I remember the Golden Age of Squaresoft JRPGs. From the release of Chrono Trigger, the explosion of Final Fantasy VII, all the way through the launch of Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts, the company put out classic after classic: Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Vagrant Story. With complex stories far more ambitious than most of us young gamers had ever dreamed could be possible in a game, the genre seemed like the natural evolution of gaming; it seemed like our favorite pastime was growing up. No longer were we merely saving a princess, we were watching characters interact and grow and move along with the plot.
Maybe they were the evolution of gaming - but gaming has since evolved further: With the age of the JRPG, games were indeed growing up ... not to adulthood, but through an awkward, emotional adolescence. While playing Star Ocean: The Last Hope, all I could think about was how genuinely archaic this style of game seemed. Gaming has moved beyond the JRPG.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope (also known as Star Ocean 4) is actually a prequel, taking place a few centuries (also a few decades, if you wanted to be technical) before the first Star Ocean. Humanity has rendered the surface of Earth uninhabitable via nuclear war, with the surviving population forced to live underground in shelters. Despite invoking an immediate comparison to last year's Fallout 3, the two games couldn't be more different ... though that's for a later point. Humans instead look to the stars, deciding to focus on interstellar exploration, inventing faster-than-light travel, and exploring for new planets for humanity to colonize.
You play Edge Maverick (yes, that is unfortunately his actual name), a young officer on the starship Calnus, who soon finds himself in command and on a mission to track down his missing comrades while continuing his directive ... but the plot quickly gets more complex from there. For all that JRPGs are supposedly story-driven and character-driven, though, Star Ocean 4 ... well, let's pull no punches. The cast of SO4 is easily one of the least likeable groups of characters I have ever seen in a game.
The generic, unlikeable cast is only made worse by atrocious voice acting. Unfortunately, it isn't even the "so-bad-it's-funny" sort of voice acting a la Resident Evil or House of the Dead, where it sounds like they grabbed someone off the street and handed them a script and a microphone. These are obviously professional voice actors - but it doesn't make their voices any less annoying to listen to. The worst offender is your support character Welch, who is honestly one of the most irritating characters I have ever encountered in years of videogaming.
Perhaps allowing an option to retain the original Japanese audio might have made the characters more compelling, but that's a big "if." The hamfisted, overly dramatic delivery (not to mention the hamfisted, overly dramatic writing) and wholly uninteresting cast meant that I really wasn't able to bring myself to care about the story at all, even if I tried. That may have been a good thing, though - there's absolutely nothing special about SO4's story, unless you like lots and lots of cheese and a plot that takes itself entirely too seriously.
Even the delivery of said plot is horribly ancient, relying on liberal - extremely liberal - use of cutscenes. Long cutscenes. Long cutscenes with terrible voice acting. There are points in the game in which it is literally: "Watch a 5-minute cutscene. Walk somewhere nearby. Watch an even longer cutscene. Run to talk to somebody. Another cutscene." This isn't playing a game, this is watching a movie. This is watching a bad movie.