Thursday, March 5, 2009

broton bropedoes by Jibril

It's probably expected of me to praise Star Ocean 4 (I refuse to use its silly subtitle) as if it were the final seal on the rapture of video gaming. Star Ocean 2 and 3 are two of my favorite games ever -- my nick was shamelessly stolen from the former -- and I've logged, probably, upwards of 500 hours into those games combined.

I'll start off by saying that, as far as I'm concerned, Star Ocean is a trilogy that ended with "Till the End of Time." It was one of those rare examples of a series getting better as it progressed, peaking with SO3's innovative and intense battle system and its widely debated plot twist and ending. The best creations are polarizing. Some people hated SO3, others absolutely loved it. It struck a perfect chord with me, innovating aspects of battle systems no one else had the balls to change -- you could take MP damage, and sure enough, if it was reduced to 0, you died. The obligatory battle skills ("killer moves" in SO2) consumed HP rather than MP. Mages were made useful, their spells inflicting multiple hits and animating in real time. Everything brimmed with the balance of a well-made fighting game; even the "low tier" characters like Adray and Roger could be devastating when geared properly.

I almost feel like SO3 was perfect, actually. It brought some form of closure to the story, as ambiguous as it was, and the battle system was so utterly masterful that, looking back, a sequel was unnecessary.

Yet, here it is. Star Ocean 4.

Leading up to its release, I thought it would be amazing. Expectations were high, and all that. The screenshots were beautiful, the battle system looked like SO3 on meth, and the promise of commanding your own spaceship and traversing numerous planets throughout the course of the game seemed nothing short of epic.

The first thing I was disappointed with was the character designs, which everyone saw before release. They were bad. Like, "holy shit, this is worse than FFIX" bad. SO2 had fantastic designs, and though SO3's weren't as good, they were solid aside from Fayt and Sophia. Honestly, I can't think of a single character design in SO4 that amounts to anything beyond mediocrity.

Just a couple weeks before release, it was revealed that they'd be changing the UI and character portraits for the North American release. The UI change was fine; it looks very sleek and easy on the eyes, as opposed to the overly bright and clearly Persona-inspired Japanese version. What got me was the character portraits, which were changed from standard anime illustrations to quasi-realistic CG. I can only assume it was done to appeal more to a western audience. This has been debated among my circle of friends, and in a nutshell, my take on it is this: it's not going to help sales, because for every person who's stupid enough to buy a game based on what character portraits look like, there's going to be someone who doesn't buy the game because they were changed. If they were going to change it at all, they should have included an option for either style. It was a stupid move from both a business and artistic standpoint, and there's no excuse for it.

That's not even getting into whether or not you think it looks good. I think it looks absolutely god-awful, and I'll tell you why: the character designs are bad enough on their own, and they don't need the uncanny valley making them look worse. The safe haven of generic anime was their only saving grace. For the people saying "it fits the style of SO4 better than anime," no, it doesn't. Star Ocean has always been an anime-inspired game; changing that now is silly, and sure enough, it hasn't changed. Look at the in-game character models. They look like anime. Did they actually think that was going to get passed people who wouldn't buy a game if it looked anime-inspired? "Oh, this game sure looks like some weeaboo shit, but hey, the portraits are kind of realistic! I'm totally copping this." Happens all the time, I bet.

Of course, the portraits themselves also carry the same style as the in-game models and the anime art, except they look worse because they've been translated into 3D and then tweaked to look "realistic." Derp. I don't know whose decision it was, but they should be kicked squarely in the balls.

Oh, right, the game. I bought it on day one, and from the outset, once the beauty of the environments stopped impressing me so much, I slowly crawled to the conclusion that SO4 has no soul. Actually, that's not fair. It has a soul, it's just nothing like SO2 or SO3, and is also vastly inferior to both. This is purely from a presentational standpoint, though -- particularly the pacing and soundtrack.

Star Ocean 4 is paced like a retarded mule trying to carry four tons of bullshit across the Sonoran Desert. Unlike SO2 and SO3, where you spent a good amount of time hanging around town and getting to know your environment and NPCs, SO4 is constantly pushing you toward something else. Some of the dungeons are far, far too long; there's a whole segment on the first disc where you spend upwards of five hours in a single dungeon. Though you have a sense of freedom with where you can go, it's only there sometimes, as there's large chunks of the game where you're unable to leave whatever planet you're on, which is highly disappointing.

As alluded to before, each individual planet goes rather undeveloped in terms of its lore and predicaments. With around five to explore, and each one being fairly big (not nearly as big as SO2's Expel and Nede, or SO3's Elicoor, of course) and visually breath taking, there wasn't enough room to develop them beyond what they did. I wouldn't call it a "flaw," because other great games utilize a similar structure (hello KoTOR), but when your game's design team is saying things like "Star Ocean is about the world, not the characters," you'd think they'd put more time into developing a small amount of areas thoroughly, like in SO2 and 3, rather than many very sparingly.

Unlike the other games that use a similar structure of planet-hopping, there is no way to fast-travel back to your spaceship. If you want to do some private actions or partake in some item creation (why you must be on the ship to do item creation is beyond me, and is a huge, huge flaw), you have to walk all the way back, no matter where you are. This gets especially grating on disc 3 when the ship is crash-landed on the final planet, and you have to swap discs to leave, and swap back to return to your ship.

Yeah, some of the planets are actually stored on disc 1 and 2, but not 3. This means that if you want to go back to the earlier planets from disc 3, you have to swap. This is one argument I can see for "SO4 should have been on PS3," because it wouldn't have been a problem on blu-ray with mandatory installs. SO4 could have been two discs, probably, but instead, it's three, with the second and third discs gorged in cutscenes. Yeah, cutscenes. Long-ass, Xenosaga-style cutscenes. There's not as many as in XS, and they're skippable, but come on, this is Star Ocean. tri-Ace, what the hell is wrong with you? It's puzzling considering how little effort was put into the game's script... and voice acting... and um, plot, at least until the last few hours.

The soundtrack just further displays how tired Motoi Sakuraba is and how badly he needs a break from making music. While the battle theme is decent enough, it can't help the boring orchestral pieces that constantly bombard you when exploring the planets; they're so out of place and generic that they actually bog down the experience a bit. In Star Ocean, we're used to hearing Sakuraba bring out his moodier, more experimental side, and it just doesn't happen much here, opting for a "safer" sound that oozes mediocrity.

You could say the same for the whole game, actually. It's safe. All three prior games took a lot of risks, introducing new ideas and constantly improving. Gameplay-wise, SO4 doesn't feel like a sequel to SO3, it feels like a sidegrade. The battle system is certainly very good, but there's a lot of strategic elements of SO3 that are no longer present, such as the fury meter and MP damage. There are no "weak" and "strong" hits anymore, reverting to a more SO2-style system. It, actually, plays a lot like the PSP games, downplaying melee spam and emphasizing chaining your standard melee combo into battle skills, which can be chained together for bonus damage, similar to SO3. Also returning from SO2 is the four character party, which I am honestly indifferent toward by now; SO3 made three characters work so well that I didn't feel it was necessary to go back.

There's also the blindside system, which involves holding B and then hitting the left analog stick left or right at the right moment, triggering a flashy slow motion sequence where you quickly dive behind the enemy's back for free critical hits. It's fun, but almost every boss in the game has some kind of trick to beating them that involves using blindside. It cheapens the experience, because it becomes less about preparation and more about blindsiding as much as possible. It's hard to beat most bosses without doing it, in fact, because their defense is ridiculously high unless you hit their "weak point" which is usually located somewhere behind them.

Then you have some Tales-inspired attack system similar to mystic artes, except you can chain them together with other characters through quick-time events. Actually, it's more like quickenings from FFXII, I suppose. I rarely use it unless I'm dying and a boss is at low HP, or something. I didn't feel like it added much to the battle system.

Item creation has always been a big draw to the series, but even it has its problems here. As mentioned above, you must be on your ship to create items, a far cry from the freedom of SO1 and 2, where you could create things literally anywhere, and SO3, where you just had to be in a town with a workshop (most had them). You actually have to create a recipe before you can create an item, which seems like a pointless annoyance. The actual creation of items is improved, however, as you just gather the ingredients and make it. No dicking around with mashing X to get the right price or picking an ingredient and hoping you get what you want. Synthesis also returns, allowing you to customize weapons and armor as you see fit.

What's missing, though, is the incredibly deep inventor system from SO3, which I felt should have been integrated into the game somehow. There also seems to be less stuff to make in general, but that's just the feeling I get from what I've done with it and I could be wrong.

Another hallmark in Star Ocean has always been the ability to make choices that ultimately result in a different endgame party. In SO4, you're stuck with the same eight no matter what you do. No, Crowe never joins. He is to SO4 what Flynn was to ToV. It's especially disappointing after he whips out dual lightsabers (seriously) and fucking owns a group of soldiers the first time you actually meet him. Sorry, no badass characters for you. The only remotely "badass" character you ever get is Arumat, and he's just a stereotypical scythe-wielding dude who talks about death and the battlefield all the time.

Of course, you also have the obligatory post-game dungeons, which are probably really hard. I haven't tried them yet, so I can't comment much on them.

The feeling I get from SO4 is that, possibly, tri-Ace did not want to make this game. I also get the feeling that it would have been better on PS3, due to the much greater storage capacity of blu-ray discs, and being able to incorporate mandatory installs. There could have been more characters, more features, no disc swapping, etc. -- but there isn't, and I blame the 360 for that. I also blame tri-Ace for stuffing way too much cutscene into a game that no one expects a good story out of. Still, the main flaws of it are not console-exclusive, and honestly, unless they take a rather large change in direction, I hope they don't make Star Ocean 5. I'd rather see more original IPs in the vein of the original Valkyrie Profile or Radiata Stories. Star Ocean ended at 3, and this was unnecessary fan service that only stagnated the series.

Is it a good game? Yeah, it is. If you liked any of the past SO games, you should play it for the gameplay alone, which is still as solid as ever. Don't, under any circumstance, play it because you liked the story of any of the past games. It doesn't have the epic, detailed shit that made SO2 awesome, and it doesn't have the daring, existential tone that SO3 had. It's safe, by the book, and won't turn any heads. It even seems to lack the trademark Star Ocean atmosphere for a more generic and sci-fi Star Trek feel, which is strange to say because SO has always been influenced by Star Trek.

Funny how that works.

-Jibril | LJ