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. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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One of the memes bantered about in various gaming media lately is that the Japanese videogame industry is dying. I've always loved Japanese game design and aesthetics, especially in the role-playing genre (RPG). There is something alluring in seeing Tokien-esque fantasy, spaghetti Westerns, or mech-laden science-fiction as viewed through Japanese eyes. Yet even my sense of wonder and adventure was beginning to fade, and my willingness to see the next spiky-haired innocent youth save the world (unofficially trademarked by Square Enix) sorely tried by the lack of innovation in RPGs. I've always been comfortable with the turn-based battle system that lets the console tally up my super-mega-special finishing attack (as soon as I've made sure to drink a healing potion). But I admit that the system has begun to wear thin, and the emperor perhaps needs new clothes. Enter Namco.

I feel that Namco is at the forefront of a wave of Japanese RPGs which retain much of what makes the genre familiar and beloved by many, while still evolving in ways that makes the games seem somewhat fresh. A couple of recent examples to "mix it up" are Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (innovative dungeon crawling) and Final Fantasy X-2 (dress for battle success). Namco's own Baten Kaitos continues this trend by utilizing a new take on card-based battles. Tales of Symphonia doesn't eliminate genre staples: undead are weak against fire, healing gels come in varying strengths, weapons and armor can be sold for better versions, and the hero has moderately spiky hair. Yet it has gameplay that sucked me in, characters that were greatly expanded via manga-inspired "skits," and an epic story full of wonder. I wasn't sure if I would enjoy this game; my previous Tales experience was with Tales of Destiny 2 on PlayStation, and I found that game too trite to ever get involved. Fortunately, this new game is an entirely different animal.

The story begins in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, and focuses on Colette, a young girl who must take on a quest to redeem the world. As the Chosen, Colette must regenerate the world by awakening a goddess and restoring mana to her suffering world of Sylvarant. By her side is Lloyd, the inexperienced and naive youth who yearns to protect her. Rounding out the initial group are two brainy half-elves: Lloyd's best friend Genis, and the wise "elder" Raine. As the game progresses the group grows into a motley crew with various strengths and skills, not to mention diverse personalities.

It is these characterizations that helped draw me into Tales, and helped to make the game more than just another RPG. Colette, for example, is a danger-prone Daphne who trips at the least opportune moments – often to the disadvantage of nearby enemies. Genis sometimes regrets giving up the opportunity to study at the world's best school. Raine is an archeological geek who finds the promise of knowledge worth any discomfort, and will scare away the group with her rabid enthusiasm for anything dusty and must. Later a renowned hero, who turns out to be a "walking libido," joins the party. This detail is often revealed in what the game terms "skits." Skits are optional bits of dialog played out via manga-like overlays featuring written dialog (these seem like they might have been voiced in Japan). Some of these had me laughing out loud, a rarity in most of today's games.

After the obligatory introduction, the story picks up quickly, throwing the gamer into confrontational situations which require that RPG staple: battles. The battles in Tales of Symphonia are fast-paced and fun, due to the series' use of a real-time system reminiscent of a fighting game. The player controls one of four characters present on the field, with the other three acting according to player-assigned strategies. Fine-tuning the strategies is helpful to get through the tougher battles, and knowing how to swap strategies during battle is a must for the bosses. The player assigns a few special moves to the available button combinations. During fights, these "specials" are mixed in with regular attacks to build up attack combos, with an eye to finishing the battle "with style." A post-battle display tells the player how he did, and performing better to earn more experience or items can become an addictive goal.

The story is truly epic, and the action is woven throughout a cloth stained red with the metaphoric blood of innocents. Tales isn't without its genre stereotypes such as the suffering of innocents, the villain with a warped vision, a world (and more) in peril and an untried hero. But the telling and the plot twists made the game something special. I was often surprised by what happened next. There were many serious issues that the game worked into the story, with situations that included thought-provoking topics such as racial segregation and brutality, exile, incurable disease, the sacrifice of innocent people, genocide, and betrayal of love. That's quite a list for a game that, at first glance, looks like a children's anime. Yet it's not all serious and somber; Tales isn't afraid to poke fun at itself or the genre. In one skit, Lloyd wonders why an in-game event couldn't be avoided with a Quick-Jump (an occasional option for the player to avoid revisiting a dungeon); of course the other characters have no idea what Lloyd means. Another moment reveals an indirect Final Fantasy VII reference, an in-joke that Square fans will no doubt appreciate, if they find it. The game's story definitely has heart.

I've touched on the more prominent aspects of the game, but the devil is really in the details. I was obsessed with collecting recipes all over the world, by seeking out the elusive Wonder Chef, whose dishes provide various healing effects after fights. Haters of random battles will be relived to know that encounters can often be avoided, similar to the Chrono games. And I hereby declare that every game should copy the Synopsis, a log of story events and current quests which prevents the player from losing track of what is next on the agenda. Tales of Symphonia definitely recreated the sense of wonder that I expect from Japanese RPGs. I was almost sad to finish it (although a New Game option is available). It does so many things right, telling a large-scale story through the eyes of a small group that I wanted to get to know better. It has a battle system that I found truly addictive, to the point of seeking out battles in order to improve my skills and grow my characters. I even wanted to search the world map to find treasures and hidden skits. Namco Tales Studio has made an enjoyable RPG that evolves the genre nicely, and reminds me of the fun to be had with epic quests and spiky hair. Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

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Let me start by sharing a secret. Lean closer so I can whisper it. That's right; there are times when we lose our sense of direction in the game of life. This might be short-term dissatisfaction stemming from a work-related incident, or a broader setback caused by failure of a personal relationship. Our internal compass stops and we can't decide what goals deserve attention as we try to make sense of unexpected change. After playing Sonic Heroes, I wonder if developer Sonic Team is going through a similar phase, lacking a clear sense of direction which causes its work to suffer. Sega has been through a lot of change since the company's transition from hardware maker to software development shop. To revitalize itself, Sega utilized the corporate practice of reorganization, with an eye to maximizing talent, efficiency and profit. One can only imagine the upheaval that ensued as Sega was shaken then stirred.

Sega reduced the number of its Japanese development studios from nine to seven in October 2003, consolidating its nine teams into five while adding two new teams. Of note for this review, Sonic Team combined with United Game Artists (Rez, Sega Rally) to focus on popular titles for more casual gamers. Legendarily creative designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, formerly of United Game Artists (UGA), left the company. Sega discussed mergers with both Sammy and Namco over the last year or so without result. Then at the end of 2003, Sammy Corporation became Sega's largest shareholder as part of its attempt to diversify its entries in the business of entertainment. The fallout remains to be seen as Sammy orders Sega to focus its operations on the arcade game business. The company's main focus will supposedly be creating content for Sammy's Atomiswave arcade cabinet. Sega is also prepared to work on content for the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable systems.

With all this reorganization and change going on internally at Sega, it would not be surprising if the developers in the trenches had a loss of focus. It's hard to keep grounded and look dead ahead when everything around one is different. Emerging out of this corporate chaos is Sonic Heroes, Sonic Team's creative mass-market endeavor which shows promise but fails somewhat on the delivery. The game tries to build upon a foundation of the things that traditionally define Sonic games, being a platformer at its running and jumping heart. It is level-oriented with the goal of earning the highest possible scores, by collecting rings and keeping the clock low, while Sonic and company battle the nefarious Eggman and his mechanized creations. The core premise is still heavy doses of speed—there is no tiresome "adventure" to bog down the proceedings.

The main area of innovation to the traditional formula is the introduction of three-character teams. Rather than just zipping along as a single character like traditional Sonic, the player controls the lead member of a three-person team, each having one strength: speed, flight or power. The main team's roster stars Sonic's speed, Tails' flight abilities, and Knuckles' powerful attack. In fitting with Sammy's push of Sega to embrace arcade games, this arcade-like style seems appropriate, bringing a new dynamic to the game. The option to switch characters at will adds variety to the traditional Sonic formula without slowing the whole game down (as happened with Sonic Adventure 2). It seemed intuitive and fun, based on the principle of evolution not revolution. As Sega gradually evolves, so too does Sonic Team, carefully leading the Sonic intellectual property (IP) by the hand in a new direction.

Although this Sonic update has good ideas, they are sadly bogged down by the game's implementation, which features a wonky camera, faulty collision detection and questionable physics. I felt like the developers started out with a vision or goal for the game, but got lost along the way. Given the internal slice-'n'-dice within Sega this is not surprising. Sonic Team's merge with UGA means accommodating two groups, each with a different gaming pedigree and personalities; it's hard to imagine there was no clash during that process.

At first, I was excited to see tributes to classic Sonic, from the opening "Act" screens to the multiple routes through levels. Then my horror began as issues with the game surfaced. Sonic Team has a reputation for particularly bad in-game cameras, and Sonic Heroes doesn't disprove that fact. The camera often moved to an awkward or unusable spot, inhibiting my view and therefore my capability of completing a level. The camera and physics systems are unified in causing accidental player deaths: it was too easy to plummet unintentionally, often due to the speed attack malfunctioning. I also watched my characters fall through the floor (see Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg). It would be easy to assume that the nuevo Sega employees are taking out their work frustration on the gamer.

Although there were flaws with Sonic Heroes' technical side, the levels are well designed and fun to explore. Yet as the game went on, they seemed too long and I wanted each level to come to a quick end. Here is where Sammy's arcade influence could have been helpful: arcade games need to hook the player and keep playtime short but sweet. Sonic Heroes hooked me initially, but the levels didn't stay short and sweet—I'm hard pressed to recall completing any level in less than eight minutes. On the plus side, the huge levels feature ample pointers and in-game hints for the gamer that needs them. They also offer a variety of action, from grinding on railroad tracks to swinging on jungle vines, and even a couple of casino-themed levels featuring psychedelic lights and melting dice platforms which are a sight to behold.

In general it must be a difficult time for a high-profile developer like Sonic Team, particularly when the vociferous president of Sammy is looking to reduce console development. Sonic Team now has creative thinkers from two groups, and with double the creativity they ought to produce some great games, once the growing pains of Sega's transition are complete. I think Sonic Heroes is a good step in that direction; hopefully the developers will continue to formulate visions and goals while correcting the faults which detracted from this game. I think Sonic Team needs to focus on its core values and technical competencies, to deliver the sublime experience I believe it is capable of, especially when working with the prestigious Sonic IP. Rating: 4 out of 10.

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