictate how many each character can equip, with each skill consuming a certain number of CP. One particularly useful innate skill is "No Guard," where enemies can't knock characters down if their damage falls below a certain number, which can really help with Blindsides.

Item creation also returns from previous Star Ocean, with players able to start a conference with all characters aboard the Calnus. After doing so, the player can break up their characters into four teams to come up with new recipes, with Party Skill Points consumed as characters try to think of new recipes; the conference will end when the player runs out of Party Skill Points. To create items, the player must select a recipe from the list, with each one requiring a certain level of skills and ingredients the player can gather from points on fields and in dungeons or buy from shops. The system is definitely preferable to that in the third installment, though odds are players will spend more time hunting for the necessary ingredients than actually creating them.

Ultimately, the battle system is as solid as in prior installments, with fights moving at a decent pace, although boss fights, given the need to Blindside some of them, can take more time than average. The camera on its default setting in battle can also be somewhat troublesome, although luckily, players can press R3 to set it a decent distance above the battlefield. The A.I., furthermore, has some occasional hiccups, such as the lack of automatic blindsiding, and sometimes healers don't stay out of the enemy's way and consequentially get themselves killed easily. Despite these flaws, combat is as good an aspect as it was in prior Star Ocean games.

The interface, however, could have definitely been better, although there are some good aspects such as an easy menu system and easy shopping, not to mention the ability to choose between CG and anime-style character portraits in the menus. Players can also luckily skip cutscenes, and the Home button on the PlayStation 3 controllers doubles as a pause; interestingly, skipping a cutscene will bring up a dialogue box summarizing the skipped scene. Nonetheless, there are quite a few flaws such as the lack of a quicksave feature, the poor spacing of save points at times, and sometimes-poor direction, even with the plot synopsis feature, of how to advance the main storyline. Overall, interaction isn't terrible but could have certainly been better at times.

Story-wise, The Last Hope is a prequel to the other Star Ocean games, taking place in the twenty-first century after World War III, in which weapons of mass destruction razed the Earth, and humanity seeks new planets to inhabit. The plot is decent for the most part, and contains endless shouts-out to the previous Star Ocean games, for instance, with many characters that are ancestors of those in the first three games, and a trip to Roak even sets up the events in the first game. Granted, some characters don't receive much development, and the villains are somewhat ambiguous until the end of the game. The translation is mostly adequate, and while some have complained about redundant dialogue, there actually isn't that much, and only a few minor errors. Ultimately, a good plot.

Composer Motoi Sakuraba, as usual, does a good job with the soundtrack, with plenty of catchy, energetic tunes such as the battle themes, some of which are remixes of those from prior games. The English voicework is also decent, though some characters are somewhat grating, although players that don't like it can switch to the Japanese voices instead. Ultimately, the game is fairly easy on the ears.

The game is easy on the eyes, as well, with solid character models and environments, although there are some occasional bland textures and a somewhat-inconsistent framerate, most visible in and out of battle. As mentioned before, moreover, players can choose between CG and anime-style portraits, and overall, the visuals help the game more than help.

Finally, beating the game takes a little over thirty hours, although post-game content and trying to acquire every Trophy can easily double playing time. Overall, Star Ocean: The Last Hope International is for the most part a solid director's cut, what with the series' trademark real-time battle system and most of its aspects, save perhaps control, being all-around solid. Those that can look past the interface issues, and series fans alike, shall likely find The Last Hope to be an enjoyable journey through space, and in maybe one instance time.

The Good:
+Solid Star Ocean battle system.
+Good story, music, voice acting, and graphics.
+Decent replay value.

The Bad:
-Poor spacing of save points.
-Sluggish pacing.
-Lip-syncing of voices is off.

The Bottom Line:
On par with the other Star Ocean games.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 3
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 6/10
Story: 7/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 8/10
Localization: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 9/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 30-60 Hours

Overall: 8/10

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