Friday, January 21, 2011

Backlogged Till The End of Time




I have an interesting relationship with Star Ocean: Till The End of Time.

Years ago, when I was still doing my B.A., I was convinced that the game would never see a domestic release. After all, this was a point in time where the chances of getting a JRPG localized were slim: The fact that we got the second entry in the series seemed like more of a fluke than anything else. With this in mind, I decided to import the game. However, a few months later, Enix (before the merger that created Square-Enix) announced that they would be releasing a director's cut of the game.


This was before they got into the habit of doing it with every damn game they released.

However, unlike the infamous "Final Mix" series of Kingdom Hearts, the director's cut of Star Ocean 3 wasn't just something that existed seemingly to piss off North American gamers. It was actually necessary. The original Star Ocean 3 was quite a mess: It was poorly received in Japan, due to being notoriously buggy and lacked comparability with older model PS2 units, As an added plus, some bonus content was added in the form of two new playable character (Adray and Mirage, the latter of whom was only an NPC previously). Certainly, this was a much needed improvement.


Meanwhile, the people playing this game hope and pray for a "Final Mix"

Of course, this was discouraging for me to hear. Sure, I essentially had a complete game (and thankfully, one that worked on my PS2), but like any rightful American, I felt totally cheated by not having the additional content in a game that I would have never received domestically in the first place.

Or so I thought.




Years later, the company announced a domestic release of Star Ocean 3. It was also announced that the version coming to the states would be the director's cut, full with the added features. Having had a great experience with the previous entry in the series, and enjoying what little bit I had played of the import, I promptly reserved my copy at Gamestop (where I happened to work at the time -- a dark period in my life), got my free preorder poster (which remains in my room to this day -- shut up), and eagerly awaited the release.

..Until I sort of got accepted into graduate school, wisely decided to minimize distractions during my first year by not owning a TV and leaving my PS2 at home. Thus I canceled my reservation at Gamestop (but kept my poster, suckers), and forgot about Star Ocean 3 until a few years later, when my grandparents paid me a visit to commemorate completing my first year. Once again I came across Star Ocean 3, which had now become a Greatest Hit title.

See, you know you're a true backlogger* when a game you originally purchased as an import has been released again in its native country, released again stateside, and reached "Greatest Hits" status stateside before you've really delved into it.

*This is not something to be proud of.

We will not discuss how long it took me to getting around and playing the domestic release.

This story may sound familiar if you have read my post on Bujingai: The Forsaken city. I acquired both of these games at the same time, and while Star Ocean 3 is the superior of the two titles, it is still nevertheless included under the umbrella of Disappointment Week 2011.

Star Ocean 3 is not a bad game, per se. As always, Tri-Ace manages to develop a game with an engaging battle system that's fun to immerse yourself in. Despite the fact that the battle system that's light years ahead of Star Ocean 2 (ha ha, space pun!), it is not enough to salvage a game that contains awkward pacing, poor character development, a tragically flawed plot twist, and some needlessly complicated game mechanics. The sum of these flaws dampens what is otherwise can be an enjoyable game, making this an ultimately average entry into the series, rather than raising the bar as its predecessors did.

Story

It's extremely difficult for me to do this post justice without fully discussing the infamous plot twist that occurs at the mid-point of the game. Even if you haven't played Star Ocean 3, there's a chance that you've come across said twist if you've perused enough internet forums. Additionally, since this is a fairly older game, I'm certain this is old news. Regardless, out of respect for my associates here who have yet to play through the game, as well as a few readers who I know personally haven't played to this point, I won't include spoilers here (but you're welcome to discuss them in the comments section).

I will say this much: The plot twist certainly polarized the fan base and enraged a good part of it. Some people try to argue that the plot twist isn't as big of a deal as all the nerd-rage may indicate, and while I see the point of some of these arguments, the bigger problem is that the plot twist is not self-contained to this entry: Rather, it's a twist that affects every entry in the series to this point, and trivializes quite a few things. That's about as vague as I can keep it, friends.

For now, let's discuss the first half of the plot, while things were still on a respectable course.

The First Half

Star Ocean 3 centers around Fate Linegod (yes, it's romanized as "Fayt" in the U.S. version, but I maintain that this is stupid), who begins his journey at. . a classy resort with his parents and childhood friend, Sophia. Of course, rather than spend time chilling out on the beach and soaking in the sun with Sophia, Fate is happier spending his time in the battle simulator virtual reality game.


Clearly, this is a man with his priorities straight.

Unfortunately for him, this vacation is cut short when terrorists known as the Vendeeni attack the resort. Fate and Sophia escape safely, but are separated from mama and papa Linegod in the process. Unfortunately, the unlucky Fate comes under attack again, resulting in another hasty retreat, his escape pod malfunctioning, and him crashing on some unknown planet in the boonies without any means of escaping.


Originally, this was going to be an idea for a National Lampoon Summer Vacation movie

If you've played the previous Star Ocean games, this plot should sound familiar: Civilized earthling from far in the future crash lands in the boonies. Yet unlike the previous entry, this foray is concluded rather quickly when Fate meets his first party member, Cliff, who fortunately has a sweet ride to take Fate away. All Fate has to do is cooperate with Quark: a rogue organization that's somewhat nicer than the Vendeeni.


In the distant future, this is a guy badass enough to forego phasers for his fists. You don't say "no" to him.

..However, shortly after, Cliff and Fate manage to crashland on yet another technologically defunct world known as Elicoor II. To make matters worse, they land in Airyglyph, a country embroiled in a bitter war with the neighboring nation of Aquaria. One of these countries is a lush nation ruled by a benevolent queen with a tough, yet beautiful warrior women. The other country is a snowy, militaristic wasteland that is the unfriendliest place on Elicoor II, has military units known as the "Black Brigade" and the "Dragon Brigade" run by guys with names like "Shelby the Heavy Handed" and "Albel the Wicked".

I'm sure you can guess which place Fate and Cliff landed in.


Tough luck, comrade.

Things have gone so far south for Fate at this point that he's in Space Mexico. He and Cliff are mistaken for engineers from a rival country and promptly imprisoned. Fortunately, he's rescued by one of the aforementioned warrior-women from Aquaria, Nel. As the plot unravels further, Fate, Cliff, and eventually the other members of Quark are dragged into the conflict between the two warring kingdoms. The group eventually finds a means of escaping the planet, and as the story progresses, the details behind the Vendeeni attack earlier in the game become clear, Fate's role in this whole mess is discovered, and the party eventually unravels a mystery that will shake the very foundation of the universe as they know it.

At this point, the infamous plot twist that shall not be named comes into play.


"Hey guys, remember that time Tri-Ace jumped the shark?"

Up until this point, the plot shows some promise. For a story that was essentially developed back in 2002 or so, it's passable. The characters that are your party mainstays (Fayt, Cliff, Maria, and Nel) are pretty interesting up to that point. Mind you, nothing really leapt out about them, but their dialogue was tolerable, and their interactions were enough to keep me playing.

Yet. . at some point, it's hard to fully put into words, something happened that made me stop caring as much about the characters. Or perhaps, to put it more accurately, -nothing- really happened. Sure, the plot progresses and you find out a great deal about what's going on in the universe, yet at some point or another, the character development just sort of tapers off.

You can attribute part of this, perhaps, to the way character recruitment is handled. Like all Star Ocean games, you have your core party (in this case, Fate, Cliff, Maria, and Sophia will always be in your party, no matter what) and a set of optional characters (in this event, Nel, Peppita, Albel, and Roger). Yet previous Star Ocean games managed to infuse the optional recruits with some semblance of personality for the most part, and even gave them a significant side quest in some case (Ashton from the second game is a great example of this).

Star Ocean 3.. half does this. For example, Nel and Albel take a significant role in the earlier part of the game (Albel starts off as an enemy, after all), yet once you get to the later half of the game after leaving Elicoor II, their development sort of tapers off: Sure, you get one minor scene with Albel that fleshes out his personality a tad, but it's just not enough. Whereas Star Ocean 2 managed to integrate whatever optional characters you chose into the story naturally (to some degree), Star Ocean 3 fails to do this as effectively: In fact, their dialogue in crucial scenes is usually relegated to a wooden, off-screen speech bubble.


Characters like this do little to help the cause.

On top of this all, as the game nears the climax, it does not feel like an epic build up towards a satisfying conclusion. Instead, it feels like an awkwardly paced, rather rushed mess. A solid story is the crux of a good RPG, which is something that Star Ocean 3 manages to deliver only with mixed results. However, I'd be remiss in ignoring gameplay, which is also key.

This too, however, is also a mixed bag.

Gameplay


Battle

Tri-Ace always shines when it comes to combat systems, and Star Ocean 3 is no exception. Quite a bit has changed since the previous entry into the series: The number of controllable characters has dropped to 3, yet the battles themselves are considerably faster (if you recall the bunny shoes accessory in SO2, which drastically sped up your combat movement, then imagine playing through the whole game like that from the beginning). The most significant changes, however, come with the following: Special attacks, how HP/MP are handled in battle, the "Fury" gauge, attack auras, and the bonus gauge.

In Star Ocean 3, there's a significant emphasis on your special attacks and how you chain them together (which isn't intuitive, at least initially). Special attacks, however, drain HP, as well as the Fury gauge (which is also drained when you move around in combat, but replenishes when you stand still), leaving you unable to spam them endlessly. While it seems that the HP issue is easily remedied by frequently casting restorative spells, you also need to keep an eye on your MP: Enemies can attack your MP directly, and hitting 0 MP will KO your character just as if you reached 0 HP.

Another innovation to the series is the addition of an anti-attack aura: Simply put, when your Fury gauge is at 100% and your enemy lands a light attack on you, not only will you completely guard it without taking damage, but your character will emit an aura that will either damage or stun the enemy. Don't think you can simply stand still and have an absolute defense, however: A fierce attack will completely shatter your aura, significantly reduce your Fury gauge, and leave you taking damage.

The enemies, however, play by the same rules as you: They have anti-attack auras that can repel your light attacks (be they regular melee attacks or special moves). Similarly, however, you can opt to attack their MP to K.O. them if the HP total is too high.

Even though the combat system is fairly active, the developers decided to give an extra incentive for participating with the bonus gauge: If you fight enough battles, your bonus gauge eventually fills up, allowing you to receive one of four rewards (all of which eventually stack with enough battles): Triple Experience, double cash, increased item drops, and increased HP/MP recovery post battle. This chain continues indefinitely until you take too many hits in battle, or run away.

I'll admit that I was pretty overwhelmed when I first played it. The combat was faster than I'd been more accustomed to, mapping the special attacks was different, and I didn't get the chaining system at all. However, once I figured out chaining and cancel bonuses (the latter which can lead to some pretty crazy damage on enemies), combat become quite enjoyable. It didn't, however, become a pushover. Even on the default difficulty, enemies can still ruin your day quite easily if you're not prepared: Status ailments like paralysis and stone can incapacitate you quite easily. An ill-timed attack can have you stunned by an enemy aura. If you spam special moves too often without healing, you'll find your HP dipping to dangerous levels.


Combat at its finest

I have to hand it to Tri-Ace here: They created a fast-paced battle system that at least initially (until, I imagine, you've gained access to ultimate weapons post game) manages to be fast paced, yet not mindless: You still have to think quickly, yet also be coordinated.

Unfortunately, they carried complexity over to another element of the game that really didn't need it:

Crafting

Remember the crafting system from Star Ocean 2? It was a pretty simple endeavor: You acquired skills for your characters in various areas, went to the menu, and started crafting immediately as long as you had the necessary materials. While simple, there were a host of different items (and useful!) items you could create in the game.

Star Ocean 3 tries to be innovative here and change things up. While your characters still have proficiencies in various crafts, this time around they're fixed. To really craft the worthwhile goods in the game, you'll have to recruit inventors from various locations in the game. This is a double edged sword: While inventors typically have a higher level in crafts than your characters, they only specialize in one area. Furthermore, the recruitment process becomes a little tedious. You'll run into these inventors early on in the game, but you're not always able to recruit them immediately.

The problems, however, don't stop here: Remember what I said about clicking on the menu? That's no longer the case. Instead, crafting takes place at workshops scattered throughout towns, as well as dungeons. Before you even start to craft, you need to assign an inventor to a workshop (and workshops have limited capacity). On the plus side, moving your inventors around is fairly easy.

The very process of crafting is somewhat randomized. Rather than specifying a specific item, you select one of the two craft options, which causes the game to generate a crafting cost for the item. Afterwards, you start the process and basically hope the item you set out to craft 1) succeeds and 2) doesn't turn out being a completely useless piece of garbage.


Further compounding this problem is not knowing what you've created until exiting the process

It's a good thing that GameFAQs exists, because quite frankly, matching all the item possibilities with the respective prices would be a daunting task. Admittedly, you don't -need- crafting during the main game. It can exist as a fun (and I use the term loosely) tool to create some neat things, and it is quite possible to create some pretty powerful weapons early on. Should you choose to do post game, however, crafting is definitely mandatory.

Really, I get what Tri-Ace was trying to do here. They wanted to create a more in depth crafting system. They wanted to expand all sorts of possibilities of items (and indeed, there's quite a bit you can create the system). However, Star Ocean 2's crafting system worked. It was nice and streamlined.

In the end, the crafting system ends up being something that sounds like a good idea on paper, yet ends up being more of an annoyance: Yet a necessary one, should you wish to trek into post game.

Closing Thoughts


A week ago, I mused with my friend The Enabler about why it was so hard to get into the games I've been playing in the past few weeks. We both mused about how we'd shifted from being completionists in most games, to simply wanting to get to the end of the story. We even both lamented over the fact as to whether we'd become -gasp- casual gamers.

However, I'll make the argument that our (and perhaps David shares this sentiment) tastes as gamers have perhaps become a little more selective. Years ago, finding a localized RPG was a rarity, so it's no surprise that we'd play the ones we received endlessly. These days, we're fortunate to have a market that's saturated with a number of RPGs to choose from. Whenever I have a moment of dread and think that I'm growing out of the gaming habit, I think back to games such as Persona 4 or Suikoden 5, which kept my attention from beginning to end, and certainly did not disappoint. I even think to a recent title, such as The World Ends With You, which was hopelessly addicting.

I realize that putting Star Ocean 3 under the the umbrella of "Disappointment 2011" may be just as polarizing as the stance on the infamous plot twist. There are people who love the game, and will argue that the flaws I've mentioned don't mar the game as I've insisted. There are people that revel in the crafting system and enjoy how it allows them to tweak their characters for the post game challenges -- admittedly another area Tri-Ace games shine in, if you're into that.

I don't regret playing it playing Star Ocean 3. Heck, I don't even regret buying it twice (I'll admit that the combined total of the import and the domestic release still came out to around $50). However, after the experience of playing Star Ocean 2, I expected its next-gen sequel to surpass the experience of the former. In the end, however, the only impression the game left on me was "eh".

Your own mileage may vary. If it's sitting in your backlog, by all means, consider giving it a playthrough. If nothing else, figuring out the battle system may be a welcome distraction.

Until then, however, keep playing: Particularly if you're on either of the PSP Star Ocean ports.

3 comments:

David Pratt said...

The existence of Space Mexico raises all kinds of questions about where the casts of Xenosaga, Star Ocean, and Starfox spend Spring Break.

Michael said...

I find it funny that you teased me to no end about playing the domestic version of the game, and I still beat the thing before you.
SO3 was my first foray into the series---I've since played the first on PSP---so the middle of the game twist didn't bother me all that much. Was it really that big a deal to the hardcore fans?

Ayn said...

Probably about as much as the ending of CCA did some Gundam fans.

The twist isn't as bad if that was your first time into the series. But if you had an enjoyable experience with 2 (and possibly 1), it's a little annoying.