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The Top 10 Games I Played in 2016

top-games-2016

Damn, what a year! In a lot of ways, it seemed to be one long downer, a year devoid of hope for many. I’m very fortunate in many ways and as this year winds down I’m going to look forward to 2017 and aim to devote more of my time to outlets that benefit others. As it stands now, much of my spare time in 2016 was devoted to video games and related interests. As I’ve done yearly, I’ll compile the ten favorite games I played this year, in alphabetical order. Per routine, this list is not limited to brand new releases but instead is based off what I actually played. When applicable, I’ll link to any articles I wrote during the year.

Continue reading The Top 10 Games I Played in 2016

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Star Ocean: Till the End of Time [PlayStation 2] – Review

Star Ocean Till the End of Time

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. Continue reading Star Ocean: Till the End of Time [PlayStation 2] – Review

Star Ocean: Second Evolution [PlayStation Portable] – Review

Star Ocean Second Evolution

When I played Star Ocean: First Departure earlier this year, I came away disappointed. I was looking forward to an epic sci-fi JRPG and instead encountered a brief fantasy tale wrapped in a sci-fi veneer. My eagerness to bask in the series wasn’t washed away however and I promptly began the follow-up Star Ocean: Second Evolution. Another remake for the PSP, this one was of Star Ocean: The Second Story which originally released on the PlayStation in North America in 1999. This version was released ten years later and left me with many of the same grievances, but I wound up enjoying it more.

Much everything remained the same from the previous remake.
Much everything remained the same from the previous remake.

Of the Star Ocean games released to date, this is the only one to serve as a direct sequel to another. Set twenty years after the events of First Departure, this game is primarily the tale of Claude Kenny, the son of one of the original protagonists. I say primarily because players can also choose Rena Lanford as the centerpiece of the game. Both characters embark on a journey of self-discovery and their paths cross very early on at which point they remain together through the end. Having done a single playthrough I can’t comment on the differences caused by picking the other, but since they join up so early on, I can’t imagine there’s much uniqueness.

Pretty quickly after starting, Claude gets separated from his father’s Federation crew and he’s left to fend for himself on a technologically inferior planet. Here he comes across Rena and the two eventually embark on a quest to rid planet Expel of the monsters that have freshly infested it. As their quest unfolds they meet likeminded individuals who join up as comrades. Like the previous game, this is a game meant to be replayed as all party members aren’t obtainable in a single playthrough. Unfortunately, tri-Ace pulled the same stunt of developing a fantasy JRPG in the veneer of a sci-fi setting – translated, the sci-fi aspects bookend fantasy elements comprising the bulk of the experience. I’m fine with either setting, but I would caution any readers planning to dive in – these first two games aren’t entirely sci-fi tales!

Private Actions returned again but I made little use of them.
Private Actions returned again but I made little use of them.

The sci-fi elements on display were more pronounced however, with the final third taking place on another, further advanced planet. Energy Nede as it was called had an interesting backstory and was home to the Ten Wise Men. This group served as the eventual antagonistic force and they are one of the most memorable I’ve seen in a JRPG. They weren’t particularly fleshed out, but each one was unique and the progression in battling them made the conclusion an event. A few in particular were downright dastardly and evoked major tantrums in me. When they were felled, it was a satisfying event and ultimately everything ended on a cheerful note.

Battles and exploration were identical to First Departure, down to the UI. These remakes were developed at the same time and accordingly, it was all very familiar to me. I still relied upon spamming the basic attack and this continued to be a decent strategy. I will say there were more enemies that required me to flank and others that I had to earnestly avoid attacks, so the battles were a little less monotonous than I’d previously experienced. The skill system returned too and I, again, really enjoyed spending the accrued skill points increasing individual character’s stats and skills. It was an addictive facet that that had a noticeable impact on my party’s performance in battle, making it all the more incentivizing.

There were attractions and other diversions that I also didn't invest myself in.
There were attractions and other diversions that I also didn’t invest myself in.

Visually, I found this game very appealing. It was originally made during the era of prerendered backgrounds and they were left intact for this remake. Games aren’t often made with this style of prerendered backgrounds anymore as the horsepower in our consoles and computers no longer calls for it. The buildings and towns were constructed using this graphical style and they look dated, which sounds offensive; I really liked them so I would say they looked… nostalgic. Because this style is still new to me, I was able to give some things a pass, like the poor scaling.

Some backgrounds were portrayed with such depth, that as I navigated Claude he would continue to shrink until I could barely make him out. Frequently, this made locating objects to interact with a bit of a chore. Part of the blame lies with the viewing area of the PSP’s screen. This was a console game originally so naturally it was meant to be played on a larger viewing receptacle. It wasn’t until I plugged my PSP into the TV and blew the image up that the visuals really looked right. The game was entirely playable on the PSP, and I usually prefer my RPGs in this form (apt for bedtime sessions), but the game’s roots begged for it to be played on the TV.

Those prerendered backgrounds were begging to be seen on a TV!
Those prerendered backgrounds were begging to be seen on a TV!

Star Ocean: Second Evolution was a more enjoyable game than its predecessor. The story was largely forgettable (what even happened in the middle, I couldn’t tell you) but it did have a larger concentration of sci-fi elements. As was the case with First Departure, it was when the narrative placed the characters in a futuristic setting that my attention was grabbed (especially when the Ten Wise Men were in play). But, it still felt like a fantasy JRPG wrapped in a sci-fi shell. The core gameplay mechanics– battling and adventuring – were identical to the previous game; they still remained fun after another twenty hours due to the additional challenge breaking up the monotony. And graphically the game was presented in a way that felt fresh to me, despite the dated stylings. It’s the best Star Ocean I’ve played to date, but much of it was largely forgettable and perhaps not worth seeking out. A better future was found, but here’s hoping for an even brighter one.

Star Ocean: First Departure [PlayStation Portable] – Review

Star Ocean First Departure

When it comes to an established franchise, I find it hard to experience it in any other way than completely engrossing myself. Whether it’s soaking up each entry in a role-playing series, or binge-watching a movie franchise, I like to get the whole story from start to finish. So with the recent announcement of the fifth Star Ocean game, subtitled Integrity and Faithlessness, I’ve found myself visiting the series for the first time, and from the beginning. There’ve been plenty of opportunities for me to check the series out over the years, and I’ve owned entries for years without touching them. But, much like the dual announcements of new Guitar Hero and Rock Band releases reinvigorating my desire to play earlier entries in those series’, this one did it to the nth degree.

Battles took place in fully roamable arenas - an evolution of Tales of Phantasia.
Battles took place in fully roamable arenas – an evolution of Tales of Phantasia.

My first consciousness of the Star Ocean series occurred around the release of Tales of Symphonia. That seminal JRPG was one of the few on the GameCube and one of my favorites bar none. I turned to GameFAQs throughout that playthrough and the author of one FAQ in particular suggested Star Ocean: Till the End of Time so heartily, that I still remember that fact to this day. Needless to say I never checked it out (excluding a multiplayer match or two for the inaugural Game-a-Thon). Flash forward and I now own all but the most recent entry: The Last Hope. So, what better place to start than the first game?

Or truly, a remake of the first game as the western release lagged behind its Japanese debut. Star Ocean was originally released on July 19, 1996 for the Super Famicom. It didn’t make it to Western shores until the PlayStation Portable remake; First Departure was released in North America on October 21, 2008. Developed by tri-Ace, the game was the product of the studio’s collective experience making Tales of Phantasia and their love of Star Trek. It’s an action-RPG whose core elements stay true to likes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, but the battle system is quasi-real-time and the setting has more in common with Phantasy Star. The PSP remake appears to remain very true to the original, and with the exception of a few items, I could imagine this game being a direct port.

There was an omnipresent feeling of the future, even while on Roak.
There was an omnipresent feeling of the future, even while on Roak.

One of the elements that excited me the most in thinking about this series was the sci-fi setting. The ability for a lengthy RPG to fill out a world with backstory, characters, and places is a hallmark of the genre, and when that ability is buoyed by a sci-fi motif, well, let’s just say I’ve always been more interested in the future than the past. So I was disappointed when the majority of this game revolved around a fantasy setting. This was explained narratively in a way keeping true to its sci-fi background, and perhaps even by the constraints of the hardware or by the studio’s rookie nature.

Granted, this was all wrapped around the context of a sci-fi storyline and it did have its moments. The main protagonists hail from an undeveloped planet – one that the Federation (exactly what you’d think) has intentionally avoided until the inhabitants have reached their space age. So when the group is exposed to the Federation initially, there’s a lot of interesting story building that takes place. And again at the end, when the answers to the questions that have been posed throughout the game are being revealed; the sci-fi elements really sealed the deal. Plus, there’s time travel and that’s super sci-fi.

Most everything else is standard fare for the genre. I took the group from town to dungeon to town in search of this or that or whatever would progress the story. The combat system is an evolution of the real-time one pioneered in Tales of Phantasia. Instead of taking place on a 2D plane however, I controlled one of the party member’s in a 3D arena. There wasn’t a lot to fights other than mashing the attack button and maybe triggering a special attack every now and then. I was content to button mash and the lack of difficulty allowed me to breeze through the game.

An air of replayability was present as not all party members could be accessed in one playthrough.
An air of replayability was present as not all party members could be accessed in one playthrough.

I feel it was necessary for me to play this game, although I wouldn’t recommend it to others if they didn’t share my tendencies. It wasn’t a bad game, it just wasn’t that interesting. The settings offered an interesting clash, but this was mostly a fantasy game wrapped around the veneer of a sci-fi game. I found little to dislike about the combat system and could enjoy the monotonous task of mashing a button until a foe was dead, but I can’t praise it either. At roughly fifteen hours it’s the shortest JRPG I’ve played, but lengthy enough to tell a cohesive tale. Here’s hoping for a bright future.