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Painful Characters vs Wonderful Battles
on 21 January 2010
Star Ocean 4 is a rather difficult game to recommend. On one hand the characters, the plot and a lot of the voice acting are pretty much abysmal. On the other, the exploration and item creation elements are good and the Battle System is superb. Which all adds up to something of a quandary.
To start with Star Ocean 4 looks great. It has a gorgeous sheen over everything. The environments are varied and the character models pleasing to the eye. Though admittedly all in a very anime fashion. The over all sound design is solid, with a fairly lush, if a bit hackneyed, orchestral score. The game runs smoothly and I've yet to find a screen tear, slow down, or indeed any kind of technical flaw in the title.
Added to this the exploration of the various planets which your cast discover, or inhabit, is good solid RPG fun. Chests, mining points, harvesting points are all nicely mixed in with monster slaying and the town exploration for shopping and ncp interaction. The ncps will give you a lot side quests, so many that you will often spend hours running about fulfilling these rather than being railroaded through the main plot. Which is, all in all, a good thing. The main plot is boring. It's such a tired retread of an RPG plot that you know what's going to happen in almost every situation. This is not improved by the lacklustre dialogue.
However the neither the plot, nor the dialogue, are the main disappointment in Star Ocean 4, the characters and voice acting are. As with the visual design and the plot the characters all seem to be drawn straight from anime stock and Tri-Ace have taken no liberties at all. We have our young, up-beat hero, who suffers his obligatory crisis of confidence a third of the way into the game and his boring but pleasant love interest. Throw in are an emo alien side kick, a tough guy cyborg warrior with a heart of gold, even tougher alien death machine and strong, sexually provocative, slightly older woman and most of the bases are covered. If it were only this bunch I would have been a bit bored with them, but not in the mood to make a big issue of it. Unfortunately there are three further characters and they are straight from the pits of anime hell. Little girl magician who's every sentence ends "'kay". A lolitaesque, pouting cat girl. And, horror of horrors, a simpering, ditzy, bespectacled angel. What moves them up from mere annoyances to out and out ghastliness is the voice acting of the trio. If you can imagine the worst, most eardrum scratchingly awful performances that could be done with these character types, then you'll probably just be heading off in the right direction for how truly atrocious they actually are.
So why after all that am I still ambivalent about whether to recommend this game or not? After all how can any amount of nice exploration and item creation make up for this sort of punishment? Well, it cant really. However the Battle System can. The Battle System is great. It's worth dealing with all the other nonsense, because once you get into it, you get hooked. At first sight it may seem too complex, as right off the bat you have half a dozen fight mechanics to learn and while the game does try to ease you into them with a lengthy tutorial, they can be pretty intimidating. If you persevere though the rewards are great. No matter how many fights I got into in this lengthy game I never once got bored of them. What gives the fighting longevity are three interrelated aspects. The first is that whatever the complexity of the system in conception it works out to be fast paced and beautifully fluid combat in practice. Secondly the game rewards you with a perfectly paced levelling system which introduces new moves which you learn to combine for hugely satisfying devastation. And third the game sports nine different characters each of whom has its own unique set of skills, magic and attacks. Learning all of them will take time, mastering all...? Suffice it to say the late game mixture of extensive dungeon crawling, or Battle Arena fighting allows you all the scope you could possibly want to play with this element of Star Ocean 4.
On balance the game is one I'm happy to recommend, though with obvious caveats. Yes the plot is regurgitated and the characters range from the bland to the appalling and the voice acting is truly some of the worst I've ever heard, but it looks wonderful, it has nice exploration and item creation and the fighting would grace any game from history.