Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Star Ocean Player Diary (Caution: story spoilers! You have been warned!)

This past weekend marked the completion of approximately one-third of my escapade into tri-Ace’s Star Ocean (the game spans three disks, and I just completed the first of them this past weekend). The gorgeous graphics and intriguing dystopian plotline that fueled my initial foray into the great expanses of this game’s universe propel me no longer, and the only suitable sustenance I have to satiate my gaming appetite is garnered solely from foraging on the various hospitable planets I come across in this journey through the final frontier. Using the game’s clever item creation system, I can utilize the various items I’ve collected throughout my explorations – items that have very scant utilitarian value by themselves – to create other items that can help me in my dealings with planet natives, friend and foe alike. Unsurprisingly, the battles with hostile enemies end up absorbing quite a bit of time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. The “fast-paced, action-based” fight sequences are enjoyable enough in their own right (when was the last time that magic spells and clashing swords were boring, anyway?), but it’s never an exercise in arbitrary button presses on a video game controller, as the system grants different rewards for different play styles. Wanna exclusively cast magic spells to wipe out enemies? A nice experience bonus awaits after battle. Would you rather blindside enemies and strike them when they aren’t expecting it? Congratulations, some extra gold is headed your way – just enough to buy that cool sword on sale at the bazaar in town!
Additionally, each playable character in the game gains “experience points” both individually and as an entire crew – the former type of experience can be “spent” to upgrade the character’s particular skills and parameters, making them more effective at fighting, foraging, etc. and the “team experience” is useful in the aforementioned item creation system. Even when exploration itself gets tedious (and it does – if my travels through the Star Ocean are any indication, the universe doesn’t hold much more than planets that are, by-and-large, replicas of medieval Europe populated by cat-eared humanoid life forms that look like they walked out of an anime convention), at least the battles and the item creation keeps me on my toes.
The gameplay systems, however, while certainly gratifying, hardly fulfill the game’s earlier promise of a deep, compelling narrative; with a game subtitled “the Last Hope,” I’d expect some treatment of this significant metaphysical theme. So far, I’ve got very little hope that the game will offer anything of the sort. The characters, like the game’s narrative, initially hold some promise, but are essentially static. Star Wars, among other movies, took a cast of characters that included aliens, cyborgs, and human beings of various ages and genders - all with different worldviews of the universe - into one of the most successful commercial franchises of all time; Star Ocean basically tries to replicate this success in a different medium, with a stronger presence of shamelessly scantily clad female characters for what seems to be no particular reason whatsoever. I suspect that even most juvenile game players would find them to be terribly uninteresting.
Nothing serves to demonstrate this point more effectively than to view one of the game’s numerous cut scenes, which generally involve one character apologizing to another for some vague reason, followed by an awkward 5-second pause, followed by some ghastly revelation of some grave secret that really isn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things anyway. Even gaming veterans familiar with the generally poor plot direction of Japanese role-playing games will, I think, be squirming at the ludicrous excuse for a plot that this game presents to its audience.
Fortunately, one’s tolerance for poor voice acting, writing, and film direction need not be one’s personal barometer for enjoying the game, as the vast majority of these cut scenes are “skip-able.” Should you elect to do so, the synopses you’ll be forced to read are far more tolerable. Still, I can’t help but decry the game’s inexcusably bad narrative presentation. It’s not enough that Star Ocean fails to make the nuclear holocaust of planet earth into a genuinely interesting story; *SPOILER ALERT* it somehow manages to make the aftermath of the entire destruction of the earth of a parallel universe into one of the most derisibly bad melodramatic movie sequences I’ve ever seen. ****END SPOILER**** Resolving some conflict on one planet just lands the crew on a new one where the same ineffectual, uninteresting, virtually non-existant relationships between the characters take center stage over the far more interesting developments taking place all around them. Rinse, recycle, repeat ad nauseam, and you’ll probably understand why I question if the Star Ocean is worth playing to completion.
Philosophers such as Plato and the Angelic Doctor St. Thomas Aquinas lauded the relaxation from games as something virtuous in moderation, but if Star Ocean is merely an expensive piece of tinker toys and/or eye-candy, it’s not worth paying $60 for a new copy, harmless fun as the game itself may be. Human beings look for more than a quick fix for a longing for relaxation of the mind and/or body; we’re searching for fulfillment for the longings of the human heart! Art attempts in some way to “echo” this search; my journey through the Star Ocean has yielded scarcely even the slightest reverberation of this yearning’s fulfillment.
On the other hand, my escapades in the realm of videogame-dom (and my gallivanting exploits in the role-playing genre in particular) have also instilled in me the virtue of patience. As Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen says in Life of Christ, “…there are two [ways of viewing the world]: fast before Feast, or Feast and then hangover.” Perhaps my tedious time in tri-Ace’s Star Ocean will yield something more substantive in the near future. I certainly know better than to expect something from a videogame that only Christ can give, but it’s not unreasonable to expect something more than simple mind exercises and sensory overload from a particular form of media. If nothing else, a trek through the Star Ocean at least offers breathtaking visuals and a clever, if often redundant, battle system that makes mental micromanagement fun. The question for this discerning Catholic seminarian is this: Does it offer anything else? So far, the answer is a regrettable and definitive “no.”

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