Star Ocean 3: Till the End of Time PS2 Review
Some lovely character models accompany the many non-FMV cutscenes that grace this title, with some fantastic gesture and facial animation. The environments are equally impressive, with everything from futuristic space-stations to medieval villages painstakingly rendered in minute detail. There are plenty of internal locations to explore, and people to chat to; however, very little is interactive within the towns which is a bit of a shame.
Some of the divisive dungeons that hinder your progress between towns are a bit bland, and seem to have been designed by a team who were each assigned one colour; there are very brown locations, very green locations and very white locations. However, these areas do not speak for the game as whole; in general, the game looks far more polished than Square’s FFX, and shows a genuine charm that seems to have been lacking from this key franchise of late.
Fayt Leingod, a young Earth student, is having the time of his life; he’s on holiday with his childhood friend Sophia aboard a resort station, whiling away his time battling against the arcade simulators and avoiding his parents (hey, you cant have everything). However, in a few short minutes his world is thrown into disarray as the station is attacked, his parents captured, and seemingly everyone in the world has developed an interest in capturing him for some unknown intent. Why does everyone want him? Only an epic adventure across the universe will reveal the truth…
Like the FF series, Star Ocean is played from a third person perspective, with interaction with people and travel between towns being the key focus. There are shops to buy weapons, armour and even clothes from; bakeries and grocers allow you to stock up on healing goodies, and inns allow you to rest your weary party. The game also has an interesting “invention” system, whereby you can use workshops and various raw materials you find to develop new items. Towns form the main hubs for the story-driven sections of the game, and are broken up by various dungeons that take you from mines to space stations. Enemies appear on the dungeon screen, and require careful tactics to avoid in most cases; even the slightest wrong move will result in you being thrown into an ambush or rear attack battle if you are caught off-guard.
Battle is real-time and similar to that of Namco’s Tales series; attacks are assigned to different buttons, depending on their range, and can be strung together to make devastating combos. New, more powerful moves may be learned as your characters level up with frequent fighting, which make for even more strings of attacks. At any point in battle you can switch to another team mate to help them out; this is important, as the AI of your team mates is not astounding and they will often forget that they can heal themselves, or move out of danger. You can also pause the action to change tactics at any time, or to use magic (“Symbology”) or items; however, the use of either will leave you unable to repeat the move for a few seconds, so using strategy to heal your crew is integral. Healing items are of the usual form; blueberries will heal HP, whereas blackberries will heal MP etc. However, in a further twist to the conventional battle structure, you now have to ensure that neither your MP or HP is depleted or your character will be incapacitated. This ups the odds a little, as usually-unremarkable MP stealing spells may result in the death of your characters. Similarly, you also have a Fury bar; this is massively important, as it dictates what actions you may take. If you stand still, your fury will reach maximum; in this state, you cannot be damaged by standard melee attacks, and you are free to use any of your attacks (symbology, however, relies on MP as well). As soon as you perform an attack, whether a special action or standard melee move, your Fury will deplete; keep attacking constantly and your Fury will empty, leaving your character breathless and weak with no enthusiasm to go on. It can quickly be refilled by standing still and taking a breather; however, correct manipulation of this gauge is important to get in those all-important combos, and to prevent you standing exposed and helpess with your enemy bearing down on you. Messing up your attacks, by hitting an enemy while their guard is up for example, will shatter your Fury and leave you susceptible to damage. Performing enough hits will open up a battle gauge for your team; so long as it stays full, you have the potential to win various post-battle prizes, like extra healing or EXP; however, having your teams fury shattered will break the gauge and leave you with nothing.
While the freedom of the battle sequences are refreshing, often they seem to border on the infuriating; your team mates may get themselves into inexplicable situations and be destroyed, the controls seems just slightly too unresponsive…which are a shame, as the overall structure of the fighting system is really good. Tales of Symphonia offers what this battle system should have been but unfortunately wasn’t. There are, however, plenty of puzzles in the dungeons to keep you occupied while you’re out of battle, and while these may be a little frustrating at times they do break up the slightly monotonous RPG exploration of the game.
The camera may be free-rotated at any point using the L and R triggers; while the smoothness of this transition and the marvellous rendering are admirable, the fact that items (and often your character) may become hidden behind houses etc. does become a little irritating after a while. Similarly, the map displayed in the bottom right corner of the screen does not rotate, meaning that its very easy to lose your bearings; this is most annoying in the woodland/mountain etc trails, where paths branch off everywhere and are often difficult to distinguish. These areas are also often broken up into really too many smaller areas, each of which needs a load-time; while this isn’t long, it breaks up the gameplay and really doesn’t feel necessary. Also, if you accidentally step the wrong way and exit the screen (which WILL happen), all of the enemies will respawn; while this is good for levelling up, its irritating as hell when all of your party but one are dead and you have no more items.
The characters are, if a little stereotypical of the genre, quite endearing, and there is the distinctive Square-Enix edge to the comedy dialogue which will no doubt please both veterans and new comers alike. While occasionally the cheesy futuristic dialogue (“Enter Warp Phase!”) does clash with the traditional RPG mould, all in all, the game offers meaty RPG fare that fans will lap up, and an interface that holds together well enough to encourage newbies to the genre.
Square-Enix’s trademark RPG tunes are not excluded from this instalment; however, standard tinkly fantasy jingles have been mixed with slightly westernised music, and even shows strains of Spaghetti Western trills. A nice mix of ambient background melodies come together to perfectly support both the humour and the tension of the game.
The voice overs show equal care; while a couple of (thankfully) non-central characters have voices reminiscent of Rod and Todd Flanders and sound more like parody than serious vocal talent, the main characters are largely at least satisfactory. The translation is quite impressive, and while there are a few too many explosive “But..!”s for my liking, generally the dialogue is quite commendable, with some nice delivery on the comic lines.
With 2 dual-layered discs each boasting at least 40 hours of gameplay and multiple story paths and endings, this is perhaps the greatest mammoth of a title to grace any of this generations consoles. While the story might not always feel quite strong enough to keep you going for hours on end, it doesn’t feel like blatant padding performed solely to achieve a massive lifespan; with all the side-quests and minigames this title has to offer, even veterans wont be finishing it any time soon. Sadly, the expansiveness of the title may put some people off replaying to see the different ways that the story may pan out.
As if this weren’t enough, my advice to you is to play this game slowly. Those keen to rush through will still take an age to finish it, and will miss out on all of the neat asides that this game has to offer, like visiting the beach and flirting with the girls (something that I am loathe to say I missed out on due to rushing).
A contender for the PS2s best RPG, Star Ocean offers a true sample of what Square-Enix are best at. RPG fans should buy it on the spot; curious gamers should splash out and give it a whirl.