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.
If you get tired of the combat habits of a particular character, another can be switched to mid-battle. This can offer a refreshing and welcome change in pace; magic users such as the young Lymle handle very differently in battle than melee heavy characters such as the scythe-wielding Arumat. For harder enemies, knowing which character to use and how to get the most out of them is key to victory.
What makes the combat even more interesting is battle trophies; in game achievements awarded for meeting certain requirements in battle. These might include killing a hundred undead enemies, completing the battle in a certain amount of time, or stringing together a 10-hit Rush combo. What's more, each character has a hundred trophies, meaning there are 900 of the things to collect - a feat that'll take even the most persistent gamer a serious amount of time to do.
Aboard the Calnus, players can initiate Private Actions with the rest of the crew, a nice little addition to the game that attempts to offer insight into the lives of the characters. The ship also features a room with a holodeck, putting you in contact with the erratic Welch. As well as providing comic relief, Welch also offers services in item creation and synthesis. Although this may daunt the casual player, experienced role-playing fans will relish the sophistication of it all. There's also the opportunity to strengthen weapons and armour through synthesis. If you have a weapon with enough synth slots, it's possible to create some truly devastating tools of destruction. Take my Imperial Sword for example; it causes poison on touch, has an increased critical hit chance, and grants 60 per cent extra experience per kill. Jealous?
Should the main story lose your attention, the vast Star Ocean features numerous distractions to take your mind off the stresses of saving the universe. Roak's Colosseum, for example, features hundreds of arranged battles, not just for your party, but individual characters too. There's also Bunny Racing, a clear nod to the Chocobo Racing of Square Enix's Final Fantasy universe. And on top of that there are the countless side-quests that can be undertaken from towns and villages, as well as item collection quests given out at shops. In short, The Last Hope is a big, big game, and there's never a shortage of things to do.
Once you've completed the main game, The Last Hope offers one of the best post-game challenges since the dark aeons of Final Fantasy X. The Cave of the Seven Stars and Wandering Dungeon plays host to the most bad-ass and punishingly hard enemies in the game. Just be sure your characters have some serious levels under their belt and their weapons are synthed to the max, otherwise you won't last more than a few seconds. For those with the right credentials, the post-game can potentially double your existing game time.
If you've played the game on 360 already, you've probably been waiting to read what's new in the PS3 version. First is the option to play through the game with the original Japanese dialogue (hence the 'International' in the title), which makes the awkward dialogue mentioned previously a lot more bearable. The 3D character portraits that accompany your characters' stats in battle can also be swapped for more traditional anime artwork, which, to my eyes at least, is far more attractive. There have also been a few tweaks made to the combat system, but these make little difference to the experience as a whole.
For JRPG fans, there's little to compete with The Last Hope on the PS3. It not only offers one the most enjoyable battle-systems of recent times, but also an overall level of depth JRPG fans have been deprived of in this generation of consoles. If you own both the 360 and PS3 and have been holding out until now, there's no reason to deny yourself the game any longer. Last Hope International is the definitive Star Ocean 4 experience, and as far as I'm concerned, the best next-gen RPG money can buy.