The Last Hope isn't actually a new game. It came out on Xbox 360 a year or so ago, to lukewarm attention. Apparently Square-Enix and tri-ace were only testing the waters though, because the game is back, this time on PS3, and with a couple welcome enhancements.
Though it's the latest entry in the series, The Last Hope is actually a prequel, taking place before all the games in the rest of the series; that is, a few centuries before the first Star Ocean. Like Till the End of Time, as you start the game up, you're treated to a nice CG cutscene that elaborates on the game's setting.
World War 3 has devastated Earth. The advent of powerful nuclear weaponry leads to entire cities being destroyed in the crossfire, leaving only irradiated wasteland. Realizing that the planet can't sustain such destruction for much longer, the world's leaders call a ceasefire, but the environment has already been decimated beyond repair. Thus, humans look to the stars, and thus the SRF, or Space Reconnaissance Force is born, with the sole objective of exploring the galaxy to hopefully find a new planet for humans to colonize.
Enter Edge Maverick and Reimi Saionji, two remarkable recruits who are chosen to embark on the SRF's first exploration mission, as part of the crew of the SRF-003 Calnus. Edge is a capable swordsman and martial artist with a powerful sense of responsibility. He was never the best at academics, and is rather headstrong and inexperienced, but has the determination to charge through any situation effectively, and the natural leadership skills to inspire others to charge through after him. Having been acquainted with him since childhood, Reimi is Edge's best friend. She's a sensible young woman, and highly adaptable. Whereas Edge wields a sword, Reimi prefers a bow as her weapon of choice. Having mastered both eastern and western styles of archery, Reimi is an unparalleled ranger.
An error mid-warp causes the small group of ships (including the Calnus) to crash land on the nearby planet Aeos. Things don't get much better from there however, as all the ships are scattered. The Aquila (captained by Crowe, another childhood friend of both Reimi and Edge) disappears, the crew of another ship is mysteriously slaughtered, and the Calnus' crew is attacked by gigantic insects after a crash landing severely damages the hull. Fortunately, an alien race known as the Eldarians (who had secretly been in contact with Earth over the past decade) arrive to give aid, young Faize among them. Faize is refined and can be prideful, but is quick to show humility. His skill with a rapier impresses Edge, and the two become fast friends.
With the Aquila gone and the other ship having been destroyed, The SRF envoy is rather understaffed. Despite this, the mission must go on, and thus the Calnus's captain gives Edge his rank and tasks him with proceeding to continue exploring the galaxy for a suitable planet to colonize, with Faize and Reimi as his crewmates. And thus the three embark on a mission of galactic proportions.
Alongside the plot, character development is a significant component of this game. Though you embark with only three crew members, as you progress through the story you'll of course meet several more characters, who will join you on your journey. Each one is unique, both in and out of the battlefield. There's the young symbologist Lymle, who despite being technically 15 years old, is stuck with the body and personality of a 6 year old, due to a traumatic event long ago. There's the ever-vengeful Myuria, who sticks with Edge with the hope that he'll lead her to Crowe, who she wants so dearly to slaughter. There's even the mandatory catgirl Meracle, a bouncy and somewhat mischievous girl who doesn't know where she came from.
Each crew member you meet has some sort of past (that somehow even manages to relate vaguely to the overarching plot), and naturally each have small portions of the story to themselves. But to really get to know these guys, you'll want to indulge in their private action events, which you can view while traveling from one destination to another. The galaxy is a big place, and even with the Calnus's warp capabilities, it still takes a considerable amount of time to get around. So the crew sets the ship on auto-pilot and takes this time to relax. During this time, they'll roam the ship and interact with each other, and as Edge you have several opportunities to chat it up them before you reach your destination. Most of these "events" raise the affection points Edge has with the given person(s), which will influence the ending cut scene.
But you didn't pick up a Star Ocean game for the plot! You picked it up for the battles, am I right? So let's get down to business. Contrary to what the Battle Simulator practice battle would have you believe (which to this day is still one of the tougher battles in the game), skirmishes in The Last Hope are fun, frantic, and above all, engaging. There are no random encounters; enemies show up on the overworld, and touching them will start a battle. Touching an enemy from behind will trigger a preemptive strike, where the enemies are not only fewer in number (usually), but don't even know you're there for the first few seconds. By the same token however, getting touched from behind triggers a battle with unfavorable odds, with your opponents surrounding you from all sides (usually), and starting with their Rush Gauge (more on that in a bit) at 50%. If you start a battle with other enemies close by, it's fairly likely they'll jump in directly after you beat the first group, resulting in an ambush. Each consecutive ambush nets you bonus XP, so several consecutive ambushes can really jack up your XP earnings.
Like in Till the End of Time, battles take place in a separate screen. You run around a moderately large battlefield (you really do move around a LOT in battle) while going toe to toe with your foes in real time (meaning no turns or action bars). Battles are extremely flexible. By tapping either L1 or R1, you can switch between any of your four battle members on the fly, any time. If you have a character set to auto, the computer will automatically take over when you switch away from a character. Pressing triangle brings up a radial pause menu, where you can change individual character tactics, cast symbols (spells), use items, remap your special techniques, and even switch out party members (you can have up to 8 people in your party, but only 4 in battle at a time).
Again, like in Till the End of Time, your computer-controlled buddies operate on a set a simplified guidelines called tactics. Though it's an extremely humble system compared to something like FF12's Gambit system or even the Tales series' strategy options, it works. Telling the computer to "Fight freestyle" simply means the computer will choose who it wants to fight, and just not get in your way. "Stay out of trouble" is for your casters, who will stay on the fringes of the battle and do their thing. "Gang up on foes" means the computer will target the same enemy as another party member. Furthermore, you can tell them to either conserve MP by not using special attacks or symbols, or go full force (only recommended for bosses, of course). Ultimately, such simplicity works because the computer is usually able to hold its own admirably well, without you looking over your comrade's shoulder. I can probably count the number of times a computer ally actually fell in battle (outside of a boss encounter) on one hand.
Level progression works just as it would in any other typical RPG. You fight enemies, you get experience. No twists there. However, there is an interesting system in place that heavily influences your stat growth, known as the BEAT system. BEATS are essentially fighting styles. There are three types of BEAT styles: BEAT.S, BEAT.N, and BEAT.B. BEAT.S and BEAT.B promote the growth of certain stats and add bonus effects to blindsides and Rush Mode, respectively. BEAT.N will earn you neither of the skill benefits, but instead you get bonuses to all the stats of B and S combined.
I'll start with BEAT.S, which is focused on Blindsides, a crucial part of the game's battle system. Simply tapping circle lets you jump, slide, or lunge (depending on the character) to whatever direction you hold the left stick in. However, holding the button for a few seconds lets you prepare a Blindside. Wait for an enemy to lock on to you at close range, then dodge after squatting for a couple seconds to initiate a Blindside, where your character sidesteps the target and quickly dashes to their backside. A properly blindsided enemy will completely lose sight of you, and for the next few seconds all attacks that connect are automatic critical hits. Thus a Blindside is an excellent way to slide into a nice juicy combo. Each character has their own unique Blindside animation (and jump/dodge type). Meracle confounds the foe with incredible speed before dashing to his/her backside. Reimi does a nice sidestep then launches into a high-flying somersault, landing behind her target. Blindsides are also a great way to counter incoming attacks. It's a pretty amazing feeling when you dodge a powerful attack literally at the last possible second and manage to Blindside the enemy, opening up many possibilities for an immediate counter-attack. As you progress in BEAT.S, you'll gain benefits for Blindsides, like stunning nearby enemies when you perform a Blindside, or being unable to be staggered while Blindside charging (exceedingly useful, I assure you)
Alternatively there's BEAT.B, which focuses on Rush Mode. Under each character's HP and MP bars is a green bar, which is your Rush bar. You gain Rush percentage by dealing damage, receiving damage, and Blindside charging. When the gauge is full, you can activate Rush mode, which can either be a tremendous lifesaver or a gigantic window of possibilities for combos. While in Rush mode (which only lasts for 10-15 seconds, I'd say), enemy attacks don't make you flinch, meaning you can run essentially ignore everything that's hitting you and just focus on dealing damage (note that you're NOT invincible, though with enough BEAT.B experience you can get added defense during Rush Mode). Your chance of dealing a critical hit is also significantly heightened. With Rush mode you can also initiate Rush Combos, where the whole party can attack a single enemy with a sequence of special attacks. Though neither your comrades nor your enemies use blindsides, they will use Rush mode, and to great effect. As you rank up in BEAT.B, you can add other beneficial effects to Rush Mode, like minor MP usage deduction, and a chance to endure what would otherwise have been a fatal hit.
Just hacking and slashing might not cut it for tougher enemies, though. Which is where special arts and symbols come in. Symbols basically the Star Ocean series' term for spells. Attack symbols include elemental attacks like Earth Glaive (float the enemy with an eruption of earth) and Thunder Flare, whereas defensive symbols include Healing and Enhance. Most characters also have their own set of personal special attacks, known as arts. These attacks consume MP like symbols, but of course pack more punch. Special attacks are mapped to the R2 and L2 buttons. Though at first you can only chain two attacks by moving between the two buttons, you'll eventually be able to map multiple attacks to the same button, which opens up a gateway to pretty large combos.
The focus on massive combos, helped along by combo chaining, blindsides and Rush Mode make combat in Star Ocean a rather fun affair. What makes it addicting, however is the Bonus Board. The Bonus Board is an inconspicuous looking thing that appears on the right side of the screen during a battle. As you complete certain actions, like defeating an enemy solely with special attacks, or defeating an enemy with a critical hit, it gradually fills up with colorful gems, that grant enticing bonuses, like a small percentage of MP/HP recovery at the end of each battle, and a fairly significant bonus to your XP yield. Some gems are easier to acquire than others, but it takes time and effort to cultivate a nice Bonus Board. Suffering a critical hit shatters the board though (which is easily one of the most frustrating things I've experienced in gaming), so those who pay heed to their Bonus Board will also find themselves avoiding enemies who have entered Rush Mode. Overall though, this feature is the icing on the cake.
This wouldn't be a Star Ocean game without a ridiculously extensive crafting system, though. Welch returns, though she looks radically different from her previous iteration. Similar to crafting in Till the End of Time, before you can craft something, you have to think up item recipes. To do this, you'll separate your available party members into groups of three, and set them to work. Every party member has strengths and weaknesses in various areas, so if you really want to amass a hoard of recipes to work with, you'll need to pay attention to what each person is good at, and group together members with similar strengths. For example, Edge is the best at Smithery, but not so hot at Artistry. Lymle is great at Artistry, but knows nothing about Smithery. Naturally these two aren't going to make a lot of recipes.
But knowing is only half the battle. To craft items, you've got to gather the necessary ingredients. Some higher tier, rarer things are of course going to require some prestige ingredients, which is going to take some hunting, probably.
I suppose it's about time I settled back and discussed the more technical aspects of the game. Well I must say, it's a very typical game in most ways. There's definitely a lot of elements present here that could have jumped out some wacky anime show. The big, innocent eyes, the rainbow of hair colors, the youngster angst; it's all here and accounted for. Like I said before, there's even a catgirl among your ranks.
I'd say the only thing "next gen" about The Last Hope is its graphics, which are very pretty indeed. The overworld environments are not only huge, but they look great, and most of the character models look pretty good. This PS3 version also grants you the option of using the Japanese menu template, complete with awesome, drawn character portraits (instead of the CG ones). There's a 2.2GB mandatory install, but throughout my play time I've encountered absolutely no technical, graphical or gameplay bugs since I started playing, save for some odd black background sometimes surrounding subtitles (if you have them on) late in the game. The game hasn't frozen or hiccuped once though.
For the most part, audio is also another thing to look forward to. Exclusive to the PS3 version (likely due to the extra disc space) is the ability to switch to the original Japanese voice track. The English voices, while adequately fitting for each character, are pretty unconvincing during more emotional moments, which can hurt the game's story presentation. So it's nice to know you can always switch back to the original actors. The BGMs are a mix of songs that are forgettable and songs that can really get you motivated. Each planet has its own overworld and battle themes, and so far my favorite is that of the planet Roak's, which launches into an epic orchestral score when you enter battle.
Overall, this is a very straightforward, painfully typical JRPG. The blatantly anime-ish character designs will be grating to some, but the core gameplay formula, familiar as it is, is still quite addicting. Hallmarks of the series like exceedingly long boss battles, an extensive craft system, and an exciting battle system all return in full force, something I can appreciate. While it could have done with some refinement here and there, Star Ocean: The Last Hope is still a blast to play, and ultimately that's all that matters. An 8.5/10
...Oh and you know what else returns? Battle trophies. Folks, nabbing this game's Platinum trophy would be a Herculean effort. The majority of the trophies revolve around collecting things. Collecting battle trophies, collecting monster data, collecting item data, collecting weapon data..only a handful of the trophies are story-related and almost all of them are bronzes. What makes this so difficult? There are 100 battle trophies per character (I think). There are 9 characters. That means you're looking at 900 battle trophies. Many of these are effin ridiculous, like doing precisely 777 points of damage, or using only leg-based attacks. And then there's the data. Getting all the weapon data meaning talking to every person, and buying and crafting every single weapon (there's also a trophy for crafting every single freakin item possible). There's a trophy for opening every chest, and completing every quest. Except planets have a tendency to get HORRIBLY MASSACRED after you leave them, obliterating quest givers, and possibly treasure chests. But I'm not done yet. To get the platinum trophy, you will have to beat the game on Chaos mode. Chaos mode is unlocked by beating the game on Universe mode. Universe mode is unlocked by beating the game on Galaxy mode. But the icing on the cake are the character ending trophies. If my suspicions are correct, you'll have to beat the game about eight times (not including the afore mentioned difficulty modes), to try to view each character's ending sequence. Yikes. Trophy hunters, look elsewhere.