Friday, May 15, 2009

The Long Overdue STAR OCEAN 4 Impressions Post

Blame Capcom. Blame Street Fighter IV. And blame Resident Evil 5. We got Star Ocean 4 a few months back; my wife got to about near the end of the first disc but then a lot of work came in, so she never finished the game. I got started on Star Ocean 4 a few days ago. She said she'll just take turns with me playing the game instead.

Yeah, it was hard to get out of Street Fighter IV to try out a different genre. In fact, I'm still playing SFIV these days; though I'm trying my very best to get out of the habit. Street Fighter IV is too addicting, particularly thanks to the solid netcode for the game on Xbox Live. Note: I also have the same game for the Playstation 3, but my online experience with Street Fighter IV on the Playstation Network has been dodgy at best. I've had more disconnections and laggy games for Street Fighter IV on Playstation Network than I've ever had on Xbox Live.

I think I've reached my peak with Street Fighter IV; I'm simply not getting any better at the game. And besides, I'm only playing it for fun. Based on my win/loss record, I'm an extremely AVERAGE player for Street Fighter IV (perhaps even below average; or worse). I seriously doubt I'll ever get beyond that level of play. Don't let the number of 'SFIV' related posts on this blog fool you---I've no plans to play this game professionally. I just like the game. It's fun. That's it. My previous WCG stint with VF5 is no hint that I want to become some kind of fighting game 'pro gamer'. Haha! No thanks! In fact, the experience with WCG made me realize playing games professionally isn't worth it. At least, not while there is no real support for console games in this country. It's a fruitless effort, a dead-end, a path which leads to nowhere.

There's no point to getting better at a game if you're no longer having fun with it. Cue that old quote from the movie Mr. Baseball: Games are supposed to be fun.

So I have to break out of this Street Fighter IV habit and play other game genres, like I always have. The gaming landscape is best enjoyed when one appreciates its diversity.

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And so, I've started on Star Ocean 4. After a few days of playing the game, some quick impressions:

1. The game starts out rather slow, and I wish the battle tutorials would have been done while you're playing through the game instead of a step-by-step by-the-numbers sequence. First time players may find the tutorials a bit tedious, but I say, they're essential....the meat of the gameplay is in that tutorial, and it isn't so obvious unless you play the entire thing.

2. Once you get to exploring planets, that's when the game starts to get better. In many ways, this game tries to strike a balance between what Western RPGs offer, and the unique flavor of Japanese RPGs. For one thing, there are a few side-quests in Star Ocean 4 which can extend the life of your game. They're not necessary for you to do them but they do add a bit more to the game. Later on, you can travel back and forth between planets, Mass Effect style, once you've completed quite a few main storyline quests. It's great to be able to backtrack to previous locations and do all the other sidequests there, to complete the entire game.

3. The maps for each planet feel huge, vibrant, and alive. The one flaw of Mass Effect which I recall is that most of the planets you can visit are all bare, and usually there's only one base with a tiny maze map / mini-mission considered as a 'sidequest area' for you to complete. With Star Ocean 4, the emphasis is still on the main quest, as it is with most Japanese RPGs, but you do get a sense of how 'large' each explorable location on each planet is. You're never going to have the same experience like in Mass Effect where usually it's just one tiny spot on the map which really matters on the entire planet. At the very least, you get to visit what feels like a small 'country' on each world, with a few towns, some locations, dungeons, and treasures to find. The game never feels like it was 'rushed' to completion by the developers because each world feels well planned out. You never get lost, and you'll never find yourself bored; particularly because the battles are avoidable (not random) and when you do get in a fight, you have to put some effort in and not just pick actions from a menu.

4. On the topic of action, it's nice to be able to switch between characters during fights. You can actually PAUSE the action and pick the guy you want, set up tactics, use special skills etc. It's a great blend of real-time and 'turn-based' gameplay (if you could even call it that). As always (with most Japanese made games), great animation work on the characters and really flashy effects make each fight worth playing through.

5. Regarding the storyline, there's a lot of good moments in the game even early on, and it's a good mix of serious scenes, drama, and humor. For the most part, I find the characters likeable (so far). Their designs are also well thought out; I wonder if we'll ever see cosplayers dress up like the characters in Star Ocean 4? Because their costumes are pretty unique and not too weird (not too many zippers, not too androgynous, etc.)

So far, I find myself looking forward to what happens next with the storyline while I'm playing the game, and that's a good thing. It wouldn't be fair to say it's a 'great' game just yet; that would best be judged when I've completed it.

But just on Disc 1 so far and the game feels 'massive' enough...there's a lot to do in the game. You can obssess over item receipes, finishing 'delivery' quests for shops, and many others, and you can do this on and off since you can revisit previous locations/planets...plus all those little sidequests....yup, it looks like Tri-Ace really put a ton of effort in this game. Let's see if it will be one of the best.

Current list of 'best JRPGs' on Xbox 360:

1. Lost Odyssey - I enjoyed this a lot because of the likeable characters, the 'situations' that the game puts players through....and the incredible ending. The best one I've seen in YEARS. The best one since Final Fantasy SIX!

2. Tales of Vesperia - I didn't play this but my wife did, and I trust her judgment on it. I did occassionally watch and was always impressed by the incredible amount of voicework and character 'scenes' in the game which made it feel like playing through an entire season of an anime series.

Will Star Ocean 4 join this prestigious list?

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