Star Ocean - Till the end of time - PS2

SO3 is a battle based RPG, akin to Advance Wars on the GameBoy SP. While still a team battle based RPG, developers Enix have remade, rather than continued, the adventures started in Star Ocean EX. As with the Final Fantasy games and the Babycart movies, this is a pulped remake of the first two games. Thus, if you are new to the genre, you won't be missing out on any plot from the previous two titles.

A new cast of characters improves the rather staid plotline. Each possesses his individual characteristics. The style is cutesy anime- familiar to most RPG players these days. The dripping colours and sparkly eyes look better than you'd think on the PS2, but the appalling voiceovers may well drive you mad. The US version is a straight port from the Japanese game and there doesn't seem to be much difference here. There was less than a month before the game broke in Europe, which perhaps explains the tortured voiceover. While the general music and effects aren't too bad, the battle music pushes the boundaries of good taste to the limit.

Where previous versions of the franchise failed, this seems to deliver, mainly because the battle system's format is more responsive than the previous two games in the series. The game is played out over a series of maps- these are larger and allow more space to roam.

It takes plays in real time, with all of the characters interacting at once, over a playing area with almost unlimited range. Characters form up for battle and fulfil various roles; support, attack, and pure magic. The response time in battle has been significantly improved. All characters are subject to the limitations of a 'Fury bar', depleted depending on the types of attacks or skills used. Defending combatants with a fully charged Fury bar are able to deflect minor attacks, and may stun the attackers in the process, adding another element of strategy to the battle. When skills have been honed, characters are capable of 100-hit combos, causing massive damage in seconds.

While some sections are infuriatingly difficult, there is a good learning curve. It not all hinges on the battle element and you are not thrown in at the deep end. To progress to the end would be a mammoth task with 50-70 hours of estimated playing time involved. Extra dungeons offer more challenges and there's a 2-player arena fighting stage, featuring almost all the game's characters, to be unlocked during the quest.

If you are lucky enough to find a copy, some UK versions of the game (try amazon.co.uk), come with an extra thin pack box containing a special DVD. This carries a teaser for Final Fantasy XII with English subtitles lasting four and a half minutes, trailers, extra artwork and staff interviews for SO3.

Verdict

A steady learning curve helps make the battle elements approachable, but you'll have to be a fan of this type of action, as well as a mangaphile, to make the most of this title. It is vast, playable and better in the colours department than the average PS2 title. With 50-70 hours of game play, real time development, collectable items that increase and decrease in value and a plenty of secrets, RPG fans will find this a great improvement over Star Ocean EX. Be warned though, it is a double disc affair and you may suffer loading problems on older machines. In addition, the backup characters have a habit of ignoring commands and skiving off. This is a potential death trap and certainly annoying. Seek out the free accompanying DVD to make the most of your cash.