Last Rant on Videogames: An Ocean of Stars [Star Ocean: Till the End of Time]

Somehow, I have failed to mention my abiding love for the Tales series on the show.  I'm not really sure how that is, as it's a mix of two of my favorite genres.

For those of you who don't know, the Tales series consists of games like Tales of Phantasia, Tales of Symphonia, and the rather more popular (and recent) Tales of Vesperia.  If you've never played any of these games, it's a pretty standard JRPG-esque game.  You have mostly random encounters, anime styled characters, generally cheesy but enjoyable plots, and a pretty standard leveling system.  You also have a tech point system that allows you to master individual combat skills through repeated use.  The thing that really sets these games apart is that when you enter combat, you are placed directly in control of one of the characters.  Fights then take on a style similar to a 2D fighter where you mash silly combos into the random bug or dog carrying money.  The rest of your party, while you may take active control of them, is generally dictated by a strategy that you assign them off of a list.  Tales of Phantasia, my introduction to this series, continues to be one of my favorite games.  It's fast paced, has some pretty fun plot twists, and a large and fairly malleable world to explore.

However, I'm not talking about this series today.  Instead, I'm talking about Star Ocean: Till the End of Time.  Yes, it's "Till" and not "'Til" or "Until."  I like to imagine it's referring to making a large farm out of the end of the universe.

The reason I mention Tales is because the two series share a common history.  If you've ever played games from both, this probably won't surprise you much.  The team that went on to develop Star Ocean made the first Tales game.  After selling off the property (which I believe has been handled fairly well since), they went on to develop Star Ocean, the first entry in that series.

Star Ocean takes a slightly more open stance on battle.  Rather than run back and forth in relation to your current target, as you do in Tales games, you are free to run about the battle field.  When you attack, however, you generally make a straight line for your target.  This allows you a bit more opportunity to try to avoid attacks, and lends  a slightly more realistic feel to combat.  Realistic, however, is a relative term, as you're free to fling giant fireballs and create electromagnetic disasters in both games.

I tried to play the original Star Ocean once.  I didn't get too far, and I honestly don't remember why.  I do remember that each character had an inordinate number of skills, ranging from cooking to swordplay.  In the tenderness of my youth, I may have been daunted by the perceived complexity of the system.  At any rate, I dropped the game, but remained intrigued by the idea.  It probably didn't help that I went on to play Tales of Phantasia roughly twenty times.

Therefore, my first real experience with the series, and, to date, my only experience, was Star Ocean: Till the End of Time.  For those of you who don't know, each entry in the series is only loosely connected to the others, mostly sharing a setting consisting of a fairly advanced science fiction universe.  The game centers around a young man named Fayt on vacation with his parents and childhood friend Sophia.  Fayt, as Alex and I jest, is a space hippie, who just wants everyone in the universe to hug each other.  Space pirates attack, there's some evacuation, more space pirates... Things proceed like this until Fayt is stranded alone on a pre-industrial world with a beat up escape pod. 

Speaking of which, one of the major criticisms with this game, which I do not share, is that you spend the majority of the game on a world where the pinnacle of technology is gunpowder when the setting around you contains ships capable of traversing the galaxy in a fairly reasonable amount of time.  As far as I'm aware, these games always tend to be that way.  I'm a fairly avid proponent of mixing my traditional fantasy with my science fiction, and such a setting happens to be a happy marriage of the two.

I can't talk too much about the plot quite yet without getting into fairly massive spoilers, so I'm going to talk a few moments about gameplay.  First, this game shares the hallmark of its ancestors: fast paced open combat.  A variety of tactics are available, and can vary strongly within individual characters, much less all the different ones you eventually have access to.  You can focus on just punching opponents in the face (hunting Australian style, as I like to say), slinging spells to the same effect, mashing weak attacks that do extra damage to the opponents' MP reserves (since running out of MP or HP kills), or being a support caster.  Really, there's opportunity here for you to engage in combat however you feel, which is a refreshing change of pace.  However, given the nature of the system, finding combos and chaining between special attacks is highly encouraged, and you'll find yourself just beating upon the walls of your enemies' bodies more often than not.

You also have the ability to, with large sums of money, craft items of varying sorts.  There are invention centers across the world that you can cough up some cash to add facilities to.  Each character has some skill in every crafting area, and various NPCs around the world may be recruited to further your item making goals.  The crafting itself is a little odd, however.  Rather than finding materials and attempting to combine them, which has generally become the standard, you pick a team of up to three people to work on something.  Whenever you add a member or choose a type of crafting, a cost per attempt is displayed.  Higher costs require higher group skill, but yield better items.

When you're ready, you tell everyone to start, and a timer runs down while you're treated to a montage of your team attempting to make things.  The actions of each character during the montage are dictated by their skill in the subject, which can be rather amusing at times.   Depending on various factors, time will run down and consume your money as each attempt at producing the item is engaged.  It's generally a fairly boring process, but also pretty quick.  There's a whole system around this, but you don't ever have to participate; it is, in fact, quite possible to beat the game without ever touching it.

The plot is generally well-paced, though it does tend to drag in spots.  I went to this game directly after giving up on Suikoden IV, however, so it seemed at the time to be a blazing guided rocket by comparison.  I'm going to start getting into some spoilers for what is now a nearly ten year old game.  I'd be surprised if you haven't played it but are still considering it, but I'm going to warn you just in case.

The plot plays out basically as follows.

Fayt is stranded on a backwards planet after an attack of what I earlier called space pirates, which are actually an alien race called the Vendeeni, and decides to help the locals after he learns of some information that implies that another offworlder has been terrorizing them.  He finds out that the guy is not only insane, but also a wanted criminal.  A member of the organization Quark, Cliff, comes to the rescue.  Due to some science fictiony nonsense, his species developed super powers, so he just ends the guy.

Fayt is placed under quasi-arrest as Cliff and his partner, Mirage, head back to headquarters.  On the way, however, the group is again attacked the Vendeeni, causing them to crash land on Elicoor II, where most of the game takes place.  This place is slightly more advanced than the last planet, but still pretty far off from space flight.  Cliff and Fayt are taking prisoner while Mirage ninjas away to go do some covert things.  I guess she's good at that.  It's actually implied several times over the course of the game that Mirage is something of a mentor figure to Cliff even though she's mostly subservient to him.

At any rate, our two haphazard heroes are sitting in prison when a member of the opposing nation in a two-sided war on the continent comes to save them.  Nel, the ninja style woman who saves them, is convinced they are engineers from a neutral country and escorts them back to her homeland under the pretense of having them make some sort of super weapon to end the war.  Some war stuff happens, and Fayt seriously starts to question why both the Vendeeni and the organization Quark are so interested in him.  After hanging around with Nel for a while and finally getting back to the capital, the Vendeeni attack.

The reason everyone's interested in Fayt is revealed to the audience, although not to him.  The poor kid blacks out afterwards.  As it turns out, he's the result of his parents' experiments in genetic engineering.  Magic in this universe is cast by drawing specific patterns on things and saying specific words, which basically causes quantum particles to realign the local space into whatever effect the user desired.  To accomplish this, many who use magic, or symbology, have the symbols they need carved into themselves.  Some, like Fayt, actually have a specific sequence in their DNA that acts as the required symbol.  Fayt, under great duress, shoots a giant laser at one of the Vendeeni battleships and takes it out of orbit.  He blacks out, and his counterpart and leader of Quark, Maria, arrives to save the day.

Before continuing with the plot, I must say that Maria's a pretty epic badass.  However, I play the game for Cliff.  He's a tongue in cheek womanizer, fairly arrogant, and generally amazing.  Fayt's still a hippie.

At any rate, everyone finds out that an ancient relic of the planet is what the more advanced civilizations call an out of place artifact.  The heroes race against the Vendeeni to secure it, and, of course, succeed.  There's some stuff with Fayt's dad, but he dies, so we don't get much substantial out of it.

Shortly after this, some sort of super beings that are being called Executioners start destroying space outposts indiscriminately across the galaxy under the orders of a being called the Creator.  Based on a small tidbit from Fayt's father, the crew travels to Luna to find out more about his research.  As it turns out, Fayt, Maria, and Sophia, Fayt's girlfriend, were all children resulting from genetic experiments.  As it turns out, all of their parents were part of the project.  Fayt's father decided after talking to an AI on a planet called Styx that the galaxy would need to rebel against, or at least defend itself from, the Creator at some point.

Acting upon this information, the crew eventually arrives on Styx while the Executioners set up them up the bomb.  They manage to, with the help of the newly recovered Sophia, go through a "time" portal governed by the resident AI.  They step through to a new universe, though one that does not appear too much more advanced than their own.  At this point, everyone finds out that the universe in which we, the players, live, is part of a fairly popular online game.  The universe that created is a bit odd.  It is considered a high privilege to work, and society is basically controlled by a few organizations.

This is the point where many of the long term fans of this series started disliking the game.  For some reason, the universe being a game is seen as cheapening the actions of the previous heroes in the series.  I, however, think that a virtual reality is no less important than "actual" reality, but we're venturing dangerously near Plato's cave, so I'll wander away.

At any rate, the corporation that creating the game decided that the inhabitants coming into full sentience and developing free will is a bad thing.  I have no idea why.  As a programmer, I'd be ecstatic.  At any rate, the Executioners are revealed to be a clean up program.  The crew decides to try to put an end to this, and eventually meets with the group of developers who actually worked on the game.  Not wanting to see their creation ruined, they help our heroes by giving them an anti-anti-virus to rid the game universe of the executioners.  A side note here, but the gods worshiped by Nel's culture are actually the developers you meet here.

Some action to try to stop the deletion of reality takes place, culminating in a fight against the "real" universe's greatest programmer and owner of the game corporation.  You win, stop the deletion of the universe (but somehow the owner is deleted), and the characters go about their lives.  Yay!

The game ends differently depending on how much other characters cared about you, which can be affected by talking to them in towns in between major plot events.  Additionally, there are several characters that are optional in your party.  There are, in fact, four such characters, though you can only recruit two.  The game also continues after the ending.  If you're a big enough fan of the combat system, it's a fun diversion and yields many of the game's best items.

All this now out of the way, my final thoughts on the game are generally positive.  The plot is fairly fun, and not one I've run across in a videogame before.  The combat's fast and addicting, though the bosses can act as pretty steep difficulty cliffs.  If you've not yet played this, or any other game in the Star Ocean series, I highly recommend you do so.  This game was in fairly wide print for the PS2, so I don't imagine it would be terribly difficult to pick up a copy.  Also, if you're into setting fluff like I am, there's an in-game dictionary that defines the history and technology behind almost everything, which is a mildly interesting read.

Until the end of (next) time!