World Building: A Look at Star Ocean 3

Love the ancient look with that sepia tone.

Love the ancient look with that sepia tone.

So I’ve been replaying some older games recently, and one of the last was Star Ocean 3: Till the End of Time. Great game in a lot of ways, some nice world building, okay characters, spends far too much time on underdeveloped planets. No major problems there.

But then we reach that ending. You know the one I mean, the last portion of the game where – SPOILER ALERT! – it’s revealed that our world and entire galaxy/universe is just a big old quantum computer simulation and effectively nothing more than a vijda game for a group of 4-dimensional beings on another plane of existence to cock about with.

If you’ve not actually played the game, I’m not joking. That’s really how the game concludes. No real lead-up either, there are hints that something weird is happening in our galaxy, with insanely overpowered creatures destroying entire planets and some weird energy flooding the universe, but the reveal itself falls utterly flat because it happens out of nowhere.

Now, I could talk about the ending itself, how it fails on various narrative and thematic levels, how it could’ve been handled better (or changed entirely), and all manner of other things. But instead I’m going to talk a bit about the world building in this game. Stuff like lore, back story, locations, planets, etc., as those are some of the strongest aspects of this title for me.

Let’s play Hyda and seek on the private beach.

Let’s play Hyda and seek on the private beach.

I’ll be looking at the game from the point of view of someone new to the series, ignoring the previous two games entirely. This is partly so I can keep this focused on the game in question, but also because each of these games needs to stand on its own for new audiences, thereby meaning the world building in each also needs to hold up to scrutiny as though the other games don’t exist.

Upon starting the game we’re treated to the usual brief opening cut scene, at which point we’re dumped onto a high-tech resort world called Hyda (which I always misspell as Hydra). This is a nice way to kick things off for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s a calm before the storm situation, showing the world before the shit hits the fan, and how main character Fayt acts around childhood friend/love interest, Sophia.

It shows off a good amount of tech involving teleporters and shiny corridors and holographic game simulators, again acclimating the new player to the fact that this is a world far advanced compared to ours. Additionally, a whole slew of entries are dumped into the game’s encyclopaedia for you to browse at your leisure.

For the amount of scientific entries and lore regarding various races, worlds, and technologies, this is a good approach; it keeps the opening of the game moving at a steady pace but lets interested players dig deeper if they wish.

Galactic pizza delivery for Hyda! Today’s special offer includes nuclear annihilation.

Galactic pizza delivery for Hyda! Today’s special offer includes nuclear annihilation.

After these brief opening sequences to introduce our main characters – including Peppita, who’ll be back much later on – we’re treated to an emergency as an unknown alien race attacks. Cue much destruction and panic as this peaceful and idyllic world is turned into a literal firestorm of death.

For all the missteps the end of the game made, I have to give Tri-Ace serious credit for the opening. It’s more or less perfect for a game of this type, giving enough information to hook the player into this world while keeping the story moving along at a steady clip, additionally allowing them to immerse themselves in the lore via codex entries. Amazing how masterfully they managed this before then ruining it at the other end of the game.

Anyway, from here things move quickly to the escape portion, using teleporters and a Federation Frigate that really isn’t designed for this work. The music changes to something appropriately sombre, setting the scene perfectly. Never underestimate the power of a good soundtrack to add weight to already great world building.

(Quick aside: Till the End of Time has an amazeballs soundtrack, so many great pieces in there… including the uh… atmospheric and interesting track with rap lyrics. Yes. It’s depressing how generic so many other RPG soundtracks are in comparison. Moving on…)

Codex entries as far as the eye can see.

Codex entries as far as the eye can see.

Going on a brief tangent here, you can clearly see all the Star Trek influences in this game (the whole game series in fact). A peaceful federation of planets built on the notion of cooperation; warp travel; underdeveloped planets (and the associated Prime Directive of this universe, known as the UP3: Underdeveloped Planet Preservation Pact; replicators that work effectively like magic; cute female aliens who are Humans With Funny Faces™; etc.

But while this could easily slip into blatant rip-off territory, the game handles it more like respectful homage. It has its own twists to add to the technologies in use, there’s Symbology – literally Space Magic™ – plus something called Creation Energy, and despite the many clear references to Trek, Star Ocean’s world stands up on its own.

The frigate is no match for the ships attacking it, so they stuff the refugees into escape pods and jettison them. Fayte’s pod takes him to an underdeveloped planet called Vanguard III, the nearest habitable world in range. At this point, we’re thrown into the extended ‘let’s try not to mess up the natural evolution of this planet’s people’ arcs.

♫Star Trekking, across the universe, on the starship Helgreprise, under Captain Kirk.♫

♫Star Trekking, across the universe, on the starship Helgreprise, under Captain Kirk.♫

A lot of people, myself included, think this whole sequence on the underdeveloped planets  goes on a bit too long. And eh… it kind of does, yeah. It’s nice that the writers wanted to show the effects of technology on a primitive society, and how careful you’d have to be not to corrupt their natural evolution, but I feel they went a tad too far.

It’s an easy trap to fall into as a writer, wanting to detail all this amazing stuff you’ve thought up while world building, how this faction doesn’t get along with that, how these people subsist on this particular food only they can grow and are regularly attacked by bandits, how the effect of sudden surges in technological advancement can affect… and you see how quickly that starts spiralling out of control.

Crash landing on this world out in the sticks (galactically speaking), we immediately run into a problem; people don’t much like Fayt. Or more accurately, they don’t trust him. Turns out there’s another dude here called Norton who’s created a gang and is being a bit of an asshat towards the local villages including one called Whipple, which we just so happen to have crashed not all that far away from.

Here’s where things get interesting, because we get a nice contrast of those who go out of their way to avoid damaging primitive cultures (Fayt et al) and those who don’t give a crap and have more of an ‘it’s good to be King’ attitude (Norton).

I wonder if he sells bloated anti-malware products on the side…

I wonder if he sells bloated anti-malware products on the side…

Collapsing at the village of Whipple, Fayt is helped by a couple of kids called Niklas and Meena. In return, Fayt agrees to fix Meena’s music box, but will need some special tools to do so; his advanced gadgets… which have been stolen by the time he gets back to the crashed escape pod.

At this point we enter a relatively short section where Fayt has to run over to a local ruin – getting a proper introduction to combat along the way – and not only rescue Niklas, who has been kidnapped by Norton’s gang, but also confront the man himself.

Some nice stuff going on here overall. It’s a small area to acclimatise new players to the game now they’re out of the tutorial section on Hyda, has a number of enemies with different attacks, and a short term goal to work towards that ties both the local narrative (Niklas, Meena, Whipple, Norton) to the larger goal of getting off this rock so Fayt can stop running the risk of polluting this culture any further.

Quarky character introductions.

Quarky character introductions.

Near the end, we also run into Cliff, a Klausian. This race is effectively identical to humans but possess far superior physical strength. Some political wrangling is brought into matters here, clandestine groups, kidnappings, and all manner of other fun things. Rescuing Niklas and making their escape in Cliff’s ship – piloted by the lovely Mirage – we finally head back out into space!

… for approximately five minutes. At which point… you know what’s coming, don’t you? We crash on another underdeveloped world as a result of being attacked. Elicoor II is the world in question and it has some pretty big troubles; two major nations in a state of, if not actual war, then certainly regular aggression.

So next time I’ll dig into that, looking at the expansion of the UP3 plot threads to cover not just a small village some random off-worlder wants to lord it over, but two countries at war. The introduction of our off-world heroes goes about as well as you might expect…