About this time last year, I decided to begin playing the Star Ocean series in anticipation of the release of Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness. After completing the PlayStation Portable remakes of the first two games, I finally got around to playing Star Ocean: Till the End of Time on the PlayStation 2, the third entry (discounting the Japan only Game Boy Color release Blue Sphere). Developed by tri-Ace and published by Square Enix in the United States on August 31, 2004, it’s well-regarded among many RPG fans. Conceptually, the series has always been ambitious, but I feel it was with this release that the developers were able to execute their vision in an overwhelmingly successful manner.
I’ll preface the ensuing thoughts by stating that Till the End of Time belongs to the generation of games where my tastes were rapidly expanding and cementing themselves. I mention this to acknowledge my nostalgic revelry for games of this period, especially Japanese RPGs. In hindsight, it’s no wonder that of the three Star Ocean games I’ve played, this one would wind up my favorite. Also, I tend to think the most recent experience I’ve had was the best, so don’t be surprised if I wind up saying the same thing about The Last Hope. Granted, I can qualitatively determine good and bad elements, but I’m pretty forgiving, and forgetful, of previous experiences.
With all that being said, I do feel like there are many factors that result in Till the End of Time being a superior game compared to its predecessors, namely improvements with the presentation, plot, and playability. Superficially, the game just looks better, thanks to the more powerful hardware tri-Ace was working with. More importantly, they utilized this newfound power to construct a more cinematic narrative, one that I felt finally lived up to the sci-fi leanings of the series. (My sentiment isn’t based solely on the midgame reveal, but WOW, what a reveal!) Finally, in the transition from 2D to 3D, the combat system underwent significant changes, resulting in more balanced battles; ones that I couldn’t hope to win by just mashing the attack button.
So, allow me to gush about the graphics for a moment. As mentioned I have a soft spot for the look of Japanese RPGs from this period, a result of playing so many during my formative years, I suppose. At a time when many developers were chasing realism, several Japanese developers were instead chasing a stylized anime look. It may not have been as impressive at the time, but this likely allowed for a greater usage of color and the ability to add intricate details with less work. For instance, the spectrum of colors on display in this game is as far reaching as its futuristic narrative, and in a way complements it, solidifying a feeling of unreality. My reference point for the detail revolves around the hundreds of rooms and houses I entered. There was usually nothing for me to interact with, few chests to open or armoires to rifle through, but nearly each dwelling was uniquely modeled. This attention to detail impressed me and it carried through in other settings and aspects of the game.
Drilling down to the narrative’s most basic components reveals a coming of age tale set during a time of strife, which are basically the starting ingredients of every JRPG. Throw in the requisite romantic interest, a ragtag cast of allies, and an important quest for existential survival and you’re beginning to wonder why I was so high on the game, apart from the graphics. Much of the praise I’d lump at the narrative stems from the sci-fi setting, which is the first time I can wholeheartedly say that about a game in the series. Tying into the futuristic setting was a midgame reveal that still has me contemplating this game and its predecessors.
Whereas I considered the first two games fantasy RPGs in sci-fi shells, the sci-fi elements in this game were much more pervasive. At the onset, I was introduced to Fayt Leingod and Sophia Esteed, two young adults vacationing with his family on a resort planet. All hell eventually breaks loose as an alien race known as the Vendeeni begins attacking the planet and nearby space. Fayt’s parents are captured and he gets separated from everyone else, taking an escape pod that lands him on Vanguard III, an underdeveloped planet equivalent to 16th century Earth. Guidelines instituted by the Pangalatic Federation forbid all communication with those on planets who haven’t reached their own space age, but current events leave him with little alternatives. After he’s had sufficient time to muck around in the native’s business, he’s “rescued” by Cliff Fittir, a strongman member of Quark, an anti-Federation group. Despite his refusal to answer what Quark wants of Fayt, Cliff is a solid guy and the duo gets along well.
On the return flight to Cliff’s leader, they’re attacked by the Vendeeni. Narrowly escaping, Fayt, Cliff, and his partner Mirage find themselves on Elicoor II, another underdeveloped planet, this one equivalent to 17th century Earth. They become embroiled in a war between two rival nations, quickly pick a side, and work diligently to end the war and find a way back to their neck of the universe. This spat culminates with an attack on the planet by the Vendeeni which triggers the awakening of Fayt’s incredibly destructive powers. Soon after, Quark arrives and its leader, Maria Traydor, reveals that she and Fayt had been instilled with incredible powers by their parents, but she doesn’t know why.
In an effort to understand why, they travel back to Federation space and explore the lab of his parents. A new threat known only as the Executioners has begun wiping out all lifeforms in their absence. Brisk exploration of the lab reveals the team of scientists who worked there knew the Executioners were coming after interacting with the Time Gate, a foreign, sentient object on the planet Styx roughly twenty years prior. With more knowledge, but still no way to trigger their powers Fayt, Maria, and the group travel to Styx in an attempt to uncover more information. They reach the Time Gate and have no luck until Sophia, who they recovered earlier, has her power awaken and activates the Time Gate, a portal of sorts. Her parents as it turns out were also scientists who instilled her with superhuman powers.
Risking it all, with few other options, the party enters the Time Gate. They enter into a technologically advanced society that far outpaces anything seen in Federation space. Evasive actions are taken immediately as they find out they’re not supposed to be there. A sympathetic youth reveals that they exited the Eternal Sphere, an interactive simulation created for the enjoyment of those in 4D space, their present location. Essentially, Fayt and the rest are not real, but creations of computer program. Little reasoning is provided as to why they can exist in the “real” world, but hey, it’s a video game. Learning that the Executioners are a program intended to wipe clean the Milky Way galaxy, as its denizens became far too advanced, they act to stop the Creator. They succeed in defeating the Creator, but he still managed to delete the Eternal Sphere. Nonetheless, Fayt and crew continued to exist.
The revelation of the Eternal Sphere came out of nowhere and left me contemplating the events that led up to it, including the entirety of the previous two games. After all, everything that happened in those games occurred in the confines of the Eternal Sphere. Does that strip all those and every action of meaning since they didn’t occur in the real world? What even is the “real world” then, because it all felt real to those who populated it? When the Creator killed the Eternal Sphere, Fayt and everyone within the Eternal Sphere continued to exist, so what role did that confine play anyway? Does anything matter!? Till the End of Time wasn’t good about answering these existential questions, but just posing them was shocking. I’m left contemplating its plot as much as Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and that’s impressive for what seemed like a fairly standard JRPG with a sci-fi setting.
When I was first introduced to Fayt, my eyes were rolling. He came off as a morally righteous and immature hero. As circumstances changed and he interacted with the deep cast of characters, including core party members, secondary allies, and enemies, he matured and settled into his destined role. The supporting cast featured a mixed bag of characters, most I liked and enjoyed listening to, while others were characterized in ways I found grating or annoying. Nonetheless, everyone had a say, and excluding conversations with NPCs, the game was fully voice-acted. Major story progression was presented through in-engine cutscenes (very few CG-oriented cutscenes) and lots of conversations. The lack of an even split between in-engine and CG cutscenes resulted in more uniform storytelling, which is something I always appreciate. I summarized the overarching narrative above, but trust me, there’s about a thousand times more nuance and minutiae within the sixty hour runtime.
The story wouldn’t have forward progression without confrontation and accordingly, battles made up a significant chunk of that sixty hour duration. As in the previous two games battles took place in real-time, with me controlling one character while AI dictated the other two active party members. Combat was much more strategic in this game as a result of the fury meter. Each character and enemy had a fury meter that was depleted by actions. A minor attack would deplete a sliver of this meter whereas a major attack might diminish a large chunk. The meter recharged through inaction and when full, characters would guard against minor attacks. This resulted in a “rock, paper, scissors” flow to combat that forced me to use different strategies on different opponents. When striking a guarding enemy with a minor attack, an anti-attack aura would be released that would cause damage, paralysis, or another negative effect. These proved to be highly effective in changing my behavior away from just mashing the attack button as I did in prior games.
Battle skills were unlocked through leveling and could be assigned to each character’s minor or major attacks and given specified activation when near or far. Character progression was simplified in comparison to the previous games with only the ability to increase HP, MP, attack, or defense stats. Much of what I was leveling in First Departure and Second Evolution seemed inconsequential, but I did find it enjoyable leveling up the dozens of available traits. I was sad to see those go, but this method made level ups more impactful, especially in the final, difficult stretches of the game. Speaking of which, this game had some serious difficulty spikes. One in particular had me wanting to punch a wall, before realizing I should be avoiding enemies instead of fighting them. It really highlighted how easy it is to get locked into a singular way of thinking and forget how to experiment or think outside the box.
Before closing, I would like to mention the soundtrack, which is an aspect of video games and movies I’m evermore cognizant of. Once again, the soundtrack is composed by Motoi Sakuraba, who’s also known for penning the Tales of soundtracks. It’s a lengthy game and accordingly, there’s no shortage of tracks. With the quantity, I easily found a few that got stuck in my head or sounded desirable enough to seek out and download. The soundtrack blends elements of progressive rock and jazz, which may be the first time I’ve actually realized this pairing. Every now and then I’ll read about select rock albums of the 1970s featuring jazz components or having a jazz influence and I’ve always felt confused, like I’m not sure I know what jazz sounds like. I mean, I have a stereotypical impression of jazz music in my head, but I’m now realizing the genre may be broader than I’ve allowed it to be. Either way, Sakuraba’s soundtrack features elements of jazz but primarily revolves around a progressive rock aesthetic. One that incorporates lots of synthesizer sound effects, you know, for a sci-fi feeling.
Till the End of Time is the first game in the Star Ocean series that I feel tri-Ace was really able to nail the sci-fi JRPG. The standard narrative components of a JRPG are present but due to my personal tastes, improved against the sci-fi backdrop. Besides an adventurous planet-hopping narrative, this game contained an unforgettable reveal that still has me thinking existentially. The visuals alone provided a comforting nostalgia, despite the fact that this was my first playthrough. And from a gameplay standpoint, the battle system was improved and more entertaining. Although this is likely my longest article to date, I’ve omitted much more that I could discuss about the game, such as the expansive dictionary (an equivalent to Mass Effect’s Codex) or the incomprehensible crafting system. This is what I expected of the Star Ocean series and it’s quickly cemented itself as one of my favorites within the genre. Now, will The Last Hope live up to this standard?