a review of Star Ocean: The Last Hope
a videogame developed by tri-Ace
and published by Square-Enix
for the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by Ario Barzan
My god, what a mess this game is. I’m only giving it a half star because the delicious sound effects for menu navigation and confirmation remind me of Final Fantasy VII‘s, which I liked a whole bunch. If it makes you happier, you can disregard that and accept my spiritual score, which is about negative four-trillion stars, equating to negative forty Milky Ways. Substituting Star Ocean: The Last Hope‘s title with Infinite Undiscovery 2 wouldn’t be that much of a stretch, production-wise: Square-Enix and tri-Ace are publisher and developer in both, nor is it that much of a stretch when you watch this and this, side by side. This is a really bad game. In spite of that — or, because of that — I recommend a post-ironic rental, if you can find someone apathetic enough to man the reigns . . . unless you don’t mind playing yourself, because you will feel dirty. The Last Hope (alternate title: The Lost Hope) is a game that makes sensible, aware people embarrassed about video games as a whole, the same way any horrendous, train-wreck of a novel temporarily crushes the possibilities for good — pre-existing, or in the future — in the world of literature.
The Last Hope is a Japanese RPG, which, I guess, means that the “draw” is the story, and that the things in between the story — the parts where you’re playing — serve as vehicles to bring the next scene into the picture. A couple of positive points: you can see enemies prior to engagement (sometimes they spout an assigned cry, like dragon men screaming, “Where’s my prey?!”, which sounds like, “Where’s my brain?!”), and you are allowed to run around the battlefield once a fight has begun — and, that’s about it. In what has become an honored tradition of introducing a Trademarked Battle System in a supposed effort to disturb conventions (but is really only an addressing of the, uh, naming of the subject), tri-Ace brings forth the “B.E.A.T. System,” “B.E.A.T.” standing for “Battle Exalted Action Type” in Japan, and “Battle Enhancement Attribute Type” in the English version. This is horrible. Here’s what probably happened:
1) Higher-up calls people into room, topic of meeting being, “Name for Product’s Battle System”
2) Higher-up goes around the table, asking people to suggest words with a violent connotation
3) Individual squeaks, “Beat?”
4) Higher-up writes “BEAT” on whiteboard
5) Task of meeting turns to giving each letter a word that vaguely relates to the others (this should go the other way around (. . . but we don’t need a name for a battle system, at all)).
Why is this going on? Squaresoft came up with that “A.T.B” (Active Time Battle) moniker years ago as a way to glorify the simple psuedo-removal of My-party-attacks-and-then-the-enemy-attacks. The approach caught on for the sake of having a Trademarked Phrase on the back of the game’s box. It became a fad of its own, borrowed by any manner of game-types outside of the strict Japanese RPG household. Name something and it becomes actual, salable. But “B.E.A.T.”ing off isn’t that grand of a thing: the arenas you fight in are unnecessarily large, the battles themselves largely inconsequential and uninvolving (on occasion, I’d put the controller down and let things play out; I’d win by a large margin, every time). And no matter how big the victory against a boss, you never feel like you’ve gotten better at the game. It’s still rooted in the “time-investment relayed through visual relay of numerical growth” lifelessness that’s at the heart of the genre. The level of challenge doesn’t grow, though the duration of fights tend to, the extent of the wars of attrition. It is vaguely thrilling how you can knock pretty much any enemy a hundred feet into the air during fights, multiple times in a row. This means that you will be seeing twenty-ton dragons and colossal space yetis being launched into the stratosphere by an adolescent girl with neon cat claws (more on this, later).
There are dungeons, and they are magnificently vacuous bores with a surplus of empty annexes and dead ends. Usually, they are ferociously symmetrical. I suppose this is so because monolithic architecture is also, usually, ferociously symmetrical. This does not mean, however, that The Last Hope‘s dungeons need be ferociously symmetrical. It’s so bizarre that the game holds itself to this ideal, even if it kills itself through predetermined devotion. There’s a total collapse of form and function with how the dungeons play out, as if some guy was given the layout printed on a piece of paper, and told to throw several darts at it to determine what chests went where. Feeling sort of brave, he might’ve asked a co-worker, “So, uh, like — what about all the empty places?” and the co-worker may have replied, “lol i dunno man it’s an RPG dungeon.” Empty annexes and dead ends used to be partners to the dread of exploring a dungeon in RPGs, where you might risk the few extra steps to enter a room before returning to the surface (while nursing low health for everyone in the party). While this was, and is, cruel, it was there for the element of risk: you might get into that room, find nothing, groan, retreat, and then get into the random battle you could have avoided if you’d resisted curiosity. The Last Hope does not have that risk. You do not exit dungeons by the skin of your neck. Its empty annexes and dead ends are merely awkward and annoying conclusions to a path you’ve chosen.
When dungeons do feel compelled to introduce level interaction, it’s through tasks of busy-work which make one wish the developers hadn’t done anything. One “puzzle” revolves around Lighting Shit In A Certain Order — in this case, a series of jars. A statue stands in the center of these rooms, adjusting its weapon after your initial action to point to the next jar you must run over to, put your hand over, and ignite (by, uh, magic unbeknownst to even the hero). So proud — or bored — of this idea were the developers that they saw fit to let it breed, culminating in a monster of a room populated by jars and a designating statue positioned far out in a body of water. This does nothing for the complexity of the situation. It just makes it longer busy-work. You run around, sometimes realizing that you lit the wrong jar because the precise angle the statue is pointing at with its glowing weapon is difficult to see (whoops! time to re-enter to reset the puzzle!), along the way noting that the path is sectioned off at a point by a brief interlude of water to make backtracking around the huge room even more tedious. Another earlier dungeon has you running up to particular pedestals and touching their sides to make them levitate, flip upside down, and fly up to chunk themselves into gaps in a path on the upper floor. Again, there’s no challenge to this, or puzzle to figure out. You run around and touch these pedestals. Some of them are missing the gems that help them to levitate. You scavenge around, open up chests and find the gems, and then — if you’ve acquired the gems on the upper floor — run back down to the first floor and insert them and levitate the pedestals and then run back up. This is hollow, hateful design that commits the sin of modern Zelda, where the order of things isn’t a question of “how” as much as it is a question of “when” (“I see the locked door; when do I get the key to unlock it?”, et-cetera). There is no creativity or improvisation. There is only process.
In the last dungeon, there’s a room where time has “stopped,” and a large gap separates you from further advancement. Climb a couple flights of stairs and you come to a platform shackled with enormous chains. So what do you do to get on with it? Well, you backtrack — through a series of portals that only appear when you walk right next to them (in the right order!) on multiple asteroids — and get to a room where there’s a statue holding a scepter. You walk up to the statue and examine it, but you are unable to remove the scepter. You might be inclined to walk over to the mirror and press the A button, allowing a couple of the party members to see in the mirror what is unseeable, normally: a large, transparent snake that is floating near the scepter. Now, you return to the statue and are able to remove it. What now? Of course, you come back to the room where time has stopped. The chains shatter, and the platform becomes a swinging pendulum for you to ride on to the other side of the room. If this doesn’t sound like it makes sense, it’s because it doesn’t make any sense. There’s no rhyme or reason to The Last Hope‘s internal rationale.
The great outdoors are flat, styleless expanses of Nothing in Particular, in possession of hearty amounts of bloom. The last planet you travel to goes from dull (Death Valley #999 plus Metroid Prime 2: Echoes‘ dark world tones) to downright hideous. Treasure chests are thrown about here and there. If you open them up, everyone in the party gets experience. They might even level up. I suppose withdrawing items from chests isn’t enough anymore, sort of like how the Donkey Kong Country games would litter every space in between jumps with bananas to secure max-satisfaction. Certain treasure chests have barriers around them: for example, an ice barrier. You use your “fire ring” and melt the barrier and open up the chest. It’s not like Dragon Quest, though, where you return to the first place in the game at the end of the game with the final key and unlock a bunch of chests. Here, you get to a new area and there is a chest with an ice barrier on it. So you use your fire ring and open it. But why have the barrier on it? There’s no instance of delayed satisfaction — you can open it up, right then and there. This isn’t annoying, really. It’s just weird as heck. The most hilarious part might be how there are exact places you can leap down from (shown as exclamation points on the map) in the name of Hot, Real-Time Jumping Action. No, no — you can’t jump down at the point a few inches to the right of that exclamation point — you’ve got to be right on it. Yes: here is a game where jumping down a cliff as a short-cut is shown as a major event on the map. Now might be a good time to mention that, when looking at a map of any given space, it’s impossible to move it around. It’s not even a map that constructs itself according to what ground you covered (i.e., unexplored sectors would not show up until traversed): each map is instantly available, yet remains immovably focused on the general geography you’re occupying at a given time. No good reason, or reason at all, is ever given for the decision.
I will be shocked if every Internet video of people playing this doesn’t show them using the dash ability over and over again to cover any body of ground. To describe said ability: your avatar, outside of fights, can spurt forward for a couple of seconds. After this, he returns to normal adventuring speed. But why does this dash last for a couple of seconds (perhaps more importantly, why is there a button to walk really slowly?)? Were the developers frightened of the idea of someone dashing all the way across a field? Did they not realize that everyone wants to go faster, because there is no reason to go slower in The Last Hope, and that witnessing the main character increase their speed four-fold in zero-to-nothing and then normalizing and then doing it again, over and over, looks immeasurably dumber and more spasmodic than if the player maintained the speed according to their own judgment? If the dash is supposed to be limited according to the person’s “stamina,” no reference is ever made towards this. So, there you’ll be, jamming on that button to keep your avatar in this constant, frustrating flux of speed-up-slow-down, where you’ll be wishing that the game will finally throw its hands up and say, “Fine, fine! Dash for as long as you want, asshole.” There’s a distinction to be made, too: you don’t use the dash because it is more exciting — you use it because it is more economic. It is a matter of business, and not a matter of entertainment.
Adventuring is joyless. Fighting is joyless. “Joyless”, in spite of its negative definition, cannot describe the story, because “joy” is a part of the word. The Last Hope‘s story is so far away from joy that it can’t even use the word in an absent context. After a while, you get to know that the game has, or thinks it has, a Theme. As another product’s spokesperson might say at a podium when introducing the game, “______’s theme is Revenge,” The Last Hope‘s spokesperson would say, “The theme of this game is Friendship,” which would be the part where you’d know you were in deep shit and where you would whisper to the people around you, “This room is probably going to become the center of a new black hole in a minute — get the fuck out.” Suffice it to say, the whole thing’s superficial. Nevermind the fact that two characters might only know each other from a couple of situations: they’re friends. Cutscenes begin emerging, left and right, where a figure will be left behind by the party for a moment, and then will say to another onlooking character (perhaps with their hands clasped and their eyes closed), “I’m going to follow them! Because . . . because they’re my friends! And friends stick together!” One by one, figures show up to fill trope-slots, including a cold, calculatiOH HE HAS EMOTIONS TOO cyborg inexplicably named Bacchus (having no apparent reason to go by regarding the name, we hypothesized that Bacchus hides a legion of wine bottles in chambers in his huge forearms/lower legs) with a ridiculous body structure that recalls Mega Man X‘s Sigma, and a little girl with cat ears and a cat tail, dressed drown in revealing leather nonsense for all the pedophiles of the world. Her canonical age is documented as sixteen, though she is not more than ten-years-old. Classy.
The Last Hope isn’t just lacking any sort of sense about how to not be a thing that isn’t blushingly embarrassing — the whole game is lifeless. There’s not a single real person or thing to be found. Here’s a biographical scrap taken from Wikipedia about Faize, the androgynous, elven character of the group.
A young man that is a member of a planetary research group from the planet Eldar. His personality causes him to honor people with respect, always paying his respects to people he comes in contact with if they possess something he doesn’t have. [...] He has very logical thoughts, and takes a stern attitude with illogical people, but does so in a friendly way. The irises of his eyes become red when he has violent emotions of anger or grief.
Whether this blurb is “official” or not shouldn’t matter; that anyone is using diction reminiscent of what you’ll find below a picture of a multi-penised Sonic fan-fiction character at deviantArt should. The Last Hope functions on the assumption that character is defined by one or two “LOL QUIRKY” idiosyncrasies, such as the hideous, doll-like girl, Lymle, ending most of her sentences with, “‘kay?”, and giving people nicknames as if she were four-years-old (again, the canon lies by saying she is fifteen), or cat-girl blurting the occasional, “Meow!”, and getting hungry when she sees large, furry animals. The thing’s so unaware of its existence, as the lingering queef of a Japanese game studio’s consciousness, that any conscious attempts at humor — having a crew member see cat-girl and quip, “It’s like being in an anime convention!”, or whatever — are bad to the point of being surreal. Asking the plot to make a lick of sense is as futile a waiting for your house plants to make conversation with you. Edge Maverick, the main character, is chosen to be captain of a ship seeking out inhabitable planets for no other reason than because He Is The Main Character. In spite of how many times he fucks up, a high/low point being his unwitting assistance in blowing up Earth in an alternate universe, his acquaintances never once question his competence. They are perversely eager to excuse every mistake he makes, again, because he is the main character. At the end of the game, Edge stands next to the love interest, who says something to the effect of, “I’d never leave your side, even if you asked me to.”
What a weird, clingy perspective the whole game has. It’s fan-fiction, creepy wish-fulfillment with a budget. We are Mr. Do No Wrong, actually doing a whole hell of a lot wrong, receiving unflinching handjobs of support through thick and thicker. No wonder producer Yoshinori Yamagishi purportedly wanted to make “erotic games” before getting yelled at. The last few hours of the game are an exhausting melting pot of every genericism you can think of — meandering nonsense about evolution and cleansing and rebuilding, floating through dark spaces while guided by The Light of Hope, unbelievable surpassing of odds thanks to the POWER OF FRIENDSHIP, and duking it out with the final form of friend-gone-bad (willingly corrupted by Some Dark Force because he witnessed a girl die; thus, he assumes, it’s time to destroy the universe), now sporting a bitchin‘ set of wings and a comatose head in his chest. By then, the cogs of the narrative machine are whirring and producing such a string of horrid tropes you get to wondering if even the developers cared.
I do not like The Last Hope‘s fights because, though they are given visual explanation prior to their beginning, though they let everyone and everything run free through their course, they are ordinary, easy, and physically floppy like wet cardboard — and, on top of that, I do not like the fights because I can’t not hate the characters. I can’t not hate how the porcelain-child Lymle slurs, at the end of a skirmish, “This feels pretty good, ‘kaaay?” I can’t separate myself from the disgust I feel for each person I am guiding. Everyone in this game is going to die by the hands of a fire that’s consumed by a bigger fire — and then they’re going straight to hell. Structurally decent thing that it was, I couldn’t get behind God of War because I couldn’t get behind the protagonist, Kratos, who was, to me, not an “anti-hero,” but simply “anti.” At the heart of every gaming experience is the will to succeed, and I didn’t want Kratos to succeed, so I stopped playing: every success within was a success for the character of Kratos. Eventually, The Last Hope‘s unintended joke starts wearing thin, and playing it as Trainwreck Entertainment becomes something you hate hating. The voice acting, the script, are poison. It’s almost as miserable as this (note how Chaos Wars and The Last Hope hired at least one female voice actor who was high off her ass and on the verge of ending it all). Each time a character — Edge — begins to laugh, you think it’s going to get all Evil Dead on you. How awkward. What else is awkward? The animations: the people in these cutscenes look like they’re suffering from some queer, post-seizure malady, or haven’t managed to take a shit in a decade. Besides how they move, it’s how everyone in your party — barring the ridiculous enough cyborg — is an unnerving mesh of child and adult wearing L.E.D.-studded Bionicle armor (can we please have a spin-off of this game where the objective is to get each person out of their get-up in under twelve hours?). Anime and manga often fail in indicating age with general aesthetic: here’s a 2009 Xbox 360 game, and all those Next-Gen “enhancements” make the failure even creepier to witness.
And, really, what an enormous conceptual benefit The Last Hope has of guiding you not around one planet, but multiple planets — and how much of it goes to waste, so that there’s no genuine atmosphere or appeal. This brand of world, galaxy, universe was created when God hit some crippling sort of artistic block: you end up with pigeon-toed, angel-winged girls, elven-eared humanoids, anthropomorphized dinosaurs that sport wavy shocks of hair, and the aforementioned cat-eared, cat-tailed beings. There’s nothing interesting about this. There’s nothing cute about this. We have seen these things before — things with soggy, socially-suicidal followings born in the name of amassing an army of plastic figurines in one’s room, of adding terms to a sub-cultural lexicon to describe the personality type of a fictional female character — and they were not attractive in the first place. This is the repressed-dream-fumes of making that erotic game seeping under the door of production without even the attempt of pretending to wedge a blanket in the crack. This is someone asking, “What’s a scary animal?” and another responding, “Uhhhhh, dinosaurs?”, and the former person giving the latter one a raise on the spot because, god damn, dinosaurs are scary animals — especially when they have scary voices! On the deck of your spaceship, you can assign people roommates to “boost” their relationship (the only explanation I can give for the female love interest being so parastically attached to Edge) by way of an organizational sub-screen. Two spots per room are shown, with people’s faces appearing in the spots you move them to. That’s all The Last Hope is: boring faces in boring rooms doing stupid things to make stupid things happen. Please, lord. The last thing this game needs is its characters breeding.