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Star Ocean: The Last Hope
Star Ocean: The Last Hope is Square Enix's last entry in the long running but seldom utilized Star Ocean franchise. The series started back on the SNES in '96, and has seen one game per console generation since, for a total of four, not including the portables and remakes. I'm only familiar with the last two, but the first ones, and the second specifically, were cult classics among the JRPG crowd. It goes without saying that much has changed about the series over that much time, but the staples - semi-futuristic, semi-fantasy setting, item creation, and real time combat - have remained the same.

One of the more perplexing staples, however, is the plot setup. As far as I can tell, it is effectively the same in every game of the series: the young crew of a spaceship from a futuristic society ends up crashing that spaceship on a pre-industrial era planet and is, for some bizarre reason, forced to resort to using swords and sorcery to combat evil. From that startlingly self-plagiarizing and thus unoriginal introduction comes the gratuitously trite plot of the game(s) as a whole, a phrase so tired when it comes to JRPGs that I can only think of a few that I've ever played that don't have it: a ragtag band of adventurers thrown together by fate must defeat an ancient and mysterious evil bent on destroying the universe for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. An entirely distinct, interesting, and unique plot, assuming you've never played a single JRPG in your entire life.

There's also a plot twist in the game that is practically advertised with flashing neon signs, a twist that is so fucking obvious that I am not sure it's actually a plot twist. The only thing making me think that it is is that the characters all express surprise when it is finally revealed. Really, though, they give it away before they even finish setting it up. Practically before they start. I'm not sure if the writing is clumsy or bad or some other brand of incompentent.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope is, of course, an RPG, which means that there will be a great deal of focus on the characters and plot, even if they suck so horribly that you're tempted to skip every cutscene - an option that they are either kind or self aware enough to give you. We have already established that the plot sucks, so let me assure you that the characters also suck. We follow the standard Square Enix / JRPG formula, as such:

Protagonist - Must be of a slim, athletic build, in his teens, with blond hair that is longer than a few inches but not longer than his shoulder, and prone to bouts of self-flaggelating seriousness. In this case, Edge. See also: Tidus, Cloud, Zidane, Squall (so he had brown hair, big deal), the urchin from FFXII whose name I don't remember, that guy from Dark Cloud 2, the dude from Disgaea 2, and other heroes I don't care to remember right now.

Female Love Interest - Must be of a similarly slim, athletic build, about the same age as the protagonist, and remarkably like him in ways. Should have B-cup breasts, which are big enough to be there but not so big that they're overtly sexy or intimidating or anything like that. Should be earnest, supportive, approachable, not intimidating, not assertive, and otherwise non-threatening. Again: non-threatening in all ways. In this case, Reimi. See also: Aeris, Rinoa, Dagger, Yuna, that chick from Dark Cloud 2, and probably some other chicks.

Sexy Female Non-Love Interest - Must be hot and voluptuous, and in possession of D-cup or greater breasts. Interest in the protagonist can range from non-existent all the way up to in-love-with, but it must be clear that she's never a real threat to the protagonist. In this case, Myuria. See also: Tifa, Lulu, and maybe some others.

The Bruiser - A big guy who is legendarily tough and all but invincible to the bad guys - until he joins your party, at which point he's shockingly lackluster. Here we have Bacchus and Arumat, but in the past we've had Barret, Steiner, Auron, and so on.

The Goofball / Lame Comedic Relief - These run the gamut in terms of design, but they're always big fucking wacky characters. In SO:TLH, we get three! Meracle, Sarah, and that horribly annoying fucking chick who helps you make items. See also: Cait-Sith, Yuffie, that horrible airhead from FF8, and I'm just going to stop thinking of these now because the very memory of most of them pisses me off.

Any holes that are left in the cast can be filled in with the occasional color character required to drive the plot forward, like Faize or (heavy sigh) Lymle, who is a fucking six year old that you cart off to fucking war with you, because it's always a good idea to bring a fucking six year old along with you when you're doing battle for the fate of the universe and watching one race genocide another and all of that. There's also the hysterically one-dimensional director, who lacks any semblance of subtlety, nuance, or realism while disregarding a force that will destroy the universe in favor of eating steak and worrying about his upcoming election campaign. The characters that aren't drawn along the dotted lines are basically just dots, with all of the lack of depth that that implies.

Rounding out the trio of plot and characters, the dialogue is also laughably bad. There's an inherent Japanese-ness to it that makes me hesitate ever so slightly, makes me wonder if perhaps something was lost in translation, or if there's a certain cultural element that simply doesn't transfer across the Pacific. But fuck making up excuses for the game - the dialogue is bad. Horrible. I mean, forget the item creation woman and the eardrum-searing horror that she inflicts on you periodically throughout the duration of the game. That's too easy a target. The main plot set pieces are driven by stilted, unbelievable, oft-idiotic conversation.

Much like Grandia 2's magic word was "heart," for SO:TLH, the magic word is "friend." By simply uttering it, you can change everything about a situation. Say, perhaps, that you are in a military base that is in the process of being destroyed - wait, actually, let's back up. Let's say that some insane woman - who still has command of a military base despite clearly being out of her fucking gourd - has decided to blow up the entire fucking world for reasons completely incomprehensible. And let's say that with a few unspectacular words, her dying husband can change her from crazed maniac to loving mother and wife. And then let's say that you're about to escape this base with the (presumably) lone member of an unknown race whose only friend in the world has just been killed. And let's say she's suicidal. Let's say she just wants to stay there and end it all. Do you know what you, a person who has just met her and barely knows her, can do to switch it all around? To turn her from depressed and suicidal to hopeful and glowing and happy?

You can tell her she's your friend.

That's it! In the seconds following you speaking that word, her eyes will widen, her face will light up, and she will echo it with a whisper. She will regain the will to live - no, not just regain it, but will be absolutely ecstatic about life, ready to live it to the fullest. She will no longer be bothered by the death of what was once her only friend - after all, she has a half dozen new ones! Even if she doesn't know your names yet.

This trick is not limited to aliens that have tails and ears. It will also work on mission-focused warrior-scientists made of steel. It will work on voluptuous vixens out to avenge the death of their husbands. It will work on tough-as-nails warriors with a death wish (even if they don't admit it as readily).

It is, really, some of the stupidest bullshit I've ever seen in JRPG dialogue. Time and time again, a character decides to give up, end it all, sacrifice him or herself for the good of the group, and time and time again the main character says, "but you're our friend!" And then suddenly everything is okay, the emotional issues disappear, the situation that mandated that this character sacrifice their life so that everyone else can escape safely kind of fades away, and everything is wonderful.

But it's not just that the plot is trite, that the characters are stale, and that the dialogue is completely unhinged from anything resembling reality - it's also that there's so fucking much of it. I got home from work one Friday afternoon, had about an hour to burn, and decided I'd unwind by playing some Star Ocean. I turned the game on, went through a door, a cutscene started, and an hour later, after pulling myself out of the slumber I had fallen into, I picked the controller back up, saved my game, and turned off the system. Given the quality of the game versus the quality of the cinema, the ratio of game to cinema is way off.

But hey! I'm not playing SO:TLH for the plot and characters, I'm playing it for the gameplay. And SO:TLH is, by and large, a top of the line, AAA title. The graphics are very nice - though sometimes the areas are so cluttered that it's easy to lose track of enemies. The audio is entirely suitable. The interface, while also a bit busy for my tastes, is generally well put together.

This is a tri-Ace game, so the combat is real time, and it is a fair bit of fun. It's active, it's involved, and there's a fair bit of skill to it. You can customize your characters' skill setups, and there's a lot of strategy involved in that. You can switch who you control on the fly, you can setup the AI for the people you don't control, and you can issue commands to override the AI if you need to. The item creation system is unique and a lot of fun, and there are quests and missions that help fill out the world. There's a mini-game in the form of bunny racing (don't ask), and there's a coliseum where you can battle your way through the ranks. The core of the game itself is really quite solid, in remarkable contrast to the plot half of things.

I have two other complaints on the game side of things, though. The first is that combat gets harder as the game goes on - which isn't all bad. But in addition to the enemies taking more skill and planning to defeat, they also have more health, all of which totals out to battles taking far more time. On top of that, combat becomes far, far more common, particularly in the last dungeon in the plot proper. Status ailments become extremely frequent also, which means stopping between fights to heal up. Virtually any dungeon in the game is a little longer than it should be, but the last one is particularly enormous. All of this adds up to the end of the game becoming an absolutely grueling slog that lasts far longer than it should.

And further compounding that is the fact that SO:TLH not only uses the antiquated save points system, which probably should have died a generation ago, but it also seems to have no concept of the player having anything to do other than play video games. Many times I have sat down with the intent to play for forty-five minutes, only to find myself unable to find a save point for over an hour and a half. On one occasion I went an hour without seeing a save point, and then died, losing an entire session's worth of progress. This is not the 80s. That is not acceptable anymore. I have other things to do with my life. Games do not dictate my life, my life dictates games. The lost session was very early on, otherwise I likely would have quit playing. The last dungeon is long enough and has few enough save points that I nearly quit there, too.

I want to say that I've gotten a good deal of enjoyment out of Star Ocean: The Last Hope, but looking over my own words on it, it seems a somewhat disingenuous thing to say. I have spent plenty of time enjoying it, but I've also spent plenty of time suffering through cutscenes that I probably should have skipped, and I've spent plenty of time playing that I wanted to be spending doing something else. I guess the best I can say is that the combat and item creation are a lot of fun, and the game definitely has high production values. The worst I can say, though, is that the plot, characters, and dialogue that dominate probably a third of your "play" time are out-and-out terrible, and the save points are few and far enough between that if you can't put aside an hour to two hours a time to play, you might find yourself quitting before you've beat the game.

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