To an outsider, it may feel as though Japanese role-playing games (JRPGS) are dominated by just a few franchises: Final Fantasy and the Pokemon series. Though the two clearly cater for very different markets, their popularity is much deserved. Looking to the horizon uncovers a range of still popular but slightly more niche series: ‘Tales of’, ‘Persona’, ‘Dragon Quest’ and maybe Capcom’s ‘Breath of Fire’. I’d expect any of these to be familiar to a JRPG aficionado,  but for everyone else its worth noting that each has its merits, frequently outshining their more famous counterparts. Below these peaks, however, there lurks a veritable horde of lesser-known but renowned titles and series one might affectionately call ‘hidden gems’. The Playstation 1 and Playstation 2 in particular abound with quirky or ambitious RPGs that are much-discussed and revered online: Jade Cocoon,  Wild Arms, Grandia, Vagrant Story, Suikoden, Dark Cloud, Shadow Hearts and the ‘Star Ocean’ series. Having never previously experienced the world of ‘Star Ocean’, this article collects some of my initial impressions and early opinions.

Star Ocean: Till the End of Time was the entry point I picked for the series. Firstly, its affordable. Star Ocean did not receive a PAL release, Star OceanSecond Story did but its now quite pricey (If you’re someone who likes to start at the very beginning of a franchise its worth noting both of these games later received more affordable ports on the original Playstation portable). The other reason for choosing Till the End of Time is that is critically regarded in its own right. As the first fully 3D entry in the series its a game that clearly had a lot to prove, and has received praise for its voice acting, CGI cut-scenes and real-time combat system. These are my impressions of the game at around twenty hours into the game. There will be some light spoilers.

The best thing about the world of Star Ocean is its setting. Till the End of Time mixes fantasy and space opera in a convincing and exhilarating way: across a backdrop of a complex and epic-feeling galaxy of interplanetary war and politics you spend a great deal of time on ‘under-developed’ planets. That’s the game’s way of saying you’re on a fantasy world, and why you fight with things like swords against things like dragons. The game’s in-fiction justification for this also makes sense: a set of universal laws that prohibit and restrict interference with such underdeveloped worlds.

The game’s plot is one of its main strengths – most of the time. The game’s opening is immediately engrossing. The main character, Fayt Leingod (character names are not a strength here), is on a family vacation to a resort planet until it is interrupted by a sudden invasion by a hostile force called the Vendeeni. I’ve yet to actually see one but they sound the worst. Fayt is easy to identify with throughout this situation – suddenly thrust into an unexpected situation not only do you feel for him, but this method of opening the narrative also saves a lot of complex backstory: details of the setting are added gradually. The player is filled in on details of the attackers and the interplanetary war raging elsewhere as they hop from evacuation area to rescue ship to escape pod, and it isn’t long before Fayt suffers a crash landing on a medieval-ish world. This first short world equips Fayt with a sword, and pits him against another unwelcome visitor who has used his laser gun to become a sort-of feudal tyrant. It’s a short and satisfying part of the story, and soon Fayt is picked up by another group that has been sent to find him.

Its here the weaknesses of the plot are on display. A further attack by the pursuing vendeeni sends this rescue ship also crash landing on another medieval planet. There’s a lot more narrative here, a war between two countries and an ethical dilemma about whether Fayt should intervene with his advanced knowledge. The problem is this country-against-country conflict can’t help but feel a little insignificant compared to intergalactic war and the unanswered questions from the opening. This section is much longer than Fayt’s first crash-landing, too, with a number of diversions thrown in (you get sidetracked on the way to the capital city twice to rescue two different women in peril). I couldn’t help but silently plead a little ‘hurry up’Eventually though, the main narrative thread does get picked up again and the plot seems to acknowledge the relative futility between two countries in a vast universe. It made me optimistic for the rest of the plot. I’ve yet to make it on to the game’s second disc so I think it’s fair to say that if nothing else Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is long.

The games secondary systems for things like leveling up and item creation might depend on personal taste. They seem initially straight forward, but like many newer RPGs are in fact deeply complex. Item creation and enhancement is a particular point of concern – I’ve yet to get stuck into it fully, preferring to spend my time advancing the story, but many of the tips pages I’ve looked at warn about severe difficulty in the sections to come without taking advantage of the item crafting mechanics. Similarly I have a few minor issues with the game’s battle system. It’s fun, and a lot more engaging that menus, employing real-time combo-building combat typically compared to a ‘Tales of’ game, but on a 3D plain. This is where some issues arise. The 3D plain makes for a little more imprecision than in a ‘Tales of’ game – a slight movement from an enemy can cause a skill to miss even though they’re still right in front of you. Its not been particularly hard, so far at least, and I’ve avoided any serious patches of grinding, but this is definitely the kind of game where you’re more likely to die to a random collection of enemies than to a boss. With all three characters I’ve been able to flatten many of the bosses pretty quickly, but bump into a particularly motley group of enemies and you can be downed before you know what has happened. Your healing items are capped at twenty of each one: this is a necessary limit. You will use them a lot. Once or twice I’ve had to leave areas because I’ve burned through all my resurrection items before reaching the boss. This is not really something to gripe about, though, making for an acceptable level of challenge.

Overall, with just a few kinks, this is a welcome departure from other role-playing series. Its mix of science-fiction and fantasy themes is compelling and gives it a pretty different vibe to many of the PS2’s go-to role-playing games. It’s plot is the main draw though, and I look forward to pushing ahead to see where the narrative will head next, on to disc two and beyond. If I have to suffer through some slightly irritating item creation time, then so be it.