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Battles Galore with a Plot to Bore
By Paul Koehler
In stark contrast to its immediate predecessor on the original PlayStation, Star Ocean 3: Til the End of Time was one of the more anticipated RPGs of early 2004. Never mind the fact that the release date has been stalled multiple times and that the North American version is actually a port of the Japanese director's cut. The big question everyone wants to ask is, was the tortuous wait worth it? For the most part, it was. Star Ocean 3 boasts one of the more innovative battle systems in the console RPG realm. Fans of the tri-Ace development team in particular will love the additions made to the battle system, as well as the simplifications with item invention and skill development. What fails this game from being on top of the pack of PS2 titles is a ridiculously generic storyline and disc loading issues that helped delay the title's release. Nevertheless, the title remains strong.
So what is the deal with Star Ocean's battle system? It's fully real-time, with all of the characters participating on a map with an almost unlimited range of motion. Like its predecessors, characters are lined up in battle formations and can be used in varying roles, such as support, all-out attack, pure symbology (the game's term for magic), or the like. What takes Star Ocean 3 to the next level is response time in the battles, which has been drastically improved, and the size of the maps. No longer are maps limited to one screen. Some of the larger boss maps can take upwards of 5 screens of space, and the difference between short and long range attacks can vary considerably. Additionally, all characters and monsters are subject to the limitations of a Fury bar, which is depleted by varying levels depending on the types of attacks or skills used. Defending combatants with a fully charged Fury bar are able to deflect minor attacks, and may also stun the attackers in the process, adding another element of strategy to the battle.
The system is admittedly at its best when the party is tweaked to the maximum level, as characters can be capable of dishing out 100-hit combos with thousands of HP damage in a matter of seconds. Throw in a couple of bosses whose HP can exceed a million, and you have one challenging game. As if that's not enough, completion of a certain quest in the game enables the use of a two-player fighting arena, a la Xenogears, which gives friends the ability to duke it out with all of the characters in the game. Some may take issue with the game's AI, which has the occasional tendency to ignore commands sent to the other two characters in the battle party. However, it is a minor flaw in the system at best, and doesn't affect overall gameplay. Finally, Star Ocean 3's answer to the voice collections in Star Ocean: The Second Story are the battle trophies. These trophies are saved in a separate memory card files, and are met by fulfilling certain conditions in battle, such as defeating a particular boss without taking any damage or pulling a specific amount of damage in a single attack. While the Battle Trophy file itself is ridiculously large (around 1,200KB), these are used to unlock the different difficulty levels of the game, as well as different color profiles for the characters to be used in battle.
One new twist to the battle system is the role of MP damage, which adversely affects both friend and foe alike. Anytime a character or enemies' MP is reduced to zero, it's the same thing as KO status. This can be problematic for the physical bruisers of the party, but at the same time, MP damage is a wonderful strategy against some of the bosses in the game. An interesting facet of the Director's Cut version of this game is that certain battle skills have been powered down considerably, particularly those with MP damage capabilities. It's nothing a little leveling won't take care of, and if anything, it helps balance out a game by not relying on one character to dominate the competition too much.
Regarding the menu interface: it's noticeable that the menu system has been streamlined considerably from Star Ocean: The Second Story. Gone are the mass of random skills used for invention. Instead, each PC and NPC is given an attribute in a particular skill area, and these attributes are used in various workshops around the game world. There, attempts can be made at inventing original items or modifying existing ones to give them extra status boosts. The latter is particularly useful in leveling up characters' stats to god-like status for some of the more difficult secret dungeons. Patents can be also issued for items, and NPC inventors can be recruited into the party's apparatus to help create items and earn a little extra income.
The game's biggest flaw is its plot, which has been covered in console RPGs before. The main character of the game is Fayt Leingod, a college student living on Earth 500 years after the events of Star Ocean: The Second Story. He discovers that he and two others are the only ones able to defend humanity from extinction, and he goes out on a quest to do exactly that. Actually, it isn't that simple, but the plot simply reeks of Star Trek, and the major plot twist will have you groaning. Warp drive is present, alien races use stun guns with settings from stun to disintegrate, and the Pangalactic Federation rests on the principles of the "UP3", better known to pop culture as the Prime Directive.
Acting as a slight foil for the pitiful plot are the compositions of Motoi Sakuraba, long a mainstay of the tri-Ace team. The tracks from Star Ocean 3 aren't his best work, but they are certainly close, especially some of the more dramatic themes like So Alone, Be Sorrow and Reflected Moon. It's not work on the caliber of his songs for the Tales series of games, but they are more than passable. However, one dramatic improvement over Star Ocean: The Second Story is the voice acting, which isn't painful to listen to anymore. In fact, the character's voices perfectly reflect the mood of the all the PC's, and most of the NPC's as well. Thank you to tri-Ace for fixing this, as it was the main issue with the series' PlayStation effort. However, timing can be off with the voices, as canceling a character's speech can cause a noticeable delay at times.
Finally, the graphics are definitely worthy of the high standard that Square-Enix has set itself up for in recent years. It's not its best work, but it is certainly in the top tier of all PlayStation 2 titles to date. FMVs in particular are fun to watch, though their placement is smartly made to not overshadow the gameplay. On this end, while the character artwork itself isn't anything incredibly revolutionary, what the game lacks in detail is made up for in terms of raw speed, particularly in the battles.
As readers can probably tell from this review, the battle system is the guts of the game. If you're partial to fully real-time battle systems of this sort, Star Ocean 3: Til the End of Time is the game for you. Any quibble with the plot or occasional issues with sound can be an annoyance to those who aren't particularly fond of it though, as the first half can drag on at parts. In addition, there are occasional disc loading issues where the game can stall. While rare, users of older PS2 models should take caution, as this was a major issue between Square-Enix and Sony during the initial phases of the game's Japanese release.
Given the varying difficultly levels of the game, even beginners can adapt to the battles, which make it a decent challenge. However, while the main quest itself can go anywhere from 50-70 hours, the extra dungeons provide a wealth of extra challenges, including some ridiculously tough side-quests used to gain the characters' ultimate weapons. Some include familiar faces from the tri-Ace library. Let's just say some of these bosses hit the 8-digit territory in terms of raw HP total.
It all comes down to how patient you can be with the plot in the game. For those willing to put up with some of the trite machinations, the battle system alone makes the game a worthwhile buy. However, the plot and the minor technical issues prevent Star Ocean 3 from being on the top of the pack in terms of PS2 RPG titles. Perhaps it was a case of high expectations, but regardless of this, the game is worth a look, if not a buy.
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