An eternal favorite of the Video Game Community came to the PC in February.
This has become, quite unabashedly, my favorite Final Fantasy title since the PlayStation 2 era. I would be willing to wager that this is the best showing Square-Enix has put forth in as much time as well.
Role-Playing Game, JRPG
Similar to – Star Ocean: ‘Til the End of Time or the earlier version(s) of The Last Hope
$21 (PC and PS4), Varies (Xbox 360 and PS3)
The Star Ocean series was, for a long time, in a small handful of titles that were uniquely my own. In my (relative) youth I did not differentiate between Western and Eastern RPGs. Looking back now I can see that JRPGs were my go-to genre. Legend of Legaia, Super Mario RPG, Breath of Fire, Final Fantasy, and Star Ocean laid the base for much of what I find comforting in gameplay. The PlayStation era gave me a lot of good memories. It was the first system I had at home and was able to play at length, to the chagrin of my mother.
Enix was a breed apart in game making. E.V.O.: Search for Eden, Illusion of Gaia, and Soul Blazer are standout in my memories. My issues of Nintendo Power containing walkthroughs of these games were read like bedtime story books. Star Ocean on the Super Famicom, never had an official release outside of Japan. From what I have been able to gather the mechanics were markedly different than the sequel. Star Ocean: The Second Story (SO2), made many improvements and is one of my favorite games of all time. I played it a LOT in my youth and was my first Enix title to play directly. The variety of characters, wholly real-time battles mixed with RPG elements, and Private Actions of the Star Ocean series were a welcome change of pace to all the turn-based titles I enjoyed. It is the first game that I played in which I fought in three dimensions (or perhaps 2.5 dimensions). I could watch for tells, manually evade some spells, and use tactics like pincer formations. Second Evolution, the PSP re-release, didn’t change much over the original. In fact, The Second Story was good enough to be the base template for both re-releases of the original and sequel.
When I first heard of the merger of Square and Enix I was excited. Admittedly my present views on the company’s products are mixed. Some games I loved. Kingdom Hearts has been charming. The new Tomb Raiders are well made. Heck, even some of the Final Fantasy titles have their charm. When it comes to Star Ocean however the Square-Enix offerings left me pining for my old favorite even more.
My aim in buying this title is to help show there is a demand for the series on PC. Aside from that, there is much anguish in my future, even after having completed the game to review it.
For those unfamiliar, I will be using these abbreviations rather than retyping the full titles each time.
Star Ocean/:First Departure (SO1/PSP re-release)
Star Ocean: The Second Story/:Second Evolution (SO2/PSP re-release)
Star Ocean: ‘Til the End of Time (SO3)
Star Ocean: The Last Hope (SO4)
Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithfulness (SO5)
There was a handheld title called Star Ocean: Blue Sphere, and a mobile title called Star Ocean: Anamnesis. But as I have not played these titles I will not be referencing them. The abbreviations I am using are widely held both to series die-hards and gamers-in-passing alike.
Humans have nearly annihilated themselves in World War III. The peoples of the nigh-uninhabitable Earth set their sights on the stars. During the maiden voyage of the Space Reconnaissance Force, the fleet is knocked out of warp by gravity eddies from a stray meteor. The resulting crash-landing still landed the expedition arrives on the target planet. Setting out from the Calnus, you are to meet up with the other crews and try to keep to your mission.
Stakes are important to a story. Prequels don’t really have them because the story has to flow into a pre-established narrative. Retconning is a Sword of Damocles because if it is done once, it may happen again. I read a series of The Flash comics years ago. Much like the Flashpoint season on the CW series, there was an event that rewrote the world. And if it happens once, what is to stop it from some Deus Ex Machina being used again? To use another phrase from modern media, once something has jumped the shark and become too grandiose I lose interest.
As such, you can imagine easily that I strongly dislike prequels. I am wary of reboots for similar reasons. I abhor the narrative of my fictions being invalidated. Star Ocean: ‘Til the End of Time (SO3) was a disappointing and infuriating insult. The fighting system was good. The music was, at times, the best in the series.
Star Ocean: ‘Til the End of Time (SO3) Spoiler Alert
I know I play fiction. I know spending days or weeks with a single game is, to a degree, a waste. It doesn’t produce anything real in the world. It means a lot to me, or I wouldn’t spend so long with the medium. SO3 did exactly this. The big twist is that, Surprise! Our story takes place in a game played by Fourth Dimensional Beings. “The Ten Wise Men Incident”, the story behind SO2, is spoken about like it’s an MMO expansion. Some loved it. Some hated it. People ask “Where were you when the Lacuer Hope was fired?” Many people in the present age may appreciate the meta-commentary. I did not. In one fell swoop, it jarred me out of my suspension of disbelief and permanently lowered the stakes of the whole series. If an MMO gets deleted, will it ever be exactly the same? No. But can it be rebuilt? Indeed it can.
As such the game goes from “Save the Universe” to “Stop the CEO from deleting your game/world.” If I make a game and my characters come out of the game with their powers intact, I think it would be insane to not delete the world. At the very least, I would opt for a Legacy Server of sorts and let it run itself. But the whole story spiraled out of control because the world was destroyed in the end. As such… no more Star Ocean. This has led The Last Hope and Integrity and Faithfulness to both be set before End of Time. But it is hard to be invested in The Last Hope. Why?
Because I know I am playing a game.
I knew, coming into Star Ocean: The Last Hope (SO4), I’d be dealing with a prequel by the nature of the previous game. If the practice of prequels existed pre-Star Wars it was not widespread. Since then nearly every franchise has found prequels acceptable, normally to incongruent result. As of yet, Star Ocean has not been backed into so much of a corner to require a full reboot. For that I am thankful. I have not had the fortune of being able to play Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithfulness (SO5). I know that SO4 is not the literal last hope of the franchise. Hopefully, some improvements have been made.
Ordinarily, I do not touch on characters unless something stands out about them. Unfortunately, much like the story, the characters do not stand up well. There is only one I remember clearly, and he’s a bad guy.
You meet Tamiel on Roak. Look at him. I do not think telling you he is a bad guy is much of a spoiler. He has passion, expression, and is almost instinctually motivated. He has a task he is to accomplish but gets caught up in the joys of life. He’s a jerk, and a tough fight without a doubt. He is, by far, the most driven character in the game.
This title continues the tradition of what I would call “stellar misfits” being grouped together. However, the ties that bind this group lack vitality. The characters had flimsy motivations for setting off together. I am just going to go down the list of main characters and give you what pulls them along. Oddly, they are developed more via their battle personas. Oft times, the characters I like the most to play are the dreariest to deal with outside of combat.
No, this is not a code name. He is not some elite soldier with a hidden past. He doesn’t have amnesia. He isn’t hiding from the government. He’s not some revolutionary. He’s just a kid who has trained to be a starship pilot. His father is Arnold Maverick, making Maverick a surname. Edge is named as such because his parents chose this (if we are thinking in-world).
“That’s a little heavy-handed,” you may say. Well, it’s better than Fayt Leingod (pronounced Fate Line-God in canon voice acting). Yep. That is the actual name of SO3’s forerunning character. They’re even designed similarly.
Messy hair, strange bulky greaves, sword slung on the hip to be pulled out from the right side. Now, spoiler alert, protagonist Fayt is special. It makes sense to some degree to have such an ostentatious name. But Edge, however? With no indication that he would even survive his genetic manipulation? Who names their child Edge?
Anime parents, that’s who. Apparently.
Anyhow, this is your main character, and that is why he is a part of your party for the whole game. He’s not at all offensive. I suppose that keeps him being relatable. He is fairly well balanced on the combat front the whole way through, learning some basic magic. Emergency mending will help keep you Healer(s) in good condition from afar without dipping into your item stores.
Childhood friend and adopted sister of Edge. Followed along when Edge joined the Space Reconnaissance Force (SRF). When Edge is sent out to explore Aeos, Reimi goes along of her own volition.
Mechanically, she is my go-to fighter. With her move set, she can hit any enemy at any location in the field in a variety of ways. As a character, however, she is painful to watch. She is the love interest and eye candy. For instance, here is her first on-screen moment in the game.
Edge and Reimi have the advantage of dressing like main characters. They get to be unique and pop. Everyone else in the SRF wears neck-to-toe white body armor. Edge’s attire looks pieced together from the armor. And, as a member of an exploratory force, it is sensible. Reimi, for whatever reason, is a Futuristic Schoolgirl In SPAAAAAAAAaaaaace Heels. She is a long range combatant. She is an archer. Why, when running on unknown planets, would you opt for heels? Because of fan service.
Faize Sheifa Beleth
As the story picks up, you are met by an extraterrestrial. Even before the shock wears off you are thrust into your first boss battle. Faize has a fanboy level of admiration for Edge. While ordered by his superiors, he likely would have needed to be told to not follow Edge.
I never use Faize. Edge is a better fighter, and better casters come along. I let the computer handle him.
Character-wise, he’s exceedingly passive. I don’t know why. The other members of his race seem to have some personality. He is on the extreme side of the spectrum, a character that I dislike that is also useless more or less. He willingly plays second fiddle to Edge.
Lymle Lemuri Phi
After you earn the revamped Calnus, you set off to the planet Lemuris. In the first village, you are mistaken for gods, your ship having landed from the skies a small jaunt away. Here, you are entreated to help cure a sickness turning people into stone. As you speak to a village elder his granddaughter bursts in, greets her grandfather, draws a rune, then heads out to find a Symbol to cure the sickness. Edge goes along with her. Later, when Edge and the crew leave the planet, Lymle comes with.
I would call Lymle a combat mage. All of her battle skills are fire oriented and most use her familiar, Cerberus. That’s the creature in the above picture as she shows off how well behaved he is. Aside from this, she has some healing spells and a great many attack spells. She is wonderfully versatile.
As a character, however, she is a little bland. This is explained in her backstory at one point. Lymle, by far, is the most endearing to me. As emotion is not fully expressed the graphics do well for this, her character coming through in the quality of the writing and voice acting. I have cared for children before, and some of their expressions remind me of Lymle. But, she may not sit so well with everyone.
Blandness is a persistent condition with the characters that you haven’t seen the last of.
After being captured and later jailed, Bacchus comes to the rescue. Through a wall. With an arm cannon.
Bacchus gets points for style.
He continues with the party after a jailbreak as they seem aligned with defeating the Grigori. His aim is to deliver Edge and his friends to En II.
Bacchus has a large number of unique moves. His hit points are high, allowing him to tank through a number of instances if he has adequate healing. I have found more use for him in the post game.
Again, we have a character that is a bit on the cold side emotionally. His dry and direct speech, at the very least, give the youngsters of the group something to chase down. He moves the story along, and I am thankful for that. In his current body, only his spine, brain, and bits of his face are what remains of his fleshy form. Still, I find him to be more emotive and earnest than Faize. That, and useful in a fight.
Crashing on an unknown world, you are charged with rescuing another alien. With no one having any idea who she is or where she comes from, she sticks with you.
Meracle is a callback in and of herself to Pericci from the original Star Ocean. Both are Lesser Fellpool, able to turn into cats, and have a penchant for proficiency for ocarina piping. Both are fairly high energy and gregarious. She is by far the most expressive character in the cast. Whereas Tamiel is sadistic, Meracle is cheerful and playful. She is also the easiest to “read”. Having animal traits not only excuses some oddities but her tail and ears all for more visual cues to her emotions. Even though she is prone to a chipper perma-smirk, more information comes across when she is sad or dejected.As far as combat goes, I hear she is a powerful character. However, I have not used her much as of yet.
Myuria bumps into the party a few times throughout the story. She is in pursuit of a man named Crowe. When she ascertains that Crowe, Reimi, and Edge all belong to the SRF (and are in fact childhood friends), she “joins” your party with the expressed purpose of killing Crowe.
As a character, there is little I can say without actually spoiling her part of the story. She seems to be a callback to Celine Jules from Star Ocean 2. The overall archetype seems to be “Sexy Symbologist”.
Heels, symbological tattoos on the legs, floating ring decorations, and even the color schemes of the attire are similar. It wouldn’t be something I had much of a problem with if the cultures they hail from weren’t so different. I’m not even going to go into the fanservice light that shines onto Myuria. It’s just way to easy. Let it be said that too many serious screenshots I chose not to use due to digital side boob and upskirt shots.
As said, Myuria is another Symbologist. I would say she is more specialized in the aggressive aspects. One of her strongest techniques rains lightning down over the entire field. Reminiscent of a particular Celestial I am not looking forward to dealing with again.
After touching down on a nearby planet for repairs, a shout from an alley causes the party to investigate. After liberating Sarah from her captors, she does Edge and the gang a favorable turn. However, she is captured once more, and again rescued. Afterwards, she accompanies the party due to little more than idle curiosity.
Sarah is absentminded and never expresses herself in any way except with a wistful sing-song. Her aforementioned call for help actually confuses the party because it lacks all panic and urgency. Her absent-mindedness leads her to emote critical disasters with the same worry as one would have if they didn’t pack extra socks in a travel bag. At one point Lymle and Meracle have to pull her aside and explain to her the gravity of a universe ending situation. For fans of the series, you will recognize that she is a Featherfolk and in fact the ancestor of two party members in the original title. Even so, she is not very compelling.
That said, she is the poster child for useful characters. I find her to be unrivaled as a healer. Her AI keeps her away from enemies, she supports only when HP is near full, and attacks from afar only when everything else is taken care of. Her evasion is insanely effective, and can often keep foes from harming her until a more frontline member can make it to her.
Arumat P. Thanatos
At one point, the Calnus is recalled to Aeos. Communication has been lost with the expedition base. You are charged to investigate. After exploring the newly opened territory, an ambush is thwarted with the help of Arumat. Knowing the location of the disturbances’ source, he joins your party.
Arumat is a powerhouse, coming to the party with stats normally well above anything you possess at the time. He is the only character I have used as a replacement to Edge casually, though I normally have the both of them on the front line. He keeps to the trend of being hard to relate within the story. Why? Because, to borrow an internet colloquialism, Arumat is a bit of an edge lord.
As you can see he is tall, pale, scantily clad for a man, and wields a laser scythe as his weapon of choice second only to his bad attitude. He is covered in scars. And he refers to himself in the third person as “Death Himself”. Thanatos, his supposedly alien surname, is Greek for “death”. In scattered research for this review, I read that Arumat is an anagram for “trauma” in English of all languages.
He simply reeks of effort. Additionally, he comes along so late in the game that his character development feels shoehorned in. As such, a character that should be brooding is oddly open and warms up to the crew fast.
Oddly, with that exceedingly strained name, I’ve brought myself full circle. These are your playable characters. My problems with the characters are how wooden and sluggish they feel. They reside in a weird spot in the Uncanny Valley. They are obviously stylized but are still fairly realistic in tone, proportion, presentation. The aim was to evoke humanity and this just makes what they missed off-putting, even though I can’t put my finger on what it is.
Citing Square-Enix history again, many protagonists have had a “setting”. Take Final Fantasy XIII. Lightning is stoic, Snow is optimistic, and Sazh tends to be tired though he has an easy smile. They rarely fall out of these modes. The Kingdom Hearts series tends to work better with variation because the human characters have to work with Disney characters, so they are more cartoon-like. This causes the brain to excuse oddities as they need to fit stylistically with Mickey and the Gang which are obviously not human to begin with. There is not a kind way to say this. I watched a show called Thunderbolt Fantasy. This is a show done with puppets. I find the puppets to be more emotive and less wooden than the CGI of both SO3 and SO4. The characters in both games are, for the most part, two dimensional.
I could go on. Really. I could. The short of it is, I do not come to this game for the engrossing characters.
Dare I say it, the afore-threatened Crowe would have been a much more empowered protagonist, I think. Edge is more or less following in Crowe’s wake much of the game. And then he shows up like this.
If your hero is saved by a guy taking sniper shots with a laser rifle, dual wielding laser swords, and backed up by the guy wielding a custom laser scythe, you may not be following the right character around.
I have gone on and on about the elements of the recent titles that have irked me. I think I can boil down my qualms into two distinct salty grains.
- Directly with this title, the pre-established elements of the Star Ocean franchise were not upheld.
- Indirectly to this title, Star Ocean: ‘Til the End of Time did not leave much of a franchise to build off of.
As much as I am knocking and spoiling it, Star Ocean: ‘Til the End of Time had a compelling story with some interesting points. However, some of the twists made me step back from the game in frustration. The story got too big and backed the franchise into a corner. Some might applaud the meta-commentary of the Fourth Dimension. I do not. I do find it strange that even though the universe was “freed”, we haven’t gotten any stories set after SO3. The stakes are reduced for me because I know that no matter how grand, the world is on strings.
I digress. The only thing holding The Last Hope up story wise is the fact that it is a Star Ocean title. However, the tent poles it snatches from the other games in the numerous callbacks seem to me to only serve to bring down the rest of the series as a whole. At the end of the game, nothing is particularly added to the series. The characters saved Earth, yes. However, as with any prequel, they had to. Much of what goes on smacks the rest of the series in the face.
To some degree, I can see some elements for what they are: Mirroring. Hearkening back to Star Wars, the movies follow beats culminating in an overarching “rhyme scheme”. Luke, Anakin, and Rey are all easily able to apply the use of the Force. A revered mentor has died in all the first movies as well. The problem with SO4 is that the mirroring was of future events, and proved problematic to the Star Ocean story overall.
The first callback is more or less benign. The last three major titles in the series have all had an occurrence of a male, Earthborn protagonist finding themselves stranded on a less advanced world. At this point, it has become a bit of an in-series trope. I will be surprised if SO5 does not include it somehow.
The next is a fairly major balk and echoes the whole of the Star Ocean series up until this point. This is the making of enhanced organisms. In the first game, the ambient villain and surprise endgame boss were both genetically enhanced superhumans. The Muah, your typical long-lost and highly intelligent proto-race, created Asmodeus and Jie Revorse as templates to survive on the inhospitable world called Fargett. In the sequel, The Ten Wise Men are living weapons and your primary antagonists. And for the third game Symbological Genetics ware a big taboo. Symbology is the term used for magic in the Star Ocean universe. By imprinting magical sigils in the correct ways onto and into DNA a trio of the protagonists gained multi- and trans-dimensional abilities. The troubles in much of the first half of the game were due to an advanced alien culture pursuing these characters and just about taking Earth hostage to do it. It culminated in, and I say this with no exaggeration, the targeted destruction of many advanced societies and the eventual deletion of all creation as it was known when prior methods failed.
As such, for the fourth game to have a trio of protagonists being infused with Muah (callbacks to Star Ocean and SO2’s spin-off Blue Sphere) genetic influence to survive an unlivable World War III ravaged Earth was incongruent. Genetic manipulation has been the core action that led to global, interplanetary, galactic, and universal genocide in every major title to this series up through the games I played. I will give a pass on not knowing if you’ll ever make a prequel when you write a story. The change of tone is still confusing.
If you place the stories chronologically, it makes a little sense. Maybe Earthlings were okay with genetic manipulation, but it became taboo after the events of Star Oceans 1 and 2. That would be sensible. But that has not been the overarching tone in the series. And once Edge finds out he isn’t shocked, taken aback, or offended. He has no response. But in SO3, it was hashed out. This is why I think the story aspects of this game coast on being a Star Ocean game, and don’t rely on giving us any new information.
Moving on, Roak is the planet that the majority of the original Star Ocean title took part on. My memory of playing First Departure is not too good having only played it once. However, player character Ashlay Bernbeldt makes a “return” as the colosseum champion in SO4. Lias Warren, the father to another player character Cyrus Warren, is seen in this game as a leader of knights. Again, I will give a pass to not knowing about writing a prequel some fifteen years later. Even so, I am thinking that a second group of strangely armed, armored, and trained individuals would raise some suspicion especially amongst those who fought against and with the first group even if it happened decades apart. The timing of SO4 also places events of this game and the original dangerously close together.
I have likened Star Ocean to Star Trek. Frame it as a long form “What If” story of an Away Mission that goes awry and I think you’ll understand what I mean. Star Ocean has The Pangalactic Federation touting The Underdeveloped Planet Preservation Pact (UP3). This is comparable to The Federation in Star Trek with their Prime Directive. Granted, in this story, there is no Pangalactic Federation and no UP3. Still, Edge has the Calnus land in plain sight of the village of Triom when you touch down on Lemuris. There is no sanctioning body to come down on him, and I might be influenced by a lifetime of science fiction, but that just seems foolish. He did learn and touched down further away the next time.
Each world is dutifully crafted. Each area ties into the last creating the variation you’d expect from singular planets. Each individual section has its own vibrancy. The settings from planets, temples, and spaceships are all wonderful to look at. Square-Enix still makes wonderful digital vistas. However, much of the Magical Industry I came to enjoy regarding Star Ocean is absent because it is a prequel. Uses of Rune- and Symbol -ogies barely even exist yet. It leaves it in much more of a sci-fi with magic setting with little of the “own-ness” Star Ocean cultivated.
Does this game have any redeeming qualities? Did I find anything enjoyable? I am happy to say “yes”. Otherwise, it would not have been worth purchasing a second time and replaying.
I know. I’m just as surprised as you are at this point. Honestly, I didn’t know I had this much bile churning regarding this series. I guess I only like the earlier games.
The combat is more fast-paced than it has ever been. The real-time battles are just as accessible with simple attacks as they were in SO2. Chain Combos are present, and introduced early, allowing you to link together your most powerful techniques in a number of strategic ways. Adding another layer of strategy, all characters have the ability to Blindside enemies. Doing so will give you an opportunity to get behind enemies and strike their weak points if any are available atop normal critical hits that open up. This is of massive import in boss battles.
Additionally, a system known as BEAT (Battle Enhancement Attribute Type) has three variants providing different bonuses: Pure Stats (N – Neutral), Blindsides (S – Strike), and Rush Combos (B – Burst). Bonuses grow as each branch is leveled up, which happens as players are in the active party. Neutral only raises stats, and these are tied to the characters’ Strike and Burst levels.
Strike focuses on improving the already formidable Blindsides. These are most useful for frontline fighters and perhaps any character you control.
Burst tends to benefit your backline and AI controlled characters. Rush Mode allows characters to wade through many attacks unhindered, and Beat: B helps this mode last longer. Sometimes victory comes down to a healer out of Rush Mode or casting a critical curing spell while it is active.
These aspects are all well designed. Depending upon your play style and the necessity of a particular battle, these elements can enhance your effectiveness. Many of these settings, including move load outs can be changed mid-battle to heighten effectiveness. There is yet another use of the Rush Gauge and Chain Combos.
Rush Combos combine these two innovations are a wholly different animal. They let your team unleash Chain Combo setups free of other resources. While you may lose any area of effect from your attacks, you can pump out major damage to even the mightiest of foes.
While special moves and spells no longer gain power through repeated usage, they can be improved with SP. This is built up per person as they level up and for the whole party from opening chests, gathering materials, and completing quests. Do you keep skills primed for combat or do you focus on making enemy drops easier and more lucrative? That choice is yours.
I am happy that the combat opened back up to allow four combatants again. Many challenges from the previous title came from using three rather than four people. Returning to this game in earnest after a four-year hiatus from the 360 version let me get right back into it, and it was satisfying.
Square-Enix made an unpopular decision after the original release of The Last Hope. A crafting oversight known as “The Overflow Trick” was a well-documented exploit. This allowed weapons, armor, and accessories to be imbued with factors that made the post-game bosses much easier. A simple reversal of how Factors were set up rendered this Trick moot. I think this was solely done with Gabriel Celeste and the Ethereal Queen in mind. Still, they are no slouches. They both come with two amped up forms each. In spite of what even I thought this change doesn’t increase grinding as much as one would think. The techniques the player base cultivated still work, and all the boosts are good boosts. To their credit, the crafting system this go-round is much further in the realm of sanity than in SO3.
(I’ve harped on that game enough. I will not do so anymore. Today at least.)
All crafted items come from recipes. Sometimes these are in chests, come as quest rewards, or are simply handed to you. The lions’ share of recipes need to be made by your party members. The in-game tutorial will tell you all you need to get started. If you max characters crafting to 10 before you start, all the possible recipes will be available per every character combination used. These two elements are about all you need to keep track of. Once discovered, the recipes are saved and can be used at any time. Crafting always succeeds, so don’t worry about losing materials from failures.
The battles and preparation for them are where this title shine. It’s all about the fights. It’s a shame the context is so lackluster.
One of my biggest complaints with RPGs is that time is not respected or simply flat-out wasted. Chrono Trigger was one of the first games I remember having some form of New Game Plus functionality. It was satisfying to play the game once, set it down, and come back to relive the story with all the gear you collected. You could try fighting Lavos at each ending juncture fresh or wait until your party was more seasoned in additional playthroughs. Even with as popular as Chrono Trigger was, New Game Plus did not become a staple in Square’s games. Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy X-2, and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII are the only Square and Square Enix titles I can think of with this design in mind. While not the most robust, there are a few ways in which your efforts can be permanently rewarded in Star Ocean: The Last Hope.
The two biggest “rewards” from completing enough battle trophies are raising the level cap and granting extra CP. As many of the greatest equipment augments work via percentages, having another 55 levels added to you can mean an awful lot regarding base survivability. The extra CP, points which let you set skills for battle, may not be a large boon end game but will certainly make the going easier for new games. Three more points would have let you set the ultimate moves for “free”, so I am again a bit vexed at this design choice.
Even these rewards are offset by the nature of the Trophies. For instance, two characters need to kill 30,000 enemies each. These kills must happen in a single playthrough. While you do keep Battle Trophies independently, kill counts are unique. Earning the 15,000 enemies killed trophy will not credit you that number on even a new game with persistent data. You will have to start that over again. Some battle trophies are just luck, such as ‘Leave an enemy with X HP’. And, since Synthesis was turned down the ‘Inflict 99,999 Damage’ trophies are that much more tricky to potentially obtain.
Achievements/Trophies are ubiquitous with gaming these days. I would not say that this game has the hardest to earn, but they are certainly some of the most time-consuming. You’ll likely clock in hundreds of active hours if you aim to earn everything. Star Ocean: The Last Hope relies heavily on external save data for these processes. Whenever you use a save point (a key fact to remember) several Collections will update and will not have to be earned again. If you are achievement hunting you’ll want to be mindful of this, as some parts are missable. I have found this list comprehensive to single play through completion, outside of Private Actions/Endings. Guides abound on such an old title so you can find all the help you need. Aside from the achievements specifically requiring you to beat the game on higher difficulties, all the battle trophies and other collections can be gained even on the easiest level, much unlike the previous game. Still, you should play on the default difficulty level first to unlock the next one up. Earth difficulty is likely more for a final mop up of Battle Trophies and achievements.
To end on a positive, also included in the external data is a section dedicated to Monsters. Attached to most every foe is a percentage bar. Reaching 100% will allow you to fill a “Monster Jewel” with the data. These can grant a shortcut to some very powerful bonuses, both to use and to migrate into other items. This progress is retained file to file and can be used anywhere once completed. For instance, killing the requisite number of Metal Scumbags post-game will let you make a Fol (currency) 25%+ even on new games.
If you are a fan of the combat in the Star Ocean series and have no other systems, you can’t go wrong with Star Ocean: The Last Hope. However, if you are looking for a good story or are highly attached to the ongoing narrative established in other games in the series, this title can be skipped. It pains me to say that. This game is kinder to players, in some ways than ‘Til the End of Time was. The sound quality holds up, and the visual quality is markedly better than the 360 version. On these points, Square-Enix did an excellent job. Even I, who genuinely cares little about graphical fidelity, am appreciating the difference in graphic presentation. It is with integrity and faithfulness that my last hope is met by Square-Enix and the rest of the Star Ocean franchise is brought to the PC.
7, 8 including The Shivering Isles
First Person, Fantasy RPG
Another solid Bethesda title
PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360
I am coming full circle with this writing. Oblivion was, years ago, simply alien to me. I had heard via some source or another about The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The report was touting how massive the world was, stating that it was possible to run from one town to the next for literal days. On the one hand, the scope of the world sounded amazing to me. I didn’t think technology was capable of the feat. But, even in those days, I didn’t want to risk getting into a game like that. I had better things to do than run from town to town in a digital landscape.
As such, getting me into Oblivion was a hard sell. As someone who needs glasses the limitations of a first person perspective were all too real for me. I had learned to use my other senses to get around my very limited sight. I liked games in the third person because the viewpoint simulated expanded senses. Being unable to hear exactly which way an enemy would be coming from, as surround sound still needed a expensive array of tech, was a prohibitive hurtle for instance. I had a lot of reasons for not wanting to try it. But I found myself snowed in and with a lot of time, so I figured “Why not?”
Not understanding anything of the system, I tried to make a Redguard that looked like me. I failed in that, but I enjoyed the game enough to try another build. And then another. And thinking I had the system down… yet another. I think I ran a total of five or six characters, picking apart every nuance of the game as well as I could. And since I was playing it on the 360, I couldn’t change things via console commands or mods. It meant a hard uphill fight all the way through.
I came to love Oblivion. It is what put me here now, on the path of a prospective game creator rather than just a player. I have learned much, and from one source in particular. I avidly follow Extra Credits. James is a game developer who you will find to be an integral part of the process. He enjoyed Oblivion, but it sounds as though from a development standpoint, he didn’t think it was that good. This was a hit to me. Oblivion is what gave me an interest in game development, to the Extra Credits realm, through which James’ professional assessment carries weight with me. What inspired us may be different, but our goals are the same I think.
We are going past eleven years after release Oblivion’s original release. After Skyrim and the Online versions are the newest kids on the Elder Scrolls block. In writing this I have to think critically. I set my fondness aside to answer one question: Is Oblivion a game still worth playing? My answer is “Yes, if you like the Elder Scrolls.” Sadly, I can’t say “yes” without that condition. I’ve noticed that Bethesda’s titles tend to be paired, having a Fallout title being released and then an Elder Scrolls. While each new game may not be better than the last due to being developed nearly simultaneously, each new entry has its merits over the last. In this way, Skyrim is just a better introduction to the series. And as good as Skyrim is, I’ll likely say the same of The Elder Scrolls VI when it gets all the wrinkles ironed out.
This is a look back. I remember things I loved, but I also admit to if they didn’t, especially if I noticed the change in Skyrim.
A prisoner is taunted in their cell by another inmate, who cackles that they will soon die. They become silent as guards draw close. The normally composed guards whisper frantically back and forth, ensuring that they were not followed. A man speaks of his dead sons, and the others defer to him. Compassion shifts to alarm as the guards reach your cell, expecting it to be empty. Ordered to stay beneath the window the guards escort in Uriel Septim VII, the Emperor himself. He takes an interest in you, but his entourage hurry him along into a newly opened secret passage. Seeing no reason to let the opportunity go to waste, you follow along. Not far along in you see the cause of all the alarm: Strangely armored agents attempting to assassinate the Emperor! The guards serve admirably, at the loss of one of their own. They press on, locking the passage behind them uncertain if they can trust you. After finding your way through a nearby sewer opening you happen upon the group once more, more adequately equipped to aid in the fighting. Once this threat was extinguished, the Emperor insists a halt and looks at you. Something about you sparks his interest, and he insists not only on your trustworthiness but that you accompany him along the way. Eager to get moving, his guards agree. Moving a small ways you find a gate locked, which leads into a dead end. The sound of more attackers bear down, and you are left with Uriel Septim. He removes The Amulet of Kings, the true sign of his right to the throne, and gives it to you. He entreats you to find Jauffre. The apparent dead end was not so, as a passage opens to another assassin perfectly poised and kills the Emperor. You revenge is swift, and so the battle ended. There is one remaining guard, Baurus, who laments the total failure of the Blades as the Emperor’s protectors. Hearing of the late Emperor’s sentiments, he sends you along through the sewers, your exit leaving you in the bright sun for the first in a long while, ready to make use of the Emperor’s final words: “Close shut the jaws of Oblivion.”
Plus Uriel Septim VII was voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart. Always a plus in my book.
The Shivering Isles
Upon roaming the world, you hear of a mysterious door that appeared near the town of Bravil. Upon exploration a crazed Dunmer emerges from the portal and comes into conflict with the guard stationed there. After the Dark Elf is put down, the voice of Sheogorath becons you to enter his realm. The Deadric Princes are not known for truly making requests, especially of mortals, thus you are left tasked with heeding the Madgod’s call.
The Knights of the Nine
As you travel the world, you hear rumors of a terrible attack upon the Chapel of Dibella in Anvil. Going and exploring yourself, you see the horrors of the aftermath. The altars lay desicrated, and everyone is left with little but questions. However, one man seems to have insight. A Prophet preaches near the waylayed temple, speaking of Umaril the Unfeathered. He calls for a crusader to take up the arms of the legendary Pelinal Whitstrake and defeat this ancient menace once and for all.
The stories in The Elder Scrolls are handed directly to you in most cases. You don’t need to run around the world doing side quests to get all the details. As long as you follow the quest marker, you’ll get the complete story. Since I have been through Oblivion many times I remember its stories more keenly. If you are a lover of The Elder Scrolls, it will be worth your time to experience them. In Skyrim, so many of the wrongs you righted as The Hero of Kvatch went wrong again. It was dismaying to me to see that. It is a joy to indulge in the last of the good times of the many groups I came to love again.
In The Elder Scrolls IV, you are in a beautiful world that is ruined by the spearhead from the Deadric forces of Oblivion. One thing I loved about this title is how vibrant it is. I am on the Stylization side of The Uncanny Valley, rather than the Photorealistic vantage points. All the characters in this game are a bit cartoonish. Very vibrant skin, faces are rounder than they are in Skyrim. Cyrodiil is a lush part of The Elder Scrolls world. There is beauty everywhere from he countryside to the ruins. Even the titular realm of Oblivion is pleasing to look at in its demonic way.
When I originally played the game I remember travelling over a bridge and to my left the sun was rising. I stopped and looked out over the water to experience this. It hit me that I was marveled by a digital sunrise enough to appreciate it. Oblivion is still beautiful, especially in expansive landscape shots. Bethesda did a wonderful job in making a world that hurt to watch be encroached upon.
Knights of the Nine
The reason I abhor and rarely touch this expansion is the reason it has good theming. You are to be a holy crusader, wielding the relics of a saint. But in order to do this, you have to be a good person.
What determines goodness? Fame and Infamy, which are your reputations for good and bad deeds respectively. These are mostly increased by quests you complete and, in some cases, how quests are completed. Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood increase Infamy, while the Arena, Fighters’ and Mages’ Guilds increase your Fame. And in one of the DLC scenarios, you aim to get Mehrunes’ Razor, a powerful dagger. Do you brute force the gate open, or do you eat the heart of Mehrunes’ Champion? The latter will earn you some Infamy.
You don’t need to be famous to wear the armor. You just can’t be infamous. Once you collect and hold onto or wear your first piece of armor you’ll have no problems. But the first time you do a bad deed, the game stops and you get a warning warding you away from illicit acts. But as soon as you get a second bump in Infamy the armor literally falls out of your inventory and sticks to the ground. You are unable to claim or otherwise move it.
What do you do?
To begin The Knights of the Nine, you have to go on a Pilgrimage to a wayshirne to each of the Nine major deities. This purges your existing Infamy. But this is the only way to accomplish this, so it must be done every time you falter. The Dark Brotherhood and Thieves’ Guilds are the first quest lines I complete anyhow, so that Infamy is wiped out. But in order to ensure that I don’t have to take the Pilgrimage twice (or more gods forbid), I leave Knights until the end.
So yes… good theming. Terrible if you yourself aren’t “Good”.
One of the first things I posted to my site was a massive walkthrough for a Perfect Character Guide. This was based on the 360 version of the game, so no console commands or mods. The only boon I had was a duplication glitch. This guide is lengthy and a bit hard to read I admit, but I am still proud of it. I spent a lot of time on it, and had concrete results. As Oblivion was the first game of its type that I played, it set the standard for other games like it to me.
Wayfinding, Fast Travel and Maps
In both games, fast travel would let you swiftly (to the player) jump from your present location to any other landmark you’d been to previously. In this game you were allowed to travel to major cities before visiting them formally, which made it feel like you knew the world, or at least the province. This meant you were rarely left with a lengthy hike.
A minor change, and Skyrim relayed a different feeling entirely. Lacking the knowledge of even the cities in Skyrim it made me feel foreign and, if I may, sort of clueless. If you are a native of somewhere, you know where the big cities are, or general location. As natives of Earth we can name the continents if not specific countries. Lacking that, I could only imagine The Last Dragonborn being foreign to Skyrim. In this game I felt lost in the world, and relied more heavily on the quest compass which is saying something. Even though Skyrim continued with the “freshly escaped prisoner” trope, The Hero of Kvatch had a somewhat better jumping off point from than The Last Dragonborn in this respect.
The other portion, the map, worked much better for me in Oblivion. It was a simple map, something you’d find on a scroll or animal-based parchment, and was a top down view. I never had trouble getting my bearings. Additionally, since I had the starting cities to work with, I could use those as hubs for more distant quests and goals. In Skyrim I just gave up. The map screen was pretty, and had some zoom and rotation, but I could never figure out a solid orientation. Again, I knew I was heading towards the quest marker. But with no compass rose on the map screen I was always guessing at direction. Additionally, it felt like a dragons’ eye hologram from an extremely high altitude. The problem being is that I remember rolling cloud cover obscuring much of my map while I was trying to navigate. For me, simplier is better.
Simplified Character Management
The biggest reason I would recommend Skyrim over Oblivion to a series newcomer is just this point. While Oblivion gets the Simplicity Point for the map, Skyrim is a lot easier to play and understand the growth of. While I am happy to not need to spend tens to hundreds of hours to understand new system nuances, there are some elements I miss from Oblivion.
Mobility: Speed, Athletics, and Acrobatics
If I could have a super power I’d want to mainline The Speed Force like Barry Allen or Wally West, one of the noticeable Flash mantle wearers. As such, how I get around a world matters to me. Fast travel is wonderful for this as I go from Points A to B in the blink of a loading screen. As above, this only worked once I had been somewhere once. Thus I still had to hike on foot until I had a horse.
In Oblivion, aside from Skills, there were Attributes which helped govern the performance of Skills and Stats (Health, Magicka, Stamina, and Carry). There are no Attributes in Skyrim, like Speed. Additionally, two skills were taken out on the way to Skyrim were Acrobatics and Athletics. Some of the perks of the latter were integrated into Skill trees, but the former disappeared entirely. These encompassed mobility options for Oblivion and I loved them. In their absence, I was left to plod around Skyrim ceaselessly. Skyrim is pretty in places, alarmingly bleak in others. Even at the end of the game, or in the post game, I used fast travel because it was just far too long otherwise. Not at all because I wished to.
I liked Athletics in my first play through of Oblivion. The more I ran around, the faster I would get. Eventually. It was a constant payoff for continued adventuring. While it may be unrealistic to zip around everywhere, that is part of why I play a lot of science fiction and fantasy games. The uncanny nature is a draw. When I want realistic running in which I have to watch my stamina I get out of the house and go for a run.
I liked Acrobatics too. It was one of the few skills in the game that offered an objective strategic advantage. I noticed that NPCs never jumped. But if I could hop and skip to a vantage point, that worked well as an archer. And if I was being particularly menacing, summoning a Dremora Lord while I was in a high place would mess up patrol patterns and let me sneak around unnoticed. There were MANY times this was effective. And I know how unrealistic it would be to leap over three or four buildings in Whiterun. But it would be nice jump up next to and stab a smug dragon in the throat when it started using Thu’um from the top of a house. The inability to leap at height, via natural stats, augmentation, or both, limited the fun factor. This said, the absence of Acrobatics gave value to other skills. Not having water leaping or a water walking spell gave value to Vampire Lords ability to fly over the water. Not being able to tag a dragon with a blade in the air adds value to the Dragonrend shout. But I miss being like Samurai Jack by being able to “jump good”. And while I focus on ascent, Acrobatics also lessened damage from my falls. Sure, I liked jumping off mountains as a “shortcut”. But I could survive them in Oblivion. The Dragonborn would die from the same falls I would. I’m not looking for my fictional heroes to have my regular knees.
I liked Speed. As it was a stat I could use a Touch spell to make NPCs I was forced to follow move faster even while walking. It enhanced my Stealth to where it wasn’t laboriously slow at the games’ end. In transit I could stand up and run. In tight spaces, I could Sneak but still move at a moderate clip. Being able to make spells to add 100 points to Speed and either Athletics or Acrobatics allowed me some fun transiting options.
As you may have gathered from the above, I really enjoyed spell making. Many of the spells I wound up making were “artisan spells”. They were not all useful, just pretty and kitschy. But again, they were fun. I already spoke of my quickening spells. I would make spells which bolstered my Personality (Attribute) and Mercantile (Skill), while Charming a target so that I could make better transactions with NPCs, bypass the coercion minigame, or deal with the world while being a Vampire who hadn’t fed for 100+ days.
And all these things tie back into mobility. While fast traveling is instantaneous for the player, the game still calculates how long it would take you to run there. In both titles you can be astride a horse or have one in a near enough stable and that shortens your in-game travel time. What frequently happened to me in Skyrim is I would remember a time sensitive quest, would go to fast travel, only to arrive too late. In Oblivion I would make a spell to bump up Speed and Athletics, which were natively at 100 on their own. Doubling my pace in Oblivion turns six hour treks into one or two hour jaunts. I could get quests done FAST because I didn’t need to reload because I wouldn’t make it or wait a day because I had missed a time window by in game minutes.
In Skyrim, merchants have a set amount of gold before anything you want to sell is just given to them. My first playthrough, my first house had a chest of “vendor trash” that I couldn’t get rid of because merchants kept running out of gold. This was annoying, to say the best. Realistic, sure. There is only so much gold. That scarcity gave it value. But the lack of gold, ironically, kept me in the scavenging game longer. I scoured every inch of every cave, burial ground, and fallen foes not for loot, but for raw gold. The phrase “Who cares about flawless diamonds?” began spilling out of my lips. Who would have the gold to buy one, let alone that and all my other loot, anyhow?
Now, I balked about the Oblivion system. Merchants had a set amount of gold that was the maximum they would purchase anything for. I found it to be “such a waste” that I would have so many Daedric Cuirasses that were worth 6,500 gold that sold only for 2,000. But at least I could get SOMETHING for them. I had more gold and less vendor trash. I could keep my treasures and trinkets more easily.
All the griping about the mechanics above? This comes because I know the system fairly well. There are diligent Oblivion players that don’t care about all the stuff I just vented about. Skyrim has the approachability down pat. here are pluses and minuses, but no one will be scratching their heads in how to make a powerful character or how to get rich. As I am often finding myself saying “If that (below-the-surface and in depth mechanics) is what you have to complain about, the game is probably good enough for a passing play at least.”
Hearthfire is a wonderful part of Skyrim. The act of building houses was really enjoyable. To this day I do not have an “ideal build” for any one home, let alone three. The avenue this went in Oblivion was that each city had a house, and atop those the DLCs added more scattered around. Each of them pandered to a particular archetype.
Melee, Battlehorn Castle
The big melee feature here is an NPC that you can train with. You tell him you want to spar, and then you can work on whatever weapon and armor skills you would like. There were other perks, such as a semi-hidden quest. I mainly used my sparring partner.
Mages, Frostcrag Spire
Altars of Spell Making and Enchanting, the only ones available outside of the Mages Guild questline. Semi-permanent atronach followers. Teleportation to every active guild hall. Special Alchemy table that bolsters your skill by fifteen.
Thieves, Dunbarrow Cave
A chest with a Very Hard lock that always resets, allowing mastery of Lockpicking. Once you master the mini-game it is arguably faster to keep your skill low as you won’t run into terribly difficult locks too often. That, and the Skeleton Key is something you actually keep in this game. There is also a pirate crew you can send out for plunder, and they will return with loot and gold.
Assassins, Vampires, and the Infamous
This has a lot to offer. While designed with the assassin in mind, with a unique garden full of poison materials, and unique clothes, included are elements for the vampyrically inclined. These include a “cattle pen” with an ever sleeping victim if you wish to feed. Also a method to cure Vampirism without an elaborate quest. There is a vampire who resides here and can be sent out, who will return with loot and bump your infamy up by one each time. For the particularly infamous, you can be blessed by Sithis himself at a special alter.
Whether you were playing an archetype or min-maxing, there was a veritble use for all of these. The Sparring NPC in Battlehorn was good for targeted magics of all types. If you have Frostcrag Spire you don’t need to dither overmuch with the Mages Guild just to get Enchanting access if you’re pretty much melee only. Deepscorn Hollow has access to rare poisonous materials that are always useful. Dunbarrow Cave, The Thieves’ Den, has several high level trainers that are always at your beck in call so you don’t need to hunt out the others as readily. Was having preset “housing archetypes/themes” better? That can be debated. The perks in them felt much more concrete and immediate than those of Skyrim.
One MAJOR improvement to Skyrim was that nearly every dungeon or hideaway had a quick exit option. These could be everything from hidden walls to stairways leading above the entrance to drop back down. This relieved getting done with a quest and having to backtrack out of a cave. While I may want to go back around and gather loot, as I said with the merchant gold, it was prohibitive to do this. Either way, no matter how convoluted this got, it was a favor to the players. It was also realistic. If you’re a thief, are you going to dig in somewhere WITHOUT having a secret exit?
I started The Elder Scrolls as a Redguard. I went to a Dark Elf, and the a High Elf for the magicka boost. I had the same thinking in Skyrim, but racial differences were not as extreme. What first told me that Skyrim was different was the utter disdain I was me with. Cyrodiil, bothing being connected to a bigger city and being before several big and bloody wars, was much more accepting all around. I remember I had recently mastered Destruction magic. And I swore that the next knee-wounded, Hold guard that called me “goldenrod” was going to be reduced to a pile of ash. Well… Windhelm has a few ash piles guarding their gates now.
As a High Elf, Skyrim was hostile to me. And having met members of the Aldmeri Dominon I get why. It hit a bit close to home, however. It stung enough to jar me out of my enjoyment. Skyrim was, by far, a more serious game.
Oblivion seemed rather jovial to me. As I spent a lot of time with Oblivion there are characters that I remember fondly in the game. Some are obvious, some are less so.
Sheogorath is obviously at the top of the list, you interact with him a great deal during The Shivering Isles DLC expansion. Such care went into his creation as to even animate a special scene if you choose to assault him. Haskill, Sheogorath’s chamberlain, deserves special mention as well. His dry wit and annoyance are the perfect foil to His Lord’s over the top nature.
Cutter is the crafter of Madness arms and armor, also from The Shivering Isles DLC. I like the look of the Madness items. Heavy Armor is my preferred gear. And Cutter has a sadistic appreciation for the wares she creates.
Falanu Hlaalu is a regular Alchemy merchant with some unusual habits. Down the street from Rosethorn Hall, she became a go too check on ingredients. I think she may need the money more than me anyhow.
Whodunit is a quest, not a person, but deserves mention. Given to you by the Dark Brotherhood, this ideally requires subterfuge. The premise is that six people have been invited to a lock-in. The purpose is a party, and there is a chest of gold to find with the key to leave inside. This is a ruse, as the five guests spurned the same individual at some point, enough for someone to want to kill them. Then why six guests? Because you are the sixth, charged with their elimination.
I like this quest because it is all uniquely written. The characters stories, responses to each other, both alive and dead, are contained in this house. As such, they were written with intentional depth. The guests can be slain in any order and responses are there for each. Moreover, when it comes down to three guests remaining, you can convince one that you two are together to turn them on the third. It is small and quick, but a lot of fun.
This is one of the few titles in which I have an inkling of a wider community outside the game itself. Mods have been the lifeblood of Bethesda titles for some years. The games I have played have been on consoles. As such, mods have been locked off from me until recently. And I still do not play the game with them. Console Commands have shortened the time and running around it takes me to do fetch quests and material gathering. That is enough for me. Now, with the next Elder Scrolls title I may take an interest.
This said: I mentioned above that a game developer I like doesn’t like Oblivion. There is a mod he personally recommends. I’ll quote him here: “Truth be told, I felt like Oblivion left something to be desired. The Nehrim mod fixes all that and introduces its own full and original world.” I wholly intend to pick up the Nehrim mod at some point based on this recommendation.
Bethesda has a passionate fan base, and this is proven every title by the sheer scope of mods that come out. And, to Bethesda’s credit, they encourage this wholly. They have recently gotten some flak for attempting to have paid mods. I know how intensive simply writing reviews is. But writing unique code to piggyback off an already completed work? That impresses me. If a sizable chunk of the funds reaches the creators’ pocket, I’d be willing to pay for mods myself. That’s just me. I digress…
I have only played Oblivion and Skyrim of the Elder Scrolls series. For as much as I have played them there is not necessarily much in replay value. If you are determined, you can thoroughly complete the game on your first character. In Oblivion, if you are a strict adherent to Classes, Specializations, and the like, then playing another character may allow you to play differently. But if you are like me, and want to max out all the Attributes and Skills, a replay holds less appeal once you figure it all out.
In a post-Skyrim world, I would direct anyone towards that game for their first taste of The Elder Scrolls. Bethesda learns the lessons of prior games and ALWAYS makes the next work better and more accessible. Some say that the selfsame accessibility cheapens the experience. I say that bringing more people to the table to share in what does and doesn’t work makes way for richer experience.
If you liked Skyrim, nay, loved it, you should keep stepping back. See another side of Tamriel, perhaps a more peaceful and idyllic time. You’ll have some laughs. You’ll meet some deities. You’ll be able to reach to the stars and forge your own path. (Allusions to Birthsigns and Classes respectively.)
I look back at Oblivion favorably. It taught me a lot. Due to Skyrim, and also to James at Extra Credits, I can look at it critically now. I can see what works, what doesn’t, and why. More than all that, I have fun in Oblivion. And in the end, that’s a huge goal of a game met.
For more of James and the Extra Credit team:
All pictures taken from the Oblivion website:
Picture of Sheogorath came from The Elder Scrolls Wikia:
Action RPG set in a Sandbox
Played a lot like Grand Theft Auto
PC, 360, PS3
Saints Row 2 $10
Saints Row: The Third $10(15)
Saints Row IV $15(20)
Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell $15(17)
As I have said, and will likely say, I am not a fan of guns. This is due in part to growing up in a place where gang life was a reality. As games were and are an escape, I do not want to spend my free time steeping myself back into gang culture. As such, it took me a long while before I picked up a Grand Theft Auto title. GTA V had been announced, game play trailers had been released, but GTA IV was the latest outing. I finished my play through over the course of a week. It’s not a bad game by any measure. Rockstar does excellent work. My qualms were that the characters did not feel as though they stood up on their own and that the inundation of foul language was just to be edgy rather than to reinforce a culture or sharpen characters. I may lay outside of the “target demographic” for the series, so I serve my critiques with a pinch of salt. However, if I know that someone would like the game I would not be afraid to recommend it. On the norm, this is the highest praise that I will give anything.
As with Bastion the Xbox Live Marketplace had Saints Row games at a reduced price. I picked up Saints Row: The Third tentatively. From what I could tell from screenshots and trailers it seemed a lot like GTA IV, but I wanted to see what was done differently. Additionally, I had never heard of Saints Row and thought I could learn something. This is one of many times my curiosity did not let me down.
Or, four times, if you want to get technical.
I flew through Saints Row: The Third. I grabbed a used copy of Saints Row IV, and bought Gat Out of Hell when I saw the end of IV in sight. Later on I picked up Saints Row 2, to see the roots of the series. As I probably played all these games in the course of a month it is difficult for me to not think of all of them as a whole. As such, this is an instance in which I will speak to a whole series and try to highlight some of the design mainstays and changes. I will likely reference Grand Theft Auto IV frequently as I used it as a measuring device for this series.
After being saved by an inter-gang conflict, you join the 3rd Street Saints as they push back against the other gangs in the city. I haven’t played this title myself, but from the story of the other games I have surmised that this was the original premise.
Saints Row 2
Following revenge gone wrong, several years have passed with The Playa in a coma. Upon waking, they seek to rebuild the broken Saints gang and reassert themselves as a dominate force in the city. Align with a new crew to upend not only other gangs, but the Ultor Corporation as well.
Saints Row: The Third
After successfully taking the top seat of Stilwater back, the 3rd Street Saints go from local toughs to internationally known celebrities thanks to the reach of the Ultor Corporation. While a bank heist gone wrong is rarely a problem (all of Stilwater is in Ultor and the Saints’ pockets somehow), this time some had bigger pockets to pay people off with. After landing in Steelport you begin climbing the ladder of revenge. As “The Boss”, you lead the Saints to ensure that the job is done.
Saints Row IV
Having brought down The Syndicate, the Saints were back on top. So much so, that they made a successful bid for The White House. Someone should have really listened to Kinzie, because one of her many fears came to light. The President and the rest of the Saints are all humanity has left.
Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell
Keeping in what few traditions were possible, a surprise birthday party was thrown for Kinzie. But a Ouija Board turned out to be an actual conduit to Hell. Drawing The President to Hell, Johnny Gat and Kinzie ‘It’s my birthday and I’ll raid Hell if I want to!’ Kensington. jump in to rescue their leader. The plan? Shoot Satan in the face.
Both GTA IV the Saints Row series dealt with problems the same way: Shoot it. Having only played GTA IV, I may be missing out on this element in other installments (Ballad of Gay Tony, The Lost and the Damned, Vice City, San Andreas, and perhaps V). Saints Row felt like there was a sense of community. And because it followed the core group of the Saints it gave them more space to develop especially as the series changed. In four, Niko Bellic had some people around him. I remember his cousin Roman and that there were love interests. They all felt like boxes to check off for me rather than elements that added to the world genuinely. There were a few missions in which they were used to tug at the heart, but that is because they had the most connection to Niko.
In Saints Row most of the characters you come across are actually on the front lines with you at some point. Sure, oft times you may be sent on a fetch quest. But there are plenty of instances when quest givers become party members and are right in the thick of things with you. The characters that you interact with in Saints Row are not inert and helpless NPCs. They defer to you because you’re both crazy and competent enough to handle the issues.
Additionally, Saints Row is wacky. It’s grounded, but the odd things keep the world uncanny. Enough like our world to be immersed, but just strange enough to keep you on your toes and leave a smile on your face. At no point do I think any of the characters are taking themselves too seriously. Are there stakes? Yes. Can all be lost? Of course. But the characters are having fun, joking with one another even when the world is being set on fire around them. The Protagonist feels like a brother to Johnny Gat. I feel strong concern for Shaundi and Pierce, care about Oleg and Kinzie, and understand why Benjamin King and Keith David (yes, that Keith David) are motivated as they are. And I can remember there names, which is more than I can say for whoever the love interests and side characters are in GTA IV.
The writing turned out to be a refreshing aspect to this whole game series. At no point is anything taken too seriously. The characters had life and personality not because they were always very serious, brooding, or foul mouthed in an attempt to be edgy. Each character was unique unto themselves. Some of it is just puny, but cleverly so, I think. For example in the original and second game, there is a lawyer called “Legal Lee”, and his firm is “Legal Lee’s”, plays of ‘legally’ and ‘legalese’ respectively.
Another strength I noticed are in references to the player have long been gender neutral. Based on flashbacks and wiki entries, in the first game The Protagonist (your character) was often referred to as “Playa”. On the one hand, this works for an inner city gang environment where use of Playa is common. But it is also fourth wall breaking as you yourself are literally the “Player”. This set the ground for pretty much all the other writing and jokes in the series. By the third game, being in charge of the Saints, you’re known as “The Boss”. And by the fourth, “The President”. These are mainly titles. But they defer an amount of respect and they don’t feel tacked on. Because it happens in every game you notice it, but it pulls you into the world rather than push you out.
Compare this to Final Fantasy X. The main character which you can name is, by canon, named Tidus. However, his name is never used in the original game or the sequel. When being spoken directly to, a name is not needed. It is jarring to simply be yelled at for attention (“Hey you! Yeah, you!”) or for his closest friends to refer to him vaguely (“That Man” or “You Know Who”). It is played at a bit, especially in X-2, since Yuna’s friends jab at her affection for Tidus in this way.
Also, it is explicitly stated that the other Saints feel The Protagonist is psychopath. The fact that few emotions are shown, save for joy while killing, leads even Johnny Gat who is no slouch to murder himself to give cautions to people when dealing with you. And, over the games, it is stated that you’ve “calmed down” or at least focused your aggression.
A special note here. With cries of whitewashing and racial insensitivity across the board, I want to point out that this game series is diversely populated throughout. I may not use the most politically correct descriptors, and I’ll admit to making some assumptions, but here is a roster of the folks I can remember.
Johnny Gat, Asian American
Shaundi (surname unknown), Caucasian American – Admittedly, due to her skin tone I thought Shaundi was Latinx (especially when compared to Kinzie and Oleg for instance) but I was wrong.
Pierce Washington, Black American
Oleg Kirrlov, Russian
Kinzie Kensington., Caucasian American
Zimos, Black American
Angel De LaMuerte – Latinx
These are just a few handfuls of the named characters that are aligned with you. There are more arrayed against you, and more than I would want to bring to the forefront of what always spills over from a short article.
Over the course of the series the mechanics have remained fairly stable. But as the series has grown it has incorporated other genres into the control scheme as well as streamlined its own.
Respect here is experience points in other games. For killing gang members while adding flourish, completing activities and diversion, or simply improving the appearance and performance of your homes and vehicles you’ll gain ever increasing Respect. In Saints Row 2 Respect simply allowed you to open up more Main Missions and by that the boons that came with them. One full bar would allow one full mission and you can hold onto them. (My play through for research left me off at eleven missions I could burn through.)
In the later titles this changes. Respect has levels, making it a more traditional experience bar. Opening the menu are different bonuses you can unlock for yourself. This is everything from greater health and stamina, increased ammunition for each weapon type, to damage mitigation for each weapon type. In Saints Row: The Third and IV, you can become completely immune to all but melee damage at the maximum level of 50. In Gat Out of Hell, this is nigh immunity. In all three titles you can have unlimited ammunition as well. In Saints Row 2 the same boons can be earned by completing missions and side quests. If you are here for the thrill and action, you can up your survivability and ammo reserves. If you take an RPG angle you can grind until you can max out and be invincible, all in the same title. These improvements are the best for achievement hunters. Not needing to worry about running out of rounds while you try to amass 500 head shots will speed things up, for example. All of this can be done in the same title and that versatility is a wonderful thing. Additionally, one of the bonuses I liked the most was a Collectible Finder. With a map filter, anything that added toward the respective All Collectibles achievement was put on the map so you could hop from one to the next. It made what would have been a chore (looking at you Assassin’s Creed) in a diversion.
I mentioned above that the characters you meet would fight with you. More than that, you can call them outside of instanced segments. As you start taking over more of each city, Saints gang member will occupy those areas. If you get into trouble, they’ll fight with you taking aim at your assailants. You can recruit them on the fly, or go into your phone. These characters are the named ones you meet, and you can have up to three of them. You could have Oleg, Shaundi, and Kinzie helping provide cover for you while you accomplish a task or just cruise around. There are unique dialog interactions for a number of them, and they always come fully loaded. On average they have more health and resistance than street level members Additionally, if they do fall you can revive them. Even if you are invincible from your own RPG Launcher, they aren’t. But you can pull them back from the brink none the less.
One thing I noticed about the games mechanically is that the mobility always got better. Saints Row 2 is very realistic, as is much of your time in Saints Row: The Third. Late in the game, or earlier if you have the appropriate DLC, you can acquire vehicles that switch between flight and hover modes with the designation VTOL. This seems simple. But there are a host of collectibles scattered around Steelport, the setting of the third and fourth games. I originally played the game with no DLC. The easiest way to get some of these, especially those on tiny rooftops, was to hover above the building, land if I could and base jump if I couldn’t. My vehicle would crash and explode while grabbing my prize. I then I had to go to my nearest safe house with a heliport to grab another hover jet to head to the next collectible With the DLC hover bike, you can actually grab many collectibles on the bike itself then fly off to the next one. This was much faster.
Saints Row IV made vehicles superfluous very quickly. The superpowers in the game take the place of grenades from a selection standpoint. However, some are integrated with your regular actions. The first two powers that you get are Super Jump and Sprint. Do you remember how the original Superman couldn’t fly, but could “leap tall buildings in a single bound”? While this escapes truth in the most extreme circumstances, you can nearly skip over whole neighborhoods. Coming from The Third and, essentially being Metroid-ed again (losing all your nifty items and bonuses from the previous game), this was a welcome addition. I did not know that superpowers were part of the game. So when I set foot in Steelport again I said aloud “I have to do all the City Takeover again? I don’t want to do all that driving…” Almost to answer my quip, my present mission made it so I could run faster than any vehicle and jump to any rooftop I needed to. While more of a stand alone expansion, Gat Out of Hell upped the mobile ante again with full free flight. Like Saints Row IV, this came on fairly early. And this was atop similar powers and boons from the previous game.
Cash, Cache, and Wages
Money helps the world of the Saints go round. In the second to fourth games, taking over segments of the cities via missions, activities, and diversions adds to your bankroll. Periodically, these payouts would be accessible to you. In Saints Row 2, you have to go find a safe at one of your Cribs to access the money. In The Third and IV, it was accessible directly from the menu. These funds would pay for bonuses and weapon upgrades. I much prefer the automatic, wherever I am functionality of the latter two titles.
Gat Out of Hell took an interesting turn. I think is because the game was shorter, Wages became drops that had to be picked up. If you could just gain money automatically it would hasten an already short game. This said, it is possible to upgrade the Stomp power in this game with Vacuum, which will pull in Wages from a fair distance when improved.
Grenades and Superpowers
While Saints Row always provides you with lots of guns to take your enemies out with there are other options. Grenades and other thrown devices are available up through Saints Row: The Third. The secondary assault options from IV on are Superpowers. I was happy to see this change because I did not get a lot of mileage out of Grenades. Each Superpower had different “elements” you could apply to them. Additionally, there were some included in DLC that were even more fun. For example, Blast sends out an orb of power which will take effect once it hits something. Originally, this was Freeze. It would ice into stillness whatever it hit, including flying vehicles causing them to crash. In a DLC pack came the Explosion element. This would cause the subject hit to explode, which would chain react to whatever was around it. If you were to pack the city with enemies, vehicles, and other destructible objects you could make a ripple of destruction across the whole city. On another side was Telekinesis Originally you just help up people and objects. In the DLC was a Bling element, which let you siphon off money from your target. The applications were varied and fun, and due to how the wheel was designed you could press the Blast power selection button multiple times to switch the element in real time. Additionally, while Grenades can be upgraded with money, Superpowers had a unique “currency” of Clusters. These were set in a variety of areas, and were a collectible in the last two games. Their positions offered a payoff for using your powers.
As much as I loved the superpowers, there was one grenade I found exceptional in Saints Row: The Third. The Fart-In-A-Jar. Improving a Flashbang as high as it would go to Level 4 would grant you this item. It’s usefulness is beyond unreal, especially as the game offers many explosive options. When thrown, the smell would cause everyone in the area of effect to double over and throw up. What made this so good was that it worked even on vehicles There are side missions in which you have to find a car and take it to a chop shop. You get more money the better condition it is in. As an outright theft could take some money out of your pocket and gain police attention, letting someone drive into a cloud will have them stop and exit the car. This gives you the chance to swoop in and steal the car with only questions about the scent which have no bearing on your pay day.
No Difficulty Achievements
As I am working out how I want to build my own game, I often ask myself “What is hard?” In many cases harder difficulties mean that you will get harder and all enemies will become bullet sponges. This can be an aggravation especially for the sake of achievements. The Saints Row series lets you enjoy the games however you wish. The main place this is useful is in the Difference-In-Kind segments. Much of the games are 3D sandbox shoot em ups with RPG elements. But to change the pace you are thrust into mini games as part of the main story line While these give breaks to and punctuate the main story, many of the bonuses and boosts you may have acquired have little meaning in these segments. And, while beatable, it can still be punishing. I am namely thinking of one portion of Saints Row IV. After dying at the exact same point about ten times in a row, I went to look at a video to see how much further I had to go. In much aggravation, I had about another 10~20 seconds before a scripted event marked the end of the mission. So I turned the difficulty down, finished the segment, turned it back up, and went on enjoying the game.
I ended the previous section of Theming with the diversity of the cast. Mirroring that, I want to talk about the character you control for the games. One of the first things you do in the games is make your character model. Going beyond simply the face and hair is what gets me talking. Although I will talk about the hair too.
Again, citing cries for diversity in the present day conversation, Saints Row delivered on it well before it became en vogue. I have what I would call an “athletic” body type. I’m not layered in muscle, but I’m not scrawny either. I can, with little preparation, fall into a sprint or full out run. Most games I play have protagonists that look this way. In fact, most of the characters do. There are often male and female “skeletons” that every character is built around. If you ever see costumes in Batman: Arkham Knight take a look at Catwoman vs. Harley Quinn. In her Arkham series duds, Quinn has a unique stance. But put her in her original The Animated Series outfit and you’ll see that they used Catwoman’s work.
Saints Row brings the difference by allowing selections of different body types. The Character Creator was fairly run of the mill on the surface. Pick your race, sex, etc. Body type was new to me. In a triangle is a toggle between Skinny, Muscle, and Fat. It is the first, and only time, I can think of having a video game protagonist who was hefty. I can think of a character or maybe two in Street Fighter, and I am wholly discounting “Fat Nathan Drake” from Uncharted because I feel that was done up for yucks. But if you are aiming to make someone that looks like you and you aren’t a body builder or marathon runner that can be reflected in your avatar in the third and fourth games.
But I have an oft represented body type. Still, ever since their inception, character creation engines have always left me feeling lacking. I remember in preschool playing Mixed Up Mother Goose. It was a point-and-click problem solver. You’d find items that were key to completing their respective nursery rhymes. One of the things I like about it was the ability to choose avatars that had different skin tones and hair styles. It was the first time that I could pick someone who looked like me, the girls could pick someone like them and everyone could pick whichever one they wished.
Character Creation in the third dimension has been lacking, but I have been patient. With no more politically correct way to say this, most of the time I had to make a “dark skinned white character” if I wanted some passing resemblance to me. I’ve picked up The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion again recently. I view the Redguards as a parallel to people of African descent. There are options for cornrows, but they are more like colored pieces of rolled dough atop the characters heads. Maybe the graphics haven’t aged well. There are afros of various lengths, but I see a fair number of Redguard males with long straight hair. Unless Nocturnal has a side racket of unbreakable combs based on Skeleton Key, her unbreakable lock pick, there is no way that many people with kinky hair have straightened with only medieval technology, presence of magic or no.
With all this in mind, I have simply accepted that no character will look like me. If the skin color is right, the facial features are lacking. If those are right, I’m missing the hair.
When Saints Row was still a new series to me, I gave it a fair shake and went through all the options. I saw the “Rasta” option for hair and wrote it off. But I was blown away because… they were not just dreadlocks, but GOOD dreadlocks. A channel on YouTube called PlayStation Access has a man named Rob who admits to being obsessed with water physics in games. This is what I was like with the Rasta hairstyle. They were too fluid for dreadlocks. At least for the dreadlocks I wore on my head. Compared to the real world they responded to every motion, every bounce and bob. However, they did move consistently with the rest of the world. It went with the character and style of the game overall. They adhered to the physics of the Saints Row world. Plus they were textured and detailed. It is, to date, the only game in which I have been unabashedly happy with my self selected hair style. This tiny thing must have taken some time to program, especially considering all the other hairstyles in the game. But it heightened my experience from “not a wast of time” to immersive and enjoyable.
Another simple choice, but one that set the game apart, was the clothing. There is no gender lock of clothing. I set up one of the kids I watched with a sandbox segment of Saints Row IV. About an hour later he needed help with a platforming instance. He had a bearded, roughneck muscleman covered in tattoos running around in high heels and a cocktail dress with a beehive up do. I gave him a curious side eye, and he said he was having fun, so I left it at that. I have many friends that place themselves in gender fluid state. I can relay this game to them because they will be able to put themselves in the world however they feel.
The voice acting is something I haven’t played much with. I have stuck to the voice(s) that sound most like me, and have not been disappointed. Again, you can have a female body with Nolan North’s voice if that suits you. Yes, he did voice acting for the games, but in Saints Row IV “Nolan North” is a voice option outside the others. This ability to mix and match the different layers, whether it is an outrageous hair style or color, mixed with whatever clothes you like, body frame, style, and voice. Saints Row is the only game where I have successfully made My Self in a game. It is a powerful thing and one of the reasons I recommend it so strongly. Heck, even in Gat Out of Hell you can play as either Johnny Gat or Kinzie Kensington. as it suits you.
I’ve extolled the virtues of this game. I’ve given it high marks. I feel that the original games are worth it all on their own. Even after completing everything just picking it up for a few hours of downtime can be enjoyable. Going through the game using different voice schemes and Homies can change the dialogue experience enough to remain fresh. Adding on the DLCs will put more potential functionality in.
At the top of the article I said that the series is a 10 overall. I want to elaborate on some of the downs.
Saints Row 2 – 8
This is a solid title. No doubt about it. A lot of changes happened after Saints Row 2 which can be jarring coming back to this title. First and foremost, you need Respect to play Main Missions. If you don’t have enough you have to clear side missions until you do. This can slow up pacing quite a bit. The driving controls are different from later games too. There is some variation in combat which the latter games lack, but it can be a bit harder to pull off. This game is not as fluid as its descendants, but it is still good.
Saints Row: The Third – 10
I am biased towards this title and blown away by it. Coming off of Grand Theft Auto IV, a series which I mentally marked as competition, I enjoyed this game. My opinion may be more lackluster if I had played this one first. How, I didn’t. Saints Row: The Third is worth the price and revisiting. Get this bundled with the DLC. It can run $65 piecemeal, whereas it’s a five dollar price tag for The Full Package.
Saints Row IV – 10
Everything I loved about The Third, plus superpowers. Again, get the Game of the Century collection. The piecemeal price of DLC is worth another new game.
Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell – 9
This is a good game, but short. It has a $15 price tag, which is the same as Saints Row IV base game. I like it, but grab it and the one piece of DLC it has on sale. I call it Stand Alone DLC. It is an additional story and, back on the 360, it actually pulled in my Protagonist character customization into this game, so I know they tie together. This is a cherry on top of the other Saints Row games, which are the real treat. The free flight is fun and worth it to me. But really… wait for a sale on this one.
Saints Row is a game series I’d buy for all my friends if I could. It does so much, faithfully and well, that pretty much everyone I know would love at least one aspect enough to play through a whole title. The worse thing about it I find is the piecemeal price of all the DLC, which is countered and eliminated by the collections. If you ever want a funny sandbox game with plenty of ways to dish out mayhem, you’d be hard pressed to do it better than Saints Row.