Last summer, when I probably should have been frolicking on a beach somewhere or throwing a Frisbee around with scantily clad women, I was instead holed up in my room with my Xbox 360 and a copy of Star Ocean: The Last Hope. And in no way did I find that depressing. To date, I've invested a total of 132 hours and 59 minutes into the game (yes, really), and so hopefully I'm deemed qualified to offer an opinion on the game. Star Ocean: The Last Hope International is the PlayStation 3 take on last year's JRPG space epic, complete with a bevy of new features and fixes.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope International, or Star Ocean 4 if you prefer, is a prequel that takes place a few centuries before the events of the first game. With Earth left on the brink of oblivion thanks to the events of World War 3, the human race is forced into space. Spearheading the expedition is the SRF (Space Reconnaissance Force), which jaunts around the galaxy Star Trek style in search of new hospitable planets.
Driving the narrative is your usual clichéd mix of justice-obsessed teens and old battle-hardened warriors. Filling the shoes of the righteous protagonist is the ridiculously named Edge Maverick, a space cadet who - predictably - discovers hidden powers and a greater purpose during the course of the game. Alongside his childhood friend Reimi Saionji, Edge is given command of a ship called the Calnus, which takes him and his crew on an intergalactic adventure spanning the furthest corners of the Star Ocean. The plot is interesting enough, but often spoiled by clumsy dialogue and unnecessarily long cut scenes. Some go on for over half an hour, so be prepared for extended periods of time with no buttons to press.
The space setting is a refreshing break from the fantastical orc and elf populated worlds JRPGs are usually confined to. The game spans a variety of engaging planets and space stations, all of which look fantastic. Fans of the series will be pleased to return to the planet Roak, where a fair portion of the game takes place. Graphically, the PS3 version is similar to its 360 counterpart, with a visual style caught somewhere between Mistwalker's child-like Blue Dragon and the more grown up Lost Odyssey.
The Last Hope really shines, however, in the combat department. The game banishes random encounters, with enemies that wander about the same game world your characters do. This means you can avoid them altogether if you're low on health or simply can't be bothered with the hassle. If you do decide to fight the good fight, though, the screen does the whole swishy-swooshy thing we've become accustomed to over the years, and your characters reappear in an appropriate battle instance relevant to the environment.
Players take control of one character at a time, but your AI controlled team mates are more than competent enough fighting by themselves. Battle follows a similar formula to that of previous Star Ocean outings; real-time combat with all the features of more traditional JRPGs lurking under the surface. Basic attacks are mapped to the X button, with the L2 and R2 triggers reserved for techniques and symbology (magic). The Last Hope introduces a new feature called Blindsides, which offer numerous advantages during combat. By holding the Circle button, your character will charge their Rush gauge (boosting speed and strength). While in this charged stance, a quick flick of the left analogue stick will prompt your character to dart behind an enemy, catching them completely off guard.
A Bonus Board on the right hand side of the screen increases with Blindside finishes, multiple enemy kills or critical kills. Depending on the action, a coloured tile will fill the gauge, offering bonuses such as 10 per cent extra experience, or an increased item drop rate. Should your character suffer a critical hit or incapacitation, the gauge will break, and your hard-earned bonuses will be lost. Learning how to manipulate this board effectively is the best way to gain more experience and money, and thus stronger characters in the long run.