Reviewed: October 30, 2004
Released: August 31, 2004
Not to start this review with a summarization, but Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is the kind of RPG that Final Fantasy has always wanted to be, yet for some reason never managed to attain. Yes, that is a bold statement, but Star Ocean has been in the works for the better part of five years, so there has been ample time to perfect the design, the story, the localization, and even clean up the rampant bugs that plagued the Japanese version.
Released in the US as the ďDirectorís CutĒ, American gamers not only get a technically enhanced game, the designers have utilized the power of the PS2 to improve just about every aspect of their original vision, and delivered so much game that it takes two DVDís to contain it all. Whether you are a longtime fan of the series or a newcomer, the new features, gorgeous cutscenes, exciting real-time battle system, and even a two-player versus mode makes Star Ocean a must own title for anyone with a PS2.
Star Ocean distinguishes itself from Final Fantasy and just about every other RPG game currently available for the PS2, an impressive feat considering the number of excellent role-playing games currently available for the console. The game escapes the typical medieval trappings of role-playing and takes you, instead, into the future for an epic sci-fi adventure.
Four hundred years have passed since the climactic battle with the ďTen Wise MenĒ. Currently it is 772 (space calendar). Humans and aliens co-exist, some in advanced societies and others in less-developed ones. The Galaxy Federation continues to research the cosmos in order to gain more influence in Space. STAR OCEANís protagonist, Fayt Leingod brings his family and childhood friend, Sophia Esteed, to the Federation-managed resort planet Hyda for a long deserved vacation. Their dreamy holiday turns into a nightmare when Hyda is attacked by an unknown space military. In the heat of the attack, Fayt is separated from his family and Sophia and begins an emotional quest into the unknown to find his loved ones.
Thatís the basic story. The game starts off slow and spoon feeds you small portions to keep you going, but once the game kicks into high gear Ė about an hour or so in Ė just hang on for the ride of your life.
As original as the story and settings of Star Ocean might be you canít deny the traditional RPG-style gameplay, a mix of exploration, conversation, and frequent combat. What does make the game stand out is the 3D design that allows you to spin the traditional isometric screen a full 360-degrees using the shoulder buttons. Now you can see every part of every level from every angle.
Much of the game relies on your careful exploration of the environment, collecting everything that isnít nailed down, and waiting for the screen to shatter indicating the start of one of the thousands of melees you will get to participate in.
The battle system is outstanding, especially considering that it is now in real-time rather than the turn-based combat we have become used to. At any time you can be in control of up to three characters. You will have manual control over one and the other two will follow one of six AI scripts that you can assign them prior to combat. You can cycle to any character using the R1 button and put any selected character under AI control with the R2.
The real-time combat will certainly take many RPG gamers by surprise, especially when you begin to explore the deep combat structure that rival that of most fighting games. All combat is handled with the X and circle buttons, and these each have two distinct functions based on your distance to the target allowing for up to four ranged or melee combat moves.
There is a wide assortment of weapons you will acquire throughout the game and these can be enhanced using up to eight modifiers allowing you can tweak favorite weapons in numerous ways. Itís ingeniously simple yet adds a subtle level of complexity that we seldom see in RPG games of this type.
You can further enhance your fighter with special skills and abilities (not exactly spells, but similar) and even though there are only six to choose from, you should be able to figure out a workable system that complements their physical abilities.
Other nifty combat features include a Fury Meter that rewards your excellence in battle, not to mention being able to freely move about the engagement area, counterattack, and make use of an innovative automatic blocking feature.
The combat system gets even deeper when you begin to explore party formations and the comprehensive system of combos that allow you to string together multiple single strikes into a deadly chain of attacks delivering massive damage. These combos work individually and with other member of your party and are a key component to defeating bosses.
RPG purists need not worry that you are losing all control to the real-time combat system. During combat you can use the intuitive pop-up menu to access special moves, retreat, or update your AI scripts. The combat system in Star Ocean is massive and open-ended. I was still learning new tactics 20-30 hours into the game and enjoying every second of it.
The single best element of Star Ocean has to be the wonderfully complex world you get to play in and explore. Normally in games like this I lose focus about halfway through and start to hit the main quest objectives just to finish the game. This usually results in me reaching a boss battle or section of the game and finding myself under-equipped or lacking in levels. Star Ocean is totally engaging and will have you exploring every inch of every level. Sure, this translates into plenty of extra wandering monster encounters and loads of extra combat, but this also means more experience and higher levels when you need them, and you will need them.
Star Ocean:Till the End of Time graphics rival anything currently available in the genre. The opening movies are quite stunning yet fall just a bit short of a first-party Square game like FFX or FFX2. Many of the transitional cutscenes are handled with game-engine graphics and the engine holds up surprisingly well in the close-ups.
Breaking the game down technically, the character models are very nice, with just the right amount of polygon complexity and texture detail, while keeping things scalable and playable at smooth framerates. Special effects are outstanding with blinding pyrotechnics and particle effects during the intense combat sequences. Colored lighting and shadows add a subtle level of realism to the environments.
Conventional gamers will find a bit of shimmering and jaggies in some of the scenes, a curse of viewing everything at an angle, but Star Ocean supports progressive scan and widescreen support for HDTV owners, and there is a significant boost in quality if you have the hardware to run it.
The menu structure and HUD layout is intuitive with easy-to-read text. All of the informational displays and multi-colored stat bars are kept to the borders so you can enjoy the scenery as much as possible. The entire presentation is one of the best Iíve seen in recent RPG history.
Star Ocean is rife with dialogue, especially in the beginning where you will plod through numerous conversations for almost an hour before experiencing your first taste of simulated combat. With a story-to-gameplay ratio that rivals Metal Gear Solid 2, there were times when I felt the designers were more focused on telling a story than creating a game.
The localization process has certainly suffered from the inclusion of some voice talent that in no way lives up to the script. This is one of those games where I would have preferred to read the subtitles while listening to the original voice actors, especially when those actors include some major talent from high-profile projects like Scryed, Vandread, and Bubblegum Crisis. I guess I have a higher tolerance for squeaky female voices when they are speaking Japanese rather than English. Now itís just annoying.
Despite the numerous dialogues and erratic pacing of the narrative, Star Ocean manages to tell an epic story that rivals anything weíve seen in the franchise to date. There are plenty of plot twists, and the character development is varied and surprisingly detailed making each encounter something to enjoy, voices not withstanding.
Motio Sakuraba, the composer for Star Ocean: Second Story is back to create yet another eclectic score that blends classical, techno, and some futuristic rock beats to keep the gameplay exciting and the cutscenes emotional when necessary. There were a few parts of the game where the default mix favored the music to the point where you couldnít hear the dialogue. You might want to keep subtitles turned on just in case.
Sound effects are flawless and include plenty of environment noises, both indoors and out. Early in the game you will find yourself on the beach and between the crashing surf and the screeching gulls you would swear you were really on a beach.
Much of this audio goodness is derived from the Dolby Pro Logic II surround mix. If you have the sound system to support this format you are in for a real treat. The game even features a sound optimizer so you can tweak the surround to your room size and speaker placement. Combined with the HDTV support, Star Ocean is more than a game; itís a multimedia event.
If you never buy another PS2 game, you might be able to get a 100% on Star Ocean. To say this game is huge would be a gross understatement. You can easily expect over 100 hours of gameplay and thatís before we factor in the hidden dungeons, ten unique endings, more than 300 battle trophies to collect, special costumes, and a two-player versus mode.
Sure, you can rip through the story in 40 hours but you are only going to experience a fraction of what Star Ocean has to offer. This is truly the first game that might take as long to finish as it took to make, and the two-player versus mode will keep you coming back for the occasional bouts with your rival gamers long after you have finished the story.
Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is a game for gamers and not just RPG gamers. With a carefully blended mix of strategy, intense real-time combat, customizable characters and weapons, and a rich sci-fi universe to explore, there is literally something here for everyone. Even the story will grab you and drag you along once you learn to tolerate or tune out the dismal voice acting.
Perhaps the single best element of Star Ocean is the clever design that allows you to tailor the game to your liking. You have the freedom to drag this adventure out for the next six months exploring every nuance the game has to offer, including an engrossing two-player versus mode, or you can hit the main story points and be done in a week or two of solid gaming. The choices are yours, and the world of Star Ocean is as big as you want to make it.