Star Ocean: Till The End Of Time
Sony PlayStation 4
I have a lot of PS2 games. An awful lot. Many of them are still in shrinkwrap, taunting me from the bookcase, knowing that — as much as I’d like to — I’ll probably never get the chance to play even half of them. These are some great games too, completely untouched. The likes of Okami and Odin Sphere mingles with a wealth of Suikoden, Xenosaga and other JRPG titles. Even Resident Evil 4 languishes there, a game I’ve still somehow managed not to play despite it basically getting released fifty times in various forms on every single console since its creation.
The thought of booting up my battle-worn PS2 fills me with dread. However, all is not lost. Thanks to the Big Three’s insistence on dredging up games from their past catalogues and then porting, remastering or reskinning them as required, we’re now able to take a trip back in time and play those games in digital form on our shiny new consoles. Star Ocean: Till The End Of Time is part of the “PS2 on PS4” program on the PlayStation store, a series of re-releases which has received the upscaling treatment. It has sat patiently for over ten years on my shelf waiting for me to play it, so while I was reticent to do so, I fired up the PS2 to compare the two versions. Very little has changed.
As JRPGs go, it isn’t bad. It’s just derivative. Every element you can think of that a JRPG could incorporate has been thrown into the mix. There’s the obligatory teenaged hero with blue hair, the burly sidekick, the appalling voice-acting, the NPCs labelled by their appearance, the wealth of Important Names and Places highlighted in various colours during conversations, the overly confusing plot encompassing a horde of kingdoms, factions, leaders and enemies which all apparently tie together...the tropes go on and on.
The story, then: after an unprovoked attack from an alien civilisation whilst on vacation with his family, Fayt Leingod ends up in an escape pod and then stranded on an underdeveloped planet, separated from his parents and his friend Sophia. The ensuing war in space is parallelled by the one on the ground, where two medieval-era kingdoms vie for Fayt’s technological prowess. Other parties, including an assassin, a circus performer and a rebel terrorist join Fayt at various stages as the plot develops, and they all have interesting motivations. Fayt’s search for his parents leads to some planet-hopping and surprising twists, but the overarching sci-fi narrative soon becomes mired in its own complexity, especially as you try to keep track of which faction is at war with which, and for what purpose.
We’ve been spoiled by two generations’ worth of stellar RPGs since, so judging this one by its modern-day competition isn’t really a fair comparison — except to say that this entry in the Star Ocean series is by far the best. Even so, voiced dialogue is stilted and awkward, and cutscenes contain a bizarre number of pauses at times, which often made me wonder if the game had simply hung. Text conversations, especially around town, are little more than filler. They give a flavour to any given area, but the western translation is little more than average.
Thankfully, as with many JRPGs, combat goes some way to overcoming the narrative deficiencies. Given its age, the battle system was — at the time — a revelation: a real-time mash-up of light and heavy attacks combined with skills, spells and combos. You’re able to switch between any of your three team members at any point, and the AI for controlling them is very competent indeed. So much so, that they often put your own handling to shame; the method of chaining and cancelling attacks to build up more powerful strikes can often be cumbersome, and ensuring you’re assigning a relevant skill to each of your attack buttons often determines the outcome of a fight.
A stamina meter known as Fury indicates how many more hits you can inflict before you need to retreat to refill it (by standing still, and leaving yourself vulnerable), but a full Fury bar can also repel enemy strikes and stun them — or worse. You can see the Fury bar of your foes too, and use it to determine whether a light attack will be sufficient to cause damage, or if you need to smash through their defences. It’s a frenetic system with a heap of different mechanics chucked in to learn, and enemies are varied enough to keep things interesting. Battle Trophies are also awarded for various feats in combat, such as winning without taking damage or within a certain timeframe, or by inflicting arbitrary amounts of damage.
Less enjoyable are some staples of the genre which could really have done with being improved, even before its initial release. While you can see enemies before you engage them, they respawn when you return to an area. At earlier levels, they can be unforgiving, and you’ll often find yourself darting past and locating an area to sit and grind your way up to a decent level of strength and HP. It’s a thirteen-year-old game, but it still shows its age despite the graphical touch-ups. Manipulating the camera using your pad’s shoulder buttons rather than the second stick really should have been consigned to history as, of all the game’s issues, this caused me the most problems by far. But this is a port, not a remaster, and it suffers because of it. The price is also eye-watering, given how little has actually been added to the title.
If you’re a fan of the series and didn’t get to experience it on PS2, you’ll want to pick up Till The End Of Time purely due to it being the series’ highlight. Otherwise, this third entry will be a divisive one, even amongst those who love JRPGs. Its combat is good, but everything else is simply unremarkable, and a basic port only serves to highlight how far game design has come since its release.