Four hundred years after Claude and Rena saved the universe in Star Ocean 2, the time has come for a new bunch of heroes to rise and protect reality as we know it. As far as college student Fayt Leingod is concerned, however, all he’s up for is a holiday with his family- complete with plenty of time spent in the battle simulator. When their holiday is interrupted by an attack from the alien Vendeeni, however, it catapults Fayt into an adventure that will see him visit new planets and meet new allies on a quest to protect the galaxy he calls home.
Even though I started Star Ocean 3 several years ago, it wasn’t until I played and completed SO2 that I felt compelled to go back to it, in the hopes that my enhanced knowledge of the real time battle system would help me master the game. Unfortunately, even with these new skills, the game was to be a bit of a slog, for whilst it undoubtedly had glimmers of greatness, even this Director’s Cut edition just wasn’t as slick, focused and enjoyable as it could have been.
In an advanced, futuristic universe…you get stuck on a primitive planet
On the back cover of the game, Star Ocean 3 promises that you will get to explore an advanced futuristic universe- what it doesn’t tell is that you will actually spend a good portion of the game stuck on the backwater planet of Elicoor II. As we shall see, however, disappointments like this crop up throughout the game, all detracting a little from the usual enjoyable Star Ocean experience.
Taking a step backwards from its predecessor, Star Ocean 3 does away with the world map, instead presenting an adventure where you have to run across the world with little options regarding teleportation even late in the game (for example, when I realised that I was lacking in items for the final boss, I had to make my way back through several dungeons just to find a shop and a place to heal). As you might imagine, then, backtracking is often the order of the day as you force Fayt and his companions to trek across the world- a situation made even worse if you can’t remember exactly how to get to a particular town or city because it’s been so long since your last visit.
As if to add insult to injury, the game also attempts to make you care about map completion by offering up a prize every time you explore 100% of a particular area. What this means is that you have to explore every little nook and cranny, no matter how monster-infested and seemingly inaccessible, just for the satisfaction of seeing a map properly completed. Worse yet, for some maps you’ll have to wait until you have a Hammer or Ring of Disintegration to enable you to blast away any rocks or stones that block your way. Here again, however, there is a caveat, for if the rocks hit you as they blow apart (or indeed if any kind of rolling rock hits you), you’ll be sent back to the beginning of the map. And just to add extra fun to the proceedings, there’s also a part where you have to run around some sand dunes without running out of water.
As well as all the usual out of battle options such as shops, inns, cut scenes and the like, Star Ocean 3 also offers its own take on item synthesis, in the form of workshops scattered across the world. Instead of having special abilities such as Music and Cooking in the menu as one did in SO2, the characters must now visit a workshop, pay to have it upgraded and then get to work on creating an item. In order to do this, you’ll have to select a particular type of invention (Writing, Smithery, Cooking and so forth) and then spend copious amounts of money trying to come up with a good invention. The more skilled your characters are in a particular department, the more quickly they’ll succeed at creating a higher quality item, but it’s up to you to recognise when they’ve stumbled on something and hit the X button before they spend more fruitless hours working. And don’t worry too much if none of your playable characters seemed particularly gifted in an area- you can also recruit NPC inventors across the world with money and items, at which point they will work on product development for you.
In a strange mirroring of real life, once a product has been created, you can actually file a patent for it, which actually just involves estimating its quality and the amount to put on sale. No matter what the outcome or who invented it, the product will go on sale in due course, although once it runs out of stock you’ll have to wait for it to be invented again; hardly a problem when the item is a “Useless Lump”, but slightly more irritating when it’s a valuable Resurrection Elixir.
On top of all this, there is also a synthesis option to be exploited, where instead of trying to make something from scratch, you improve upon an existing item. With this ability, you can add bonuses and elemental attacks to weapons, for example, boosting your abilities in preparation for some of the tougher bosses ahead.
Making a return appearance are the infamous Private Actions of the Star Ocean series- although this time they are not explicitly labelled as such, they follow the same principle of having your party split up when you enter a town so that Fayt can interact with them and build up a relationship with the other playable characters. As always, this affects the scenes you see in the ending; build up your relationships enough, and various characters will have a scene with Fayt- otherwise he just gets left alone.
Battle: Cutting Edge of Notion, aka “We must run away like cowards”
In case you’re wondering, “Cutting Edge of Notion” is the name of the track played in normal battles, to which I have fitted the lyrics “We must run away like cowards”, for reasons which I will expand upon later.
Instead of random encounters, this time around enemies appear on the map- get too close and they will make a beeline for you. If the enemy attacks you from behind, you’ll find yourself at a disadvantage, but naturally the opposite hold true if you sneak up on your foes.
As is customary for the Star Ocean series, the game throws menu and turn-based combat out of the window for a faster-paced and more engaging real time combat system. In battle you’ll have one player controlled character (switch who you control with L1 and R1) and two AI-controlled allies set out in a formation that can be changed in the menu (there are different formations to facilitate all out attack, rapid escapes, etc), with the object obviously being to run around the battlefield taking the enemy forces down. It’s a system that worked well in Star Ocean 2, but in typical “third game syndrome”, there have been a lot of tweaks and additions that both enhance and complicate game play.
In the old days, it was good enough to spam the buttons for your favourite attacks, but a new governing force in the world of SO3 now makes that impossible- the Fury bar. Fury is the game’s equivalent of stamina, depleting every time you take an action and refilling if you stand still for a second or two. If your Fury is at 0%, you can’t do anything except run around; conversely, if it is at 100%, you are completely protected from weak attacks by a barrier (a strong attack will break it, however). This barrier is known as the “Anti Attack Aura”, and although you’ll start with a standard one that just knocks back the enemy when they strike you, over the course of the game you can learn different AAAs that will protect you from attacks in various directions. Be warned, though- the Fury and AAA system applies to enemies as well, although in all except the hardest difficulty mode you can see the enemy’s fury and tailor your attacks accordingly. Additionally, later in the game your characters will learn the Berserk ability, which decreases Fury at the expense of a character’s defence.
In the old days, characters each had a basic attack and up to two special skills that could be triggered with the shoulder buttons, but again SO3 has chosen to mix things up by introducing the concept of range. Each playable character now has weak and strong attacks for long and short range, as well as the ability to set a special skill for each possibility. Skills are triggered by holding down Circle or X at short or long range, and if you enter the command for one skill whilst performing another, you can activate the “Cancel Bonus” effect, which progressively increases the damage done up to 300% of the norm when you chain attacks together in this way.
In order to use said skills in battle, you’ll not only have to level up enough to learn them, but you’ll also have to set them in the menu (along with up to two support skills that take effect automatically), but here again a caveat comes into play. Each skill costs a certain number of Capacity Points to set, and with a maximum of 15 CP available, it is impossible to just kit out a character with all of their deadliest skills- you must either choose a wide range of weaker skills, or one or two real killers. Bear in mind that unlike most special skills, these abilities won’t just drain your MP in battle- HP and of course Fury can also be expended.
Whilst in the menu, you’ll also notice that as well as setting up skills and Anti Attack Auras, you have the option to spend skill points accumulated from levelling up on enhancing your HP, MP, Attack and Defence. It’s important not to neglect this function, as the bonuses it offers are far greater than the minuscule increases gained at level up. Using this system, I was able to grant Cliff, a physical fighter, with a high amount of MP, whilst Sohpia’s lack of HP was entirely remedied- in fact, she ended up with HP in 10,000s (as per usual, the level limit is 255 and the usual 9999/999 HP/MP limits do not apply).
Naturally, it isn’t all about attacking, however- the usual options of magic and items are also on offer here. This time around, magic is known as Symbology, and whilst some characters can learn it automatically as they level up, others need to equip support skills that let them use it. Conveniently enough, you can also switch Symbology skills on and off in the menu, which should prevent AI-controlled characters from wasting all their MP on useless abilities in the heat of battle. Be warned, however, when it comes to actually casting Symbology, it takes time for both ally and enemy to charge their skill, which means that it can be cancelled with a well-placed attack- useful for stopping an enemy unleashing a killer move, but hardly welcome when they interrupt your much-needed healing spell.
When it comes to using items, again you will have to plan things a little more carefully than usual; for whilst items do take effect immediately, you can’t use another item straightaway. This restriction can be annoying when healing your party via items, although given that you can only carry up to 20 of each item, perhaps it’s just as well that you can’t use them up too fast.
Also available in battle are “tactical skills” such as the ability to activate and deactivate Berserk or scan the enemy’s HP, although, like items you have to wait between uses. It is also possible to change the tactics used by AI-controlled characters both in and out of battle, although often enough the AI seems content to have both characters run off to the far side of the field, leaving you to fight alone against the enemy.
As if all this wasn’t enough to take in, there’s one more important thing to not about SO3, and that is that unlike most games, reaching 0 MP means that your character gets KO’ed (don’t worry, you’ll never be allowed to cast a spell that takes either your HP or MP down to zero). This is undoubtedly something that will cause annoyance at first- not only because it limits tendencies to spam the enemy with magic whilst also allowing them to MP kill you, but because of its sheer unfamiliarity. Much as it can be a pain, however, if you learn to employ it correctly, MP killing can be a tool as useful to you as to the enemy- if they have massive HP, try using an MP draining ability to kill them that much faster.
With all this to keep track of, it’s no wonder that the SO3 battle system takes a bit more getting used to than that of SO2- and this time you probably won’t be able to clear the game just by spamming the attack and special skill buttons. This would all be fair enough, but the game will also punish you for not taking advantage of the item creation and synthesis systems properly- if you can’t be bothered to undertake the trouble of making uber-weapons and accessories for your team, even simple battles quickly become too tough to be enjoyable. With an absence of heal points and long dungeons to travel through, battle quickly becomes a lengthy chore, to the point where it is just easier to run away all the time and just focus on boss battles with the occasional bout of levelling up where needed.
At this point, you may be wondering if there’s any sort of reward for putting yourself through all this, and as it turns out, there is. On all but the easiest difficulty level, the game offers you the option to collect Battle Trophies, awards given out for everything from the simplicity of running away a certain number of times to the fiendishly difficult task of defeating practically every boss in the game under one minute and without your controlled character taking damage. The rewards for collecting Battle Trophies include unlocking harder difficulty levels (of dubious merit), alternate skins for playable characters and even a special versus battle mode.
Of the ten playable characters available in the Director’s Cut edition of the game, you can recruit eight in any one play through. Fayt, Sophia, Cliff, Maria, Adray and Mirage will all join automatically during the course of the game, but whilst they are all playable at various points in the story, only two of Roger, Peppita, Nel and Albel can become full-time members of your party.
- Fayt Leingod: as the main character, you’ll be seeing a lot of Fayt, and in typical fashion he’s a swordsman and good all-rounder. Easy to play as, Fayt has many useful multi-hit skills such as Side Kick, Dimension Door, Air Raid and Blade of Fury (the latter of which is strong but hard to chain with anything), as well as the MP-reducing Aerial. He can also imbue his blade with various elemental and MP-damaging properties, which, if used wisely, can bring down enemies even more rapidly.
- Sophia Esteed: although she appears right at the start, Sophia does not become properly playable again until Disc 2, whereupon you discover that she is a measly Level One. Nonetheless, it is worth taking the time to level her up, since she is a solid mage and powerful healer.
- Cliff Fittir: A powerhouse attacker, Cliff is a solid physical fighter who will come in handy right from the moment he joins the party. With his powerful fist skills, he can quickly dispatch the enemy, although he does have to get up close to do it.
- Nel Zelpher: Although swifter and weaker than Fayt, Nel makes another good all-rounder for the team, skilled in both fast attack skills and various different types of magic. I relied on her throughout disc one, but thanks to accidentally recruiting Peppita, I couldn’t bring her back on board in disc two.
- Maria Traydor: Although she seemed weak and pointless when she first join, I’ve actually grown to greatly like using Maria, not only because she’s well represented in both short and long range attacks, but because there’s a unique satisfaction in sniping the enemy from afar by chaining Scatter Beam and Aiming Device. If, like me, you managed to mess up getting Nel, then you’ll probably be relying a lot on Maria.
- Albel Nox: The typical HARD GAY anti-hero, Albel is the swift swordsman that everyone wants on their party- until they realise that he’s a weaker choice than Fayt, Cliff or Nel. I do quite like to have him on my party, but when the going gets tough, he tends to get KO’ed.
- Roger S Huxley: The typical juvenile pervert, Roger can be used in disc one even if you choose not to permanently recruit him, but he’s always miles behind the other characters and hardly worth spending time on.
- Adray Lasbard: A warrior who can also use magic, Adray can be temporarily used in disc one but returns permanently in disc two, by which point you’re loathe to bother levelling him up when you’ve already got a decent party.
- Mirage Koas: I have to admit that I’ve never actually used Mirage; she’s a fist fighter like Cliff, but by the time she joined in disc two, it hardly seemed worth bringing her out.
- Peppita Rossetti: I hate Peppita, and it’s not just because of her irritating personality- it’s because my accidental recruiting of her meant that I couldn’t get Nel back in disc two. She also joins the party at Level One, making her perfectly suited for sitting on the bench and never being asked to take part in battle.
Star Ocean 3’s story is one that has sparked no small amount of controversy, laden as it is with a revelation that affects not only this game and its characters, but the entire Star Ocean series. Needless to say, the twist did not sit easy with me either, and indeed, although the creator seemed to consider it the ultimate expression of the Star Ocean universe, overall the story just seems a bit lacking.
Although the universe and its characters certainly seem like an interesting place, the trouble with the story is that never seems to see anything through. What starts as fleeing from the Vendeeni (a largely pointless and undeveloped enemy, it must be said) turns into an extended episode about the conflict on the planet Elicoor II, before going back to space for more Vendeeni woes before they get put aside in favour of the ‘twist’ part of the storyline. Admittedly it’s not as rushed and unfinished as its predecessor, but there’s still the feeling of the writers being unable to settle on one storyline and thus trying to include three.
Although 3D games are always doomed to be overshadowed by the latest and greatest titles, Star Ocean 3 is at least solid enough when it comes to characters and backgrounds, although it could have done with some kind of world map or at least easier navigation across maps and dungeons. The original character designs range from the attractive to the generic, with Fayt, Sophia, Nel and Maria standing out above the rest.
As far as music goes, SO3 offers a solid selection of themes that complement the game well without ever being the kind of thing that most people would want to listen to its own- as usual, the battle and boss themes are catchy, but the rest is largely forgettable. As far as voice-acting goes, the English dub is a bit cringe-worthy, but as there’s no Japanese alternative, it has to be endured.
Despite being given more time and attention in the development phase than Star Ocean 2, SO3 loses a lot of the fun that made its predecessor so memorable; whilst it certainly is a solid game, a lot of the time basic battle becomes so tedious that you just want to get yourself through it as quickly as possible. Those looking for a battle system that’s more complex than the norm will no doubt lap it up, but when it comes to the addictive pick-up and play factor, this instalment in the series is sadly lacking.