Star Ocean: The Last Hope
Constantly forced into the massive shadow of the Final Fantasy franchise, tri-Ace's Star Ocean has never really been able to shine on its own... until now. The fourth installment in the space-faring series, Star Ocean: The Last Hope, not only blows recent next-gen JRPGs out of the water, but proves itself a fantastic swan-song for the cult-favorite space opera.
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Star Ocean: The Last Hope serves as a prequel to the entire Star Ocean universe, pre-dating the series' first title by a whopping two centuries. The Last Hope picks up shortly after World War III has all but decimated the once green Earth, leaving the planet's population in desperate need of a new home. With space travel still in its infancy, a collection of Earth's scientific superpowers known as the Universal Science and Technology Administration launches project "Seeds of Hope" -- a reconnaissance mission in search of hospitable planets suitable for colonization. That's where you come in - rookie pilot Edge Maverick, headstrong crewman of the SRF-003 Calnus. When a strange anomaly knocks the Calnus out of its sub-space travel, the vessel finds itself stranded on the primitive planet of Aeos, and so begins the latest entry in the Star Ocean series.
Even if you've never picked up a tri-Ace title in your life, The Last Hope's friendly interface and vibrant visuals makes it incredibly easy for gamers who don't know Star Ocean from Star Trek to jump right into this massive role-playing experience. The game's production value is truly impressive and the phenomenal graphics make the most of the Xbox 360's hardware with each planet, ship and city brandishing its own unique charm. The game's detailed character models show intense emotion during in-game cut-scenes, and party members move with incredible fluidity both in and out of battle. The voice acting is certainly a mixed bag, ranging from incredibly solid to unabashedly cheesy or downright deadpan (here's looking at you, Lymle) but all in all, the game's fantastic score matched with its fantastic cinematic flair creates a truly remarkable gaming experience for both old and new USTA recruits alike.
Never Missing a Beat
Star Ocean's trademark real time battles make a triumphant return in The Last Hope, overhauled with brand new bells and whistles allowing players to truly maximize and customize their gaming experience. Gamers can now assign one of three different fighting styles, or "Beats", to their party members. Depending on how you approach your characters' Beats (offensive, defensive or neutral), they'll receive certain perks with each Rank Up to better compliment their fighting style. Offensive fighters might become better at pulling off critical hits, or Blindside attacks, where defensive party members can make the most of their Rush gauge - an innovative bar that, upon being filled, boosts your characters guard and allows for the opportunity for Chain Combos.
Symbology and Special Arts also return with a series of beautiful animations and devastating spells. Using the aforementioned Chain Combos, characters can customize and link together various Symbology spells or Special Arts to truly put the hurt on your enemies. One of my favorite new additions is the battle system's Bonus Board: a unique assortment of multi-colored tiles that are earned with special feats performed during combat (defeat multiple enemies with one strike, defeat an enemy just using a Special Skill, etc.) Each tile earned during battle gives players an extra boost upon victory. For instance, defeating an enemy with a Blindside attack awards players with a blue tile that presents the party with an extra 10% of experience once you've triumphed over your foes. These tiles can be stacked and chained together, allowing gamers to earn up to 140% the amount of experience points you'd normally earn. When utilized properly, perks from the Bonus Board can really cut down on tedious level grinding, item collection, and even heal your party upon triumph.
Similar to Star Ocean 3, random battles have been replaced by roaming NPCs who, based on your approach, can be surprised with preemptive attacks or will even ambush you if you let your guard down. Similar to past Star Oceans, you can switch between party members on the fly using the left or right bumpers. I really have to give props to tri-Ace for making each and every character feel incredibly different: Edge's attacks are slow and powerful, where Reimi's long-range arrows are perfect for picking off enemies from a distance. With each character excelling in a certain area, albeit Symbology or Chain Combos, it's an absolute treat to mix and match various party members in hopes of creating the ideal team. The team AI is no slouch either, with characters wisely choosing the best tactic to compliment their teammate's attacks.