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September 10, 2013

Let's "discuss" Star Ocean: The Last Hope (Part 2).

Now here’s a question for you: have video games lost their sense of adventure?

The simplest answer I can come up with is “no.”  But even an answer that’s one percent more complex is “no, but…”  People -- including me, distressingly enough -- like to dump a lot of hate on this generation and hearken back to the days of old.  Games used to let you explore!  Games used to give you worlds!  Games used to mean something!  Games used to have character, man!  That was true of past games, sure, but even today we’re still getting games that rival and even surpass the hall-of-famers.

On the other hand, we’re going to keep getting games that…well, I’ll use the phrase “missing the point”.  For one reason or another, I feel as if a lot of developers are missing the point about why we play games -- and in exchange, substituting in their own, severely misguided point.  Star Ocean: The Last Hope is a good example of this, and not just because it’s utterly snared by its anime trappings.  It’s a trek through space that forgets it’s a trek through space, choosing to opt for planets straight out of an NES JRPG until suddenly remembering “oh right, space!  We can throw in whatever we want!”  And instead of exploring the possibilities of its admittedly-cool villain/concept, we’re given the same story arcs all over.  Young heroes with a mysterious power.  Rescuing the mystical waif from the bad guys.  Revenge diffused by a mere misunderstanding.  Until the main villain is revealed, there isn’t much in the way of a consistent threat from one planet to the next -- which wouldn’t be so bad if the game offered up more meaningful episodes.  It didn’t.  Its cast is almost uniformly embarrassing, and yet the focus is on them instead of making the worlds AND the characters fully developed.  It’s a Spark Notes page that only has every fourth word written.

So.  How about that gameplay? 

I should probably start by mentioning that I’m not an expert when it comes to the Star Ocean canon.  The only games I’ve played are SO3 (otherwise known as Till the End of Time) and this fourth game, which is actually a prequel instead of a full-on sequel…possibly because the devs got written into a corner with SO3’s reveals.  In any case, certain traits and elements of the gameplay are lost on me because I’ve only got half the experience I need.  That said, I played the ever-loving shit out of SO3 in my (ultimately failed) quest to clear the secret dungeon Sphere 211, so I’d like to think I have some basic understanding of the mechanics…even if I never could beat Super Blair once she went into Eddy of Light-spamming mode.  Bitch.


The combat in TLH takes place in a 3D arena (with the camera placed more in an upward position) and plays out in real time, meaning that your character of choice and three party members fight it out against whatever comes your way.  Basic attacks are mapped to the A button, B lets you dodge, and your skills are set to the triggers, with the bumpers letting you take manual control over another party member.  What’s important to note is that TLH -- like SO3 before it -- differentiates between short and long range modes between characters; that is, pressing A in short range will have Edge use a basic combo, while pressing it from long range makes him rush up and slash an enemy.  Additionally, while you have a dodge mechanic, blocking is done automatically -- assuming you’re standing in place and have high enough stats.  Lastly, you can link one special move into the next by pulling the triggers, letting you create some potentially-powerful ZOMGcombos.

It’s safe to say that the two main components of the battle system are Blindsides and the Rush Gauge.  The former is an extension of your dodges; if you hold down the B button you’ll stand in place and charge up energy, DBZ-style, while a reticule appears around you.  If an enemy attacks you, push the stick in a direction and you’ll do a souped-up version of your character’s dodge, letting you slip behind them and start wailing on their backside for a short while.  Meanwhile, the Rush Gauge is a bar unique to each character (like their HP and MP), and by taking damage or charging up for a Blindside you’ll fill it up.  Pressing the X button when it’s full puts your character in a sort of super mode where you’ll stop flinching, do more damage/criticals, and move a bit faster.  Or you can take that stocked up energy and unleash it all in one go via a team attack (or team combo where each character will execute a skill in turn) that inexplicably takes place in some whooshing hyper dimension.


They’re gameplay elements that work for the most part.  Blindsliding lets you slip around an enemy’s defenses and reverse their attacks, but more importantly it tells you to calm down so you can pay attention to their moves while controlling your own.  Enemies can be tricky in this game -- though a step down from SO3, especially after a certain point in the story where basic enemies are stronger than most bosses -- so it’s important to balance your offense and defense…in theory.  In practice?  From what I can remember, even though some enemies can counter your Blindsides, you have all the tools you need to either avoid their counter or negate it entirely. 

More importantly, since you have to “charge up” for a Blindside, you can cheese your way into easy damage by gaining some aggro, backing off, charging up, and then dodging just as an enemy takes a swing at you.  And since you’re building up energy for your super mode, you’re rewarded too much for bait-and-punish tactics.  I know that if you charge for too long you’ll get dizzy for a little while, but IIRC you can easily avoid that by charging up in bursts instead of holding B forever.  Basically, you have all the tools you need to completely override genuine challenge -- so the only way the game can challenge you is to offer up stronger/cheaper enemies.  But that just makes you want to abuse your tool set even more.  It’s a vicious cycle of trickery and shenanigans that makes even the average game of Mario Party look tame…though since you’re going up against the AI, there’s less of a chance for bones to be broken.


What really bugs me is the Rush Gauge -- not how it works, but what it ended up replacing.  See, the key distinction between SO3 and TLH is that the former had an HP, MP, and Fury gauge.  The Fury Gauge was one tied to your offense and defense, and filled up to 100% while a character was inactive.  At 100%, it would activate a barrier that defended your characters, and fire off a special effect depending on what you equipped -- your “Anti-Attack Aura”.  That way, you could defend yourself as needed and reverse the fight’s momentum.  The tradeoff was that your guard could be broken with a heavy attack or special skill (which is another key distinction between the two games’ battle systems) -- and given that you needed to have a certain percentage of Fury for ALL of your attacks, and that getting your guard broken dropped your Fury to zero, you have to make sure to keep yourself stocked up and on point with your motions. 

What I’m getting at here is that meter management was something more important to SO3 than the last hope, and because that impact was lost, the newer game comes out weaker as a result.  Oh, sure, you still have to keep your MP in mind like you would in any other game, but SO3 hammered that in ferociously.  The devs did that by implementing a simple rule: if your MP dropped to zero, your character dropped dead.  So in addition to using the Fury gauge (and sometimes HP a la Persona 4), you have to use the MP gauge for magic and…also several of your skills.  That wouldn’t be such a big threat in its own right if not for enemies’ ability (and your ability, to a similar extent) to attack MP instead of HP, to the point where going for an MP kill or defending from it was a viable strategy.  A threat, even.  Basically, you had to keep an eye on all three gauges, and letting even one of them start to dip below the threshold meant you’d be in grave danger...or alternatively, stripped of your fighting ability.


That ability to be in grave danger at any time is missing from TLH.  MP kills are gone, and even if they were instated most characters have enough MP with a low enough cost per move to keep attacking recklessly.  You have defensive options, but they stack the deck too far in your favor.  The Rush Gauge gives you the chance to become even more powerful, whereas the Fury Gauge WAS your power -- and if it bottomed out, so did your tool set.  Functionally and mechanically, everything in TLH works…it’s just that in terms of giving every battle a lasting impact -- a sense of fear and desperation bred from the need to protect your fragile self -- something important got lost in the transition to the HD generation.

But if you ask me, there’s another point that’s worth considering -- and it’s one that’s apparent within the first hour or so of playtime.  In TLH, Edge’s starting skill is Rising Blade, a flurry of attacks that ends with a blow that launches enemies -- and with the proper timing (read: almost none) it can combo into itself at least once.  Maybe more.  Compare that to SO3’s Fayt, whose starting skill -- that is, the one he has to learn hours after the start of the game -- is Blade of Fury.  It’s a three-step attack that starts with an upward slash, then a downward one, and then a thrust.  Just activating it makes him do a single swing, though; to get the other two hits, you have to hit the button again and again…and consume more Fury for it.  With Edge’s move, you get six or seven hits just by tapping one button, with the chance for even more damage right after.  With Fayt’s move, I can actually describe what he’s doing, and what it can help to tell a player about the character, as any game should.  With Edge’s move, it just looks like clumsy flailing -- clumsy flailing that goes on for too long. 


It really is indicative of what a creation can reveal about its creators -- the mindset, the intent, and more.  They removed a lot of the things that made SO3, a game flawed in its own right, a distinct yet tense struggle just to keep your bearings.  It’s not just about making TLH easier; it’s about giving the game a different style.  And what would that style be, exactly? 

Don’t make me show the cat girl again.  Please.

This isn’t just the theorizing of a certain afro-haired blogger.  Nor is it a trend spawned by happenstance and serendipity.  What’s been done is a conscious choice by developers running the gamut, with varying levels of success, and noted by plenty of other gamers.  (Methinks that something has gone wrong with the genre as a whole when titles include a bathhouse scene, a rubbing minigame, a mechanic where you punish girls if they disobey you, or the cream of the crop, stripping girls in lavishly-rendered 3D just to get them to cast a spell.)  I’m not going to say that making JRPGs more… “colorful” automatically makes them worse.  And there’s only so much finger shaking I can do, considering that I don’t play every game in existence.  And obviously, there are going to be games that keep succeeding no matter what style they go for.  But when people are complaining, and previews keep popping up with less-than-savory elements, and the JRPG falls further and further out of favor, I can’t help but get a little worried. 


(I only played the hour-long demo for this game, but from what I can gather this is where its budget went.  All of it.)

TLH -- then or now -- isn’t the sort of game to inspire confidence.  Its gameplay proves it just as easily as the story: it’s more about style and flash instead of substance.  And the style itself isn’t exactly award-worthy; the tactical risk-reward system was replaced by a system that gave you powerful offensive tools, powerful defensive tools, additional skills (passive and active) to put the momentum back in your favor regardless of how much you’ve taken a pounding, a party of four to take command of a fight instead of a party of three, and a skill pool for each character that lets them rack up dozens of hits almost from the word go.  It’s a system designed to make you look like a badass…but the problem is that A) the game doesn’t offer up the risks needed to make the combat any more than a light show, and B) that light show becomes extremely gaudy when you’ve got a sword guy slashing up close, a cyborg firing off black holes and Gatling rounds, an archer filling the screen with dozens of arrows, and a caster calling up balls of lightning.  All at the same time.

So generally speaking, it’s not that easy to look fondly on the combat in this game.  I only remember a couple of bosses from the game, but more than four times as many from SO3.  And the more I think about the logistics behind the combat, I can’t help but feel like there are gaps.  Why is Edge using a sword if he’s from the future?  It’s true that there’s a cutscene showing guns having no effect against the first batch of monsters his crew comes up against, and he has to grab a sword-like construction tool to counter their electro-something-or-other barriers (even though there’s no reason why a sword would work on them, or why that barrier extends to every enemy in the universe).


So why the sword besides “because JRPG”?  Even beyond that, why is his childhood friend using a futuristic bow?  Why does Edge’s MIA friend use two swords, and where did he get them from?  Why a beam scythe?  Games that feature melee weapons in a futuristic setting need to justify this at one point or another, and the most I can remember from TLH is Edge saying offhandedly that he feels more comfortable with a sword…because reasons.  I’m pretty sure Fayt handled it a lot better, given that A) he was a combat simulator junkie who loved using swords, B) he was an untrained student who grabbed the first thing he could -- a metal pipe -- to defend himself from enemies, and C) he got stranded on an underdeveloped world that would hardly understand the concept behind guns, forcing him to refine his sword skills.  Only a couple of these characters offer up some explanation, and even then they’re on shaky ground.  I know this is more of a story element than a gameplay one, but remember: a character’s weapon of choice and fighting style says a lot about the character.  Establishing a stronger bond between the character and the weapon isn’t a step you can just gloss over.

That all said, if there’s one thing I do like about the combat system, it’s the Bonus Board.  Depending on how you finish off an opponent in this game, you’ll be able to snag a jewel that’ll get slotted into a meter on the right side of the screen.  Finish a battle with the jewel in place, and you’ll get special bonuses -- added recovery, for one, but the real draw is the ability to significantly increase your EXP gained per fight.  The thing is that your Board is a privilege, not a right, meaning that if you get to sloppy and take hits in a fight, your Board will get broken and you’ll lose most of your gems.  The frenzy of combat may not necessarily be in keeping your team alive or managing their meters, but to compensate a bit there’s that tower of gems demanding you to fight your best without getting hit.  Admittedly the system is a little finicky -- sometimes you’ll be able to take plenty of hits without penalty, while one glancing blow is enough to demolish all your hard work and effort -- but it is an incentive…though one can’t help but wonder if “being stronger than Zeus” is a reward to aspire towards.


It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a pretty robust item creation system.  Making inventions was a huge part of SO3 (and the source of dozens of wasted hours for me, once upon a time), and while it’s not given quite as much importance in TLH, it’s still more than serviceable, and a reliable means for creating some of the best items your party can equip.  Similarly, there IS a bit of customization to be had, from using stocked up points to power up certain stats and abilities -- and more importantly, you can set your characters onto one of two paths for their development, either an offensive one or a defensive one.  It’s a mechanic that allows for a bit of exploration, and gives you the (very slight) chance to play your way besides the dominant strategy of boosh-boosh-booshing your way to victory.  It’s not much, but it’s something.

Though I guess you could say that about the game in general. 

I want to say that, much like The Last of Us -- or more games than I care to acknowledge -- what’s in this game was the result of a slew of conscious decisions.  It would be easy to blame everything on the choices of one person in the development process, but when it comes to games people need to remember that one person alone doesn’t make the on-disc retail releases you normally see in a Best Buy run.  (So even if Tetsuya Nomura is infamous for making his characters look like perfectly-coiffed zipper enthusiasts, he is not single-handedly responsible for every Final Fantasy game.)  TLH was a concentrated effort, something dreamed up by and approved by untold dozens, if not hundreds of company toilers.  And what they dreamed up -- what they came up with, in spite of a limitless canvas -- was a game that very nearly felt outdated on its release day.  It certainly feels out of date now.





I wouldn’t call TLH a fundamentally broken product; unlike another game I could name, it’s still got its moments, and it is ultimately a serviceable title, if only because of a just-good-enough battle system.  But being just-good-enough shouldn’t be something we have to accept.  Nor should we have to accept creative bankruptcy and reliance on hand-me-down tropes just because the intent is to create something that’ll appeal to an audience.  If you have confidence in your work, you should be able to create freely without trying to put in elements that have only been added to gain popularity or wealth.  It’s insincere, it’s misfit, and ultimately it makes you look like an ass.  But the bigger crime?  It’s not the fact that it’s been unleashed upon an audience and the only way for them to find out how bad it can get is to play for themselves.  No, it’s the fact that you’re not failing yourself, or others, with your work.  You’re failing the work itself.

TLH had the chance to reach for the stars, but gleefully squandered it.  And that’s the worst crime I can imagine.

6 comments:

  1. For all of your negativity concerning TLH, you've actually done more to renew my interest in SO3. I've only really played the first game on the SNES and its PSP remake, but the third game's been in the back of my backlog for years, gathering dust and whatnot. So yeah, thanks I guess.
    I've really got nothing on TLH. Never really had much of an interest in it, and I guess my apathy wasn't unfounded. However, I do like the throwbacks to the earlier games the game has, in it's soundtrack and locales. I remember watching my brother play through the Roak segment, and I was like, "Oh hey, I know that town! And isn't that the battle theme from the first game? Pretty nifty!"
    Other than that though, it is a little sad games like this give JRPG fans less justification for our preferences. We can point to the Tales games and the entirety of Atlus all we want, but Squeenix and the Kooky No-Pants band seem to always take spotlight. Meh.

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  2. Dude, making this post made ME want to replay SO3. I've still got it lying around nearby, and I've been mulling over giving it another playthrough. I'll have to see if I've got enough space left on my PS2's memory card, though.


    In any case, I can understand your apathy toward TLH. I said some pretty biting stuff, sure, but it really isn't SO bad...just incredibly misguided, and failing to offer up something that could have made it fantastic. It's not the kind of game I can get excited about -- and even if the game itself is functional, that's a drawback in its own right if you ask me.


    It's true that there are still good entries in the genre, but I've got a pretty strong hunch that the JRPG's cred won't be repaired until there's another good FF game on consoles (or barring that, Kingdom Hearts 3 turns out to be good). Like it or not, as long as Squeenix has those brands to their name, they're shouldering the burden of the genre's rep. Then again, Ubisoft is supposed to be trying to put out a JRPG of their own, so we'll just have to see how that goes...

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  3. I'd go back and play SO3 if I didn't play the crap out of it. The weapon customization system, coupled with caution earned being burned by SO2's bull crap last boss difficulty spike, allowed you to turn Fat (SIC) into a god. A min-maxxer's dream that made you feel like you were breaking the game.



    If Last Hope had hints of that earlier, I'd have played through it. Crappy story or not. Fire Emblem Awakening gives you similar opportunities that you can exploit with careful family planning. (lol)

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  4. "...being burned by SO2's bull crap last boss difficulty spike..."


    *raises eyebrows* Well. I have to admit, now I'm a little intrigued by the game. I can't help but wonder what I've been missing in terms of the other games in the canon, and I've heard some flattering comments about the other two...at least more positive comments than the latest two. If nothing else, I'll have to give the wiki a closer look.


    But yes, that customization was something else. And the invention bits, by extension. How many hours did I piss away watching Fayt and crew try to build new bombs? The answer to that is...who cares? I'm makin' me some bombs! Shove aside, Edison, there's REAL SCIENCE to be done!

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  5. Man, I feel like playing Star Ocean 3 now. My brother actually doesn't like SO3 mainly because he couldn't pass Robin Wind (towards the end of Disk One), the MP kill and the 3-man party, and prefers SO4 for its easy and flashy battle system. The "humor" in SO4 felt a bit out of place (though I did like the interactions between Faize and Lymle). The only things I truly like about the game were Faize (of course), how it sort of connects with SO and SO2, and how they made symbology feel powerful (or maybe that was an illusion).


    I understand what you meant by the battle system being in the player's favor, so they have to make stronger and cheaper enemies because this is more prominent in the last two bosses and the bonus dungeons. Enemies are definitely more powerful, so either you die off quickly or you win the war of attrition. As you get more powerful, the battles only seem to drag out as you do the same thing over and over again.


    I even tried to see if the characters of SO3 and SO4 are parallels of each other (as was the case for Devil Survivor 1 and 2), and I realize how much I love the cast for SO3 (except Nel. I don't like fighting as her and I would never let her join the party.)

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  6. In SO4's defense, it's fairly likely that big brother SO3 isn't quite as rosy as I remember (if at all). Then again, the fact that I remember more plot points, characters, bosses, and general fun in SO3 than SO4 has to be a pretty telling sign. So I guess there's some merit to be found...and yeah, I wouldn't mind doing another playthrough of it either. Then again, I started up Tales of Legendia again, so it'll be a while yet before I touch it.


    Also, the bonus dungeon in SO4...I remember trying to make my way through to the end, and I did a pretty good job of it until the game started throwing in those bees (wasps? Yellow-jackets? Annoying buzzing things?). They just kept hitting my party with status effects and stopping me dead in my tracks, so I just gave up and set the game aside. Whatever was at the bottom of that dungeon, it wasn't worth the effort.

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