Long before Square and Enix had ever merged companies and before the PlayStation 2 console had even come out, tri-Ace's science fiction sequel Star Ocean: Till the End of Time had already earned itself a following. Originally announced in September of '99, it quickly shot up the charts as one of the system's most anticipated pieces of software, and was heralded by Enix as the company's greatest new creation since Dragon Quest. Expected to arrive on American shores in the spring of 2003, it was poised to follow the growing wave of genre popularity reestablished by SquareSoft's own RPG, Kingdom Hearts; while fans of both companies debated over which role-player would ultimately win the hardcore audience.
But then it disappeared.
Released in Japan a full year later than expected, Star Ocean 3 hardly received the critical praise from the Nippon press that Enix had expected. Riddled with bugs, problems, and various other hindrances that took away from its stronger merits, it was thought that the game's weaker than planned reception was speculated to have been the result of the sudden merger between Enix and Square a few weeks later. As in the rush to consolidate the companies into one entity, it appeared that the bug testing process had been rushed. Though a real reason for the list of glitches was never really given, and that was merely speculation.
Square Enix never lost sight, however, that Star Ocean: Till the End of Time was at it's core an extremely solid game. After all, it was in the development process for almost four years before eventually coming out and, despite its bugs, had some really strong ideas; particularly in terms of its battle engine and customization options. Determined to expand upon this for the fans (and possibly to reassure American gamers that were weary of Japanese bug reports), Square Enix went back to the drawing board and created an all-new Director's Cut version of the game. But not only did the team give this new and improved iteration a glitch-free bill of health, it also added an abundance of fresh content that included brand new items, mini-games, dungeons, and characters.
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Now appreciated in Japan as the game it was always supposed to be, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time has finally made its way to our shores as well. Though carrying the same name of the original version released overseas, our American installment is nonetheless content-identical to the Japanese Director's Cut. And after having spent more than a month straight playing all that we could of the final translated English version, all we have to say is that the five year wait has been worth it.
Plotlines and Dialogue
Because of Star Ocean's major translation work and its long periods of time between informational updates, even the most knowledgeable RPG fan seems to be unclear with what Till the End of Time is really about; and with good reason -- as the whole point of the storyline is to keep you intentionally shrouded in mystery for most of the adventure. In many ways, its pacing and presentation comes across almost exactly like Xenosaga Episode I did; with lengthy dialogue heavy cutscenes and moments where the plot takes precedence over gameplay. Unlike Xenosaga, however, Star Ocean never feels anywhere near as dramatic -- thanks in part to somewhat spotty pacing and absolutely terrible voice-acting.
In fact, the voice acting inevitably kills the mood during some of the most powerful scenes. With amateurish deliveries, bad timing, and multiple characters that seem to share the same actor. And given the Japanese version's incredibly high-profile cast (talent from Bubblegum Crisis, Scryed, Vandread, and Love Hina provided their duties overseas), the choice to go low budget in this regard was a poor one.
Anyone who has ever played a Star Ocean game before, however, can tell you that the plot points and pacing have never been the franchise's strongest asset to begin with; so we never really expected the backdrop for Till the End of the Time to be on the same level as something like Xenosaga or Final Fantasy X anyway. Much to our surprise, though, Star Ocean 3 does manage to put together a decent narrative -- even if it is affected by some pacing issues and poor dialogue. If anything, it's certainly stronger than the storyline found in the last PSOne title, Star Ocean: The Second Story; though it's connections to that game aren't very heavy at all (which makes sense, as Till the End of Time takes place 400 years after Claude and Rena's adventure has come to an end). Interestingly enough, Star Ocean 3 shares more connections with tri-Ace's other high profile PSOne RPG, Valkyrie Profile, but we'll leave that little morsel for you to discover.
Our adventure begins on the resort planet of Hyda IV. Where a spoiled college student named Fayt Leingod is vacationing with his best friend Sophia Esteed and his parents Robert and Ryoko. Fayt's parents also happen to be the two most famous scientists in the galaxy and are known in various sectors for their work in the field of Symbology and Genomorphy. But as the pair of couples' day comes to a close, their planet is suddenly attacked from outer space. The baffling thing is, the attack doesn't come from the Pangalactic Federation's sworn enemies in the Aldian Empire, but a new and unrecognizable superpower instead.
In the confusion of the evacuation, Fayt and Sophia are separated from Robert and Ryoko when their rescue ship is attacked as they leave Hyda's orbit. Not too long afterward, Fayt and Sophia are split from each other after dashing to the ship's escape pods during the melee. Days later, Fayt crash lands on an underdeveloped planet named Vanguard III and from here on in, is on his own towards figuring out how to reunite with his family, friends, and government. The problem is, Fayt seems to have been followed...
And so begins Star Ocean's first of many big mysteries such as "who is following young Leingod and why? What happened to Sophia and Fayt's parents? And how does the Aldian Empire fit into all this?" To its credit, the storyline does offer a great deal of twists and turns that are sure to be unexpected, and the lineup of characters is both diverse and inspired. The only real problem, of course, is what we mentioned earlier: the voice acting and spotty plot pacing (particularly in disc two and near the end of the game). The good news is, the vocals are the biggest issue players have to worry about.
Combat and Customization
The reason gamers will only take umbrage with Star Ocean's dialogue is because of its stellar battle system. While we wondered aloud in earlier previews if the combat mechanic in Star Ocean was really the best of the current generation, we're now almost positive of it. Easily comparable to such strong combat heavyweights as Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and Dragon Quarter, Till the End of Time somehow manages to take one of the most complicated battle engines we've ever seen and simplify it so that just about anyone can use it. And between its customization options, team tactics, and a myriad of other nuances, it's hard to find another RPG that's as well rounded as this one (not to mention the fact that there aren't any random encounters).
That kind of statement is made possible by the fact that Star Ocean's fighting system is just that good. Combat is played out entirely in real time with up to three characters available for battle at any one time. A quick tap of the R1 trigger allows players to cycle through the three people they'd like to control themselves, while highlighting them and tapping R2 transitions them into automatic mode. When operating under auto, each party member plays out exactly how you tell them to (using a tactical scripting menu similar to those found in .hack and Final Fantasy XII.), so that you can concentrate on only one or two manual party members at a time. Admittedly, the automatic option isn't as smart or robust as it could be (there are only six scripts to choose from), but it's a clever way to allow players individual access to characters on a manual level that they couldn't otherwise enjoy because of its real time approach.
And honestly, it's the manual combat that stands out in Star Ocean anyway. Almost like a fighting game because its so deep, Till the End of Time offers each character an arsenal of several different moves assigned to two different buttons based on distance. So while you may have a standard or special attack assigned to X and Circle when fighting at short range, you can have two more mapped to the exact same area for the distance stuff. Additionally, each character can setup support skills for additional effects (like recovery bonuses and the like), and you can choose which ones to assign to any character at anytime for total customization. The only hitch is, you're limited to just six skills to choose from -- and a certain amount of points within those skills that can be used; so assembling the perfect fighter may be possible, but it'll take some finagling.
Once a character is customized, however, that's not the end of your involvement. Because as each battle starts, you'll then be able to use all these moves for a series of combinations, strikes, and magical attacks that can whip some serious bad guy ass. Chaining moves together and using your team like a true coalition is all part of the game, as you'll actually be able to setup pincer situations or other familiar strategy-based attacks via a menu-driven formation window. Luckily, you can setup your formations at anytime before a battle; so you're not weighed down into having to do it in the middle of a skirmish.
That's not to say that there aren't any menus during a battle. Though played out in real time, the combat also provides a quick pop-up HUB that allows players to access additional techniques, escape from danger, or make more formal AI arrangements. When paired together with an innovative Fury Meter that allows players to earn bonuses based on their performance, the battle system is amazingly robust and incredibly fast. And we haven't told you yet about the various ways you can counterattack, move around the battlefield in real time, use cancel bonuses, or defend yourself without the need for a block button. Simply put, this game is strategic, intense, and fun.
There are other customizable goodies to speak of as well, as players can also create and modify existing weapons for desired results. Able to support up to eight different modifiers, this equipment customization system adds another layer of enjoyment to an already deep gameplay system and should provide players with plenty of reasons to keep coming back for more. If there is a single weakness to be found in this huge fighting ecosystem, it's that to truly get everything out of it, you'll need to work for it and actively pursue enemies. Should you simply run through the game hitting only the story points, you'll miss a lot of what Star Ocean has to offer -- which is something we're willing to bet a lot of the game's earliest critics probably did. That's not to say that they didn't have valid points about low-level characters and a lack of combat if you take the fast track; but hey, that's what happens when you rush.
Visuals and Audio
Though Star Ocean 3 is admittedly a little behind in terms of visual presentation when compared to some of Square Enix's other forthcoming RPGs like Final Fantasy XII or Kingdom Hearts II, it still looks pretty darn good. Utilizing an artistic style that blends that of Second Story with Suikoden III, the game looks very much like a Konami RPG does -- only with a lot more detail. Additionally, the pyrotechnics and particle effects in Till the End of Time are some of the most impressive we've seen for the genre so far, while widescreen HDTV owners will be pleased to know that the game supports both the 16x9 aspect ration and progressive scan. Nice!
We run into a little trouble when it comes to the CGI cutscenes and character facial expressions, though. A little too compressed and somewhat blurry, the full motion video borders on "slightly above average" for most of the first half of the game. Likewise, the facial expressions of the nicely detailed models are a little bit stone faced with little to no movement whatsoever. But at least the camera work is smart enough to keep up with the crazy onscreen action and that has to account for something.
Vocally, Star Ocean runs into all the same issues we highlighted earlier; so there's no sense in beating a dead horse there (but damn it, what could have been!). But on a much more pleasant note, Second Story's returning composer Motoi Sakuraba does a great job of capturing a range of different emotions with a nice blend of futuristic rock, moderately elaborate waltzes, and even some Mitsuda-like music box themes. While not as consistently strong as some of Sakuraba's other work like Valkyrie Profile or Star Ocean: Second Story, it's still well above your typical videogame soundtrack.
Throw in the fact that the game boasts Dolby Pro Logic II support and a speaker-positioning tool to maximize the effects of your surround sound setup and you have a pretty good acoustical package. Unfortunately, there are several areas of the game where the music mix is recorded well above the vocals -- which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your hatred of the. Either way, thank the heavens for subtitles.
Bonuses and Extras
Beyond what has already been discussed, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time offers a wealth of other features that are sure to excite completist RPG fans. Obviously, the most impressive of these features is the inclusion of the Battle Collection mini-game that allows you to unlock a multitude of other extra options further down the road. Best described as a type of trophy room, the Battle Collection allows you amass 300 different kinds of rewards for performing some kind of stellar feat during your experience. Beating a certain boss, killing an enemy in one blow, or continuing a Fury Meter combo are all several examples of how players can attain additional trophies for their collection; with some of the trophies so incredibly hard to find it could drive any sane player crazy.
But should you be able to hang in there and stick it out to the end, the rewards at your fingertips will be many. Four different costume types for all ten of your playable characters are just a few of the several bonus incentives players can look forward to. Additional difficulty modes, a music player, a refined battle engine, and even an all-new two-player versus mode can be uncovered should you be lucky enough to find enough Battle Collection trophies or special items during your adventure.
Beating the game and uncovering one of its ten different endings is just the beginning too, because once you have, you'll be able to load your save near the final boss again to go back and uncover newly discovered dungeons, another inventor, and several other cool little extras. And while players won't be able to carry their experience or items over in any kind of "New Game Plus" feature, they can continue to reload their Battle Collections for every new game they participate in; and because some of them are only available at the higher difficulty settings, it's the only way they'll ever be able to grab a complete and total collection.
Needless to say, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time manages to do what most role-playing games only hope to -- that is, provide a little something for everyone. With its combination of high-action battles, deep strategic planning, unique sci-fi setting, and incredibly customizable character set, its exemplary gameplay more than overshadows its voice acting and plot pacing sore points. No matter how badly you find yourself wanting to strangle Piccolotto and her traveling circus freaks.
More importantly, though, and what proves the game's true claim to greatness is that Star Ocean allows its players to take from it whatever they wish; Be it a quick 40 hours of story-based adventure or a full 80-hours of "find everything you can" exploration. Whether you're looking for hundreds of the best battles you'll experience in any RPG on the market or to fight for only what's necessary, the options are entirely yours. For some of us, however, the RPG that took almost a generation to arrive proves that it's indeed good enough to last us Till the End of Time.
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