Examining Star Ocean 4 Part 1 – Sailing the Star Ocean

After SO3, this really was my last hope for the series…

Star Ocean: The Last Hope (henceforth known simply as either Star Ocean 4 or SO4) is probably one of my favourite games of the last console generation. Despite it having a number of pretty serious flaws, not least of which taking place in the same universe as Star Ocean 3 (I’ll have a post on that game soon…), I have an immense fondness for this game.

Maybe it’s the characters, most of whom are varying degrees of fun and interesting, if a little too stereotypical in a Japanese kind of way. Maybe it’s the hugely fun combat. Yes, even the battle trophies, though screw that final (PSN) trophy. Maybe it’s the overall setting and the fact we actually got to spend more time in the ostensible title of the franchise; the star ocean itself. Unlike Star Ocean 3.

In reality it’s all three of those things combined, of course. I’m a big ol’ Japanese RPG nerd in any case and can generally overlook some of the usual issues they have, which I’ll be going into in detail on over the course of this series, but beyond that Star Ocean 4 simply has a really fun gameplay loop combined with a workable story and fun characters I enjoy spending time with.

This series will be talking a bit about what I feel the game does well, what it does not, and generally dissecting the whole thing, mostly from the story and world building perspective, though I’ll also go into gameplay and other topics as necessary. Basically, because some of what I’ll be writing about is pretty negative and critical (especially Fallout 3 and other Bethesda games), I wanted another series where I can be positive.

Let’s kick off by having a brief moan about the opening cinematic. While I’m mostly pretty positive on this game, I’m not going to shy away from critique and bashing it when it does something silly, just so you know 😉

There’s no way automated Doomsday Machines will backfire, right?

Anyway, the game starts by showing us World War 3 kicking off in AD2064 as the result of an accidental nuclear missile launch, thanks to some idiot thinking it would be a good idea to have doomsday machines be automated. Seriously, this never ends well. And after dozens of nuclear strikes reduce the world’s cities to ashes, my case rests.

This sets the stage for what has been an ongoing conflict between the World Republic Federation and its enemies, culminating in Armageddon and a ceasefire… after destroying half the planet, but better late than never, right? So what’s my complaint, you may be wondering? It’s mentioned that mankind moves into underground cities because the surface world is so devastated that it barely supports life any more.

Okay… but how did they make these cities? With the world’s economies and major population centres in ruins, where did they get the raw resources, the money, the manpower? Maybe the cities were already created as an emergency measure, similar to Fallout’s Vaults? Maybe they really mean more like caves filled with shanty towns, rather than actual metropolis-style cities? No idea.

And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter too much; I’m willing to overlook a certain amount of hand waving if it’s done in order to keep things moving at a steady clip. Only when this sort of thing happens constantly does it become a major problem, because at that point you’re actively damaging your world’s internal consistency. For good (or more accurately, bad) examples of this, just look at Fallout 3.

The Final Frontier. Until SO3 ruined everything with 4D Beings.

A couple of decades pass by and soon we have a space programme and new warp drives being tested, albeit unsuccessfully for now. Again, I have to ask where all the materials and so on came from for such a grand undertaking, but again… not too much of a problem.

Stories generally fall into one or more categories of fiction. For our purposes here, we have two major ones; drama first and details first. Drama first stories put emotions and – of course – drama first and foremost, before any other concerns. The world is created to accommodate the characters and story and can be changed by the writer depending on what they need at any given time, consistency be damned.

Details first stories, conversely, concern themselves with world building and creating a believable setting where a player can stick their nose into anything and be reasonably sure they’ll receive a decent answer. My questions on the underground cities and space program of Star Ocean 4 fall into a details first story’s purview. Fallout: New Vegas is a great example of this type of game world and story.

Fallout 4 = details or drama? Neither, it’s nonsense first.

Good examples of both of these types of story can be found in the same franchise: Mass Effect. The first Mass Effect was very much a details first, talkie and techie (thanks to both Shamus Young and MrBTongue for these general terms) kind of game. By the time we hit Mass Effect 3, it’s done a complete 180 and become a drama first story where literally nothing makes sense any more.

So where does Star Ocean 4 fall? The main story is drama first, no doubt about it. But this game also falls neatly into a details first category thanks to the meticulous detail that goes into the setting and world building. Just take a look at the codex entries and you’ll see exactly what I mean there.

That makes Star Ocean a pretty interesting animal to examine. It has some of the problems of a drama first story (one of the biggest is the alternate Earth), but also makes full use of the benefits. Meanwhile, it also goes out of its way to throw you face first into the deep end of its world, with dozens of detailed codex entries on how exactly space flight works, the ships and weapons used in this world, and descriptions of all the aliens and monsters you meet.

Next week: not Aeos. We have a few other things to discuss first.