As of this writing, I'm about 30 hours into Star Ocean - The Last Hope (SO-TLH) for the XBox 360 and I'm enjoying it. I had wished, when I started writing this, that I'd be able to say I was thoroughly enjoying it, but there are a few concerns I've got that prevent me from saying that.
The Last Hope is a fantastic Square-Enix RPG, no doubt. Anyone who likes Final Fantasy style Japanese RPGs will be into this. The title comes from the core of the story, which is that humanity has been up to it's old tricks and taken warfare to such an extreme that World War III has occurred and left the Earth unable to sustain life, at least on the surface. Humanity has taken refuge under ground, but they can't remain there indefinitely. The human race's titular last hope is the search for a new world to call it's own, hopefully one they'll take care of a bit better than they did the Earth.
The characters are decent, if a little generic-seeming at the start. They do begin to come into their own as you get further into the game, which is a bit of a relief. Your primary characters are Edge Maverick and Reimi Saionji, humans from Earth's underground who are determined to find humanity's new home. They're fairly typical anime/RPG character archetypes, the idealized everyman that you can identify with comfortably while a part of you wishes you secretly wishes that you could identify with them a little more closely. This makes it easy to slip into their shoes so to speak, but also makes them feel a little bland at the outset. As the game progresses they start to come into their own a little bit more with story events tugging on their personas and moulding them into something a bit more unique.
The combat is enjoyable, resembling other Square-Enix games in the broad strokes but with some twists that are new to this title. It took me a long time to get into the game's Blindsiding system because I found it largely unnecessary, but now that I do know how to pull them off, I find I do them a lot more often. Blindsiding is a way your characters have of slipping past an enemy's defenses to strike from their "blind spot" which always results in a critical hit for much more damage than a typical hit would do.
If I had any complaint about the combat, it's the same one I have with all Square-Enix games - it's often necessary to go "grinding", or fighting endlessly for the sake of fighting to build experience up when you discover that you're not strong enough to get past a particular encounter. This is not always a bad thing. In this game in particular I've found it less irritating than I have in other games, because it has led me to exploring the various planets I can travel to in more depth, and I've completed a large number of smaller side quests as a result. These side quests make for an effective alternative to grinding, in fact, because you can earn a fair amount of experience doing them,which levels your characters up just as effectively as the fighting.
Another nice side effect of the side quests is that many of them are crafting quests. People or shops will often ask you to find or make special items for them. The game contains a vast number of resources you can acquire in various ways. You can then take these resources back to your ship's lab, where you can launch the crafting interface and create a dizzying array of items that range from weapons and armor upgrades to ship upgrades to useless bits of arts and craft that can be sold for more than the cost of the components you made them from. Like blindsides in combat, this was not something I jumped into right away, but once I did start messing around with it, it quickly became a fun passtime in it's own right - and the more combat oriented items are yet another way you can reduce the need for grinding, as they can make those extra-tough encounters a lot easier to manage.
Visually... well, it's a breathtaking game that often inspires me to just sit still and pan the camera around the world to take it in. I won't go on too much about how great the game looks, because honestly, it's not often you find A-list games these days that don't look spectacular.
I have had some problems with SO-TLH that have driven me absolutely crazy. The game seems to be unusually crash-prone. I've had more problems with crashing games on the XBox 360 than on any other console, but this game in particular crashes more than any other 360 title I've played in recent memory. I'm not sure whether this is because the game is buggy, the console lacks stability, or because my console is one of the earlier 360 releases, but no matter the cause, it's frustrating to lose progress due to lockups.
It does say something about the compelling quality of the game that I keep going back to it though. I'm anxious to see where the story is leading; what more is going to happen with these characters? What more will they go through, fight through, endure through? It's good enough to be worth a little frustration to see where things are headed.
Overall impression: I'd rank it a bit below Final Fantasy XII or Persona 3 FES, but still definitely worth a look for fans of this style of gaming.
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