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Star Ocean: The Last Hope (Xbox 360) artwork

Star Ocean: The Last Hope (Xbox 360) review

"Star Ocean: The Last Hope is the type of game that can have you reaching to play it again even though you just beat it a half-hour before, just for the opportunity to rough up some more monsters. The number of RPGs that have that kind of instant gratification is extremely limited, a true testament to the kind of fun you can have only with the likes of Star Ocean: The Last Hope."

Going into Star Ocean: The Last Hope, the fourth proper installment in a long-running franchise, there was plenty of reason to be wary. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, the previous entry in the series, was a little bit like burning your fingers on a hot stove. It wasn't a bad enough burn to prevent a person from using the stove in the future, but it was enough to give one pause. Without making enough blunders to prove a thoroughly horrible experience, the PlayStation 2 outing still left many gamers scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong. Caution was therefore warranted when approaching the sequel. Let's get one thing out of the way right now, then: this newest installment does a good job of putting most things back on track. There's no more dying because you ran out of MP, the AI's been improved and the plot--while not necessarily amazing--is better. Perhaps most importantly, there aren't any mini-games involving mine-cart turtles.

The protagonist in Star Ocean 4 is Edge Maverick, a generically young starry-eyed hero type who dreams of adventure and hopes to one day be the captain of his own space ship. He wields a sword in a future where everyone else has plasma rifles and his name is a solid nine on the standard ten-point scale of cringe worthiness. Edge pretty much spouts cliches from every pore in his body, and yet in spite of the negative first impressions, he's a fairly compelling hero. He's brash but he admits it, even going so far as to crack a few jokes at his own expense. Best hero ever? No, but his dilemmas are believable and when he faces a major crisis, you can relate with the way he responds.

Edge is just one of many characters that help to make Star Ocean 4 such a character-driven experience. The majority of the game's cutscene time isn't actually spent on what's happening. Instead, you're often watching how the characters react. Such a dynamic is a beautiful thing when said characters are good, which makes it unfortunate that the cast in this game is extremely polarized. For every time Edge does something interesting or Bacchus is charmingly over-analytical, someone else drags the rusty nails of their personality across the chalkboard of your mind.

Take Meracle, the obligatory obnoxious catgirl, and put her near Sarah, your white mage with wings. Both characters come from non-human species that have roots in previous Star Ocean games. Put them together and Meracle suddenly feels the urge to spout jokes about how Sarah reminds her of delicious chicken, complete with forks and knives and drooling. Apparently, anything with wings is chicken. It gets tiring very quickly.

The end result is a handful of moderately interesting characters who can't quite carry the weight of the more annoying cast members on their shoulders. The whole story suffers as a result. There's something to be said for subtlety and this game just doesn't have it. Still, I wouldn't go so far as to call the story bad. In spite of its problems, it does its job pretty well.

Mostly, that job is escorting you from one fight to the next.

The battle system in Star Ocean 4 is to RPGs what red velvet cake is to dessert: the kind of experience that borders on the divine. It's a nearly perfect balance of everything. The pace is quick and action-packed, with menus relegated to a role that seems almost obligatory. Combat's frantic pace can really push you to your limits, yet it's intuitive and never overwhelming. Anyone who's played a previous Star Ocean game will instantly feel at home because the general flow of battle is so familiar.

On the other hand, a number of new inclusions spice up the gameplay. Blindsides allow you to perform a sort of preemptive counter attack that avoids incoming strikes and gives you guaranteed critical damage against the enemy's flank. All that's required to execute such a maneuver is careful timing, a fact that forces you to focus on specifics even as a lot of other things are happening all across the field. Next up is the bonus board, a device that awards after-battle bonuses ranging from increased EXP gain to partial HP and MP regeneration. You gain chips of different colors by performing certain actions in combat. Killing an enemy with a critical hit, for example, gives you additional EXP. It sounds very random until you remember that you can guarantee critical hits with a blindside attack.

Enemy attacks can break the bonus board, too, causing you to lose some of your stocked chips if you aren't careful enough. Therefore, your strategy may soon revolve around building up a hefty bonus and maintaining it. Sure, it might seem like just another frivolous thing to think about in the heat of battle, but it can really pay off. A bonus board full of Fol+ will give you a hefty amount of free money if you can maintain it throughout a boss fight.

So what if the story isn't the kind of thing that will be etched into marble tablets and preserved for the sake of future generations? It doesn't really need to be, honestly. It simply needs to give the player an excuse to beat things up, which it does well enough. Star Ocean: The Last Hope is the type of game that can have you reaching to play it again even though you just beat it a half-hour before, just for the opportunity to rough up some more monsters. The number of RPGs that have that kind of instant gratification is extremely limited, a true testament to the kind of fun you can have only with the likes of Star Ocean: The Last Hope.

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Freelance review by Josh Higley (April 06, 2009)

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zigfried posted April 06, 2009:

Nice review! I pretty much agree with it, too. The story isn't too hot, but it's not bad in a way that ruins the game. I'll throw up a focus window later tonight if no one else beats me to it (as soon as I get home to make an appropriate scan).

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overdrive posted April 06, 2009:

I dug the review too, especially the reference to red velvet cake.

This game's on my "to-do.....extended 2009 version" list.
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jerec posted April 06, 2009:

Pretty much sold me on the line about there being no turtle mine-cart mini games. I want to play this game, but I'm extremely wary about it.
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EmP posted April 06, 2009:

Paragraph three uses the word ‘characters’ a lot. I mean, really, a lot. And the last paragraph uses the game’s title too close to each other to not be repetitive. Otherwise, this is excellent work and you get a generic internet prize. Let’s say a cookie.

I’ll sort you out a focus window just for the sheer fact you actually finished a review.

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