Star Ocean: Till the end of Time
There is a huge contingent of gamers out there who will swipe up anything with the Square Enix moniker on it, no matter how horrible the product, even if it has the words UNLIMITED SAGA on it. Call 'em fanboys but at least they're passionate about their company. Now the latest game has rolled off the Square Enix production line and it's quite a deviation from what most have come to known the company for. Nearly two years after the merger was announced, gamers are finally starting to see the second half of the deal come into fruition and it begins with one of Enix's lesser known, but well crafted franchises.
Never mind the fact that the release date has been stalled multiple times and that the North American version is actually a port of the Japanese director's cut. The big question everyone wants to ask is, was the tortuous wait worth it? For the most part, it was. Star Ocean 3 boasts one of the more innovative battle systems in the console RPG realm. Fans of the tri-Ace development team in particular will love the additions made to the battle system, as well as the simplifications with item invention and skill development. What prevents this game from rising to the top of the pack of PS2 titles is the ridiculously generic storyline and disc loading issues that helped delay the title's release. Nevertheless, the title remains strong.
Star Ocean is a sci-fi RPG that takes place well into the future. Interplanetary travel has been revolutionized and entire planets are devoted to vacationers. This is convenient because it just so happens that our main character will be vacationing on one of those planets when an event changes his life. While Fayt and his family are relaxing on the shores of Hyda IV the planet is attacked by an unknown enemy. As the vacationers flee Fayt's father hints that he may know the cause of the attack but is separated from his family before he can reveal his thoughts. Fayt and his childhood friend, Sophia, are rescued and placed upon a transport ship where they are able to rest off their worries, but before they can call it a night that ship is also attacked and the two become separated. As they flee they're sent in different directions and Fayt is left to fend for himself as he searches for his loved ones. Of course these sort of things never go quite as planned and before it's all over, you'll travel all across the galaxy as you embark on a massive quest.
As the game's namesake implies you will be doing a little time travelling as well, but not in the most orthodox manner. Instead of physically warping between time periods the game takes place in one set time. The "time travel" actually occurs when your characters travel to different planets in varying stages of development. Early on you crash land on a planet that has developed to the equivalency of 15th century Earth. Laws have been instilled to ensure that further evolved planets don't interfere with the development of lesser ones. This is done by preventing the use of technology and objects that wouldn't normally be available at the stage of development. This was an amazingly brilliant move on the part of the developers. Other games place artificial limits on what the player has access to, here the game instils a more practical one that's understandable to all parties.
Throughout the course of the game you often find yourself in the role of the reluctant hero. When your craft crashes into the middle of a medieval town your first priority is to escape and search for your parents, but that's before you get imprisoned. Soon afterwards a spy from a neighbouring town will come and free you on the condition that you help them win their ongoing war. This is how Star Ocean's structure generally pans out from the start, placing you in situations that don't necessarily have anything to do with your quest, but may play a crucial role in the balance of the universe.
In addition to Fayt you'll take control of several characters throughout the course of your adventure. They all have their own reasons for fighting alongside Fayt and you'll soon grow to love them. Being the smart-ass that I am I immediately fell in love with Cliff, the wise-cracking sidekick with the boyish good looks. He adds plenty of much-needed comic relief, his comments about a predominantly female kingdom in particular.
I've always been a huge fan of RPGs but I played them mostly for the plot development and secondly for the storyline. It's not that I can't bear to read 50 million lines of text, it's just that most RPGs suffer from poor character development. Luckily Star Ocean is able to avoid this pitfall by providing gamers with characters that they can relate and empathize with. When the vacationing protagonist, Fayt, would rather stay in the hotel and play video games instead of going to the beach with his friend you can sheepishly say, "Yeah. I've been there before. That's me." Furthermore, the characters have genuine feelings and they behave as we would expect them to in real life. This is a huge positive for the game because it's amazingly storyline heavy. To put into perspective you'll go more than an hour before you get into your first fight. Most of the key dialogue is spoken but the secondary dialogue, such as the boxes that pop up when you speak to villagers, appears as written text.
The storyline is huge, but the most well-developed aspect of Star Ocean is its combat system. Instead of utilizing the traditional turn-based system the game opts for a real-time system that pans out more like a hack'n'slasher. Instead of random encounters, combat is initiated whenever players run into a monster in a dungeon. Afterwards the game transports the combatants into a square battlefield where they can roam and attack freely. Here you have two attack buttons at your disposal as well as a plethora of special moves. Major damage is done by chaining together attacks while defence comes in the form of a dodging manoeuvre. There are charge attacks, special attacks and magical attacks (called symobology here) at your disposal as well. You can have up to three characters in your party at one time and since combat takes place in real-time, the AI takes control of the other two while you fight. Surprisingly the computer is pretty adept as it'll support you and heal itself whenever needed.
From a visual standpoint we've been seriously spoiled by anything that has a Square label on it. While that logo usually excites gamers, it just might be damning to anyone who picks up a copy of Star Ocean. Most of the people this game caters to probably weren't fans of the original (which was released only in Japan) and its PSOne sequel. Since they have no grounding in the franchise they probably see the Square Enix tag and immediately expect a graphically rich blockbuster. That's where the problem lies; the game looks severely weak when compared to the other heavy hitters in the Square Enix lineup. The animation is pretty poor, the backgrounds look generic and the effects are far short of being special. The animation just doesn't sync up properly with the action that's happening on the screen. Characters seem to warp across the environment as if they're floating on clouds. On the upside, the characters run really fast so if you're one of those people who hated the running speed in Final Fantasy X, this is a wee bonus.
One of Star Ocean's most interesting graphical touches arises during the game's in-game cutscenes. As the characters talk the camera shifts focus squarely onto the characters while putting a soft hue on the surrounding environment. What happens is that everything insignificant to the conversation becomes blurred which gives the conversation even more meaning. It's a neat effect that's used cinema from time-to-time, but rarely in video games. Other than that the game is pretty standard fare, even sometimes falling below the centre line. Textures are horrifically bland and all of the little details that we've come to expect from RPGs are missing. When a character sits on a bed the sheet and mattress remain perfectly still, giving the impression that they're merely floating on a box. Other games might have added wrinkles and a depression giving the game more depth. Most of the texture work is pretty bland and low quality as well. When trudging through a dungeon it's easy to get lost because most of it looks so similar. There are no defining details in the architecture and the objects often look blurred and muddled.
When going all-out on a PS2 title there's nothing better than Dolby Pro Logic II support. Graphics might look sharper when Progressive Scan is involved but it doesn't add a significant impact to the experience. With Pro Logic II, sound come at you from all directions, engulfing you in the atmosphere. Square Enix use it quite well here with some great separation between sound effects and dialogue. The music is superb as it encompasses a wide array of moods and feelings. It won't amaze you, nor will you search for the OST at import shops, but it definitely gets the job done. The voice acting is done by a cast if relative unknowns with a ton of experience. This leads to dialogue that is delivered convincingly with natural flow and rhythm. There are a few rough edges here and there but it's great for what it is.
Since developers started moving their RPGs into the third dimension one of the largest burdens has been the camera system. Since the game operates in three dimensions it's difficult to showcase the landscape while giving the player an adequate view of his surroundings. Square was able to side-step this issue by reverting to a static camera when the game travels indoors and it works exceptionally well. Unfortunately the Enix side of the equation failed to see the benefits and developed one of the poorest camera systems to date. It's angled far too high and zoomed in too tight, limiting what you're able to see. You can rotate it via the use of the shoulder buttons but it becomes annoying after awhile. Pretty soon you'll find yourself constantly rotating the camera and babysitting it in every scene. In fact, it's very rare that you don't find yourself babysitting the camera.
Characters can lose health fairly quickly and you're often left without any means of healing or reviving fallen characters. The fact that you can't carry more than 20 of one particular item is pretty frustrating as well. Most RPGs allow you to carry at least 99 of each particular item, why Star Ocean doesn't follow the same rules is beyond me. What happens is that you often enter dungeons unprepared for the troubles that lie ahead. Most of the time it ends up ruining the game entirely as you realize that you just wasted an entire hour of gaming without making any progress.
After playing Star Ocean I can't help but step back and observe just how strange the Square Enix merger really was. Sure the two companies shared the lofty goal of dominating the RPG market, but they went about it in such different ways. Square usually catered to the mainstream by providing first-rate graphics and simplistic gameplay while Enix catered to the more hardcore fans by providing them with endless amounts of detail. With the merger gamers are expecting both sides to operate in the same fashion and that's where the Enix games are in trouble. People have come to expect specific things from games with the Square logo on it and Star Ocean doesn't quite fit into that mould. It's a more traditional RPG for the gamer who has 80 hours to kill, not the casual player who wants a 20 hour adventure. If you're the type who fits into the latter category you might be disappointed from this outing, but if you're looking for a fully-fledged RPG with a great combat system then you'll probably want to give Star Ocean: Till the End of Time a try. It's not perfect, but it's just what you need to keep you warm for the winter.