Star Ocean 3: Till the End of Time
Story-driven RPGs eat your heart out, tri-Ace has your days numbered
What is the most common answer you hear when you ask someone what goes into a great RPG? You'll probably hear awesome graphics, memorable characters, or a wonderful soundtrack; but the most resounding answer you'll get is probably "a great story". After all, how can an RPG possibly exist without a grand adventure? Though the story is a very integral part of the roleplaying experience, it is possible to get away with a less than epic tale. Make no mistake, however, that it requires a team of professionals to craft a game with the story being the second (or possibly third) priority and still end up with a blockbuster. Noteworthy failed attempts include the Lunar series, which fell flat on its face on many fronts including story and gameplay, while it relied solely on its anime cutscenes to attract casual gamers. Though a mild success with some critics and consumers, the Lunar games are considered a failed attempt (a good attempt, nevertheless, considering they are nearly a decade old). The true experts of this tricky art of game production is none other than tri-Ace. You may still be repulsed by the cheesy and formulaic story of Star Ocean: The Second Story, but there is no doubt that the gameplay kept people from switching off their PlayStations in disgust. This talented team of developers have successfully removed the focus from the story and pointed it towards the gameplay. Blasphemy? No, far from it; their unique brand of gameplay has been captivating hardcore RPG fans since the rule of the Super Nintendo and continue to do so even to this day. Their flagship series has finally made it to the next-generation consoles and fans will be glad to know that it stays true to its traditions.|
The US version of Star Ocean 3: Till the End of Time is actually the original game and the Director's Cut version combined. This means that you get the two secret characters, an extra secret dungeon, versus mode, and new costumes for the entire cast, all in one game. In a strange twist, Square-Enix has packaged SO3 in a dual DVD5 set, rather than the traditional single DVD9 as seen with Xenosaga, so you will see some disc swapping; who knows, maybe they were trying to make the SO2 gamers feel at home?
As expected, the story won't eclipse Final Fantasy VII, Suikoden or other triple-A titles, but it's an improvement over the Second Story. The game takes place 400 years after the PlayStation game, but there are references to characters from other tri-Ace games (Leon from SO2 is mentioned at the very beginning as well others near the end of the game). You take the role of Fayt Leingod, a college student on vacation with his parents and his childhood friend Sophia Esteed on the rancho-relaxo planet of Hyda IV. At first, his only concern was to spend less time at the battle simulators and more time with Sophia, but things took a turn for the worse. An alien race called the Vendeen attack Hyda IV and everyone is forced to scramble to the nearest escape pod. Unfortunately for Fayt, his parents had to stay behind to try to hold back the Vendeeni forces while he is ejected into space alone, where he speeds towards the nearest civilized (though underdeveloped) planet, Vanguard III. Thanks to the UP^3 (Underdeveloped Planet Protection Pact), which forbids more advanced civilizations from "helping out" primitive planets with gifts of technology, Fayt has to rely on man's earliest weapon, the sword. Later on he is taken in by the anti-Federation group, Quark, because its leader wants to have a word with him. As they try to meet up with the Quark flagship, they are attacked again and are forced to land on yet another underdeveloped planet, Elicoor II. It is on Elicoor II where the adventure really begins and coincidentally, you'll be spending most of your time here.
The first half of the story isn't too bad; it isn't until Disc 2 when everything starts to fall apart. I refuse to divulge any more information about the story, but I can tell you to expect a rather unusual twist that has piqued the criticisms of many. It almost seems as if there were two groups of writers, one working on Disc 1 and one working on Disc 2 because so many things are detached from both discs that they can practically qualify as two completely different games! Important plot pieces from the first disc aren't even mentioned in the second disc and many burning questions are inadvertently left unanswered. I don't know what went on in the writing department at tri-Ace, but this story is most certainly incomplete and it's something that even a lengthy press conference can't fix. The in-game plot dialogue is equally tragic, as most conversations consist of a generic formula:
Queen: "You shall go to the Shrine of Kaddan."
Fayt: "The Shrine of Kaddan?"
Queen: "There you will find the Sacred Orb."
Fayt: "The Sacred Orb?"
Cliff: "Must be an OPA."
Nel: "What's an OPA?"
You get the picture. Fortunately, you'll only deal with this kind of dialogue during plot events and you'll find that the more meaningful conversations like the ones found during Private Actions are better written and usually much more humorous.
Regardless of the tattered story, it's not what the fans love Star Ocean for; it's the gameplay that keeps them wanting more. Battle is still played out in real time (and still just as addicting), but a few things have been changed. The battle party has been reduced from four members to three and the Fury bar was added. Characters still have their special moves (now called coup-de-grace) and each move is different, sometimes using up HP or MP, but will always deplete a part of the Fury bar. This means that you will not be able to perform a special move again and again because once your Fury runs out, you won't be able to act until the bar has recharged, which usually takes a couple of seconds. Each move can be assigned to two pairs of slots: Short/Long Range weak attack and Short/Long range strong attack, putting the right moves in the right slots is key to performing devastating combos. So if you can't pummel an enemy with a barrage of special moves, how are you supposed to cause big damage? Easy; take advantage of the Cancel Bonuses. The term "cancel" is probably familiar to those who play 2D fighting games such as King of Fighters or Street Fighter and it's basically performing another attack while in the middle of an attack, effectively cancelling part of the first attack. With each successful cancel, damage is increased by significantly, starting at 175% all the way to 300%. And though "infinite cancels" existed in some 2D fighters, it is impossible to do so in SO3 due to the Fury bar, but you'll be able to cancel enough to cause some major damage. SO2 players will be happy to know that damage and character HP can exceed the industry limit of 9999, which is both a good and a bad thing; the good being you'll live longer and do more damage, the bad being bosses (especially the secret bosses) will have HP numbers beyond reckoning.
The item creation mode is still very much a important aspect in this game, but tri-Ace has improved it exponentially; turning it into its own time consuming adventure. It has evolved from the random combination formula to inventing items from raw materials. Invention Mode is initially unavailable until you meet up with the Inventor's Guild, headed by the strangely dressed Guild Mistress, Welch Vineyard. From there, you will have complete access to workshops in various locations; but before you can make use of them you will need to do two important things. First, you'll have to add new sections to the workshop of your choice; you can choose to add a Smithery for creating/improving weapons, a Writing section for creating books, etc. In conjunction with the specific sections, you'll also need to gather raw materials, which are easily found throughout your adventures. Now all you have to do is decide which character is right for the job and since some characters are more skilled than others and can create different items, be sure to choose carefully. Each "production line" can accomodate three characters and will also stack the abilities of all the inventors in the line as well as combine the types of items they can make, making the production of rare items possible. Before you start inventing, your trial will be given a price, which will determine the item you get, provided you are successful, but don't be fooled; higher prices don't always mean a better item... Once you begin the process, you'll be treated with scenes of your inventors hard at work as well as their portraits. Success or failure is determined by the facial expressions of your inventors; if they look happy and celebratory, there's a good chance an item was created, so you'd better stop production and see what it is. On the other hand, if they look despondent, then you should let them continue working so they can produce an item. It takes a while to get a hang of it, but once you do you'll find yourself spending hours upon hours of trial and error to try to invent the best items possible. My personal recommendation is to get the strategy guide for the complete list of items unless you're dead set on devoting your only waking moments writing down prices and their results.
Aside from inventing, you can also improve your items by refining their factors or by synthesizing these factors into your weapons. If you choose to refine a factor, you'll get one of several outcomes; you can either duplicate the factor, erase the factor, improve the factor (ATK +100 becomes ATK +200), or you can make the factor worse (Enemy ATK x3 becomes Enemy ATK x10). Needless to say, most players will probably aim to improve the beneficial factors and erase the detrimental factors so they can end up with the best possible items. In Synthesis Mode, you can inject these factors into your weapons, for a grand total of eight factors per weapon. In short, the possibilities are almost limitless with the Invention minigame and this is probably where you'll spend the bulk of your playing time. Here's a little tip for you players that are just starting out: the best weapons in the game are made through synthesis, not through invention.
Private Actions make a return in this game as well and again, it would be beneficial to get a strategy guide as the chances of you randomly running into a PA are very slim; I was only able to trigger four out of the possible eighty-four different PAs, so don't assume you'll be able to just walk into them. Just like in the Second Story, PAs will give you several different outcomes and all are determined by the action you perform; for example, if Nel asks you if she's proving to be a worthy party member, saying yes will raise her affection towards you while shooting her down will only make her angry. The affection points you build up during these events will establish the ending you will get and which character you will be paired up with. Till the End of Time has less endings than the Second Story, but they are more detailed and provide adequate closure to the adventure.
If all of that isn't enough to keep you busy, you can also try your hand in the collection of Battle Trophies. While totally optional, hardcore gamers should look no further if they want a formidable challenge. Battle Trophies are basically proof of your achievement of a certain condition in combat and there are 300 conditions to satisfy; ranging from simple (killing two or three monsters simultaneously) to downright insane (defeat the final boss using only a level 1 character). I highly doubt anyone can win all of the battle trophies in one lifetime, but I'm sure there are people out there who love to go above and beyond.
I don't know if this has anything to do with Enix's merger with Square, but Star Ocean 3 has some of the best production values I've seen to date. The opening movie is simply spectacular, as the CG quality damn near eclipses the sky-high bars set by Squaresoft with the Final Fantasy games. Unfortunately, the in-game graphics won't top those seen in Final Fantasy X, but players of Xenosaga will no doubt feel a little deja-vu. The framerate is at a silky smooth 60FPS, even in heated battles where the fill rate tends to reach record numbers. The textures are nice and crisp, but the character modeling leaves something to be desired. Take Maria Traydor, for example, whose cuteness is marred by fish-like lips or even Fayt himself, who almost looks like a primate of some kind. Then there's the models for minor characters, which definitely didn't receive the same kind of attention as the essential characters and thus ending up looking like something from a PSone game. About the only models that look normal is that of Nel Zelpher's and Cliff Fittir's, which is somewhat depressing because the descrepancy of quality between these two and the rest is so noticeable. On a more positive note, at least the animation is top-notch. I can only guess they used some form of motion capture because the animation is so fluid and lifelike.
The audio department seems to have shaped up as well; I am glad to say that the voice acting isn't as embarrassing as the Second Story's and Square-Enix even put in an option to mute battle and cutscene speech; no doubt a boon to those who can't help but cringe at the thought of using American voice actors in a Japanese RPG. The good news is the American voice talent does a very good job at playing their characters as a whole, but a few things can't be ignored; some characters have horribly mismatched voices like Cliff who sounds an awful lot like the Anchorman Ron Burgundy and Nel's henchwoman Farleen whose voice is so high pitched that if you closed your eyes and listened to it, you'd swear you were talking to a cartoon mouse. Battle is where the voices really shine, the grunt and pain sounds are very appropriate (and convincing) and the pronunciation of the special move names don't come out corny. I actually wanted to turn on battle voices because it just seemed so empty without it, but as for the cutscenes, well, I could live without the deadpan dialogue. The music is typical Motoi Sakuraba, you'll no doubt recognize his unique mix of quasi-futuristic techno with the traditional fantasy ballads. I didn't feel that any particular song in the game's soundtrack was really noteworthy, except for the classic secret dungeon song, "Mission to the Deep Space" and the game's theme song, "Tobikata wo Wasureta Chiisa na Tori (The Little Bird Who Forgot How to Fly)" peformed by Jpop artist MISIA.
If there's something I forgot to cover then let it be a testament to the wealth of options Star Ocean has to offer. Whether you are a casual RPG player or a hardcore fan, this game has something to keep you busy. For $50 you're getting an awful lot of content, which is refreshing to see again in this time of cut-costs-and-not-pass-savings-on-to-the-consumer-to-boost-profit agendas.
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