Some day, a day will come when we write a review of a Japanese RPG without feeling the need for an introductory paragraph bemoaning the actions of the European publishers who have so often denied or delayed our pursuit of the guilty pleasures of the orient. That day is not today, sadly; but at least this time, we're opening on our traditional "Xenosaga! Why, Namco, why!" rant in order to point out one of the best things about Star Ocean 3 - namely that it's here. In Europe. And only a few weeks after it launched in the USA at that. Square Enix promised us not so long ago that they were taking Europe more seriously, and if anything was proof of that, this is.
As the cunning addition of the numeral "3" after the name might suggest, this is the third game in the Star Ocean franchise - a series of sprawling RPGs developed by the Enix bit of Square Enix, which have their roots firmly in the anime and manga culture of Japan, and indeed have spawned a full-length anime series following the plot of the first game, called Star Ocean EX. However, while the game is set in broadly the same universe as the first two, it's definitely not necessary to have played either of them in order to get into Star Ocean 3, which takes a leaf from the Final Fantasy book by starting a completely fresh plot with an almost entirely new set of characters.
Second Chances at First Impressions
The game starts off with a visually stunning, beautifully directed intro video, giving you a flash tour of Earth in the far future - all glittering, science fiction cities with some of the world's most famous present-day landmarks, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Tokyo Tower, embedded between their shining towers. A rousing orchestral score and a really very cool looking space ship set the tone here; it may just be pre-rendered video, but first impressions count, and they're certainly good.
It's a bit of a shame about the second impressions, then. The game itself starts off with your central character, likeable but largely unremarkable blue-haired teen Fayt, moping around a resort hotel with his childhood friend Sophia, with whom he alternately bickers and flirts over the first half hour or so of the game. This bit gives the team a chance to show off their graphics - which are extremely impressive for a PS2 title, we might add, with lush and varied environments and extremely well animated characters - but it's a bit of a snore-fest for the player, sadly. Fayt and Sophia are pleasant enough characters, but their dialogue is stilted at best, and after that stunning intro, walking a pair of conversationally challenged teens around a hotel wasn't quite what we had in mind.
Thankfully, things pick up a bit when the planet they're holidaying on is attacked and Fayt is thrown rapidly through a series of events, bouncing from a bombardment shelter to a military ship and finally being stranded on a backwards planet with a pre-medieval level of technology. This is where the game really picks up, in fact; it's where you'll see your first real combat, start to appreciate how the mechanics of the game work, and begin to meet other key characters and flesh out the ones you've already met. It's just a shame it takes a while to get there, but from here the plot largely moves forward at a steady and interesting pace.
Blue Haired Hero Rescues Universe Shock
Even here, the promise of the original intro video appears to have been a bit of a lie, because you'll spend much of the game on underdeveloped planets rather than flitting around the spectacular cities of the future. This is a feature common to the previous Star Ocean games, but it might take newcomers to the series (which, let's face it, most European purchasers will be) a bit by surprise that an ostensibly science-fiction title spends so much time messing around with fantasy-style swords and sorcery. It's not something which detracts from the game in any way, however; if anything, it gives it an interesting central conceit. You play characters from the far future cast into worlds with much lower levels of technology and civilisation, and to add to the basic moral dilemma, there are laws reminiscent of Star Trek's prime directive which prohibit interfering with the development of alien societies.
Some characters grapple with this dilemma more than others - Fayt, for example, is a very thoughtful young man who worries a fair bit about the consequences of his actions, while another character you'll meet early on, Cliff, is more likely to do whatever is needed to survive and worry about the consequences later. Thankfully, the dialogue picks itself up pretty well from its early stumbling efforts in the hotel, and there are some pretty well scripted conversations later in the game - although there's still the occasional Japanese joke that hasn't made it into the English language intact, leading to some awkward-sounding lines which a better scriptwriter would have improved on significantly.
However, this is certainly no worse than your average RPG translation. Where the game's conversations really fall down, sadly, is in the voice acting. The insistence of game companies in continuing to inflict incredibly poor voice acting on their customers is jarring, and doubly so when the option to use the Japanese voices instead isn't provided. Here's a suggestion, guys: many people in your core audience would far prefer to hear the emotion and inflection conveyed by the Japanese actors, even while having to read the meaning of the words off the screen, than to have to put up with shrill or downright ludicrous "acting" provided by your American voice "talent" (read: actors so rubbish they couldn't even make it in the lower reaches of American TV).
Fayt's voice actor is tolerable, although sometimes his voice is so quiet you can't make it out anyway; but other characters, sadly including Cliff, who is one of the other most important characters in the game, sound like they were voice acted by drugged-up homeless people who were dragged into the studio and told to sound like either someone from Scooby-Doo or a pre-teen girl with a lung-full of helium. Or both. You can, thankfully, turn the voices off and opt to work purely with subtitles, or click past lines of dialogue to escape aural violation from particularly horrific characters.
Goodness Comes With Really Big Eyes
It's fair to say that despite the flaws, Star Ocean fulfils the main requirements of a decent RPG - it's got interesting and generally likeable characters, a cool premise, not too many clichés per square inch of plot, attractive and varied graphics, and a storyline which - once it gets going - thumps along at a fast enough pace to keep you coming back for more. However, passing those hurdles is only the first step on the way - and while any fan of Japanese RPGs can quite safely surmise that they'll enjoy the bulk of the plot, characterisation and progression, the actual underlying game mechanics are likely to be somewhat more controversial.
Good things first - there are no random battles. All enemies are displayed prominently on the world map, and while some of them will run towards you if you get into range, you can always see what's coming and avoid it if you need to. There are even jewels you can get which will allow you to freeze the movement of enemies on the map, which is useful for sneaking past them - although as with any RPG, if you sneak past enemies all the time you'll never level up and will eventually hit the difficulty curve with all the grace of a man with no arms running into the side of a bus.
Another good thing; boss battles are pitched almost perfectly as part of the difficulty curve, and while we confess that we've not reached the end of the game yet (it's an absolutely mammoth RPG which spans two dual-layer DVDs, making it into easily the largest PS2 game we've ever seen) we've not yet met a boss which we had to go back and level up in order to defeat. Save points are also sensibly scattered around the dungeon areas, and many of them even have HP/MP restore points next to them in order to assist your progress, which is a welcome addition. Each town also has a tavern - helpfully marked with a coloured arrow on the map - which will house a save point, so you're never far from somewhere that you can save, which should cut down on "yeah... I'm coming... wait till I find a save point..." moments with her/him indoors.
It's A Lot Like High School, Apparently
Now, the next thing might be good or bad depending on your personal tastes, but here goes: the combat system is real-time. You still level up your character in broadly the same way that you'd expect, learning new skills, spells (called symbology) and abilities, and boosting your basic statistics either through levelling up and spending skill points, or through buying new weapons and armour. That much is all familiar and anyone who's played a game like this for more than ten minutes in the past will take to it like a duck to water. However, combat is more like a melee brawl than a tactical menu-driven system. You control one character, while the others behave autonomously under computer control, and can switch between them at will to execute special attacks or spells, or use items.
Each character has two basic attacks, a light attack and a heavy attack, while magic and items are accessed from the in-battle menu system (which pauses the action while you peruse the options). The game provides a decent level of customisation for the characters, as you can assign up to four special attacks (along with two status abilities) to each one, which are triggered by holding in the X and O buttons (with different attacks depending on whether you're in short or long range from your target). It takes a little bit of getting used to - especially early in the game when you'll be using physical specials sparingly due to the fact that they often come with a cost in terms of HP, just as magical attacks cost MP. In fact, Star Ocean tends to treat both HP and MP as similar gauges, unlike other RPGs. You can decimate your own HP by using too many special attacks, and unusually, you also need to keep an eye on your MP, since many enemies attack that bar directly, and if it hits zero, it's game over.
Getting a real-time battle system right is a difficult task, and it's one that Star Ocean 2 frankly failed miserably at, so we were prepared for the worst with this game. However, Square Enix have managed to hit on a few key things that tip the balance in their favour - although this is still very much a "suck it and see" battle system, and we know that quite a few people out there really hate it. In its defence, we'd point out that your team-mates are much more intelligent this time around, and while they still do occasional stupid things (usually veering towards the overkill end of the scale rather than the genuinely mind-numbingly thick end), they can largely be let run around doing as they please except in circumstances where special attention is required. We found ourselves playing as Fayt for the most part, especially once we learned some of his more powerful combo moves, and only switching to other characters for healing or magic attack purposes.
Those combos are the other element that works pretty well. Your character has a Fury bar which fills up rapidly when you're standing still, and which is depleted by using attacks or being hit. With a full Fury bar, you're effectively blocking (and can set parameters on your character which turn those blocks into a range of counter-attacks, too), but more importantly, you have enough energy to let loose a chain of attacks in a row - including air juggles, which can keep an enemy incapacitated and in the air for several strikes in a row if another party member joins in. Getting the timing on those right - and pulling them off with a second party member keeping the juggle going - is a fun element, while the Fury bar itself provides a much-needed tactical element to battles.
The Mother Of Invention
Outside of the enormous, side-quest laden plot and the battle and character progression systems, Star Ocean provides a significant amount of depth through its crafting system. It's entirely possible to go through the entire game without even running into this system once - and indeed, you only start being able to exploit it about eight to ten hours into the game - but the complexity it offers is worth playing with. In essence, this is a system which allows you to hire experts - be they cooks, blacksmiths, inventors or indeed specialists in a whole host of other areas - and set them to work in workshops around the game world developing new products. You can micromanage this process to quite a fine degree, and can end up with a veritable army of clever little chappies churning out new items and upgrades for you - and of course, your central characters can also participate in the process, if they're sufficiently skilled.
Interestingly, you can also patent your inventions if it turns out that they are genuinely new, which makes for an unusual way to get revenue in the game on top of the bonus of having access to good items, spells, weapons and armour. There are a few other similar systems in play as well; for example, a speculative market in certain items which gradually appreciate in price over the course of the game, so if you can afford to have thousands of Fol (the in-game currency) locked up in valuable items, you'll make a profit further down the line. Again, this is a system which you don't have to touch if you don't want to, but the depth is there for you to explore if you desire.
Outside of the game mechanics and in terms of the window dressing, Star Ocean is a pretty impressive - and impressively pretty - game. As previously mentioned, the graphics are excellent for a PS2 title, with great animation and gorgeously crafted environments, as well as some really nice environmental effects and a wide range of different and imaginative areas to wander through. The character designs won't be everyone's cup of tea - they're very typical anime designs, complete with enormous shining eyes, multi-coloured (and nicely animated!) hairstyles, tiny noses and pencil thin necks - but if you're a fan of Japanese manga artwork (we are) then they won't grate particularly.
In terms of audio, our issues with Square Enix' apparent policy of employing the most talentless people possible to do their voice acting have already been discussed, but thankfully the music is rather a lot better than the squeaky cartoon voices. In fact, in parts, the music is some of the best we've ever heard in a videogame; there's a beautiful vocal melody which plays in the background of certain quieter scenes which is fantastic, while the haunting score that accompanies your exploration of the first village in the game is another highlight. Unfortunately, the game doesn't stick to this high standard overall - there are some dodgy synth rock-style backing tracks mixed in with the generally excellent orchestral bits - but when the composer is inspired, he's certainly among the best. It's just a shame that he apparently got out of bed on the wrong side on the day that he was composing the battle music.
Till The End Of Time
In ways, our feelings about the music are a microcosm for our feelings about the whole game. Star Ocean isn't a game that everyone will instantly like, thanks to the real-time battle system which is likely to divide opinions significantly, but it's a game which has moments of absolute genius, wrapped up in a solid, competent but not particularly remarkable whole. We certainly recommend it to any fans of Japanese RPGs, and anyone who doesn't like turn-based fighting should also give it a go; and it's worth noting that even among our friends who don't like the battle system, they've found the plot and setting compelling enough to keep playing. It's also a mammoth game, which will give you great value for money in terms of playtime. It's just unfortunate that the voice acting mars the experience so much, and that the occasional flickers of ten out of ten brilliance which the game provides didn't bloom into a ten out of ten game, embedded as they are in a seven out of ten enjoyable, well-constructed but unsurprising RPG.
Note: Anticipating the first question to be asked in the comments thread... We'd love to tell you whether the game has 60Hz support or black borders, but unfortunately we haven't been provided with PAL code at the time of publication, so this review was based on an NTSC version of the game. Which, we might add, ran in particularly lovely progressive scan on our US PS2, a factor which owners of progressive scan display gear might want to bear in mind when considering a purchase. We'll let you know what the deal is with the PAL conversion as soon as we clap our eyes on code.