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.

As with many JRPGs, this isn’t a “Role Playing” game, this is a “Role Watching” game. Edge Maverick will always be the same no matter how many times you play through the game, and you can’t do anything to change it – well, to be fair, that’s not entirely true. You do have the option to find secret Personal Actions that can give you different endings, but many of these are well hidden and are entirely optional – besides, they never effect the actual plot of the game.

I think a particularly egregious example of SO4 railroading you along came fairly early on, when the cast is trapped in an alien prison. Edge can talk to his crewmates and they ask him for his opinion on the matter, and he can choose from several different options … but the game doesn’t let you go on until you choose the right ones. Why even give players the option when you’re going to just force them on a single path anyway?

There are plenty of other poor design choices in SO4 – the little things add up. Buying, selling, and equipping items is a pain, there’s no need to have a toggle between run and walk (with “walk” the default setting), the list goes on and on.

It’s not all bad. There are plenty of little fanservice references and in-jokes for fans of previous Star Ocean games, for one. The graphics are actually pretty good-looking, and the different planets you visit are large and varied (even if none of them are particularly original). Most importantly, SO4‘s combat is actually pretty fun. It’s all in real time (much like the other games in the series), and you can avoid encountering enemies if you aren’t in the mood to fight. Juggling the Bonus Board can be a bit frustrating at first, but it can also be rather rewarding when you get it right. The depth to the Item Creation system is truly staggering, and people who enjoy that sort of thing should have fun … if only you didn’t have to deal with Welch to get through it.

Nor is this necessarily the death knell for JRPGs as a whole. Games like Persona 4 carry the torch, and manage to retain some JRPG elements while actually, y’know, making an effort to acknowledge the “RP” part of the genre’s title.

But beautiful next-gen graphics and interesting combat aside, Star Ocean: The Last Hope feels like a relic – like a dinosaur. It is a traditional JRPG in so many ways, and above all else it proves that traditional JRPGs just don’t cut it anymore. If the genre doesn’t evolve, it deserves to go extinct.

Bottom Line: Very pretty, large and varied worlds to explore, good action-based combat, you can skip the cutscenes … that’s the good. Unlikeable characters, a boring plot that railroads the player from Point A to Point B, delivered in awkward cutscene after awkward cutscene filled with some truly awful voice acting … that’s the bad. That’s part of the bad, anyway. Star Ocean: The Last Hope might have been a great game … back in 1999, anyway.

Recommendation: If you’re a die-hard fan of the Star Ocean series, maybe it’s worth it. Otherwise, go play Ninja Gaiden 2 while watching old episodes of Star Trek – it’s roughly the same experience, only the acting is better and the characters don’t suck. Rent it if you must, otherwise give it a pass.

John Funk was paid to play Star Ocean 4. He still hated doing it.

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