Aright bitches. You thought you were finally rid of me, didn't you? Think again motherfuckers. I ain't dead just yet.
So Square Enix recently decided to release this old classic on PS4. Star Ocean 3. Being that this is not only the best Star Ocean but also one of the greatest games of all time, of course I decided to get it. Star Ocean 3 is the best game tri-Ace has and will ever make from now till the end of time (c wut i did thur). It's especially interesting to note how much worse the latest Star Ocean 5 is, in so many areas, compared to this game. Not only that, but it also illustrates how far gaming in general has fallen since the golden age.
Now, before anything else, I gotta warn you. This is not the original game. This is the recent PS4 port. It's almost the same, except that the emulation is spotty. The original Star Ocean 3 on PS2 was a stable game. But this version is very unstable. It crashes frequently and consistently. You can expect on average to experience a crash about once every 20 hours of gameplay. Which is completely unacceptable. I mean what the fuck is this shit, a PC? Oh, that's basically what consoles are nowadays? Shiiiiiiiiiiieeet. You better save frequently, because you never know when that inevitable crash is coming with this shit. Better get used to living in constant fear. Well, I guess when you think about it, it's actually very fitting that modern day Square Enix would somehow manage to find a way to fuck up this unfuckable classic.
Other than that, the only real changes were the addition of PSN trophies and cleaning up the textures a tiny bit. Probably. It's interesting playing the game a decade later and noticing things that you didn't the first time. For example, the ability to control the audio volume of music, sound effects, and voice acting separately in the config menu is a conspicuously absent feature, because voice volume is kind of all over the place in this game. Sometimes it's fine, sometimes it's too low, and sometimes it's drowned out by the music, because they didn't have the modern day RPG tech where the music volume automatically lowers when somebody is talking during a cutscene.
But whatevs. It's hard to hate when the music is THIS GOOD. Motoi Sakuraba is at his absolute best in Star Ocean. This is where he became a legend. It wasn't until I played this game again that I noticed just HOW MUCH Star Ocean 5 straight up reuses songs. I mean, I already knew that it brought back a ton of songs from SO3 and SO4 when I played it, but there were songs that I didn't even REMEMBER were originally from this game. They're not even remixed or updated or remastered or whatever. They're just lifted wholesale from this game. Which is interesting because it begins to illustrate a thought that comes up again and again as I played this game: why does this game have clearly so much more work put into it than nowadays? If SO5 reuses so much stuff that was originally created in THIS game, why does it still have less content, less quality, and less creativity than this game? Who do we blame? Big business? Evil suits with their deadlines? Maybe. But I don't see why deadlines wouldn't have existed during the golden age as well. And it's hard to blame the rising costs of development either when SO5 is only a baby step of a technological leap over SO4, and obviously didn't require a particularly high budget. But before I digress too much, lemme just reiterate the music in this game is great. So much good shit. The best version of Mission to the Deep Space was created in this game. The Divine Spirit of Language, one of, if not the best, boss battle themes in the series was also created here. And so much other good shit besides. Amazingly, I never noticed that Persona 3 used the same lyrics that were used for Bitter Dance in this game. You'd think that I would have noticed back then, what with both those games being part of the golden age and being separated by only a 3 year timespan. But somehow nope. I was completely oblivious to that interesting fact until I heard Bitter Dance again in this game when I replayed it this time. Look, I liked that SO5 reused so many classic songs that I love. But it doesn't change the fact that they clearly worked harder on this game when so much of it originally came from here.
Story has never been the focus of tri-Ace RPGs, and that's the case with Star Ocean 3 as well. It's about the gameplay, not the story. The plot tends to be more developed and engaging during the first half of the game but gets pretty iffy late game. And not because of the much maligned plot twist, which I don't mind so much. It's really about the execution of it all. The concept is fine, but the execution is just weak. The way the whole thing is presented and explained is just lame, and how little introduction and character development a lot of the enemies get, ESPECIALLY the final boss. He's one of the most important characters to the plot of not only the game but the ENTIRE Star Ocean series, but he gets so little introduction and development that he ends up feeling like a throwaway character. You never even see him or anything until the very end right before the last fight. And what little you do see of him at the end there is just so...lame and uninteresting. He's nothing but a generic far gone megalomaniacal villain complete with the cheesy evil laughter. And the fact that he gets little to no backstory or development leading up to the confrontation just makes it worse. Less important characters during the first half of the game get more screen time and development than him. It's such a disservice to put so little effort into such an important character.
On the character front, SO3 fares better than other games in the series. Cliff is cool, Nel is cool, Maria is cool, Albel is a badass. Mirage and Adray get too little participation in the story due to being tacked on later, but are both cool too. Fayt isn't very cool or interesting (as is always the case with Star Ocean protagonists), and Sophia is an annoying bitch during the introduction (as is always the case with Star Ocean main childhood friend girl) but gets better after she joins your party. Peppita is meh, whatever. Roger sucks dick. The interesting thing is that this game still has a little bit of old school in it, in that there are 10 characters in the game, but you can only have up to 8 in a playthrough. Which means that you're forced to choose two characters to be left behind. The dialogue and the way scenes unfold changes based on which characters you chose to have with you. But, well. We all know which 2 characters are getting left behind.
Importantly, as is Star Ocean tradition, you have pair endings in this game. Throughout the game, the dialogue choices you make in events is constantly affecting how the other characters perceive you. Every choice you make either increases or decreases affection points with every character (even the ones you have yet to meet!). By the end of the game, the character that has the highest affection towards you will be the one you get paired up with in the ending. Unless everyone's affection is too low, in which case you end up alone. I love this aspect of Star Ocean. It's super important, which is why it's fucked up that it was absent in SO4. In SO3 you can only pair up the protagonist with another character, so the pair endings feature is not as good as Star Ocean 2. But whatever, the main character is the one that really matters, so I'll let it slide.
Other than that, it's crazy how much more complete of a game this feels like and how much higher quality it is than later games. Take the dungeons for example. One of the biggest disappointments about SO5 was how short, simple and boring dungeons became. It's like night and day with this game. The dungeons are bigger, more creative, and much more fun in this. They even actually have puzzles in them. Shocking and unheard of in this day and age, I know. It's interesting how every dungeon has some unique little gimmick thrown in that separates it from the rest. Cube puzzles, light and darkness mechanics, rolling rocks, thirst and water meter, breaking ice and slippery floor, hauler beast riding, flooding, runic chess puzzles, color puzzles, one way doorways with switches that change the direction, switches that move rooms around, etc. They're not just corridors like in SO5. This game even has 2 big, unique and challenging optional dungeons (NOT counting the postgame dungeons) that you can completely miss, with their own bosses and puzzles and mechanics (one of them even with its own unique music that isn't used anywhere else) and rewards. What is even the point of putting in such big things with so much work put into them and you can just ignore them? I dunno, but there it is.
Another thing I like about this game is how it rewards thorough exploration of every dungeon (and also general areas) by having a map completion % that increases as you explore and fill more of a dungeon's map. And when you reach 100% map completion you're given a great and useful reward every time. I don't know why this mechanic was removed from all future games. It made exploring every nook and cranny more fun and rewarding because you were actually working towards something useful. Not to mention it's just satisfying to fully complete the map and for the game to acknowledge it.
And while I'm on the topic of dungeons, and since I mentioned the postgame dungeons, DUDE. Holy fuck it's such a difference with this game. This game has THREE postgame dungeons. Do you understand me? THREE. SO5 only had 1 and it was TRASH. Even ONE of SO3's postgame dungeons ALONE is MILES better than SO5. This game's Maze of Tribulations has it all. Creative design, puzzles, story, dialogue, cutscenes, humor, cameos. SO5's Maze of Tribulations had jack shit.
That's not all either. There's so much more stuff in this game in general. There's twice as many towns. There's always a ton of things to check out in houses. You always get cool or funny dialogue and even new dictionary terms from checking out all sorts of things. There's a metric fuckton of lore to find everywhere; the history of everything is surprisingly detailed even though there's no need for it. You can spend hours just reading the dictionary entries you find throughout the game. There's so much detailed background lore that's totally unnecessary and barely intersects with the actual plot of the game except in cool small details here and there like some random NPC dialogue mentioning something, or a quest that references it.
And you think that's all? HELL naw. This game has way more stuff like colosseum single battles, team battles, ranked battles, bunny races and runic chess. SO5 didn't have shit. But let's not get too crazy with the praise here either because although the colosseum is great, the bunny races were designed terribly in this game. They're awful. In fact, they might be the worst part of the game. The bunny races were fun in SO4 because you raised your own bunny and improved its stats and had control in the races. But in this game it's so fucking gay. All you do is bet on which bunny you think is gonna win and then watch the race. That's all. No input at all, nothing to do. It's so shitty and boring. And there's no way to know for sure which bunny to bet on. It's nothing but gambling. And gambling's gotta be one of the lowest forms of entertainment. So fuck the bunny races in this game.
Regarding the combat, I've always said that for RPGs turn based combat is best. That being the case, Star Ocean has one of the better real time combat systems, so it's all good. You've got light and heavy attacks, as well as all sorts of battle skills which can be assigned to light and heavy buttons themselves and you can chain cancel between light and heavy battle skills for bonus damage as long as you've got enough fury. The combat can get pretty battle skill spammy once you get the really good stuff, which is always the case with Star Ocean games, especially on the standard difficulty where you generally can get away with not having to do anything too fancy. Fury is consumed with most actions and comes back by not doing anything, so it's basically stamina. When you've got 100% fury meter, if you stand still you will be able to block all light attacks and light battle skills, which will cause your Anti Attack Aura to activate and either stun or cause damage to the enemy or heal you, depending on what you want. However, if you get hit by a heavy attack instead of a light one, you will get guard broken and get fucked, so you need to be careful and watch what type of attack the enemy is doing. Heavy attacks are slower and have a visual cue, so you'll know to get out of the way instead of trying to guard, and for that you also have the option of sidestepping, which is a good way of moving out of the way quickly. Enemies have fury meter just like you and the same ability to block attacks and deploy anti attack auras and get guard broken, so you need to watch for that too. Unlike in SO5, where you can chain heavy battle skills into themselves (for some reason), in this game you are forced to alternate between light and heavies, so you can get blocked and AAA'd if you chain cancel carelessly. Since the game is real time, you control one character while the AI controls the other two, but you can switch between controlling all characters on the fly, and even switch them between AI and manual control depending on your needs. All of this becomes very necessary on the highest difficulty, and things can get pretty micromanagement heavy but in a good way, flying around between controlling different characters. The game also introduces a thing called the Bonus Battle Gauge, which fills up as you land hits in battle (but less and less as time passes during the battle, until it stops filling). The stronger the enemies are compared to you, the more it fills up, and vice versa. If you're too much stronger than the enemies, it doesn't increase at all. Once it gets filled up, you start gaining bonuses from every battle. 3x exp, 2x money, HP/MP recovery, better item drop rates. However, this bonus battle gauge gets shattered whenever you get KO'd or sustain a critical hit, so you have to be careful. Anyway, something very unique about this game's battle system is that you die not only when your HP reaches 0, but ALSO if your MP reaches zero. And the same rule applies for all enemies. Some attacks deal HP damage, whereas others deal MP damage (and some may deal both). This means that in this game you can choose to either HP kill enemies, or MP kill them. You have to analyze enemies and decide the most effective way to kill them. While you don't really have to bother too often with this on the standard difficulty, HP/MP killing becomes very important on the highest difficulty since you can't get away with being inefficient and doing whatever anymore.
Speaking of the difficulty. Yet more evidence of how far gaming has fallen. Nowadays you'll be hard pressed to find a game without some bitch made adjustable difficulty horse shit. Since this game belongs to the golden age when developers still had a little bit of balls, you won't find that here. Oh you can't handle the difficulty you picked? Eat shit. Man up, pussy. And just to rub salt, if you pick the easy difficulty you can't obtain any trophies. Good. Now, that being said, this game has 4 difficulties, and unlocking the ones past the standard one is not simple. In fact, unlocking the hardest difficulty in this game, called 4D, is really difficult. Like, in a fucked up way. So this game has these things called Battle Trophies, and you obtain them by fulfilling all sorts of conditions in battles. The most common ones are things like beating bosses without taking any damage or under a certain time limit. But there are all sorts of different conditions, and quite a few of these are absolutely fucking sadistic. I'm serious. Whoever came up with some of these battle trophies must be a legit sadist. What the fuck. Thing is, in order to unlock the privilege of playing on 4 dimensional difficulty you need to earn 200 of these trophies. When you think about how there's 300 total, it doesn't sound so bad, but when you realize that a lot of those trophies are exclusively obtainable in 4D mode itself, and another batch are only obtainable in Universe mode, which is itself also locked to begin with, things start to get a little dicey. Let's just say unlocking 4D takes quite a bit of work. But don't you worry, my little bunny. In the interest of critical integrity I did just that. Aren't you grateful? The lengths I go for you people. You ain't about to see any professional reviewer doing this, that's for DAMN sure.
Now, the game is probably meant to be played on Galaxy, and then on Universe to grab some of those Universe-only trophies before unlocking 4D, but let's be honest here. Playing a 100+ hour RPG not two but three times in a row? Come on bruh. That's just absurd, aight? Even I have my limits. Believe it or not I'm only human. So forget that bridge. We ain't need it. I'm going for all the trophies I need in a single playthrough and jumping straight to the highest difficulty. It's nerf or NUTHIN'! I mean. 4D or nuthin'. But anyway, getting all those trophies is fucking rough. The good news is that it's worth it, because 4D mode makes the game way more fun and rewarding. It's a huge jump. Early game 4D is no joke, lemme tell you. I got like 10 game overs on the first set of fights. Shit was crazy. Thank god that they put a save point right before and that you can skip cutscenes.
It's so much more than stuff just hitting harder and taking more hits. Enemies parry you like crazy. I legit thought something was wrong with the game early on because I could deal literally no damage to the enemies no matter how much I hit them. It wasn't until later that I figured out that you have to hit them from behind to deal any damage (because you can't parry when you get hit from behind). Which makes you have to play quite different from before. That first set of fights was crazy. I could never win until I figured out that it was better to give up on trying to keep your other party member from dying instantly and that the trick was to kite the enemies around and wait for them to be stuck in attack animation and then run around and attack them from behind and then get out fast and repeat.
It's really tough to build the bonus gauge early game because you have to spend so much time avoiding parries. Additionally, the game no longer shows you enemies' fury meter. Also enemies literally always, always 100% of the time use only strong attacks if your fury is full. So on Galaxy you could just stand there and wait for the enemy to do a light attack and anti attack aura their ass. That never works on 4D. The only way to activate AAA is to bait the computer by deliberately lowering your fury, then run around so it doesn't replenish, and wait for the enemy to come at you and then stop and let it fill up after the enemy has already committed to an attack. Also, enemies always seem to go for the weakest character, or whoever is currently casting magic. Enemies are much more aggressive so it's really easy to get stunlocked a lot. Enemies also use their abilities much more, which interestingly makes for a lot of new situations. There are a lot of enemy attacks that you don't even see or notice on Galaxy come up in 4D. This is also particularly the case with bosses, who tend to die far too quickly on Galaxy and not do as much. MP killing becomes much more important as well. I found myself actually scanning enemies regularly to find out the best way to take them out. On galaxy it didn't matter; you never really had to bother with MP kills.
Furthermore, it's almost impossible to keep your AI controlled characters from dying almost instantly every random encounter early on. It's just impossible. I had to set them to manual and micromanage way more. The AI is just not equipped for 4D at all. It's a huge difference. Like, take the fight against the first boss. That's when you officially get your first other party member, Cliff. He shows up to rescue you, and he's pretty strong. In Galaxy you can literally just run to a corner and chill there the whole fight and AI Cliff will beat the boss entirely by himself. But in 4D Cliff gets killed fucking INSTANTLY as soon as the fight begins. It's IMPOSSIBLE to keep him from getting raped. It's hilarious. So much for his rescue.
But it definitely gets a lot less problematic after you get access to more shit and the ability to get more ahead of the curve. The insane constant parries and inability to deal damage get more infrequent as you get higher level and up your hit rate with better equipment. (Since parrying is caused by hit rate versus agility. Which means it's not just enemy damage and HP but all stats that get huge boosts in 4D, and enemy hitrate/agility is a big problem). However, the time that it does get more difficult is during the optional dungeons. Hell, I think the optional dungeons might actually be even tougher than the early game. Enemies do like half of your HP with a regular attack. Enemies spam stacked deep freezes which stun lock you and freeze you really easily for an easy OHKO. And Deep Freeze is one of the two spells that can't be avoided once it's out (the other being Thunder Flare). Other enemy skills just straight up kill you in one hit. Every random encounter felt like a life and death situation. I ended up having to backtrack to save so many times while doing that dungeon. And it was so rough that I eventually ran out of healing items and had to hoof it all the way back to town to restock and create better items. That's how it fuckin' should be.
But yeah. The game is much more fun in 4D. I had to learn so many more things that were never necessary before. Everything you do feels like it matters way more. Controlling your characters, leveling up, learning what skills do, getting money, buying the right things, item creation, completing maps to get the bunny reward, hell, even healing. In Galaxy you never had to use healing spells ever during a fight. In 4D you NEED a dedicated healer set to manual early on. And even later on you still need to heal quite a bit. All of this is super important for a game to feel satisfying and rewarding in the things you are doing. This is why difficulty is of such importance and so is not having the ability to pussy out and change it with no consequence.
Notice how I mentioned item creation being much more important in 4D? That's an especially good thing, because item creation is always one of the most fun aspects of the Star Ocean games, and SO3 is no exception. While the item creation system is pretty esoteric and somewhat impenetrable (it can take you a long time to really understand how everything works and all the tricks and details), it's incredibly impactful (more than anything else you can do to get stronger) and absolutely crucial on 4D. You make all the kinds of things you expect: weapons, armor, accessories, devices, materials, potions, books. In this game there's also a great many NPC inventors throughout the world that you can recruit who can help you make new and better items, which is a neat way of opening up new item creation options as you progress. Aside from creating you can also refine existing items to make them more powerful and give them new effects. This is especially important with accessories and potions. While just making a potion can result in a decent item that could heal or revive you for, say, 30%, repeated refinement can turn that same potion into a 90% or 100% heal or revive. This can take a lot of money and time, and on Galaxy it can seem like kind of a waste of time because it's unnecessary, but that's why 4D is better. It can take a lot of time but the power is worth it. The cool thing is that there's a max item carrying limit of 20 per item, which means you can't just make more quantities of an unrefined item to avoid refining. It also means that the game encourages you to make as many different types of items as you can rather than just stocking up on a single really good type of item. And of course, the star of item creation is synthesis, where you can bestow up to 8 factors from other items onto your weapons. That's where the majority of your power will be coming from. Item creation is very fun, significant, and one of the most satisfying parts of the game. Nothing like coming out of the workshop fully decked out with the best, fully refined and synthesized gear and stocked up on maxed out fully refined consumables when you know that it matters a lot on 4D and makes a big difference. And Star Ocean 3 gives you plenty reason, with the most robust postgame dungeons and bosses tri-Ace has ever made.
Star Ocean 3 is the height of tri-Ace. It's their masterpiece and one of the best games of all time. Even with Square Enix's shoddy port on the PS4 it's clear how much quality, creativity, effort, integrity, and vision has been lost since the golden age. Tri-Ace will never make another game as good as this one. You can be sure of that. And you sure as shit won't see other companies making a game like this either. Nowadays all we can expect are rushed games with missing features, candy ass adjustable difficulty, hand holding, and pay to win microtransactions that undermine the player's work and the game's own gameplay. That's what we get now. And we ain't going back to the good old days. Get used to it.
Final Verdict: A+
Final Playtime: 161 Galaxy + 214 4D = 375 hours