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Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days - Full Review

Star Ocean: Second Evolution - Full Review

Star Ocean: First Departure - Full Review

In Japan in the summer of 1996, Enix published one of the final titles for the Super Famicom, Star Ocean, the first game developed by tri-Ace, founded by former members of Wolfteam, which worked on Tales of Phantasia. Due to a combination of Enix lacking an American branch at the time and their Japanese branch's No Export for You policies, the title would remain in Japan, despite gushing by Nintendo Power. Over a decade later, however, tri-Ace finally gave Anglophone players a chance to play the first Star Ocean in the form of a remake, Star Ocean: First Departure, which largely uses its own sequel's game engine and proves to be a solid rerelease.

The game opens up with a Terran (Earth) vessel being caught in the impact of a planet destroyed by Romulans the Lezonians, although the ship survives the impact. The first Star Ocean is the only game in the series to feature an alien protagonist, Roddick, who lives on Planet Roak and is a Fellpool, sort of a human with a tail, kind of like the Genomes in Final Fantasy IX. Because the Lezonians unleashed a chemical weapon on Roak, its inhabitants are turning into stone, and Ronyx J. Kenny and Ilia Silvestri of the Terran Alliance (parents of Star Ocean 2 hero Claude Kenny), hope to find a cure for the plague, in violation of the Prime Directive Underdeveloped Planet Preservation Pact (UP3). However, since the host of the virus is long gone and three centuries in the past, it's up to Deus Ex Machina the Time Gate on Planet Styx to take Roddick, his friend Millie, Ronyx, and Ilia, to Roak three hundred years in the past in hopes of finding the cure and saving their planet.

The remake largely uses its sequel's randomly encountered real-time battle engine, with the player's party of up to four active characters squaring off against a number of enemies. The player controls one of the characters while the A.I. controls the others, with a number of A.I. options being available outside battle. Characters can attack normally, use MP-consuming attack skills, use magic if available (which requires a charge time beforehand, during which the enemy can cancel spell execution, and after which the character must wait before being able to use magic again), use an item (with a wait time after item use), change ally A.I., or attempt to escape.

When the player wins a battle (with fights typically lasting less than half a minute) all living characters without paralysis or petrifaction gain experience, alongside money. Level-ups reward a character with increased stats and skill points the player can invest into various personal skills outside battle, with skills bought from special shops, and which can increase character stats, allow for useful combat maneuvers, and allow for greater success in item creation. Item creation requires certain raw materials purchased from shops, with the rate of success usually being low unless the player makes use of the Orchestra Super Specialty, bequeathed from the sequel.

Sure to disappoint the vocal minority that believes easy games automatically suck is that First Departure is not a terribly difficult game, and can be even easier if the player does sidequests like the arena and makes decent use of the item creation system. The battle system works, with the pacing of combat being excellent, and the encounter rate and even difficulty of fights (which in turn increases rewards from battle) being adjustable with certain skills. The only real hiccups are the inability to cancel escape, the slight delay between using an item and its execution (which can sometimes result in wasted healing items if a character dies during the healing process), and the rare tendency of characters to wander aimlessly around the battlefield before actually attacking a targeted enemy.

Interaction is just as solid, with an easy menu system, good direction on how to advance the main storyline, quick and efficient shopping, and an "equipment wizard" where the game automatically equips characters with better equipment when acquired. Furthermore, the remake replaces the original version's realistic world exploration with a less realistic overworld connecting towns and dungeons, sure to pacify fans of the game-padding gimmick. There are some minor faults such as the lack of transportation other than Roddick's feet and ships between port towns and the inability to exit dungeons quickly until a certain item late in the game becomes available, but coupled with the PlayStation Portable's built-in pause and quicksave, First Departure is a user-friendly title.

It's always unfair to damn a remake for unoriginality, with the original Star Ocean being inventive for a Super Famicom title with its real-time battle system and sci-fi plot, though it does borrow from Star Trek, and the remake largely uses its own sequel's gameplay engine. As for the story itself, it's actually decent despite its derivative nature, and the little time spent in the titular Star Ocean, with a nice cast of characters and Private Actions in towns adding a bit more story for characters, sometimes having an effect on the ending, which can vary with whatever different characters the player obtains. That the story is largely from the aliens' point of view is also a nice break from the science-fiction stories typically told from the Earthlings' perspective. Overall, the story holds up decently even in the remake.

The remixed soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba is nice as well, and the voice acting is competent, in spite of Ronyx and older males sounding a bit like the Chinpokomon announcer from South Park, and Ilia at times sounding a bit like Lisa Simpson. The remake also uses its sequel's graphics engine combining 2-D sprites with photorealistic environments, which, alongside occasional anime cutscenes, looks nice, although the overworld is a tad foggy. Ultimately, the game sounds and looks superb.

Finally, the remake isn't a terribly lengthy game, taking somewhere from twenty to forty hours to finish, a bit longer with sidequests and the post-game dungeon. In conclusion, Star Ocean: First Departure is an ideal example of a remake, improving upon the original version in just about every aspect while filching elements from its successor, no less. There are some negligible flaws such as the little time spent in the titular Star Ocean, although the game is nonetheless a must-own title for PlayStation Portable owners, who will relish at the chance to play the game legally for once.

The Good:
+Quick and painless battle system.
+Good story and characters.
+Sounds and looks great.

The Bad:
-Some missable characters.
-No warp magic.
-Not enough time spent in titular Star Ocean.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Portable
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Controls: 8/10
Story: 8/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 9/10
Localization: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty:
Playing Time: 20-45 Hours

Overall: 9/10
Before Square teamed up with Disney to produce the Kingdom Hearts series, they joined Nintendo to produce an RPG featuring their mascot plumber Mario. As Square was competent at developing RPGs, and Nintendo had developed its own such as the Mother series, this was naturally a match made in heaven, with their joint title, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, even today still being the best Mario RPG.

Like most other Mario games, the story opens in the Mushroom Kingdom, a nation on par with Hyrule and Latin America in terms of kidnappings, with Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach of House Toadstool, and Mario paying a visit to Bowser's stronghold to rescue her. During his battle with Bowser, a giant sword falls from the heavens into the fortress, with the titular MacGuffins falling across the world as well, separating Mario, Peach, and Bowser. Afterward, Mario embarks on a quest to recover the fallen Stars to repair the shattered Star Road, gaining a few friends along the way.

As Mario and his party wander the game's isometric fields and dungeons, they can get into fights with visible enemies wandering about. Once in a while, however, Mario might receive temporary Star Power from a floating item box, allowing him to run into enemies and instantly kill them without actually going into battle. Killing enemies nets coins and experience, with level-ups will occasionally occurring (and a level cap of thirty for all characters), where the leveling character's stats naturally increase, new Flower Point-consuming skills are occasionally learned, and the player is able to choose one of three bonus stat increases for physical attack/defense, hit points, or magical attack/defense.

Most of the time, however, the player will be taken to a separate screen for battle after contacting an enemy, with Mario and two of his four allies acquired throughout the game having a number of options to execute against their foes, which execute immediately after the player inputs them. Among these is normally attacking, with a timed button press allowing for additional damage against an enemy. Each character can also use skills that consume Flower Points, which the entire party shares and which the player can occasionally increase with special items, and most of which have greater effect depending upon timed button presses or button-mashing.

Characters can also use consumable items (with a cap on inventory space that adds some balance to the battle system), after which the player may gain a "freebie," in which case another consumable item appears in the inventory. Finally, characters can defend to reduce damage (with timed button presses reducing damage from enemy attacks, as well) or attempt to escape, which doesn't work all the time. There's also no indication of turn order, although luckily, turn order mostly remains consistent, and the battle system ultimately provides plenty of fun, and occasional challenge, at times, with the only real flaw being the lack of spell and item descriptions during combat.

It would have also been nice if the player could tell how equipment affected characters' stats before buying it, although more expensive gear tends to be more powerful anyway, and the rest of control is generally tight, with gameplay outside battle somewhat resembling that in non-RPG Mario games, what with jumping and platforming sometimes being necessary to advance, translated to isometric environs, no less. If the player doesn't know how to advance, moreover, they can always talk to Frogfucious in Tadpole Pond to get a clue on where to go next. All in all, interaction is well above average.

Super Mario RPG was the first game in its time to translate classic Mario gameplay into an isometric RPG, naturally borrowing many elements from that series such as the characters and platforming. Although there would be future Mario RPGs, the first has yet to receive a true spiritual successor, and is still distinct even today.

While the game's narrative begins with Mario seeking to rescue Princess Peach, it quickly evolves into a surprisingly good plot, with all characters having some kind of story behind them (the writers seemed to love Mallow in particular), a few nice plot twists, and decent contribution to the Mario mythos, what with plenty of familiar and original characters. The translation is also one of the best of the Super NES era, with plenty of humor and occasional cultural references, but there are some minor mistranslations such as "NokNok Shell" (with Nokonoko being the Japanese name of the Koopas). Even so, the story is easily one of the greatest of the 16-bit era of RPGs.

Yoko Shimomura provides Super Mario RPG's soundtrack, with a few remixes of Koji Kondo's Mario themes and plenty of original ones as well; standout tracks include the Forest Maze theme and most town themes. The sound effects largely consist of those present in standard Mario games, which certainly aren't out of place. The only real fault is the short battle theme, which loops after less than a minute during longer fights. Even so, the aurals definitely serve their purpose.

Super Mario RPG featured an early example of prerendered environments and character/enemy sprites, giving the game a borderline photorealistic appearance, with the visuals looking much better than those in even a few future Mario RPGs, not to mention PlayStation titles. There is some minor graphical slowdown in places with lots of sprites or sprite movement, but the game looks fantastic even by modern standards.

Finally, the game is fairly short for an RPG, about fifteen hours or so, but fun nonetheless. Overall, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars was a solid start for Mario RPGs, with just about all its aspects being all-around solid, from the fun gameplay to the lighthearted plot to the superb music and graphics. Future Mario RPGs don't come close to matching its grandeur, and more unfortunately, the game has yet to receive a true spiritual successor.

The Good:
+Still the best Mario RPG.
+Actually has a good plot.
+Nice music and graphics.

The Bad:
-Some minor graphical slowdown.
-The game ends.
-Doesn't have any direct sequels.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: SNES
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Controls: 9/10
Story: 10/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 9/10
Localization: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 8/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: Less than 20 Hours

Overall: 9/10
An editorial somewhat inspired by this about the Star Wars fandom, but this time based on the Final Fantasy Fandom:

There's a diabolical twist to the fandom of the two-decade-old Final Fantasy series, one defying all comprehension yet being the blood of all Final Fantasy fans: Final Fantasy fans hate Final Fantasy. If you run into someone who thinks the series is quite enjoyable, owns every game, spinoff, and the movies, these imposters apparently aren't true Final Fantasy fans; Final Fantasy fans hate Final Fantasy.

Whereas Dragon Quest fans largely admire its creators, scenario writer Yuji Horii, artist Akira Toriyama, and composer Koichi Sugiyama, most Final Fantasy fans seem to harbor resentment towards its creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi, how he had the franchise constantly evolve and changed its gameplay mechanics, how the series was generally one of the most revolutionary in RPG history. More resentment towards him came after his abandonment of the series, foundation of his own company, Mistwalker, and generally lukewarm reception of its titles released in North America.

Final Fantasy fans also hate the original Final Fantasy, particularly the horribly sluggish battles, tedious grinding, and nonexistent story. Fans even hate the PlayStation remake, as it generally retained the original's old-school mechanics, and the Gameboy Advance version even more, given its save-anywhere feature and more standard MP system.

Final Fantasy fans hate Final Fantasy II, as well, how Square kept in Japan for a little over a decade before finally allowing it beyond Japan in the form of the PlayStation remake. Even so, fans hated the second installment when it did come overseas, particularly Akitoshi Kawazu's alteration of the sequel's mechanics that would influence his surprisingly-long-running and equally-detested SaGa series. Fans hated the Star Wars-esque story, and the potential to exploit the game's mechanisms in their favor.

Final Fantasy fans further hate Final Fantasy III, how it became the only installment of the series not to see foreign release until the Nintendo DS version, which fans nonetheless detested when it received foreign release, given its old-school mechanics, grinding, minimal plot, and the "ugly" 3-D graphics.

Final Fantasy fans hate Final Fantasy IV, how it came overseas with the phony moniker of Final Fantasy II, despite its introduction of the fabled active-time battle system and having an actual plot for a change, not to mention its translation with "classic" lines such as "You spoony bard!" Fans hated the Gameboy Advance version as well, for some reason nitpicking about the "virus sound," as well as the Nintendo DS version, its own "ugly" 3-D graphics, its voice acting, its incarnation of active-time battles, its lack of the GBA extras, how it kept the dated "spoony bard" line, and the added story.

Final Fantasy fans hate Final Fantasy V, too, how Square again for some time kept it in Japan, yet still hated it when it did get foreign release, particularly the subpar translation, infantile plot, the class system, the grinding, and how it was generally more difficult than average for a Final Fantasy. Fans hate the Gameboy Advance port, as well, the added content, and the translation rife with pop-culture references.

Final Fantasy fans also hate Final Fantasy VI, originally translated with the phony moniker Final Fantasy III, hate the stuffy dialogue, hate Ted Woolsey, hate the Esper system, and generally think the game is overrated. Fans further hate the Gameboy Advance version, its subpar sound quality and how it excised "classic" lines in the original translation, despite being truer to the Japanese script.

When Final Fantasy VII debuted on the Sony PlayStation, fans hated it with even more burning passion, how their beloved hero Hironobu Sakaguchi became a Quisling to Nintendo, hated its own active-time battles, hated the liberal Materia system, hated how battles only had three characters instead of four, hated the Lego-man character models, hated Sephiroth, hated the new character artist, Tetsuya Nomura, and generally think it's overrated.

Final Fantasy VIII gets even more abhorrence. Fans hate the Junction system, the Draw system, Triple Triad, the convoluted plot, the love story, the soundtrack, think the graphics were its only saving grace, and generally think it to be the worst of the series.

Even when Final Fantasy IX attempted to return the series to its roots, fans hated it, as well. Fans hated the long load times preceding battles how the active-time battles were slow even on the fastest setting, hated the plot, hated the characters, hated the derivative soundtrack, hated Tetra Master, and hated how the visuals were a step down from the eighth installment's.

Then came Final Fantasy X on the PlayStation 2, and the franchise's unpleasable fanbase grew ever more irate. Fans hated the revolutionary Sphere Grid system, hated the mini-games, hated the absence of an unrealistic donut-shaped overworld where the protagonist became a forty-foot giant, hated the annoying protagonist, hated the plot, hated the voice acting, hated that awful laughing scene, hated the subpar soundtrack, and thought the graphics were its only saving grace, in spite of Nomura's "awful" character designs.

Final Fantasy XI came along soon afterward, with fans hating how it was a massively-multiplayer online RPG focused on quests and grinding, and most refusing to play it.

Then came the long-awaited Final Fantasy XII after a while of development hell, and fans hate it ever more. Fans hate the Shakespearean translation, dialogue, and voice acting, hate the plot, hate how it rips off Star Wars, hate the License Board system, hate the Gambit system, and once more think the graphics, and to a lesser extent to soundtrack, are its saving graces.

Fans even hate the Final Fantasy spinoffs, beginning with Final Fantasy Tactics, given the subpar translation, cutesy noseless character art, and unbalanced class system. Fans hate the PlayStation Portable rerelease as well, hate the non-campy polished translation, hate the cel-shaded cutscenes, hate the lower musical quality, hate the occasional graphical slowdown, hate the cameos by characters from other Ivalice games, and again hate the unbalanced mechanics. Fans hate the portable sequels to Final Fantasy Tactics as well, how they were generally a step down, gameplay and story-wise, from the original FFT.

Final Fantasy X-2, which became the first direct Final Fantasy sequel, had fans vomiting at its girlish disposition, some outright boycotting it, hating the fine-tuned class system and active-time battles, hating the girly plot, hating the recycled graphics, hating the music, just thinking it to be an absolute disgrace to the Final Fantasy name. Fans hated the direct sequel to Final Fantasy XII, Revenant Wings, as well, hated the real-time strategy battles, hated the recycled soundtrack, hated the graphical slowdown, hated the plot, and so on. Other Final Fantasy spinoffs, including Crisis Core, Dirge of Cerberus, and Chocobo Tales, have generated equal contempt.

Fans hate the Final Fantasy movies, as well, hate how The Spirits Within wasn't even a fantasy movie but rather a more generic science-fiction film, hate how it had almost no connection to games in the series, and hate how it nearly bankrupted Square. Fans hate Advent Children as well, hate how it's an afterthought, hate the Sephiroth knockoffs, hate the reappearance of Sephiroth, hate the voice acting, hate the story, and generally hate the movie.

Fans hate the thirteenth Final Fantasy as well, though it hasn't seen its release yet, hate Nomura's art for the thirteenth game, how the protagonist looks like Laura Prepon, hate what they've heard about the game mechanics, hate the science-fiction atmosphere, and think it'll be the worst of the series. Fans further hate its spinoffs, hate how the protagonist of Versus XIII looks too much like Riku from the Kingdom Hearts games, and hate how it will be more action-oriented than main iterations of the franchise. The fourteenth installment has garnered equivalent contempt, being an MMORPG like the eleventh game that doesn't pique their interest at all.

In summation, so-called Final Fantasy fans hate just about everything about the series, from the gameplay to the graphics and music. Characteristic to being a true fan of the series, in this writer's opinion, involves a willingness to accept the franchise's evolution, and have an unconditional love for the series. Because this writer, however, always takes each new installment with a grain of salt, and wishes that the franchise would reuse its best gameplay mechanics in other iterations, he can safely say that he is no Final Fantasy fan, despite having liked many of its installments.
Annie, the lazy granddaughter of a famous alchemist, dreams of wealth and marrying one day, although her grandfather's homunculi transport her, while she's still asleep in bed, to Sera Island to help with a resort project. As one of the rewards for contributing the most to the project is possible marriage to the Prince of Orde, Annie resolves to hone her alchemy skills and work hard. Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island is the latest iteration of Gust's Atelier franchise for the Nintendo DS, somewhat returning to its roots with a greater emphasis on alchemy and simulation aspects than combat.

Annie has three years to contribute to the resort project, being able to synthesize items at her workshop with various materials and build/upgrade island facilities, such as a park and a museum, with special money gained monthly from these facilities, as well as from completing the six main assignments successfully, exclusively used for the project. Annie, however, does have standard pocket money, the bulk of which she gains from completing tasks at the town's adventure guild (and a meager amount of which she and her companions win from battle), which she can use to purchase materials, new alchemy tools, and equipment for herself and her comrades. Monthly sales from each facility typically depend upon how "famous" each is, with Fame increased by completing special tasks for them, among them being mini-games that are actually fun.

As Annie attempts to synthesize items in her workshop (with up to five different tools used for synthesis and different success rates depending upon the tool used), her alchemy level, alongside the levels of her tools, will gradually increase, boosting the success rate of synthesizing better items. Item synthesis also takes a number of days depending upon the type of item and the quantity the player wishes to create. Also taking a number of days is travel between the town and either Annie's facilities or gathering points where she can collect synthesis materials at no cost.

Before going to these enemy-infested gathering points, however, it's a good idea to bring along two companions, who can equip a weapon, a piece of armor, and an accessory. Gathering points themselves are only one screen big, with icons indicating where Annie can harvest items, and more ultimately appearing as the game advances. While gathering or walking around, random encounters will occur, with Annie and her allies fighting on a 2x3 grid against up to three enemies on their own 2x3 grid. Each of the player's character can fight from either the front or back row, with their special commands varying depending upon their row.

Like the Digital Devil Saga duology, the player's characters and the enemy have separate turn sessions, with each of the former executing their moves immediately after input. Commands include attacking normally (with greater attack damage but greater received damage in the front row, and lower attack damage but lower received damage in the back row), switching the character's row (which mercifully doesn't consume their turn), using consumable items, or using one of their special abilities, many of which become available at higher levels. After the player's characters take their turns, the enemy takes theirs, with some foes able to execute more than one command if the player's party is weaker.

After battle, each character gains experience, with occasional level-ups, and a meager amount of money (not as great as that acquired from the adventurer's guild). Fighting also gradually increases the friendship level of Annie's allies, with maxed friendship in fact necessary for certain endings. There are also occasional bosses, though most of them are optional, with the defeat of the most powerful boss necessary for another ending. All in all, Atelier Annie's game mechanics are reasonably enjoyable, with the only real faults being rare item name inconsistencies and the inability to travel to any destination instantly whenever the player appears on the dot-connected overworld.

Control fares just as well, with easily-navigable menus, the ability to tell how equipment affects each character's stats before purchase, decent use of the stylus, and an overall structure that's neither fully linear nor fully sandbox. The only major shortcoming is the lack of a scene-skip option, with the player only able to "fast-forward" through cutscenes a la The World Ends with You, and the ability to see where the player can trigger such scenes, given their frequency and the fact that some are necessary for various endings, would have been nice, as well. Still, control is reasonably tight in Atelier Annie.

Atelier Annie more resembles older titles in the franchise than its recent predecessors, given the aforementioned emphasis on item creation and simulation than battle, although it still stands out decently among contemporary RPGs, what with its unique resort management system, and is, at least to Anglophone players, more or less a fresh experience.

Story is probably the low point of Atelier Annie, given the mostly-downplayed conflict between Annie and rival alchemist Julian, who also seeks to win the island's competition, not to mention the overfrequency of story scenes, especially common whenever Annie enters her workshop, due largely to inane item synthesis requests from her companions. The quirky cast and general humorous nature of the game, not to mention seven different endings, are pretty much the highlights of the game, but the remainder of the plot is insignificant at best.

Music, though, is a highlight of Atelier Annie, having a happy, upbeat, energetic style similar to its predecessors, with NIS America making the rare decision of leaving the voices in Japanese, both saving the localization team money and sparing players from hearing their typically-lousy English voicework; those who find the voices annoying can luckily turn them off in the game menus, but even so, the voices aren't that bad, largely fitting their respective characters. Overall, a superb-sounding game.

The graphics have their quirks, as well, given the cheerful colors, nice scenery, and anime portraits with constantly-changing emotions narrating cutscenes, although character sprites are in a disproportionate chibi style, and in combat, the player's characters and the enemy face off on grids floating above the gathering point's scenery. The visuals are by no means ugly, but could have certainly been better.

Finally, the latest Atelier game is fairly short, a little over ten hours long for a single playthrough, although given the seven endings and a New Game+, players can stretch their playtime longer. In conclusion, Atelier Annie very well returns to its roots, given its fun gameplay systems, tight control, solid soundtrack, different endings, and consequential replayability. Those new to the series, as well as long-time fans, definitely owe it to themselves to give this iteration a try, perhaps several.

The Good:
+Alchemy/resort/battle systems are fun.
+Isn't laggy like Gust's other games.
+Great soundtrack.
+Seven different endings.

The Bad:
-Some minor item name inconsistencies.
-No scene-skip option.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Controls: 8/10
Story: 6/10
Music/Sound: 10/10
Graphics: 7/10
Localization: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Very Easy
Playing Time: 10+ Hours

Overall: 8.5/10

Editorial: The Case for Save-Anywhere

An editorial inspired by my experience with Star Ocean: Till the End of Time:

An antediluvian, somewhat annoying convention of Japanese RPGs is the save point, prominent in even the most popular releases such as the Final Fantasy series. Heated debate has arisen over how exactly different kinds of save systems affect a game's difficulty and such, although this editorialist believes that there is a definite case for allowing players to save their progress anywhere.

There are those who argue that more liberal save systems make RPGs easier. However, some of the oldest RPGs such as the original Phantasy Star, the surprisingly-long-lasting SaGa series, and the recent The Dark Spire demonstrate that this argument is, quite frankly, a load of bull, given the difficulty of the aforementioned titles in spite of their save-anywhere features. Even the Diamond/Pearl/Platinum versions of Pokémon have plenty of tough spots in spite of their generous save systems.

There are also those who argue that save points add tension to RPGs; if you live in a place where power outages happen occasionally and/or your game freezes often (as Star Ocean 3 often did in my experience), then yes, there is indeed plenty of tension affiliated with playing a game that has a stingy save system. In fact, this editorialist is far more afraid of losing precious progress due to the aforementioned events rather than a Game Over screen, with sometimes over an hour between save opportunities in games such as the third Star Ocean and Arc the Lad II (the latter of which also froze on me one time after an hour without being able to save).

Even a supposed compromise to the dilemma of saving, the quick-delete-save, where the player can save and quit their game anywhere (except in battle, unless a tactical RPG), with the created save file deleting upon loading, like in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, has its own drawbacks, namely the mentioned events of freezing or a power outage, if normal save points are scarce. The quick-delete-save, however, would possibly work wonders in the middle of standard RPG battles, especially if they were long fights and the player experienced a real-life interruption.

There are, however, drawbacks to being able to save anywhere, such as dreaded points of no return where the player is unable to leave a dungeon to perform tasks such as healing, level-grinding, or shopping for better equipment, akin to SaGa Frontier, which was fairly liberal in this equally-irksome RPG convention. In these cases, not saving in a separate save file (although some games such as Final Fantasy XII luckily warn you if you're in a point of no return), can potentially render an RPG unwinnable, forcing the player to restart the game from scratch.

In summation, Japanese RPG developers should definitely keep the above situations in mind when contemplating their games' save systems. There is definitely a case for RPGs to have a save-anywhere feature, and really has been no excuse for them to lack one as the original Phantasy Star demonstrated, but if they insist on continuing the dated convention, then at least have them frequently, like every few minutes, or so. This editorialist adamantly disagrees that liberalized save systems would make RPGs easier, although they would definitely make them less annoying, and ultimately make our lives easier.
Soon after Enix released Star Ocean: Till the End of Time in Japan to criticism that it was buggy, they merged with Square, a company that had only recently begun its nasty habit of releasing so-called "international" Director's Cut versions of its games, such as Final Fantasy X and its direct sequel. Whether to assuage criticism of the game's buggy nature or due to Square infecting the remnants of Enix with the habit, the newly-formed Square-Enix released an updated Director's Cut of Star Ocean 3 in Japan in 2004, surprisingly breaking its tradition of not allowing its Director's Cuts beyond Japan and exporting it to North America the same year. Was the enhanced version worth the wait?

Star Ocean 3 begins with protagonist Fayt Leingod vacationing with his parents and childhood friend Sophia Esteed on the resort planet Hyda IV. Following a scene where a circus troupe girl, Peppita Rossetti, for some reason autographs her original Japanese name on the back of Fayt's shirt, and an attack by Romulans the Vendeeni, Fayt finds himself on the sixteenth-century-civilization planet of Vanguard III, where he has a run-in with Cliff Fittir and his assistant Mirage, members of an anti-Federation organization known as Quark. Afterward, they go to a seventeenth-century-civilization planet of Elicoor II, entangling themselves in its wars in violation of the Prime Directive Underdeveloped Planet Protection Pact (UP3).

Most of the game's events are spent on Elicoor II, and throughout their quest, Fayt and company will encounter plenty of enemies on fields separating towns and dungeons, not to mention the dungeons themselves. In a shift from previous Star Oceans, monsters are now visible, although the third installment unfortunately doesn't follow the EarthBound formula of instant victories against weak foes and enemies running away if his party is powerful enough. Ambush attacks by the enemy are also oddly frequent regardless of how Fayt contacts them, with no opportunity for the player to ambush the enemy in return.

Battles themselves, however, aren't half-bad, being real-time like in previous Star Oceans. New is each of the three active characters' Fury gauges, which max out at 100% and bottom out at 0%, with the latter amount being initial if the enemy ambushes the player. Executing commands like weak and strong-type attacks consumes Fury, which refills completely after about a second or so when a character stands still. There's also a rochambeau formula where weak-type attacks can cancel the enemy's strong-type attacks, strong-type attacks break through maxed-out enemy Fury gauges, and a character's maxed out Fury gauge reflects the enemy's weak-type attacks and triggers an anti-attack aura that can do things like stun the enemy.

Given the unpredictability of enemy Fury gauges, however, it's far easier to spam coups de grace, special skills that consume part of the user's HP (magicians can also cast normal MP-consuming magic), against foes, with a weak-type coup de grace followed by a strong-type coup de grace (players can set up coups de grace and support skills outside battle, with each consuming a certain amount of Capacity Points) resulting in a "cancel bonus" that augments damage, a useful mechanism oddly not explained in the instruction book at all. Once the player wins a battle, they receive some money, occasional items, and experience for all characters who survived the fight (with characters able to die when they reach zero MP, as they do when they reach zero HP). When characters level, they may learn new skills, and receive Skill Points the player can use outside battle to increase their HP, MP, Attack, and Defense.

As the player's characters hammer the enemy, a bonus gauge fills up, with the first triggered bonus depending upon the type of attack that caused it to fill completely (for instance, a weak-type attack will result in the useful Triple EXP bonus). As the player fights more special bonus battles, more bonuses may come, such as increased money, an increased chance of item drops, and more HP/MP recovery after the battle. However, the bonus gauge breaks when the enemy lands a critical attack on the controlled character, he/she dies, or when the player quits the game/reloads a previous save file.

Another significant mechanism somewhat poorly-explained is the Invention system, where the player can hire inventors to work in workshops by giving them money or a special item; however, it would have been nice if the game kept track of inventor locations as well as the requirements to hire them. Inventors will occasionally invent new items that will eventually go to sale in shops as the player progresses through the game, although the player's characters can try their hand at inventing, as well, with workshops having three assembly lines that can contain up to three inventors each.

After placing inventors, the player selects a kind of item to invent and receives the option of inventing something new or enhancing a current item, which requires special materials; however, if the player chooses to invent a new item, the game randomly selects a price for their characters to work with, forcing them to button-mash to get the price they want to work with, which can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Why not save some time and annoyance by letting players manually select invention prices? Furthermore, the game neglects to mention that different ranges of prices correspond to different items, with certain price ranges unfortunately overlapping.

Once the player is satisfied with the setup of the inventors and the prices they work with, they can begin the invention process, with gauges indicating item quality depleting the longer the invention is taking, and the process ending when the quality gauges empty or the player runs out of money. It would have been nice to speed up the process and see what the inventors are making if they're successful (with the process able to continue even after they invent something). All in all, the invention system is the low point of the game mechanics, though since it can potentially break the game's balance, its obscurity is understandable, and battles themselves provide plenty of entertainment.

Interaction, however, leaves far more room for improvement. World exploration is similar to that in the original Star Ocean, with vast fields connecting towns and dungeons, sure to disappoint fans of unrealistic donut-shaped overworlds where the protagonist becomes a forty-foot giant. This isn't a bad thing, although some form of transportation between towns and means to exit dungeons other than Fayt's feet would have definitely been welcome. The game also provides bunny statues sellable for a fair price for completion of each field and dungeon's automap, although doing so is ridiculously hard at times, ironic considering the weak rewards for doing so.

Other areas of control don't fare any better, such as the frequently-abysmal spacing of save points, a burden considering the occasional "black screen of death" where the game will either hang up for some time (with an occasional "reading data from disc" message), or freeze completely. There is also occasional vague direction on how to advance the main storyline, and one-stop shopping, given the endless varieties of items the player can purchase, would have been welcome, as well. The menus, however, are easily navigable, and players can tell if equipment will increase or decrease stats before buying it, but interaction overall could have been far better.

Star Ocean 3 is in essence an amalgamation of elements borrowed from its predecessors, such as real-time combat, item creation, and plenty of time spent on underdeveloped planets, although the gameplay has plenty of unique tweaks such as death when a character reaches zero MP, anti-attack auras, and weak/strong attacks/coups de grace; the idea of HP-consumption for special skills, moreover, is filched from the Lennus titles. The plot also borrows heavily from Star Trek and to some extent The Matrix films, and ultimately, the third installment is a mildly-inventive title.

Despite the horror stories, Star Ocean 3's plot actually isn't that bad, with the Game Dictionary in particular being a good idea (despite spoiling some of the plot ahead of time), and a decently-fleshed-out cast of characters. Much controversy has surrounded the "big plot twist" towards the end, although there are in reality two major plot twists, neither of which are bad at all, at least in this reviewer's opinion. The hour-plus ending, moreover, provides closure for Fayt and all acquired teammates (with potential variations), as well as a general sense of accomplishment for the player. Overall, the story definitely isn't the best the RPG genre has ever told, given the very little time spent in the titular Star Ocean, although it could have definitely been far worse.

Musically, Star Ocean 3 fares better, with Motoi Sakuraba again lending his talents, what with plenty of solid town, dungeon, and battle themes, despite committing the usual sin of composing only one regular battle theme that gets old after a while. The cutscene voice acting is okay, although some voices, such as those for Farleen, Peppita, and her circus troupe, are aural torture. Moreover, the typical Japanese convention of characters shouting the names of their skills in battle doesn't translate well to the Anglophone world, and worse yet, many enemies have voices, most of which are simply atrocious; mercifully, players can turn off battle voices. All in all, a decent-sounding game.

Star Ocean 3 fares just as well visually, using an anime style similar to the Xenosaga trilogy, and even being wide-screen compatible. Most of the futuristic environments and player character models look decent, although the texturing of primitive environs looks bland at times, and there is a noticeable difference between the quality of player character models and those of many NPC models. Still, the game is mostly easy on the eyes.

Finally, completing the third installment without doing sidequests takes as little as forty hours, although post-game content and collecting every Battle Trophy by fulfilling certain conditions in battle (only available on difficulties other than Earth, the easiest setting), can push this to over a hundred hours. Overall, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, given its problems like the obscurity of some of its mechanisms and occasional freezes, is perhaps the weakest iteration of the series (though this reviewer hasn't yet played the fourth installment), but it's still an enjoyable game, given its fun battle system and decent music and visuals, and is certainly worth a look by series fans and those new to the franchise.

The Good:
+Flawed but fun battle system.
+The Game Dictionary.
+Decent aurals/visuals.

The Bad:
-Some mechanisms aren't explained very well.
-Poor spacing of save points.
-Black screens of death.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Controls: 5/10
Story: 6/10
Music/Sound: 7/10
Graphics: 7/10
Localization: 7/10
Lasting Appeal: 8/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 40+ Hours

Overall: 6.5/10