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Star Ocean: The Last Hope International
Score: 85%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Tri-Ace
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:
From a presentation standpoint, Star Ocean: The Last Hope International is a mixed bag. Let's start with the good. The game is technically sound; you won't see any screen-tearing or framerate issues. The interior of the Calnus has a great space-opera vibe to it, though it doesn't even come close to Mass Effect 2's Normandy SR-2. The environments look nice, but they are often quite empty. The battle effects are great; every time you use Symbology or combat arts, it looks fantastic.

Now, on to the bad. The art direction is, for lack of better words, creepy. Yes, the look of the game is clearly anime-inspired, but the doll-like faces and exaggerated gestures only amplify the sense of disconnect between our universe and that of the game. The camera is awful, and it spends most of the game directly behind the back of the main character. The fact that you can turn on a dime in the field only serves to disorient you when you're trying to achieve a preemptive attack.

Despite the fact that The Last Hope International's main theme sounds like a repurposed bit of Star Trek music, the score is easily the best part of the sound design. The sound effects are good, but nothing to jump up and down about. The English dub is destined to go down as one of the all-time worst in video games, and the major offenders start appearing around the four-hour mark. Within five minutes of acquiring Lymle, the pigtailed Lemurisian, I wanted to kick her out of my party. It didn't matter at all to me that she might be of some help during battle -- not having to hear the lines delivered in that awful monotone would have been worth the tactical disadvantages. Her story in particular turns out to be quite surprising, but the damage is done far too early. And yes, it only gets worse from there.

It's nice that this release includes the original Japanese dubbing, but the script is busted beyond redemption. Regardless of which language you're hearing, a bad line is a bad line; and Star Ocean: The Last Hope International is chock full of them.

If I were critiquing Star Ocean: The Last Hope International on its narrative merits, it would fail pretty soundly -- but I'll go through the motions, if only to provide some context for all the action. When World War III drives Earth to the brink of destruction, global superpowers are forced to reconcile their differences for the sake of mankind's future. The Greater United Nations establish the Universal Science and Technology Administration, whose job is to explore the universe in search of hospitable planets. The story is not nearly that cut-and-dry; the developers at Tri-Ace sure know how to work diversions into what could very well have been a twenty-hour RPG.

You play as Edge Maverick, whose name belongs between Dingo Egret and Jet Brody on every "Worst Character Names of All Time" list. Edge, his mentor/rival Crowe, and his childhood friend Reimi are all part of the first departure mission from Earth. An anomaly in subspace forces most of the ships to make crash landings, while the Aquila (Crowe's ship) goes missing. After a string of unfortunate events leads to the incapacitation (or worse) of most of the crewmen, Edge is promoted to Captain of the SRF-003 Calnus. As I mentioned earlier, The Last Hope International is a poorly-written game; the plot is a cut-paste collage of bad clichés.

RPGs with weak story elements tend to fare poorly overall, but luckily, Star Ocean: The Last Hope International is a lot of fun to play. At first glance, the game seems to play like every other J-RPG out there: you control one character in the field, but you also manage a four-person party. You can run around, talk to the locals, take on some sidequests, or complete missions that further the story. You'll eventually become mired in sidequests, enough to the point where you may lose track of what you're really supposed to be doing. However, given the quality of the story, it's not too much of a problem. What's important is that the game remains fun throughout. It does.

In my experience, few RPGs can nail the difficulty level like Star Ocean: The Last Hope International does. It's got a variable difficulty level, with only two available for your first playthrough. On the default setting, it works like a traditional RPG. If your party is getting wrecked by a troublesome boss, all that means is that you need to go grind around a bit more. It's an RPG that encourages just the right amount of grinding. It doesn't feature Lost Odyssey's area level caps, nor does it force you to grind for hours on end like games in the Dragon Quest series. It's a fast-moving system that works really well.

Since the battle system is action-based, your reflexes are definitely factors in your victories and defeats. Knowing how and when to Blindside enemies is important, but the targeting system might make you hold the controller in ways you never thought of. That being said, I never felt like I had to choose the right character for the right job very often; the game lets you play exactly how you want. As a result, I found The Last Hope International to be quite a forgiving game.

Game Mechanics:
If you've played Level 5's excellent Rogue Galaxy, you'll find Star Ocean: The Last Hope International a very easy game to get into. Most action-RPGs tend to gravitate towards certain conventions, and The Last Hope International is, above all else, conventional. The combat system in this game isn't as button-mashy as that of Kingdom Hearts; flicks of the directional stick will often result in fundamentally different attacks. You can switch characters on the fly; learning how to play with each of them is a treat, but it's not exactly required to finish the game. There's one standard attack button, but you can also assign special attacks (physical and magic) to the trigger buttons. Unless you attract the ire of another group of enemies, fights generally don't last too long. Performing well and fulfilling certain requirements score you tiles on the Bonus Board. If you survive the encounter without taking a critical hit, the tiles become rewards, which can range from extra experience points to extra Fol (currency).

The Rush meter is the stock "charge-up-your-energy-and-unleash-it-with-rage" mechanic that is native to J-RPGs and anime-based fighting games. When you sustain and deal damage, you fill a meter; holding a certain button will allow you to manually charge it up for a few seconds. When the meter is finally maxed out, a tap of the (Square) button will send you into Rage Mode. Your attacks will become faster and more powerful, but only for a short time.

By far, the most useful combat mechanic is the Blindside. Your character can jump around the battle area at all times, but if you're being targeted, it's a good idea to find a way to your enemy's six. By charging your Rush meter as your enemy closes in, you give yourself the opportunity to perform a Blindside. As your enemy attacks, throwing yourself out of the way and hammering on the attack button will cause you to vanish from your enemy's sight, but it also opens the door for a string of critical attacks. Blindsides aren't terribly effective from long-distance, and some enemies can even counter them. Learning to react to different enemies lends this system some much-needed depth.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope International is an easy game to like, but a hard one to love. It's cookie-cutter plot and unlikable cast of characters makes it a hard sell for those who crave quality storytelling. However, the gameplay works -- and for most gamers, that's all that really matters.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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