Star Ocean: Till the End of Time
System: PlayStation 2 :: Rating: Teen :: Players: 1-2
Genre: Action RPG :: Released: 31 August 2004
Probably one of the biggest surprises I've ever enjoyed during my years in front of a video game console came when I first tried my hand at an unsuspecting little package dubbed Star Ocean: The Second Story. This old, overlooked two-disc pack for the PSone had been literally gathering dust on my shelf for years before I bothered to even test it out, and I suppose that the complete lack of any kind of previous expectation was a big part of why I was so totally impressed and engulfed by what I found within the game itself. I'd allowed myself to be courted by dozens of RPGs in the past, to the point that they were honestly starting to become a little humdrum and overdone in my eyes. It seemed like every role-player at the time used the same formula: turn-based action, a continual underlying romantic theme, a faintly anime-esque graphical style, and numbers... lots and lots of numbers. Numbers for health, for magic, for experience, for offense, for statistics... everything had something to do with a number. The sequel to the relatively unseen original Star Ocean for the SNES, which wasn't released in the United States, The Second Story carried over enough of these RPG constants so as to not appear completely alien to players, but sprinkled fresh new concepts and ideas almost everywhere they were needed. The battle system was a nearly perfect amalgamation of standard, tactical RPG fare and frenzied action / adventure button mashing. It's one of my favorite games, regardless of genre, and I always look back upon it favorably.
Unfortunately, by overwhelming me so effectively in its first American offering, my expectations for the future of the Star Ocean franchise went through the roof. Not long after I finished The Second Story, I was hungrily scouting the 'net for information about a follow-up. Finally, a few years back, I caught wind of Till the End of Time, and the anticipation began to mount. In a way, it's funny; I loved the precursor because I expected nothing of it and received everything I ever could've wanted, and then subconsciously built up the sequel to the point that nothing it could muster would ever be enough to appease me. But something tells me I wouldn't have enjoyed this one even if I'd never taken the time to play its predecessor.
To start with, the story is beyond terrible and the characters are even worse. When I first met Fayt and Sophia, the two leads, I couldn't help but grimace. They're so paper-thin, so incredibly dull and intelligence-insultingly bland, I initially mistook them for a heavy-handed satire of the role-playing genre in general. "No way," I thought, "no way could these really be the main characters. This is going to end in some sort of a punch line, and then the real game will begin." I guess the joke was on me. This is, honest to God, the most uninspiring cast I've seen since console RPGs were just gaining their footing in the original Final Fantasy back on the NES. They'll say and do things that'll just make you stare blankly for a few seconds and then explode into unrelenting laughter. Fayt, in particular, is the very epitome of a stereotype. He has no flaws, and as a result he makes an incredibly boring leader. The characters seem so out of touch with reality that nothing ever seems to carry the kind of magnitude you'd hope for, even when entire worlds are exploding and individual races are being completely wiped from existence. The bad guys are mean and ugly, and the good guys are holy and pure.
By the time the third act comes around, bringing with it the one really interesting revelation in the storyline, you're 40 hours in and have cemented your opinion of the game as a whole. Before that, it's cliché after cliché, with absolutely no originality thrown in to keep things halfway interesting. It seriously reads like a bad RPG Maker plot, like they had to pick and choose from the devices they had on-hand. The one unique aspect the game had going for it right from the get-go — its setting in outer space and the almost limitless possibilities contained therein — is largely ignored. Three quarters of the game takes place on an underdeveloped planet, stuck in (you guessed it) the dark ages. So, instead of embracing the interstellar setting that could have introduced dozens of fresh new storytelling opportunities, Star Ocean casts it aside in favor of the swords, dragons and magic that frequent 95% of the competition. The one thing this story had going for it was an incredible attention to detail, which comes off as almost an afterthought thanks to the burial of the "dictionary" item in the game's menus. Through the use of this digital encyclopedia, nearly every term, character and environment in the game is explained in studious detail, which is something that I really appreciated as the game went on and the different terms, species and locations were tossed around more and more frequently.
Like its predecessor, TtEoT's gameplay is its greatest triumph. The battles have remained every bit as enjoyable and strategically brilliant as I remembered, and the controls are incredibly easy to comprehend. Your enemies appear on the overworld map right alongside the party, just like in Chrono Trigger or Zelda II: The Adventures of Link, so you can avoid confrontations if your health is low or you're exploring a particularly dangerous dungeon, which is a nice touch. This setup makes it possible for your party to be attacked from behind if an enemy manages to ram itself into your back, but the favor isn't returned should you happen to catch a baddie unawares. Once you're sucked into the battle, things get a little complicated.
A fight scene in Till the End of Time can be a frenzied experience if you don't know what you're doing. You'll have, at most, three characters in your party at any one time (which is a major gripe I've had with the RPG genre in general for years now... why would six people stand by and watch their three buddies struggle in a fight with monsters, rather than joining in and cleaning house?) and they're all performing individual actions at the same time, to say nothing of the monsters on the other side of the battlefield. At a glance it would appear to be mildly organized chaos, but in action it's really pretty simple. Before, after and during the battle, you can set a specific attack style for the characters you won't be directly controlling, so they aren't wasting all of their strength on a meaningless enemy while a tough boss fight is just around the corner. If you want your weakest character to avoid physical confrontations and concentrate on healing, it's as easy as changing a setting. Usually, two members of your party will be following these instructions at any time, while you'll be directly in control of the third. Yet, despite the seemingly-obvious directions, the computer AI will occasionally find a way to screw up. Whether they're running headfirst into an explosion with low HP or repeatedly casting "heal" on a teammate who doesn't need it, your comrades will generally leave a lot to be desired. I even ran into a few instances where I'd found myself single-handedly taking on half a dozen enemies while my two teammates stood off in a corner somewhere and cheered me on. Controlling your character only really requires three buttons and an analog stick, with X and O providing physical attacks (tapping the button results in a weak attack, holding them provides a harder strike) and Triangle momentarily pausing the action so you can pick and choose from the available magic spells. L1 and R1 cycles you through the three party members, so you can wake up the AI if and when it gets stuck or bored, so it's not like there aren't workarounds to the mild kinks in the battle setup.
To eliminate one of the problems from The Second Story's setup, your characters now have a battle meter underneath their names, indicating how winded they've become as the battle progresses. Where, in the PSone precursor, you could occasionally corner an enemy and hack away until they were no more, (precisely the method I used to defeat the end boss) any one character can only unleash a limited amount of consecutive attacks before they're drained physically and need a break to recover their stamina. The meter fills up when your character is stationary, and I'm a fan of the system as a whole, as it encourages better strategy and teamwork during the harder fights. There's also a "bonus battle" meter that I never really entirely understood, which seems to spring up at random times and reward you with extra experience or money after a fight, as well as a "battle trophy" system that invites you to accomplish various feats throughout the game (defeat a boss without taking damage, kill three enemies with one strike, flee from battle fifteen times) in exchange for some lame bonus materials like alternate in-battle costumes. If you're a perfectionist that absolutely, positively must complete every possible aspect of a game, though, it's there to fulfill your wildest fantasies.
One aspect of The Second Story that made the transition to its PS2 brother was the extensive item creation mode. In the PSone title, characters could cook, create new and interesting chemicals, alter weapons, create clothing, and more at any point. If you were trotting around the moon somewhere and felt like making a hemp necklace, you had that option so long as the materials and appropriate experience levels were there. In Till the End of Time, your characters can still create these new items, but only in the designated workrooms. The process for their creation is unrefined and lacking, as well, and seems to have a lot more to do with sheer luck than any sort of talent or plan.
Probably the most infuriating aspect of the gameplay, though, would have to be the simple fact that your characters can meet their demise by way of depleting their magic points, as well as by losing all of their hit points. Coupled with the variety of enemies who can do damage to your team's MP as well as their HP, that means you've got to keep a close eye on exactly how much magical power you'll have left over before casting that much-needed heal spell or climactic fireball. It didn't feel like something that was necessary, really, and came across as a cheap way to increase the enemy's chances as time went on. Naturally, your characters' maximum MP are substantially lower than their maximum HP, and it's easy to be caught off-guard by a primarily MP-damaging enemy and sent to an early grave. There are also a variety of weak mini-games thrown in at strange moments throughout the story, such as the incredibly frustrating rides on "hauler beasts" in a mining cavern or the brainless cube-sliding puzzles in a later dungeon, which do nothing but prolong the game and further bewilder an already-annoyed gamer. None tie into the story at a later point, you're never saved from the brink of certain doom by a hauler beast, you just get past them and try your best to forget they were there.
Aside from the cutscenes, this is generally a visually uninspiring game. The characters look about as stale and unexciting as they act, and the environments and spells are nothing that hasn't already been done better by a previous title. To be frank, the Sega Dreamcast could have more than likely produced graphics equal to the ones seen here, and that's a tremendous knock at this stage in the PS2's life cycle. With the PS3 peeking over the horizon, this should be the point in time when game developers are really starting to stretch Sony's aging console to the limits with amazing graphical effects, not leaning back and kicking out weak, flat displays such as this. Occasionally you'll run into an enemy or dungeon that's up to par visually with its contemporaries, but on the large I wasn't impressed. The graphical direction and wardrobe designs are solid enough, but it looks like a lot of the charm was lost in the translation from pen and paper to fully interactive three-dimensionality. As I alluded to earlier, the cutscenes are outstanding, but you'd expect that from a Square-Enix RPG. Particularly inspiring is the scene right around the story's halfway point where the dragon-riding denizens of an underdeveloped world take up arms against a fleet of invading spacecraft. Watching as the swords, sorcery and scales of traditional role players clashed violently with the technology, know-how and armaments of the world of science fiction was a really impressive, daunting visual that only served to further my frustrations about what this game could've been versus what it actually wound up being.
The audio, on the other hand, is touch and go. The voice acting is universally terrible, to the point that I would try to speed through any particularly lengthy speaking scene as soon as I'd read the subtitles (and I'm usually the guy who ignores the text and listens to every word spoken by the voice-acting crew), and pretty much brings these terrible characters full-circle. They're unsympathetic and uninspiring, both in actions, appearance and sound. The music jumps all over the place, and in so doing is surprisingly effective. Most of the game is accompanied by the same kind of standard near-symphonic music that fades into the background of every other RPG in the history of man, filling the need without getting in the way of the story or the battles. Every once in a while, however, when you reach an important boss battle, the tunes will speed up considerably and start to include lyrics and alternate genres. A few of the boss battles' underlying scores sound like a strange sort of techno / hip-hop blend, which gives them a much more fast-paced, weighty air. The one spot where this technique explosively fails, unfortunately, is in the one battle that everything else builds toward. The music filling the background as you battle the game's final boss isn't an epic, world-transcending melody of everything that came before — as you'd think it should be — but rather a totally out-of-place light jazz tune. You're fighting for the lives of every being in the known universe alongside a little ditty that would feel right at home pumping out of the speakers in an elevator somewhere. And that's about as effective a summarization of this game in its entirety as you're ever going to find. For all of the intentions and momentum it had going for it, in the end it's something totally out of place within itself and not even half of what it could have, and probably should have, been.
This revisiting of developer tri-Ace's shining star feels like a hollow, emotionless shell more than it does a sequel five and a half years in the making. Rarely have I been more disappointed in a big follow-up title than I was with this one. It's strictly average, with passable graphics, weak voice acting, horrible characters and a mind-numbingly slow story killing any forward progress made by the battle system, which is still quite a blast. I feel dirty for considering this as a contemporary to The Second Story, although I'm beginning to question if even the PSone rendition was actually as good as I remember it. I don't think the ultimate goal of a sequel should be to force its fans to reevaluate their feelings about the original.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4.1