Star Ocean: The Last Hope, Tri-Ace's latest in this sci-fi action role-playing game series, takes place centuries before the original Star Ocean, in a time when humans faced extinction if they were to stay behind on planet Earth. Following the recent remakes of the original Star Ocean and Star Ocean: The Second Story, The Last Hope takes this series a step further on the Xbox 360 with gorgeous next-gen graphics and a slightly tweaked battle system, which adds another layer to the action-oriented gameplay. We spent some time with this prequel and are impressed by this new direction and curious to see how it will all unfold.
A startling opening sequence showed the destruction of the world from weapons of mass destruction. World War III ravaged the once beautiful land, causing irreversible damage to the point where humankind needed to find a new home--and fast. The story takes place once you fast-forward more than 30 years to Space Date 0010, which is 10 years after humans achieved the ability to warp through space. You play as Edge Maverick, a member of the Space Reconnaissance Force (SRF), who is assigned to explore new planets and find a new home for the human race beyond the stars. Reimi Saionji is your childhood friend, and she keeps you in check in case you do anything stupid--and she's deadly with a bow. Together on the Calnus ship, you and Reimi travel to planet Aeos, a planet that's supposed to resemble Earth in its Jurassic period, but the trip doesn't go as smoothly as planned. You do, however, wind up on the surprisingly lush planet of Aeos and eventually meet an advanced alien race known as Eldarians, which is when the real adventure begins.
The Last Hope lets you have up to four members in your party instead of the usual three, with the ability to quickly switch between characters with the right and left bumpers. You can set the fighting style, or BEAT, of your party members so that they can be more aggressive, or more passive, using various techniques. Battles are fought in real-time once the fight is initiated. Enemies are visible onscreen, so you can avoid them altogether by dashing by with the X button, or you can sneak up from behind for a preemptive strike. You must either avoid them altogether or take them head-on, because if the enemies catch you from behind, you'll be surprised and start the battle at a disadvantage. A new feature for the series is the ability to blindside your enemy. Hold the B button--which is used to jump out of the way--and once you've been targeted by your opponent and he's about to attack, use the analog stick to move out of the way. This will confuse the enemy and let you slip deftly behind him to unleash at least one critical hit. Timing is important; otherwise you'll get smacked around, or if you hold the B button too long, you'll become fatigued, leaving you vulnerable to attacks. Another addition is the rush gauge, which is a bar that fills as you fight and take damage. Once it's full, you can enter rush mode by pushing X, which will enable you to move quickly, take less damage, and stay in place when you're hit instead of being knocked back. Or, you can pull off a rush combo by hitting X and the left or right triggers, which are normally reserved for your special arts (attacks).
How well you perform in a battle will affect what you earn from the fight. Each time you perform a certain feat, the tiles on the bonus board on the right side of the screen will light up. These tiles will break if you take a critical hit, so it takes some practice to pull off specific moves and chain them as quickly as you can. There are battle trophies to earn as well, which are like in-game achievements that will benefit you later in the game. When in doubt about your fighting skills, you can access the battle simulator through the main menu, as well as on your ship, if you want to practice against virtual opponents. Even with practice, though, you'll find that, as in the previous games, dedicating some time to leveling is required if you want to get to the next chapter of the story safely. Whether this is annoying to you or not depends on your patience with RPGs, but what did bother us at times was the camera, which zooms in uncomfortably close at times--with gratuitous shots of Reimi's backside during victory poses. The camera is adjustable, which is great, but it generally likes to hover in a bit too close for comfort during battle, and it's always more advantageous to see the bigger picture.
An important aspect of the series is item creation, which returns here with a few tweaks. You'll meet Welch, an overly hyper and somewhat obnoxious young girl who is your link to item creation. To create anything, you need a recipe, which can be formed in the meeting room of the Calnus. Using the ship's interface, you hold an invention session by splitting your team into groups until they come up with new recipes. This drains your party's skill points until they've run out of ideas or you decide to stop the brainstorming session. Once you have a recipe, it's time to gather the ingredients, which will then let you create the item for you to use. If you find yourself drowning in information overload, the game does provide a dictionary and a synopsis of all the cutscenes are available in your menu for you to peruse at your leisure.
The Last Hope's computer graphics movies are done by Visual Works, the same studio that has lent its talents to the Final Fantasy series. The quality of the animation is superb as are the in-game graphics. Beautiful landscapes and a breathtaking ocean of stars are there to greet you as you set foot on this adventure. Everything from character models to the interior of the ship is colorful, detailed, and easy on the eyes. The characters may look like flawless porcelain dolls--all from the same collection--but they're attractive and their clothes are nicely designed too. The voices, however, don't always seem to fit with these bright-eyed characters, but the voice acting is solid and the characters do begin to grow on you. What does fit is Motoi Sakuraba's moving score, which helps accentuate this fantasy world with its rousing battle music and sweeping orchestrated themes.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope has multiple difficulty settings--two available from the beginning and another two to unlock. If you play the game again, you have the option of keeping your items from your previous game. The Calnus is also yours to control for the first time, so you have the freedom to go where your heart desires--within the limits of the game, of course. Since the story takes place before the events of the original Star Ocean, you don't need to have played any of the previous games to set sail on this voyage. Experience the Star Ocean universe again, or for the first time when The Last Hope is released on February 24.