It seems rather fitting that the end of the long-running Star Ocean series would come around full circle to revisit where the series first began--with the degradation of our beloved homeworld and with humanity teetering on the brink of annihilation. After fiercely mucking things up on planet Earth with a little trigger-happy nuke action, the last remnants of human civilization have ventured outward into the galaxy to find new worlds to colonize and meddle with. As far as prequels go, Star Ocean: The Last Hope (originally released on the Xbox 360 last year) gets a lot of things right in terms of gameplay, even if it falters in other areas. PlayStation 3 owners had to wait an extra year to get a crack at saving the galaxy one last time, and while the few extras and tweaks found in the exclusive international edition may seem a meager reward for your patience, they do make it the more enticing version to own.
The Last Hope's plot setup is eerily plausible. A heated conflict between Earth's squabbling superpowers escalates into a nuclear Armageddon that wipes out most of civilization and sends the atmospheric conditions on the surface into a tailspin. The remaining survivors are driven underground until years later when a scientific breakthrough in warp-drive technology launches the Space Reconnaissance Force initiative to explore the galaxy and locate a new planetary home. The story follows young hero Edge Maverick, his close friend Reimi Saionji, and other crew members of the starship Calnus as they embark on the maiden voyage into the deep space beyond. Things go horribly wrong from the get-go, and crash-landing on a nearby planet inhabited by hostile life-forms kicks off an appropriately epic quest to stop a galactic takeover by a particularly venomous alien race. If you can get over the predictable way the story unfolds and tune out the game's many irritating JRPG character cliches, the tale should have enough substance to keep you from throwing in the towel prematurely.
Like many other games of its ilk, a tremendous portion of the gameplay in The Last Hope boils down to the old RPG standby routine of wandering around each expansive world map and kicking the living snot out of the evil creatures you run into. As expected, this cycle typically continues until you're strong enough to push onward to tougher regions. Save points and healing spots are few and far between, and you're often stuck battling through long stretches of tough encounters. Even though you can run around most monsters found on the more open maps, you're going to have to suck it up and plow through them at some point to keep leveling up. Exploring every nook and cranny is also crucial in order to track down all the treasure chests, item-making components, and other goodies that lay hidden throughout the long, mazelike map routes carved into each planetary surface. The overgrown wilds, technology-laden city corridors, sandy beaches, icy mountains, and other locations you'll visit support an abundance of wicked adversaries, both big and small, to face off against. Fortunately, combat is one of the best aspects of The Last Hope.
Bumping into wandering foes on the map triggers a fast-paced real-time fight sequence that thrusts your party into the fray with swords, spells, and blasters drawn. You control your selected character directly, running around the battlefield and unleashing hell on enemies as you see fit. Meanwhile, your comrades follow preset combat routines that can be individually adjusted beforehand. With everyone swinging blades, shooting arrows, and flinging explosive magic around, battles are typically exciting and chaotic. Other nuances--such as precisely timed blindside maneuvers that let you zip around to hit a foe from behind and perform combo sequences that can be strung together to decimate opponents in a flurry of moves--really add a lot to these encounters. A quick tap of a button also lets you cycle between anyone in your party speedily. Each character in your group has a different set of abilities, special moves, and combat style. Aside from being a lot of fun, it's actually necessary to switch around and play as different characters at various times during battles. Additionally, other folks join your entourage later in the game, giving you the freedom to switch them in and out of your party on a whim.
With a galaxy full of evil to smite and loot to collect, hopping from one planet to the next also presents numerous opportunities to stay busy in between following the righteous and heroic path of the do-gooder. Boosting your party's noncombat skills lets you cook tasty meals, forge new weapons, concoct magical items, and make all kinds of other helpful junk, provided you've foraged enough key components in your travels. Hunting down rare elements and combining different items needed to craft even more powerful gear and weaponry can grow into a time-consuming addiction with the potential to eclipse the importance of progressing through the main quest if you let it. Acquiring important items and artifacts also plays heavily into the high-paying fetch quests that appear at key shops in the pockets of civilization you encounter on each planet.
There are some beautiful landscapes and scenic backdrops here and there, but other areas are dull and devoid of visual personality in comparison. Character designs are also hit or miss. It's hard to empathize with the game's protagonists when they don't emote much, and there are moments when the dialogue is painful to sit through. The main updates in the international edition are in the audio and visuals. Instead of listening to the bad English dubs, you can now switch the dialogue over to the original Japanese voice work (and a few other languages), which definitely gives the package a more authentic anime JRPG feel. It's also possible to adjust the HUD menu appearance to a more classic setup that includes anime character portraits instead of the modern default designs. These aren't groundbreaking additions, but they're welcome ones.
The Last Hope remains a solid and mostly fun JRPG with a few character flaws that don't ultimately sink the ship. The international version is condensed onto a single disc, so there's no irritating swapping to deal with. Aside from the optional additional language tracks and the menu design tweaks, it doesn't hold any vast improvements over the Xbox 360 version. If you're hankering to suit up and go rid the galaxy of evil, you'll find this intrepid jaunt into the unknown packs enough danger and excitement to satisfy your sci-fi fantasy thrill-seeking urges.