Star Ocean's melding of real-time combat, space opera and Japanese role-playing game tropes warps its way to the Xbox 360 with The Last Hope. Jumping ship from Sony's PlayStation 2, this franchise prequel chronicles humanity's first steps into the vast "Star Ocean" of space.
It opens with the triumphant launch of Earth's first starship fleet, but disaster strikes in transit, scattering the ships and sending yours crashing into its alien destination. Once on the surface, you assume the role of the swashbuckling young helmsman Edge Maverick, and in short order meet your first alien race, get promoted to the captain of a newly repaired ship and set out to explore the galaxy once more.
Square Enix's latest RPG has a typical ranks-based skill system, but those skills get you a satisfying array of capabilities, including combat maneuvers, resource gathering and a unique, team-based item creation process. Battle badges, micro-achievements awarded for pulling off certain combat maneuvers, have returned and provide players with goals to work toward while fighting.
Star Ocean's best feature is its real-time combat engine, at the core of which are the "Blindside" and chain combo mechanics. The first uses split-second timing to get the drop on an enemy; the second links attacks and special powers to devastating effect. The system is a challenge to master, but it's a nice change from the slow-motion, turn-based encounters of its genre kin.
The game is not without its frustrations. There's a huge chasm between the "easy" and "normal" difficulty settings, and no way to switch between them during the campaign. Other problems include awkwardly placed save points, over-reliance on obscure NPCs to continue quests, and the child prodigy Lemle, who embodies everything that is cute and annoying in JRPGs.
However, The Last Hope largely overcomes these, resulting in a game that's a fun and often challenging diversion.