You know you’re playing an older game when you’re forced to use the shoulder buttons to turn the camera. There’s no option to change it to the right analogue stick, either, presumably because that would have meant extra work. It’s a sure-fire sign that Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is just an emulated upscale of the PlayStation 2 original, unlike some of publisher Square Enix’s other properties. It’s something to keep in mind going into this, despite its relatively steep asking price for a PS2 classics title.
Thankfully, you’re getting a lot of content for your money here, easily taking you over 50 hours to complete - and that’s if you focus solely on the main story. Like other series entries, however, there are extra little bits here and there that can be undertaken to lengthen the experience. The series’ staple battle trophies, for one, are awarded for accomplishing certain feats in battle which can, inevitably, become simultaneously addictive and laborious.
Its age is also apparent in some of the environmental design. This being the first post-sprite 3D Star Ocean title, some of the settings – particularly dungeon-type areas – feel overly long and repetitive, often made up of cut-and-paste corridors. Turning the camera can often confuse matters even more as you realise that some areas are made up of the same stretch of elements oriented in a different direction.
Thankfully, the story really keeps things moving along nicely. This was arguably the last Star Ocean title released which you might claim to genuinely shine without attracting discord. It’s a rather compelling opening: you play as Fayt Leingod who, along with his childhood friend, Sophia, and his parents, is vacationing on the sunny, sand-strewn planet of Hyda IV when it’s attacked by a race known as the Vendeen. Escaping first to a battleship and later to an underdeveloped planet by escape pod, Fayt is separated from his friends and family, alone, not knowing whether he will ever see them again or, indeed, whether they’re still alive.
It’s a fairly simple premise, but one which works wonders for setting up the larger narrative. Exploring different planets, each with their own customs, traditions, and political issues, amid a war that crosses the galaxy is captivating, and you meet some genuinely interesting characters along the way. We’re particularly taken with the blue-haired, gun-wielding leader of the quark, Maria Traydor, whose mysterious background unravels amiably throughout, revealing deeper questions about the nature of your party’s - and the galaxy’s - precarious situation.
While Star Ocean games can more or less be played independently of each other (aided, as such, by the time chasm between each release), there are connecting themes that run throughout. Those who manage to finish Till the End of Time will be greeted with some of the series’ most surprising twists, which perhaps explains why subsequent releases are set in the past instead. This title really bookends the series timeline, leaving little room for movement beyond its space date. There really is some intriguing storytelling here with a pinch of metanarrative that raises it above the confines of its usually rigid genre.
As anyone who spends a lot of time playing the genre will know, Japanese RPGs often live or die by their battle systems, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Later titles are grounded in the one developed here, showing just how progressive it was. It was the first fully real-time combat system in the series based on combinations of long and short-range attacks which come in both the light and heavy variety, combos, skills activated by long pressing the corresponding attack buttons, and symbols (that’s magic, to the layperson). Up to three characters can take part in battle, but you directly control just one, and you can switch on the fly with a flick of the shoulder buttons.
There are also passive skills which enable certain boosts, and a fury meter which works not dissimilar to stamina. Standing still in the battle arena (which loads upon contact with an in-field enemy) restores the fury gauge and attacking diminishes it. Opponents benefit from the same system, so light-attacking something with a filled gauge deflects attacks, while heavy attacks will break defence. Remembering that the same applies in reverse is essential. Thankfully, there’s a quick dodge mapped to the d-pad, enabling nimble movement around the battle arena.
In terms of its fundamentals, then, this remains an excellent game. It’s a memorable experience which serves to highlight how much better it is than more recent series’ entries, especially in terms of its characters and story. But we can’t completely ignore some of the ageing design elements which, today, might not be so easily be forgiven. A proper remaster with a few tweaks – like what Square Enix is doing with Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, for example – might have left us with a truly excellent re-release. Instead, we’re left with “just” a great port, albeit one which carries a premium.
It’s especially important to remember that Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is a 13-year-old game, and you’ll notice this from the off. It was a bit of a dungeon-slog in 2004, and the spotlight’s even brighter now. Some awkward dialogue sections and rudimentary dungeon design aside, the fundamentals of this classic JRPG keep it more than relevant, with a progressive battle system, a series best soundtrack, and a thought-provoking narrative that concludes the Star Ocean timeline with aplomb.