Let’s face it: American gamers often get the short end of the stick when it comes to “extras.” We don’t usually receive the special soundtracks, action figures, comic books or other tchotchkes that our Japanese brethren do, so when we get our hands on a game with extra schwag, it’s an occasion for fanfare. It’s even more noteworthy if we get a Director’s Cut with extra cutscenes, features and characters. Such is the case with Star Ocean: Till The End of Time, the latest sequel in the critically acclaimed series from Square Enix. However, this title is much more than a simple addition to a franchise; it hosts plenty of elements to even draw detractors of the RPG genre in to its gameplay.
Till The End of Time starts four hundred years after the previous game during S.D. 772. Players step into the young shoes of Fayt Leingod, a college student in the Galactic Federation whose parents happen to be the leading scientists on symbological genetics (also known as symbology, which plays a greater role later on in the game). Both he and his childhood friend Sophia Esteed have joined his parents on a family vacation to a resort planet called Hyda. The two kids have fun exploring the world, going to the beach and playing games in the numerous battle simulators scattered throughout the resort. Suddenly the entire planet is attacked by an alien fleet, forcing Fayt, Sophia, his parents and everyone else to flee to the safety of emergency shelters connected to rescue ships.
As the refugees look to escape the embattled planet, Fayt finds himself quickly separated from his friend and family during a surprise attack on their shelter. His parents are captured, he’s separated from Sophia, and, forced to decide between death and escape, Fayt scrambles into an emergency shuttle. Unfortunately, as he flees the planet and the space fleet, he finds his craft damaged, and he’s forced to crash on a primitive planet. While he has to figure out a way to survive, Fayt’s also held to a moral code forcing him to not interfere with the development of unadvanced cultures (sort of like the Prime Directive from Star Trek). So, generating a sword for self defense, Fayt sets out to find a way off the planet, track down his friends and family and discover who attacked Hyda in the first place.
Battle, like many RPGs, takes a central role within Star Ocean, but the mechanic is much more than passively inputting commands and watching characters execute attacks. Conducted in real-time, the battle system, at first glance, seems simplistic. Players have access to minor and major attacks, and combos can be strung together with varying button presses. However, this is not a senseless hack and slash, and as players spend more time with the game, you’ll start to notice an incredible amount of complexity that can be explored within each fight. First of all, continually swinging your weapon in a mindless fashion not only leaves you open to attack, but it reduces your effectiveness in battle. Secondly, players will be able to map and launch different attacked based on the proximity to your target (so in reality, you start out with four attacks -- two distance blows and two close proximity strikes).
This can be further augmented with symbology, which effectively takes the place of magic in Star Ocean, or tactical skills, which can be used to unleash special attacks on your enemies. Players have to specifically choose six skills to take into battle, but can virtually unleash any one of these skills when they want. This doesn’t mean that there’s a risk to triggering a skill. Every use of these talents draws from your fury meter, potentially leaving you vulnerable to attack. See, if the fury meter is fully charged, players can deflect incoming blows from targets. This makes effectively balancing your attacks with your defense an imperative method to learn.
Once you’ve acquired a party, you’ll also have to effectively direct the motions of your teammates. You can take up to three teammates with you into battle, and during an attack, you’ll be able to switch between all of them to manually control a character. This helps when you’re trying to heal an injured player or setting up a specific chain attack. Two or more characters can trigger battle skills on an enemy at the same time, causing a ton of damage and creating a swath of destruction between them. Even more important, players will often receive battle trophies for certain chains. The Battle Trophy system rewards certain accomplishments on the field, such as killing every enemy in under ten seconds, not getting hit or taking something out with one hit. There are 300 trophies to collect, which not only provides a level of replayability but also unlocks additional features, such as a versus mode or higher difficulty levels. Simply put, the actual fighting system is massive, and I haven’t even fully explained every nuance behind it.
If you’ve ever seen an anime, you’ve got a sense of the graphics you’ll experience when you boot up Star Ocean. We’re talking about the blue hair, huge eyes and almost expressionless faces that seem to be a staple of these cartoons, which isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, the combination of 3D models with animation portraits and CG graphical style provides a different feel to the game that many other RPGs have only started approximating with cel-shading. Camera angles are primarily solid, although it does tend to snag on certain objects in tight areas, and the particle effects included within the game are very nice, particularly in battles. For those of you whose TVs can handle the aspect ratios, you can choose between 16:9 and 4:3, which is a nice touch.
Vocal delivery is one of those “love or hate” features of Star Ocean, unfortunately. You’ll inevitably run into those moments when you want to strangle Fayt because he sounds too whiny, shoot Peppita because she’s so chipper, etc. Fortunately, players have the option to turn these off and solely go on subtitles if they so choose. The rest of the sound is very nice, and considering that you have the option to set the audio up for everything from monaural and stereo sound to headphones and even Dolby Pro Logic II, you’ll be able to hear and practically feel explosions or attacks, which is awesome.
There are plenty of features that I haven’t even brought up in this game that players will enjoy, such as creating items and weapons or the huge number of hidden endings that players can discover. However, there are also a number of issues Star Ocean has that affects gameplay. First of all, you’d expect there to be more save points than there are in the game. It’s not uncommon to find yourself backtracking for huge distances simply to store your game. Even worse, it’s not uncommon to find yourself leaving a dungeon or a map entirely once you’ve run out of health items, starting a long trek all the way back to a store to resupply. This can be somewhat jarring and disappointing, especially if you have to exit a large dungeon, then cross the wilderness just to get back to town and do it all over again.
Battles can also be somewhat annoying for two levels. While the system mechanics are great, you may often find yourself continually shepherding the characters you aren’t controlling because they can’t take care of themselves. Most of the time this happens when you’re dealing with a significant threat in front of you while your party is getting surrounded or double teamed behind you. The problem is that you may find yourself having to micromanage characters instead of continually fighting. The other side of it is the bane/boon facet of having to physically run into onscreen enemies to initiate contact. Granted, this eliminates the “random attack” feature that’s annoyed plenty of RPG fans because you actually know where the monsters are. However, this also is a disservice, because you can avoid plenty of fights, picking and choosing what ones you want to attack. That sounds idiotic, until you accidentally make the mistake of choosing the wrong thing to attack and it crushes your party. Many times, the icon of the battle belies the actual strength of the monster you’ll face, so you can stumble into an uneven fight. The other thing is that you’ll find the difficulty of the harder monsters often ramps up incredibly fast, forcing you to return to easier territory and continually prey on simpler monsters to boost your skills, which can be both boring and infuriating.
Overall though, Star Ocean, Till The End of Time is a great sequel for the franchise. An innovative battle system and plenty of secrets that can be unlocked makes Star Ocean appeal to even the largest RPG detractor. Even if you’re not a fan of RPG’s, give Star Ocean a try, because this game might just change your mind.