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September 6, 2013

Let's "discuss" Star Ocean: The Last Hope (Part 1).

So, it looks like a miracle has happened.  Temporarily.

For months, my “How to Make a Good Street Fighter Movie” post has taken top honors as the number-one most-visited post on Cross-Up.  And while there’s no doubt it’s got the highest view count by a WIDE margin, only recently has it been supplanted.  One of my posts on The Last of Us managed to do it -- and is still a top-scorer -- but more recently, the one I see (or did see) taking the top spot is a post on Tales of Xillia.  And frankly, I’m happy with that.

It is criminal that the Tales Series doesn’t have as much recognition as it deserves.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Final Fantasy has long since been surpassed as the greatest JRPG franchise.  And if you ask me, the one who’s been sitting on its shadow-shrouded throne is the Tales Series.  It’s a strange day, indeed, when you wake up one day and realize you’ve played more Tales games than FF games…at least, it’s strange for me.  And stranger indeed when three out of six FF games were enjoyable, while six out of seven Tales games are significantly closer to my heart.  (We do not speak of Dawn of the New World.  Ever.)

So I’ve been thinking.  Recent comments -- and spotting old files strewn about on my machine -- have reminded me of games past, and words that still need typing.  And I figured it’s about time to bring them to the forefront.  So let’s have a look at one of the corpses stepped over and left picked clean by vultures in the desert: Star Ocean: The Last Hope.

Fair warning, though: you might want to make sure you don’t read this where anyone can peek over your shoulder.  This game has some…things in it.  (And also SPOILERS.)


Now, you might be wondering why “discuss” is in quotes up there in the post’s title, and there’s a pretty good reason for that: pattern recognition should tell you that this probably isn’t going to be a glowing assertion of the game’s quality.  But besides that, it’s because it’s been several years since I’ve played the game.  See, I try to make it a personal rule to avoid talking about any games I haven’t played in ages so my mind isn’t clouded by shaky memories or preferences, and so I can talk about its finer points in the detail it deserves -- the sort of detail you’d get from a recent playthrough instead of one from a thousand days ago.  (That’s probably why you don’t see a lot of really old games mentioned here on Cross-Up…for now, at least.)

But with some games, I suppose I can make an exception.  Some games lend themselves to being discussable even if they haven’t been played in a while, and for some people a JRPG should be able to handle itself well.  If it’s doing its job right, it should be a memorable tale that you’ll keep in your heart for years after its release -- that is, it gives you something worthwhile, a takeaway that speaks to your sensibilities no matter how crazy or colorful its context.  And indeed, The Last Hope does have a special place in my heart…for all the wrong reasons.  So unless noted, consider most of this -- for better or worse -- derived from memory. 

And let’s start off with what I remember most about this game.  *sigh* Look at this picture.


This is Meracle.  She’s one of your party members -- and quite possibly the best fighter in the game. And yes, contrary to the camera angle's claims she is not wearing pants.

…Forget it.  Post’s over.  I quit.

video

…Okay, post’s not over.  I just…I mean…what the hell?

I’d like to think that I’m receptive towards artistic choices.  I would be a massive hypocrite if I wasn’t, given what I’ve said in the past.  I’m not much in the way of art, but considering what I’ve played, read, and seen, I know there’s more than one way to impart style upon a work.  Dragon’s Crown?  Come on, that had a purpose.  Senran Kagura?  Not the greatest, but live and let live. Pretty much any anime released in the past…ever?  Be cool, guys, be cool. 

Now, I want you to look at this picture.  Look at this character.  Look very closely.


I’m not going to tell you how old she is -- not yet at least, but I’m sure you’ve already made your (likely-accurate) guesses.  Just…look.  Look, and tell me as simply as you can: what is the purpose of this design?  From an in-universe context or out of it, why does this character look the way she does?  What can we learn about this character at a glance?  What are the expectations we have of her?

Honestly, I can answer that question, even if it requires a bit of giving the devs the benefit of the doubt.  She’s a playful, cheery sort unbound by basic human concepts.  Feline, obviously, and preferring function -- and freedom -- over all else…even if it includes not wearing pants.  That’s the idea behind her.  That’s the intent.

That interpretation is completely nullified thanks to cutscenes like this.


I don’t think there’s any doubt about what was going through the devs’ minds at this point.  Even if you take the above cutscene as a shot against all the moe tropes in Japanese media -- maids, glasses girls, little sisters, bloomers -- then it’s a shot immediately devalued by Bacchus’ reaction.  Who’s Bacchus, you ask?  The big green robot guy -- and someone who specifically gave up his biological body and emotions for the sole purpose of his research.  And this cutscene reveals that he still gets stiff in the robo-trousers over the same tropes they’re trying to make fun of.  Bacchus, the most logical and mature member of the team.  Bacchus, the cyborg. Bacchus, the grown-ass man.  You know what would be better than making fun of moe tropes?  Not including them in the first place -- especially if it means nuking someone’s characterization.  I get what they were trying to go for, really; it's a bit of humor, and a chance to try and brighten up the character and the game...and that'd be fine if it was actually funny.  It isn't.  It's almost embarrassing, and a total misfit in a game that aims for genuine gravitas. 

But let's get back on topic.  The reason why I brought up Meracle is because she’s emblematic of the problem with TLH as a whole.  Once you cut past their basic archetypes and a few quirks, there’s nothing to almost all of these characters.  For the life of me I can’t remember anything distinct about Meracle besides A) her appearance, B) being a lonely cat girl alien, C) her appearance, and D) that she was one of the fastest and strongest party members.  I had to look up info about her to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, and from what I can gather I’m not missing anything besides the fact that she likes to eat and says “meow” a lot.  What’s her character arc?  I don’t know.  What’s her contribution to the story?  I don’t know.  What unique struggles does she face?  I don’t know…oh wait, yes I do.  She wants friends.  And then she gets them in the form of the party as soon as she's welcomed aboard the ship.

Yep.




…Let’s have a look at the rest of the cast. 

We’ve got the childhood friend/girlfriend that calls you a pervert and smacks you when you accidentally see her in the shower (who is also wearing clothes that probably aren't part of the standard uniform)…


The cold-hearted unbeatable badass heartthrob straight outta DeviantArt…


The one with boobs…



The idiot…


And…well, Lymle.  Draw your own conclusions here; I’m not touching this one without a hazmat suit and a space probe.


(I will say this much, though: Lymle is supposed to be 15 -- and Meracle 16 -- but due to incidents in their pasts, both of them have had stunted development.  That’s the game’s story, and they’re sticking to it.)

I guess what I’m getting at here is that if you’ve seen any anime in the past half-decade or so, you’ve seen all these characters before -- and you’ve seen them done better.  The cast here is bland and indistinct (when they’re not being annoying, at least), and don’t do much to win your favor outside of being an archetype that appeals to you.  I’m pretty sure the only reason I like tolerate Bacchus is because he can summon giant Gatling guns in battle -- that, and the fact that his facial animations, or lack thereof, don’t creep the hell out of me like the others’ do.   

If I had to name “the best character” in the game -- and the bar’s set pretty low -- it’d have to be Faize.  He’s the most interesting character by far, playing second fiddle of his own accord for the sake of the mission and to explore space alongside his newfound comrades.  He’s intelligent, he’s supportive, but not without his moments of weakness (and even hubris, at times).  He’s a character with dedication and passion, but also reason and cleverness.  He actually gets something resembling a story arc instead of a one-and-done episode of conflict like the others.  He starts out as a loyal supporter to the gang’s cause, finding respect and camaraderie with his new captain -- but as time passes and said captain proves he’s unsuited for the task, Faize has no choice but to watch as his friend becomes someone barely suited to wake up in the morning, let alone command a crew.  Eventually they reach an impasse and Faize heads off to help his people in a time of crisis…and ends up biting it shortly thereafter. 



*sigh* So long, best character in the game.  It was fun.  At least I get to put you back in the party during battles once the game gets cleared.  On the plus side, there’s still the lead character, Edge Maverick.

Edge is…er…problematic.  Say what you will about the name, but at the outset Edge seems like an all right character.  He’s neither a brooding, surly jerk, nor the wide-eyed grinning idiot you’d expect of a lower-class JRPG; after a disaster leaves him in control of the ship and the remains of the crew, Edge is ready to be a responsible-yet-compassionate traveler of the great star ocean.  It’s the sort of thing that’s bound to excite -- and at the outset, he delivers.  Strong moral fiber, a willpower that makes him more than just a whipping boy to his superiors, and a quiet determination in finding his missing friend…for a while it seems like there’s a lot to like about the guy.  He’s ready to tag-team the universe along with Faize.

And then the plot happened.    


This is a major sticking point -- not just with me, but with plenty of other TLH survivors players.  In a nutshell, Edge and the gang find themselves on Earth in roughly the 1950s, and shortly thereafter find themselves entangled in past-earthly affairs.  If memory serves, the crew is given the chance to offer up their technology and data to the resident government agents in order to further along Earth’s development -- and in doing so, they might develop the tools needed to prevent the nuclear wasteland that Edge’s Earth ends up becoming.  So Edge decides to hand the tech over after rationalizing his decision to the crew…and about an hour in game time later, the planet gets wiped out after the head government official turns out to be pants-on-pants-on-head insane and uses the donated tech in a machine that would make Doctor Doom drool.  Mistakes are made, the planet goes boom, and you’ve now got a scantily-clad teenage tweenage teenage tweenage creepy doll-faced cat girl in your party.  The only saving grace is that it turns out Edge and the crew were in an alternate dimension, so that Earth blowing up didn’t change anything for the current timeline.  Just the alternate one.

It’s worth mentioning that this point that The Last Hope, in spite of being occasionally referred to as Star Ocean 4, is actually a prequel.  I suspect that after the events of SO3 (where it’s revealed that everything that happened in that game and the games prior happened in a video game for a futuristic society), the devs didn’t know what to do with the canon, so they decided to start from the beginning…although they didn’t really sort out the problems so much as they did avoid giving a clear answer, meaning that TLH ALSO takes place in a video game universe.  That aside, if you think of TLH as a prequel, you have to think about what it offers to our understanding of the canon.  Since I haven’t played the other two SO games, I can’t say anything about those.  But I can say something about SO3 and its connection to TLH…namely, that TLH exists solely as a means to set up the UP3, better known as the canon’s version of the Prime Directive.  Or if you prefer, better known as the thing Fayt whined about through the first half of SO3.  At least when he wasn’t making his sword fart blue flames.


With that in mind, you can consider a good half of TLH to be a cautionary tale.  The creation of the UP3 -- mentioned by name at the end of the game -- is a collection of laws and procedures to keep space-farers from interfering with the development of other, less-advanced worlds.  Or if you want a simpler explanation, it’s an anti-idiot law.  The creation of the UP3 asserts that what Edge and crew did was completely wrong -- and indeed, Edge and crew were DEFINITELY wrong, and outright stupid.  At that point in the story, two out of the five party members are virtually geniuses that can point out the problems with handing over their technology.  The other two out of the five are presumably well-trained space cadets (or whatever rank they hold), and even if they haven’t had contact with other species they should know better.  So what the hell happened?  Did Edge take advice from Lymle?  Did he just think that everything would work out all right just because he kind of helped out somewhere else?   

Whatever the case, Edge is forced to face the consequences of his actions.  And to say that he doesn’t take it very well would be an understatement the size of a blue whale.


A lot of people like to give Edge guff over his little breakdown, but I’d chalk that up to a lack of empathy.  Let’s be real here -- if you suddenly realized you’d not only killed six billion people and an incalculable number of plants and animals, AND robbed them of their future with one masterstroke, wouldn’t you freak out too?  I sure as shit would.  Maybe not to the point of screaming at the heavens, but it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.

The problem with the scene isn’t that Edge shows his emotions (though hamming it up, maybe).  The problem is that after this cutscene, Edge’s character goes into a downward spiral and never fully recovers.  It’s a real shame, because he showed a surprising amount of charisma prior to that scene, and outside of the whole “Let’s give these strangers access to our ridiculously-dangerous technology” decision, he proved that he wasn’t just a lunkhead with a sword.  After that scene, he’s a shell of his former self…which is a good thing in that he’s not just shrugging off the deaths of billions, but a bad thing in that we actually have to experience it for ourselves.  And for a long time (he gets better, but considering how much of my memory of the game is consumed by “EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING!” I’d say the damage has been done).  I’d like to think that if you’re going to make an audience spend time with someone who’s hit rock-bottom, you have to do it very, very carefully.  There’s a very thin line between having a broken character, and having a likable character.  Not surprisingly, the devs decided to nosedive into the brink. 


If there’s one thing that I like about the game’s story, it’s the concept of the main enemy -- which is in and of itself a concept”.  The so-called “Missing Procedure” is an entity responsible for corrupting life-forms throughout the universe, forcibly evolving them as a means to sap energy for itself.  So a number of bosses you’ve been fighting throughout the game have actually just been pawns of the Missing Procedure, and your enemy has the power to win merely by existing.  It’s an unnerving enemy, and a lot more interesting story angle than “Killing a god will make everything better!”  (Though to be fair, most of the Procedure’s cronies take on angelic names and symbolism.)  And if you take the Procedure’s goal into account, you could argue that it exists as a dark parallel to Edge; he’s been trying to evolve living beings even though they’re not ready, albeit for their gain, while the Procedure is evolving living beings to suit itself.  It’s a story idea that I’d love to see a lot more of…which only makes TLH even more disappointing.

I would have complained that there’s a lot of missed opportunities in that you spend huge swaths of time faffing about on underdeveloped (in every sense of the word) fantasy planets, and the fact that the most interesting races the devs could come up with were space-elves, space-birdmen, and space-catgirls, but from what I can gather -- at least from SO3, if nothing else -- this is consistent with the series.  Fair enough, as long as the execution (in this case, the limits and purpose of the Prime Directive) is up to the task.  But for SO4, it isn’t.  Why the devs would choose to focus on a set of anime stereotypes instead of an otherworldly anomaly that transforms living beings into nightmarish super forms is a question best left to the Dalai Lama after a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee.


I suppose the takeaway from all this is that the story is one full of missed opportunities.  It does a couple of things relatively well, but the rest of it is either too silly to keep the game’s almost-entirely serious tone constant, or too bland to stay memorable for very long.  I would say that me not being able to comment too deeply on anything else about the story goes to show that my brain’s not what it used to be, but that’s not the case.  I still have clear memories of Infinite Undiscovery and Lost Odyssey, and those came out at around the same time.  And before that, I can remember sequences, characters, and plot twists with gusto from both of the Baten Kaitos games.  If TLH had managed to offer up something more substantial and less stupid, it could have been the sendoff the series needed.  As-is, it’s just a diversion, and nothing more.

A diversion that’s dedicated to having the camera pan up the fun bits of the female characters, of course.  Because THAT’S what every space opera needs.  Ass shots.  Then again, it worked for Mass Effect and probably several dozen episodes of Star Trek, but I’m guessing neither of those have pants-averse crewmates squealing about potential glimpses of their space-spandexed no-no zones at the most tonally-inappropriate moments.  Hey, I guess I remember more about this game than I thought I did.  

Shit.


So.  How about that gameplay?  Well, I’d be happy to see if I can say something substantial…next time.  I’d like to try this whole “write a reasonably-lengthy blog post” thing at least once before I die, so, hey, why not give it a shot now while I’m at a good stopping point?

With that said, I think it’s about time to hit the pause button.  See you guys soon.  Hope you don’t get blindsided in the meantime.

…Blindsiding.  That’s a thing in this game.

2 comments:

  1. I have Star Ocean: Last Hope 'International' sitting on my shelf for PS3. I played it for a bit and put it down. Never went back. I don't recall why. But perhaps I just had a sixth sense. Thank you for turning that nagging doubt into relief.

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  2. Anytime, my man. It's a shame that the game didn't live up to its potential, but it can't be helped. Not as long as devs would rather focus on putting their characters in cat girl outfits, no matter how ill-fitting it may be.


    *stares daggers at Lightning Returns as it looms on the horizon*


    Well. I guess to the game's credit, TLH could have been worse. Much worse.

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