Star Ocean: Till the End of Time - Staff Retroview  

Mudd's Women
by Adriaan den Ouden

Click here for game information
40-60 Hours
+ Complex item creation system...
- With a horrible user-interface.
+ Fast-paced battle system...
- With elements designed to slow it down.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   1969: Man lands on the moon. And then, for a long time, nothing happened. While writers in the latter half of the 20th century were fascinated by the potential of future space exploration, the progression of technology has simply not matched up to their expectations. Although many projected that space travel would be a reality by this point in time, others took a more realistic approach. One such franchise is tri-Ace's Star Ocean. With an incredibly detailed timeline stretching almost a thousand years into the future, and including some surprisingly plausible and yet wholly unique imaginary technologies, the Star Ocean series is unusual in that it supports its science fiction philosophies through its universe, but not its story. The most recent incarnation, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, continues this tradition by dropping its cast on a backwater world for the majority of the game.

   Star Ocean: Till the End of Time stars Fayt Leingod, a game-loving teenager on vacation with his parents. When the resort they're staying at becomes the target of a vicious assault, Fayt finds himself separated from his family and stranded on a 16th century planet. However, he's not there long, as he soon finds rescue, which then proceeds to strand him instead on a 17th century planet. Eventually Fayt and friends find their way out of the boonies, followed up by what has become one of the most infamous and widely reviled plot twists in RPG history. The story isn't really all that bad, and taken individually, each section of the story holds together quite well. Unfortunately, when taken in sequence, the events of the game don't tie together well, relying on far too much coincidence for anyone to take seriously. The overabundance of cheesy Japanese dialogue techniques, such as constantly repeating the previous sentence, doesn't help matters much.

   Where Star Ocean 3 fails in plot, it succeeds in its attention to detail. The universe tri-Ace has constructed for the series is massive and incredibly detailed, beginning in the year 2084 AD with the invention of the first warp drive, all the way through the events of Star Ocean and Star Ocean: Second Story, and through the next four hundred years to SD 772 when this current installation takes place. The technological evolution provided by the terminology and history scattered throughout the game world feels very real and very natural, and even incorporates the events of the previous games. The game also manages to provide enjoyable characters, particularly among the ancillary ones like Roger, Adray, and Peppita. There is a lot of great comic relief throughout the game, and these moments help to invigorate the often stale plotline.

   The biggest draw of Star Ocean 3 is undoubtedly its battle system, but while combat can often be fast and fun, there are several issues that can be needlessly frustrating, placing it in something of a love-it-or-hate-it position. Like the previous Star Ocean games, combat takes place in real time with the player taking control of a single party member. While the game now takes place in 3D, the basic functionality of combat has not changed much. Players can run around the battlefield and unleash normal and special attacks, but Star Ocean 3 features many new additions that change the feel of combat dramatically.

   The most notable new feature is that of strong and weak attacks. Weak attacks are faster but do less damage, while strong attacks are fairly slow but pack a wallop. These two types of attacks play into one of the game's other new features, the fury gauge. Fury is a simple meter that maxes out at one hundred, and as long as it's full, weak attacks bounce harmlessly aside. Strong attacks, however, can break through. Any action performed in the game, be it an attack, spell, or special ability, costs fury points and cannot be performed if the gauge isn't high enough. To refill the gauge the player must cease all action, including movement, for a short time while it fills up again. More often than not, this seems like nothing more than a needless frustration and is counter-intuitive to what is generally expected of an action-packed combat system, where standing still can be a death sentence. The result, unfortunately, is that rather than a fast, exciting combat system, the player is left using hit and run tactics, burning the fury gauge down, retreating, and doing it again.

Roger is the manliest man you Roger is the manliest man you'll ever meet in a video game.

   The addition of the guard system also plays negatively with the flow of battles. For the player to make use of it effectively, one essentially needs to run up to an enemy and stand still, waiting for it to take a shot and hope it's not a strong attack. It's virtually impossible to make use of the system while launching any kind of offensive, leaving it almost entirely ignored for most of the game. Enemies, however, are far less offensively-minded than most players will likely be, and often stop moving and bring their guard up at the most inopportune times, such as in the middle of a multi-hit weak special attack. While it wouldn't be all that bad if all it did was block the attack, tri-Ace decided to throw in some punishment as well in the form of Anti-Attack Auras. AAAs, as they're called, provide additional effects whenever a guard is activated, and these effects, when wielded by enemies, are often incredibly powerful. Some enemies can stun the player for several seconds, while others launch homing attacks that can almost instantly cripple or kill a character. Some even heal themselves.

   Because of this, many players may find that using weak attacks is a futile effort often more dangerous than the risk is worth, instead focusing on spamming long-range strong attacks, and this is a shame due to the excellent cancel bonus system tri-Ace concocted. By correctly timing a combination of weak and strong attacks, and as long as the character's fury holds out, a cancel bonus is gained, improving damage dealt by increasingly larger amounts.

   Tri-Ace also added one other new feature to its game, and the developer must be given due credit, as it is by far the most interesting and strategic system in the game: MP death. Like most RPGs, each character has an HP and an MP bar, but unlike most, characters can fall if their MP drops to zero, regardless of what their HP total is. This provides a lot of interesting scenarios, as MP damage is extremely common throughout the game, both from player characters and enemies, and in many situations, boss battles included, attacking an enemy's MP can make a battle far shorter than attempting to whittle down its health. To balance against this, both the HP and MP bars are used for performing special attacks, with physical attacks drawing from HP and magical attacks drawing from MP.

   Like previous entries in the series, Star Ocean 3 sees the return of a complex item creation system, and while it is unquestionably the most intricate system in the series, it is also by far the worst. This is primarily due to its poor user interface and complete opacity when it comes to explaining itself. There are several different types of item creation, and each character, as well as the various NPC crafters that can be hired throughout the game, have different skill levels in each of them. Some characters are good at smithing, while others excel at alchemy. The NPC crafters can be set to constantly work, creating random items that may or may not be useful and eventually become available in shops. To make something specific, the player can enter a workshop in nearly every major town in order to attempt to create something, and this is where the system simply falls apart.

Anti-attack auras are quite probably the most obnoxious aspect of the battle system. Anti-Attack Auras are quite possibly the most obnoxious aspect of the battle system.

   There are a lot of complexities to the item creation system, but despite this, the workings of the system are never explained to the player. In fact, much of the information the player receives regarding the item creation system is misleading, and in some cases completely false. The biggest fault lies in that, of all the items available to be created, one is selected and presented to the player completely randomly as what would appear to be a meaningless price tag. It's important to note that the game never actually informs the player that these random, meaningless prices correspond to a specific item. Without a strategy guide, most players are unlikely to ever make heads or tails of this system, at least not without incredible amounts of trial, error, and good old-fashioned guesswork.

   There is one aspect of the item creation system that is put together well, and that is synthesis and item refining. While previous Star Ocean games allowed the player to create new items, Star Ocean 3 takes it a step further by allowing the player to completely customize them. Using synthesis, special traits from other items can be grafted onto a weapon, making it more powerful. In addition, many of these traits can be enhanced by refining the item. While customizing equipment is a really great and fun idea, it, too, has its problems. For one thing, despite what one would logically assume, a character's skill in a certain item creation field does not affect the success rate of refining, meaning that it's better to choose characters based on what they can do to the overall cost rather than who's the most skillful. Even stranger, each character has a synthesis skill rating, despite the fact that synthesis has a one hundred percent success rate and those skill ratings have no meaning. The final drop in the bucket, unfortunately, is that in order to make good use out of refining and synthesis, items must first be created with the aforementioned item creation system.

   From a visual standpoint, Star Ocean 3 can be quite attractive. Environments are varied and character designs are excellent, particularly enemy designs which are incredibly numerous. A bit of palette swapping does occur, but for the most part, and particularly towards the end of the game, new enemies arrive regularly. Some of the attack effects can be incredibly flashy, but surprisingly, most of the flashiest moves are physical attacks rather than the spells that most games showcase. The game contains several pre-rendered cutscenes, and the difference in quality between them and the in-engine graphics is quite apparent.

   The voice acting is decent for the most part, but does get grating every so often. This is more the fault of poor dialogue than the actors in most situations, however. The musical score is among Motoi Sakuraba's best work. While a few of the more edgy pieces just don't fit with the settings they're placed in, for the most part the score sets an incredible mood. The song played in the city of Arias, in particular, is hauntingly beautiful.

   Star Ocean 3 is a decent game, but it has far too many flaws to be completely enjoyable. The game provides multiple difficulty settings, but in the end, its final difficulty is determined by how effectively the item creation system is used. Several difficulty spikes throughout the game bring this to the foreground quite profoundly, leaving the game feeling more unbalanced than anything else. The game is fairly lengthy, easily lasting upwards of forty hours, and plenty of bonus content, including two optional mid-game dungeons and several post-game dungeons, leaves a lot of room for extra playtime. Star Ocean 3 had several good ideas, but unfortunately it came with several bad ones, including an ending that many may find confusing or even nonsensical. Hopefully Star Ocean 4 will keep the good and leave the bad in a crater somewhere.

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