Some may say it never went away, but sci-fi is pretty cool at the moment. Christian Bale's about to unleash some of his patented rage on Skynet, Battlestar Galactica sticks two fingers up at dilithium crystals and JJ Abram's Star Trek revival takes the shat out of Shatner and goes boldly where Trek has never gone before: goofy space fun that anyone can enjoy. We never thought we'd see the day when you could attend ComicCon in good confidence you wouldn't get stabbed by a jock. Then tri-Ace go and do this.
Star Ocean isn't a bad game in many ways, but it's certainly a hateful sci-fi vision. And in a genre where immersion into a universe is kind of a big deal, this is a problem. Simply put: it isn't a sci-fi universe. Instead, it's the usual bloody fantasy drivel relocated to the stars above. Don't be fooled by the Mass Effect-ish ability to travel the universe, planets are but disguised genero fantasy realms (jungle, ice, fortress), your spaceship nothing more than a glorified chocobo. Day-Glo hairstyles, magical runes, swords, lizard men; they haven't even tried to dress it up. Blackberries have no place in the world of the future.
And this world has nurtured an equally bland cast: a band of wet blankets pitched twenty years too young for the relatively 'hardcore' combat they're allegedly masters of. Talking of the importance of best friends and how we should trust in one another, the hours and hours of mawkish cut-scenes are a real slog, kind of what would happen if the Teletubbies wandered on to the set of Buck Rogers. The introduction of a six-year-old girl into your party is the final straw. Alas, this final straw, with her twinkly eyes and puke-inducing baby speak, arrives four hours in and stinks up the joint for the remaining 30.
Peel away the skin and the skeleton underneath is rock solid. Star Ocean may clumsily fall into every narrative cliché in the book, but its battle mechanics are rather deft on their feet. Again, tri-Ace are experimenting with real-time fights, with characters largely controlled as if they were starring in a standalone action title. One idea, a charged dodge that blindsides enemies in a wonderful slow-mo dash, really helps up the real-time stakes; it wouldn't be out of place being performed by Dante or Nero. It's certainly gymnastically flamboyant enough for our favourite lady-men.
Real-time combat still isn't there 100%, mind. Fundamentally, this is combat built on a bedrock of stats, and when the maths rears its ugly head it spoils the flow. As the outcome of every hit is governed by some arcane formula you're unable to deal out damage willy-nilly, forced instead to deal with a clunky lock-on that doesn't seem entirely at your command. This is particularly irritating when a team-mate has been pounced on by some beastie and your character decides to fight an empty coke can at the side of the arena. The decent AI can only take your team so far.
All this is tied up with a neat mechanic that rewards stat boosts based on fulfilling battle criteria. Given a board of empty slots, certain kill types will fill it with tiles that translate to bonuses at the end of the fight. Kill an enemy with special attacks alone and you'll get some HP back. Use the blindside technique to land a critical hit and XP is multiplied. Fighting in a particular style to create the bonus platter of your choosing livens up brawls somewhat, although canny collection of the HP tile can turn a reasonably challenging quest into a bit of a cakewalk.
None of it, alas, helps disguise the fact that the entirety of Star Ocean consists of walking down corridors and fighting monsters until another shat-o-rifically awful cut-scene invades your skull space. And what is a role-playing game but the world you play a role in? The ideas are here, sort of, but they fumble the application. Making this more a case of - wait for it - science friction.
Like a reversed Lost Odyssey: loads of ideas, totally dump story. A chore.
- Entertaining combat
- Set in a sci-fi universe
- But it hates sci-fi