If I were to distill the essence of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time into a single word, it would be "vast." Like the reaches of the universe (and beyond) that it took me through, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is simply a vast game, whether viewed in terms of playtime, sidequests, story, intricacies of battle or its centerpiece item creation system.
I was concerned when the game opened and plonked me down in the middle of some teen angst of the boy-girl, largely platonic variety. Indeed, the fact that the teenaged female was baring her midriff and wearing pants that she seemingly forgot to button gave me cause for worry. Fortunately, I wasn't thrown into The Star OC, but rather I had discovered a well-done and epic role-playing game courtesy of tri-Ace.
Role-playing games (RPGs) commonly throw a lone hero who is coming of age against a villain who is seeking to destroy the world. Star Ocean takes things further and sets an untried hero of age against what may or may not be a villain, who is destroying many worlds and seems hell-bent on ending the universe itself. To give any more insights into the story would be giving spoilers, but I will say that the story is very "meta" in the sense that it almost examines itself. It's certainly an ambitious tale, and I thought it was a nice way to be a little different while sticking to the conventions of the genre that fans expect.
Star Ocean is a game that impressed me with the way it conveyed certain events taking place; for example, its depiction of war. Many RPGs have depicted such as exposition via dialog. Till the End of Time utilized something that gave the war more impact. It started showing me implied torture in a typical medieval-style dungeon. Later I experienced a major battle as my party had to maneuver through a battlefield filled with fighting soldiers, and enemies who were willing and able to force the party into a skirmish. This was a good way to involve my party in the war effort, and it impressed me for this genre. But then the war was brought home on a small scale, with a friendship that could have blossomed into love, had a couple's story not ended bleakly with death amidst the violence of battle.
Although I was drawn into the sense of war as presented in-game with story events, Star Ocean also impressed me with some of its computer graphics (CG), the pre-rendered movies that gamers take for granted nowadays. After one particular CG I literally sat back and said "what the #$!@ just happened here?!" It created that kind of emotional resonance with me. Another scene showing the end of a world was chillingly beautiful, and the impact added by this creatively imaged scene definitely kept me in this game's universe.
One of the motifs that add to my satisfaction in playing games is that of exploration. Games where I can explore what feels like a self-contained and realized world truly stand out as special to me—whether the modern splendor of a Metroid Prime 2, steampunk polygons of Final Fantasy VII, or the quaint 16-bit Tokyo-influenced splendor of Streets of Rage 2. Star Ocean will be added to this list for me, in that it provides a world that seems self-consistent and is thoroughly explored throughout the game. The player will revisit certain areas throughout, and this breeds a certain sense of familiarity. The world has been designed with a sense of whimsy—not of the Disney variety, but in a creative sense. There are plenty of serious monsters to be found, from spider-like robots to dragon brigades. Yet creative design abounds as well, in such foes as the grim-reaper-like sarcophagi and the broomstick riding witch-girls.
I must (of course) touch on a key aspect of Till the End of Time, and something no doubt important to fans of the series: the item creation (IC) system. The IC in Star Ocean 2 was workable, but gamers found it a bit clunky due to a confusing structure and difficulty in actually figuring out what was going on. The understandable IC system here allows for a lot of potential, and is incorporated under a system of an inventors' guild. This guild provides another touch of the designers' creativity, in that to make many useful items, the player must recruit other inventors, some of whom have challenging conditions to meet and each of whom has distinct personality tidbits.
Not only can the IC system be used to create everything from Prehistoric Steak to Rune Swords to gaudy jewelry (for fun! for profit! for powering up!), it can be used to enhance weapons. As in real life, this kind of capitalistic endeavor requires money, and lots of it. Also like real life, the outcome isn't always known. IC is the best argument for using a strategy guide because there is such a wealth of items, and figuring out the system as well as the results would require more time and patience than this reviewer had. This isn't meant as a criticism of the IC system; I actually found it quite addictive (even with a guide), and of course to get really strong weapons requires some time spent in IC.
As with other Tri-Ace efforts, Star Ocean features a mostly real-time battle system, which was daunting at first. A welcomed tutorial helped me pick up the basics, and then it came down to practice, of which there was plenty. I found the battles entertaining through to the bittersweet but satisfying end of the game—always trying to improve my skills with Cancels which chain attacks, to earn battle trophies or just groove to the vigorous battle theme. Battles were hectic while getting to grips with the system, as one character is controlled in real-time, while the rest function autonomously based on general tactical settings. The player can switch between characters in real-time, so if the protagonist Fayt gets boring or a weaker party member needs specific actions for self-defense, these can be immediately acted upon.
There was little I disliked about Star Ocean: Till the End of Time. The story kept me interested to the end of the game, and the battles were fast and furious for the sixty-five hours I happily put into it. Nowadays I'm almost embarrassed to admit to being a fan of Japanese RPGs. In this age of Oblivion, there are too many gamers decrying the staleness of a cliché-ridden genre being milked to death. But honestly, those RPGs exist because gamers like me enjoy the wonder of a story told through motivated characters who are saving the world, and learning about themselves in the process. Like fantasy fiction, these stories are about the underdog and the inexperienced. Also like fantasy fiction, a new world—or universe—to experience is what keeps bringing me back. In this light, Star Ocean is a success: from creatively imagined situations to hauntingly scored background music, there was hardly a dull moment in this quest through time and space.