Star Ocean: Till the End of Time

Even diehard fans of the series joked that the game title indicated how long we’d have to wait for it to come to North America. But finally, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time has arrived, in a shiny Director’s Cut edition, no less. It didn’t take Mary long to remember just why we were willing to wait almost three years for this.

A sci-fi-and-fantasy series by Tri-Ace, the original Star Ocean never made it to North America, but diehard gamers with emulators still praise its vision. Its successor, Star Ocean: The Second Story (SO2), quietly grew into a staple of the serious RPG gamer and gave birth to a manga, an anime, and its own separate sequel (Star Ocean Blue Sphere – also not available in North America).

After all these years (plus numerous NA release date delays), Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (SO3), the latest title in the series, finally arrived – with a great deal more fanfare than any of the previous games. A first for Star Ocean and Tri-Ace in many ways (including first PS2 title and first non-sprite-based title), it had a real chance to shine under the well-known banner of Square Enix. If there was ever a chance for something to fall on its face, this was it.

And it didn’t.

Gameplay (soooo much gameplay)
As a fan of SO2, I felt right at home the instant I started a New Game. I was almost startled by how similar many of the gameplay elements were, such as the look of the menus and the battle layout. If you are familiar with SO2’s controls, it won’t take you very long to settle into SO3. If you’re not, the interface and options may seem a little intimidating at first, but it isn’t that hard to catch.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a simple rehashing of SO2’s system. There is some definite reworking of the structure. The menu interface, for example, is much more streamlined and less complicated. Instead of annoying hidden menus, more split-screens are used to manage the array of attributes, skills and items.

Word has it that the original Japanese version of the game was quite glitchy (SO2 itself was also a rather buggy game), but that most of the problems had been resolved for this North American Director's Cut. I didn't notice any real issues, apart from periodic lags. Once in a while, it would take a while to load the next screen to open the menu, enter a new area or a battle, or background music would stop without warning. The solution was always to wait a few minutes (or in the case of the music, just go to the next screen). Pesky yes, but a rare occurence.

The beginning had me a little worried, as it seemed to be giving off Xenosaga-vibes – lots of talking, running around, more talking, but little else to do. When the main action started, however, things settled in quickly. The Star Ocean games are meant to be played! Tired random encounters have been replaced with visible and avoidable on-screen enemies. Both NPCs and monsters can be seen on a map (which can be toggled on, off or larger and super-imposed against the landscape), which reveals more of itself as you travel through it. A percentage appears in the corner to show you how much you’ve uncovered. When you achieve 100%, you’ll receive bunnies (yes, bunnies!) that increase your party’s movement during battles. However, it's good that this ability doesn't stack, because it gets annoying after a while running into the edges of the field to try to get that last .5%.

I was sorry to see that only three active characters were available in battle, as the Star Ocean system works wonderfully with four. Nevertheless, action is still fast, frantic, and fun. You control one character, while the others are manned by separate computer AIs. Toggling L1 and RI will allow you to switch between the characters. A single button will pause the battle and bring up access to an array of options, such as spells, items, escape, and also changing the selected character’s Tactics (AI strategy) or current equipment (very handy!). Both the Tactics for each character and battle formation can also be changed in-menu.

In spite of the hack-and-slash frenzy it seems to encourage, strategy is a big part of the battle system. Apart from your basic HP and MP battle stats, you must also concern yourself with “Furyâ€, a bar that decreases with every action you take. For mages, when Fury is low, spells will most often miss. The bar refills when the character is inactive. Another important thing to know is that in SO3, you can be killed (incapacitated) if MP is reduced to 0, so it’s important to keep an eye on it! On the flip side, enemies – including bosses! – can succumb to MP kill as well, so if a monster is physically tough but mentally pathetic, you can target that weakness and end the battle in no time.

As characters level, they gain skill points that can be expended on HP, MP, Attack and Defense stats. These stats also affect the AI’s tactics – for example, high attack will make them more aggressive in battle. Thus, it’s important to keep a balance or to at least be aware of the effects of your SP distribution.

Aside from SP, new abilities and battle skills are also acquired. These can be attached to “shortcut†buttons (O for strong attack and X for a weaker one) to be used in battle (much like SO2 Killer Moves), for a total of four different battle skills (two long- and two short-range). Strong attacks can break through enemy guards but take longer to execute, leaving you open to damage. Enemies can also catch you off-guard in the same way, so again, there’s more strategizing involved and you have to keep an eye out for warning behaviour. Support skills such as First Aid (healing when damage is taken) can also be attached, Valkyrie Profile style.

And what would a Star Ocean game be without tons to do? The Item Creation system is back in SO3, allowing you to become your own primary supplier of powerful weapons, silly trinkets and tasty foods. This version is more complex and competitive than before. Each character comes with predefined – and unchangeable – talent scores in various activities (Cooking, Writing, Engineering, etc.). You can also recruit Inventors who are scattered around the universe; they all come with varying degrees of talent, but you’ll want them because there are certain things that only specific people can create. Everything takes place in workshops, which are located in various towns. Once you’re ready to create (and if the facility has the proper equipment for cooking, engineering or whatnot), you can assemble your team of inventors and decide whether to specify your own plan or make an original one.

“Specify Plan†allows you to refine pre-existing items and equipment to increase attributes and decrease negative traits (such as reducing the chance of an accessory breaking). “Original Planâ€, on the other hand, sets characters to work inventing something entirely new. If they’re successful, you can patent the invention and get credit for it (you can also be most unethical and patent certain items found in dungeons, if no one else has invented it yet!). Every invention receives an evaluation rating, and this determines your ranking on an Inventors’ list. After a testing and marketing wait period, all new inventions will appear in stores – in limited quantities, however, so you’ll have to “re-invent†some of the items that you really want!

It’s addictive and, unfortunately, time-consuming and expensive. The frustrating part is that all items have unique development costs, and these come up randomly, so if you’re looking for a specific one to recreate it can take a while. Also, you pay for what your Inventors’ are creating – so unless you’re feeling quite generous, it may be best to set them on Standby and simply call for their help on a development team when you need it. The Item Creation animations for each character are very amusing, and portraits signaling success, failure, and sleeping (for one of those days, I guess) are extremely cute.

You can also nurture your obsessive self with SO3’s Battle Trophy collection. In previous Tri-Ace games, it was all about collecting voice files. After collecting a certain amount, you’d get special treats like artwork or soundtrack music. This time, however, your success is less up to the whims of programming algorithms and slightly more on your own actions and capabilities in battle. There are Battle Trophies for accomplishments such as beating a boss under 1 minute, killing two enemies at once, or even running away 100 times. As your collection grows, you’ll unlock benefits such as new game difficulty modes or new outfits for all of the playable characters. The best part is that the Battle Trophies are saved in a separate file, so as long as you load them beforehand and play an SO3 file that has Battle Trophy collecting enabled, you can continue to add to it.

Finally, there is the infamous Private Action (PA) system, where your interaction with party members and other NPCs allow you to learn more about them and also affect how they feel about you. Once again, this relationship tinkering has an effect on the ending, where Fayt can be “paired up†with any of the characters in your party. There’s less control this time. In SO2, you decided when you wanted to fool around by pressing square before entering a town; in this game, once you enter a town, party members automatically leave you to wander about the area, and PAs become trigger-able. Additionally, your actions will affect the affection levels of not only the characters present, but all of your party members – including ones you haven’t met yet! Those who are really adamant about a specific ending (or about character development) will find themselves abandoning the story often, and making the trek back and forth between towns to find what PAs have become available.

Aside from these main attractions, minigames like the battle arena and bunny racing also make a return. This being the Director’s Cut, there are even more extras! Besides increasing the number of optional dungeons, there are also two new characters (bringing with them more endings) and a fun Versus mode that allows up to two players to duke it out together (or against the computer) fighting game style. As you can see, SO3 is built on insane replayability, and a single run-through will never, ever allow you to see even 1/3 of what the game has to offer (multiple endings not included!). For that reason, once the game is completed, a clear file is automatically saved, allowing you to go back and explore all the places you’ve visited, as well as opening up the optional dungeons!

Story and characters
SO3 takes place about 400 years after its predecessor, so it isn’t necessary to play the previous games in the Star Ocean series. However, it does continue the space opera tradition in both spirit and setting, expanding on the possibilities of advanced-space-age-society-meets-backwater-planet.

In this time, the powerful Pangalactic Federation oversees the activities of member planets in the Milky Way galaxy. However, two civilizations – the Vendeeni and the Aldian Empire – are not pleased with what they see as outside interference.

In spite of this conflict, life goes on as usual. Fayt Leingod, the son of two prominent researchers, is vacationing with his family and his childhood friend Sophia Esteed. An unexpected attack on the resort planet sends everyone running to evacuate. In the confusion, Fayt is separated from his loved ones, and his ensuing adventure leads him to discover unsettling secrets about his parents’ work, himself, and ultimately the entire universe.

The setup for the plot takes a while to get going, but SO3 takes much greater advantage of the environment than the previous title, mixing up the medieval and space worlds and playing up the possibilities of what can happen when two civilizations connect, technology shock and all.

This culture clash is the most interesting thing about the story. It’s actually more enjoyable when you don’t know what’s going on and everything is open-ended; as mysteries are revealed and possibilities are narrowed down, certain plot elements become more outlandish while other story points simply vanish. It’s as though the game is trying to tackle every question about ultimate reality and the weight is just too much to bear. A number of the twists seem obvious and contrived, and many people may be surprised and disappointed at the direction in which the story finally chooses to go. Some gamers, on the other hand (*cough*me*cough), might simply find it terribly amusing.

Fortunately, most of the negative issues are handily run over by an excellent cast. The characters in SO3 are definitely one of its greatest strengths. While Fayt and Sophia don’t stray much from the beaten main character path, they perfectly offset folks like Cliff, Albel and Adray who are truly entertaining to watch. It’s also great fun to interact and see everyone’s personalities develop with the aforementioned PA system. In short, it’s all about staying for the characters.

Voice acting and music
Now, this is probably the huge question in the minds of many: the voice acting. Those who’ve played SO2 would recall that the voice acting in that game was so horrendous it was comedy gold, with poor quality files, oddly exaggerated (or under-exaggerated) “actingâ€, inconsistent pronunciations and pseudo-English from a script that had apparently been given to the actors before the translations were finalized.

Breath a sigh of relief. The voice acting in SO3 is not only better than SO2’s (which honestly wouldn’t be saying much anyways), they can be considered all-round solid no matter what you compare them to. Some are better than others – Albel’s low, snide remarks and Nel’s flowing tones are perfect – while others seem to grow into their roles and gradually ease into it. Fayt’s, for example, mellows pleasantly when things get more serious, while Cliff’s deep-voiced boasts had me giggling awkwardly early in the game, but steadily grew on me. Overall, performances are strong.

If you’ve got a picky ear, though, the team has been nice enough to include options to turn off voices, (including battle lines!) as well as subtitles. The cutscenes with spoken lines also have dialogue boxes, so for the most part you can cycle through the lines quickly and cut off the talking character as you wish (although you’ll still have to wait for them to finish emoting or gesturing or whatnot).

There are still a few improvements that could be made. Some voice files seem to have different volumes at times, and one character will speak extremely clearly and make the others sound as though they’re mumbling. In battle, voice file activation is distributed more sparsely, so everyone isn’t shouting at the same time at the end – however, some lines are indistinct and hard to make out. The music, as well, tends to overpower the voices during major cutscenes. You can adjust the voice settings somewhat (with an odd little configuration method using Sophia and Fayt) if you select triangle after choosing DOLBY PRO LOGIC II when you start a New Game. Otherwise, unfortunately, there’s no real way to alter voice and music volume separately.

Regarding the music, the soundtrack – which has been available for much longer than the game itself – is stellar (haha). Motoi Sakuraba remains true to form with rich compositions that will catch your attention, whether you’re in a frantic battle or wandering idly through a peaceful town. While he’s known for chaotic instrumention, creating funky techno-ish pieces that lend an edge to SO3’s futuristic locations, the soundtrack smoothly changes to match the atmosphere of the underdeveloped worlds. A dreamy, melancholy song carries the weakness and sadness of an entire run-down village, while a haunting melody drifts through the air of the forsaken planet Styx.

About the only song I was not overly impressed with is the pop-ish vocal theme, Tobikata Wo Wasureta Chiisana Tori (Little Bird that Forgot How to Fly) by MISIA, which appears at the beginning of the game as well as in the credits. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t stand out to me in any way; a minor point on a soundtrack that I otherwise enjoyed.

All for the fans
Even with the abundance of new worlds, characters, and things to do, long-time fans will still have lots to giggle over. Tri-Ace has always loved to stick in little Easter eggs, and they’ve done it with abandon in SO3. There’s a cornucopia of tidbits, from items to characters, to previous games in the Star Ocean series – even for the anime Star Ocean EX! There are also a huge number of references to Tri-Ace’s other cult hit, Valkyrie Profile. (There’s a truly blatant and hilarious Valkyrie Profile reference that must be seen to be believed!) The handy (and educational!) in-menu Dictionary feature – similar to the one found in Xenosaga – also allows you to catch information you might have missed on such subjects as scientific terms (fictional and real), characters you’ve met and locations both visited and mentioned. It provides interesting information on the history and culture of the Star Ocean universe, and is often amusingly tongue-in-cheek as well.

Now with the RPG juggernaut Square Enix backing its projects, Tri-Ace might finally get the recognition it deserves for the quality of work it produces. It was a long time in coming, but Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is that rare game that has lived up to the hype, and will withstand the test of time. Roger, over and out.

Game Data
Title: Star Ocean: Till the End of Time
Developer: Tri-Ace
Publisher: Square Enix
Release: 2004

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