Opening with somewhat of an Eastern flourish, Star Ocean - The Last Hope most definitely stays true to its J-RPG heritage and credentials by dishing up a beautifully apocalyptic FMV to set up the space-age story; placing you in a time where the world has met its nuclear destruction and the entire race of humanity is pointing its greedy, pecking beak towards the stars.
With its face rammed in the radioactive, brown and dusty rear end of nuclear holocaust, humanity manages what has not been achieved for centuries and unites under one banner, the Greater United Nations (GUN for those of you who have difficulty with illusive abbreviations) in aid of jettisoning the seeds of the human race starward to start afresh, somewhere in the vast blank canvas of space. And that's where the game plants your sorry behind, in a large metal construct winging its way into the unknown through a warp tunnel. What could be safer, right?
Behind the eyes of our sarcastic, apathetic protagonist, Edge, we bear witness as all manner of major malfunctions occur spiralling our space-steed into a crash landing on the first planet, and 25 minutes in, longer if you watch all of the protracted (yet beautiful) cut-scenes, we get our first true taste of what the game has to offer.
There's something about the graphics in J-RPGs that I can never quite get my head around; the characters are beautifully detailed with brilliantly textured hair and a glossy sheen about their faces, and that's great. The thing is, they are let down by their surroundings, and the quality of the character visuals only amplifies the shortcomings of the environmental ones. The problem is only exacerbated when the camera is turned sharply to one side and the player's viewpoint becomes firmly embedded in a laughably low-res rock texture. The water effects make for some great ambient visuals making the levels fairly immersive and the oceans of stars (good, eh?) capture the essence of the great unknown. The sub-par graphics of parts of the environment can be excused purely because of the massive amount of environment there is - I thought trying to squeeze some Rock Band drums into my mousehole of a bedroom was hard. Cramming all the ground that Star Ocean has for you to cover onto three disks must have been a headache of epic proportions.
Talking of headaches, the menu system with its sub-menus and sub-sub-menus takes it a step beyond and blows it up into a full-blown migraine. Navigating through item lists, party lists, lists of lists of lists of lists, options lists and so on requires more patience than I have room for in my body, and in fact my entire house. To put this case to rest as lightly as a feather upon a pocket of hot air: ONLY A MANIAC WOULD ENJOY PORING THROUGH THE ENDLESS MENU CHOICES.
Ahem. Right. The battle system. I'm delighted to say that I was pleasantly surprised here. Star Ocean takes a few steps away from the heavily trodden path of classic turn-based combat and replaces it with a more real time system wherein the player has to time their attacks and select their target in a manner more akin to hack'n'slash titles, whilst the rest of your party fires off their mad skillz automaticcaly as if there's no tomorrow. While it is certainly a much smoother system than many J-RPGs, it can still feel rather weighty and sluggish to anyone, like myself, who has been raised on the instant gratification constructions of FPS titles and racing games.
The voice acting is very well done here, with the characters' on screen emotion being reinforced by dedicated, believable voice work. The game's audio, however, is let down by facepalmingly, ear-bitingly generic battle music - a not so much eclectic as epileptic beating of unashamedly electronic beats. It's slightly heartwarming the first time you hear them, taking the experience back to pioneers of the genre, but by the fifth battle in twenty minutes, your bloodied ears will soon change your mind.
The vast, cavernous guts of this game are where the raw value for money is exemplified most prominently. Where on the surface, the graphics, gameplay and audio are what might first spring to mind as the key moitvators behind a purchase, the sheer amount of life that can be wrung out of Star Ocean is phenomenal, even with just one playthrough. For the true hardcore out there, two further difficulty levels can be unlocked upon completion on the "normal" type difficulty, serving up a plate of steaming hot, despair-encouraging, insanity-inducing, brain-torturing gameplay which could have the potential to become more addictive than any narcotic the internet cares to tell me about.
When it comes to it, Star Ocean makes for a good J-RPG. For fans of the series, this prequel will explain the events of the preceding games, and for newcomers to the Star ocean universe, it makes an excellent first impression. The niggles I have are the same niggles I have with the plethora of J-RPGs that have made their journey to the West, and as these are common to the genre they are unlikely to cause any upset to existing fans. With value for money topping the list of games I've played for a long while through Star Ocean's inexorably extensive lifespan.
The up and down tone of the above review may have given a few clues that I am neither well acquainted with, nor particularly fond of the J-RPG as a genre, and in light of this I've attempted to employ a stance of leniancy to some of the things I commonly find wrong with the genre as a whole. As such, I can happily and honestly reccommend Star Ocean to any experienced players of RPGs of the Japanese persuasion and fans of the earlier iterations of the series. To new entrants to the genre, I proffer a warning: you might find it difficult to wade your way into the heart of this game at first, but if you feel determined to get to grips with the genre, Star Ocean could prove to be a big ol' bucket of gems for you.