Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Last Hope Analysis

So, I've played about forty hours of Star Ocean: The Last Hope. It seems to be about half way over. So I'll do some analysis on it.

It's not really a bad game, but it is an uneven game, with some very good things and some very bad things. It's a good game to look at if you want to see how RPGs have advanced over the past decade and how you really shouldn't fall behind the times. The game is classic in the worst sense of the term.

It definitely suffers from chronic cutscene-itis. The cutscenes are frequently as long as TV episodes, and not only can't they be skipped, they can't even be paused.

But aside from such obvious issues, there are more important lessons (or, at least, less obvious ones) to be learned.

One is character design. I understand that this is a Japanese game, but given that all of the characters are painful stereotypes... ... well, I don't mean that they are painfully stereotypical. I mean that they are painful stereotypes. Out of the ten characters with unique designs, seven of them are females and four of them are space-elves. The female characters are all fetishes and the main character is not only an irritating teenager, he goes from being happy-go-lucky to emo, so we can run the gamut of irritating teenage acting.

I guess compared to other Japanese RPGs it's pretty standard, but these characters really pale in comparison to most modern games. These aren't characters with a neutral feel: they're actively irritating.

Another interesting thing about this game - one that relates to the character design - is the graphical focus. The game features extremely high-resolution models both for the characters and for scenery. In fact, the graphics are so high-quality that the game is on three DVDs. However, the rest of the graphics are crap.

The animations are particularly bad, especially the facial animations. It looks like everything is mocapped, but without any kind of postproduction, so it's all jerky and and ill-suited to the anime look of the game. The faces are, of course, not mocapped at all and are limited to only the most primitive expression animations.

The models are all static. Even though you can equip a wide variety of armor, it doesn't change the visuals of the model at all. In my opinion, it's a bad decision to focus on improving the polygon count without bothering to improve the model's integration into the game. I'd rather have ten models at one-tenth the poly count when it comes to this kind of thing.

Now there are a lot of good aspects to the game as well. The writing is fun enough and there is quite a lot of it. The attention to detail is astonishing. The gameplay isn't bad: although it's not exactly new and exciting, there are enough interesting elements to keep it entertaining.

The pacing, however, is oldschool in a bad way. The amount of running back and forth through huge stretches of worldmap is really painful. The game is full of empty play as well - bunny racing, an arena, inventing things, merging things, digging up things, and sidequests with no significant rewards.

There's something to be said for complex, multifaceted play. Dark Cloud 2, for example, has many of the same facets. But, aside from the pointless and stupid fish racing, they are all tied together in an interesting tapestry. In games where the play isn't united, the play is all still there, but when you do it, the result feels unsatisfying.

Just, in general, the pacing of the game is quite empty. Huge, empty dungeons, but there's no real point to actually exploring them since all the points of interest are clearly marked. Huge amounts of play, except that the feedback is quite unsatisfying. Huge reams of dialog and plot, except that it's forced on you whenever the designers feel like it, and ends up feeling repressive instead of interesting.


So, my official suggestion for this kind of thing is to learn to avoid the mistakes of old and adopt some of the general policies the industry has developed over the past decade and a half:

Allow people to pause and skip cut scenes. Make cut scenes short, and make sure the player can do something else between them.

Don't leave dangling play: all avenues of play should feed back into the main game. If there are subsets of avenues of play that are dominated strategies (such as the magic "cards" in this game) then either don't implement them or find a way to make them useful.

Balance your visuals. Pure pixel-pumping polies are important, but animation, variety, and design are at least as important.

Seriously, I mean it about the cut scenes.

If you are going to require players to run from place to place a lot, implement a "speed bump" policy for radically underleveled monsters.

If you have a planet-landing-capable space ship or airship under the control of the main character, it might make sense to let me land it NEAR WHERE I'M GOING, just as a nitpick. I guess that's not really a fundamental.

And, oh, CUT SCENES.


What's your advice?