Version tested: Xbox 360
There are 95 active-duty astronauts currently at NASA, but with only one or two shuttle missions a year, most of them will never leave the earth's atmosphere. Whereas the space race once rocket-propelled scores of men, women, dogs and monkeys up through the stratosphere, space-exploration is too unprofitable and its benefits too indefinable to justify the enormous expense these days. And yet humanity still enjoys a common sense that beyond the confines of our planet there lies a universe of opportunity and bright discovery. This yearning for the stars broadens the boundaries of our stories and even the horizons of our games: once we've flown across Super Mario World where else can one go but the Super Mario Galaxy?
But those hoping that the JRPG's escape from the confines of terra firma might loosen its tight, divisive conventions will be disappointed. Star Ocean has always been aptly titled. Here, the great expanse of space assumes the exact role of a Final Fantasy ocean - a transitional area to be traversed en route to the business proper of exploring, fetching and grinding on new lands. Sure, the SRF-003 Calnus blinks and hums with Kubrick-esque flair, the saturated purples and whites of its sheen plastic interior a far cry from the creaking timber of a Dragon Quest galleon, but peel back the metaphor and you'll find familiar, antiquated systems churning underneath.
Even so, this is one of the best-looking science-fiction RPGs yet seen, trumping even Mass Effect for imagination and realisation of its worlds. The planets you visit are gigantic and vivid. A white granite castle pokes its parapets out from a duvet of snow, a half-mile of frozen lake a bedspread before its drawbridge in a scene of arresting composition. On another planet, a brilliant sun warms the thick foliage of a jungle that shimmers in the wings of its insects and, much later in the game, a return to a post-World War III planet Earth is a glorious highpoint. This most recent title in Enix's sci-fi series, a prequel to Till the End of Time, offers the most diverse clutch of planets yet, even if it struggles to fill them with people or stories of much variety or interest.
Much of the game will have you traipsing across these grand vistas for small errands: rescuing a young girl's missing cat, tracking down a remote mage who may know a recipe to cure a village fallen to illness. On both the micro and macro scale the drama fails to inspire, doubly so as it's elaborated by cut-scenes that long outstay their welcome, full of protracted dialogue that does little to provide depth to its characters and much to irritate or bore the audience. By far the best way to ingest the story is by skipping every cut-scene, a choice that summons a two-paragraph summary of the scene to screen. These give a succinct, well-written overview of where the game's headed, illuminating the plot where sometimes the overblown cut-scenes obscure it.
The game follows the long-established JRPG flow, presenting a huge environment to explore, tailed by a dungeon that mixes combat with gentle puzzling (find the crystals to move the blocks to create the platforms to meet the boss). However, each section in the sequence is magnified and elongated so that some of the core missions take literally hours to complete. There's nothing wrong with this per se, but sparse save-points combined with a high battle rate and copious backtracking make the sheer scale of proceedings a negative. Who, having defeated a dungeon's final boss, expending most of their valuable resources in the process, then cherishes a 20-minute trek across hostile terrain back to their spaceship?
Fortunately, the battle system is not only the best yet seen in a Star Ocean game but also one of the best seen in any JRPG to date, and its competence does much to temper wider frustrations with the game. As with the recent Tales of Vesperia, you enjoy direct control of a single character in a 3D space, free to flank and gang up on enemies as in any fast-paced action game. While your party consists of four characters, you take direct control of just one, the other party members behaving competently as per AI instructions you've preset.
Holding down the B button at any point will ready your character for a 'blindside' manoeuvre, which, combined with a tap of the directional button at the moment of an enemy attack, enters a slow-motion mode as your character nips behind the enemy to land a critical blow. Combined with selectable chain combos on the trigger buttons, as well as a range of different skills that can be called up and executed via an in-battle menu, you have a pleasing amount of freedom during combat, which equally tests strategy, precision and timing.
A bonus board, consisting of 14 tiles, sits on the right-hand side of the screen, This fills up with tiles of different colour when you meet certain conditions during battle (e.g. finishing an enemy with a critical blow) and offer modifiers on your experience or money earned during fights. The board clears of tiles when you take a critical hit, so, as well as all of the other considerations in battle, you must attempt to make your bonus board as well-connected as possible while avoiding hard hits from enemies.
Character-customisation throughout the game is another strength. Skill points can be spent purchasing and upgrading a huge variety of active and passive skills on a per-character basis. Opening treasure chests and completing side-quests earns skill points which can either be spent on levelling up these abilities or in the game's inaccessible but ultimately rewarding item-crafting mini-game. As such every action feeds cohesively into building a personalised team. 15 hours in, the range of attacks and possible chains is vast and, far more so than in many RPGs, each character in your squad feels like the sum total of your decisions.
Characters earn trophies for performing certain feats in battle, landing 10 consecutive hits unassisted, dealing exactly 55 points of damage and so on. Each character has 100 of these trophies to collect, which contribute to real Xbox Achievements for collecting the set. This sense of achievements within achievements characterises the detail of the game, which is awash with collectable items and quests. You're encouraged to collect monster data on all 154 enemies in the game, find the schematics of every spaceship in the universe (by hacking into computer consoles wherever you find them), and craft and investigate all 147 weapons in the game. The result is a gigantic raft of concurrent micro-missions that the conscientious player must juggle in their mind if they're to fully complete the game and earn all of its hard-won Achievements.
But there's a sense that in spending so much time on the detail, Square Enix may have lost sight of the bigger picture. At least half of the game's quests are optional, as are all of the collectables, crafting recipes and customisable skills for characters. Sidestep these attractions and you're left with a gargantuan shell of a game, one whose story is too drawn out to gain momentum and whose characters are little more than personal mannequins to be clothed with your chosen items and abilities.
The best science-fiction pays equal attention to the direction of its fiction as to its detail but Star Ocean: The Last Hope succeeds only in the latter area, and even there, only in part. There are good lessons to be drawn: the battle system is magnificent and the experience as a whole offers a compelling journey for the collect 'em up completist. But if this truly represents Square Enix's last hope for the science-fiction RPG, then it's highly unlikely it can endure as well as their final fantasy for the Tolkein epic. Like NASA's astronauts, we may simply be destined to spend our future not being in space.
6 / 10