Taken from the Official Guide Book, this lengthy interview covers the making of Star Ocean 4, the first high-definition entry in tri-Ace’s long-running sci-fi RPG series. Several key members of the development team discuss their goals, their self-described status as “overachievers” and how those inclinations influenced all facets of the game, from the battle system to the character design to the narrative (and even the disc count).

Commissioned by Messiah

Star Ocean 1&2 interviews (1996/8)
Star Ocean: Blue Sphere  (2001)
Star Ocean 3 interview (2003)
Motoi Sakuraba interview (2002)
Valkyrie Profile interview (1998)
Valkyrie Profile interview (1999)
The Characters of Valkyrie Profile
Valkyrie Profile 2 interview (2006)
Radiata Stories interview (2005)

 

Star Ocean: The Last Hope – 2009 Developer Interview

originally featured in the Official Complete guide

Hiroyuki Tamura – Producer (tri-Ace)
Yoshinori Yamagishi Producer (Square Enix)
Hajime Kojima – Producer (Square Enix)
Mitsuo Iwao – Director (tri-Ace)
Shinya Ukawa – Planning Leader (tri-Ace)
Eiko Sawamura – Art Director (tri-Ace)
Hiroyuki Shiraishi – Battle Planner (tri-Ace)

—To start off, please tell us what led you to tell a prequel story with Star Ocean 4, one that takes place at the very beginning of the Space Date (SD) timeline.

Iwao: The Star Ocean games have all featured, as a main theme, the “Underdeveloped Planet Preservation Pact” (UP3), but we’ve never had a chance to explore how that pact came about. Yoshiharu Gotanda initially proposed that we create a story about the interval of time from World War III to the UP3, and that was how the development got started.

Yamagishi: Talks on SO4 began shortly after we wrapped development on SO3, and of the many possibilities we explored, everything started to coalesce around the idea of telling a story about the past.

—How was Yoshiharu Gotanda involved in Star Ocean 4?

Iwao: He would periodically check our progress, and offer his own very stringent criticisms and guidance. “You can do better,” he’d say. I think our art director, Eiko Sawamura, probably had it the toughest.

Sawamura: Yeah, Gotanda had a lot of pointers about the textures for the buildings and for the furniture models (for objects like desks). His checks were especially harsh there. “Don’t you think this part could look a lot better?” “Doesn’t this desk feel out of place with the setting…?” Tons of comments like that. I had to really hit the books and study up on some technical issues in order to answer his criticisms.

Iwao: Gotanda (and Masaki Norimoto too) also came to the battle planning meetings, and offered guidance on everything from the balancing to the controller handling. In that sense, this game really was a team effort from the entirety of tri-ace, I think.

—How did you decide on the title THE LAST HOPE?

Iwao: It wasn’t something we figured out right away. Could mankind really survive after the third World War? We wanted to express the idea that our last hope may lie out there in the universe.

Yamagishi: As far as titles go, it was clear and easy to understand, which was big. It didn’t use any complicated terminology; it was straightforward, orthodox, using words any layperson could understand. It was a title that could be easily understood by people outside of Japan, too. I guess subtitles are sort of a tri-ace thing. The previous games didn’t use a numbering system either, and the subtitle makes it feel like its own single work.

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The many tri-Ace leads who headed up development on Star Ocean 4; notably absent from the interviews are Star Ocean series creators and tri-Ace co-founders Yoshiharu Gotanda and Masaki Norimoto.

—Can you explain the themes of the story for SO4?

Iwao: You can actually divide the themes in SO4 up into “big themes” and “small themes”, and the story that plays out on the surface would be the small themes. Frustration and regret with the past, how one moves on and grows from that, how that’s connected to hope, and the evolution of the heart–not in a sense of progress, per se, but in a transformation and rebirth. Those we all the “small themes” we wanted to show. The larger theme would be balance, balance in the way we see the world. It’s like the game of Othello… if there is too much white, black will diminish, and conversely if there is too much black, white will diminish. That was the nucleus of the theme we wanted to explore. All things exist in a balance with each other.

Tamura: It’s not about simplistic good and evil, but the idea that if something becomes too great, it will necessarily diminish something else.

Iwao: That’s right. Without balance, the center will not hold. Excess causes things spill over into chaos. By the same token too little of something can never lead to balance either. So yeah, that overall idea of what balance is, that forms the background of the story we wanted to tell. I guess it’s a little abstract, sorry. (laughs)

—SO4 seems to have a stronger “space opera” feel to it than the previous entries.

Iwao: In part because the Star Ocean series has been going on for so long, the setting and backstory have gradually become more and more complicated. The history of the universe, too, is very richly detailed. However, we don’t want to limit our game’s appeal to pre-existing fans… we also want to newcomers to play our game. For that reason, among others, we decided to return to our roots with a space opera. Our aim was to bring back that simplicity that was in the first Star Ocean.

—It is indeed a grand, dramatic story. SO4 spans three discs, but was that volume something you had planned from the start?

Yamagishi: How many discs did we saw it would be at the beginning…?

Iwao: 9… no, I think it was 11…

Everyone: (laughs)

Iwao: With today’s next-gen hardware you can store almost 4 times as much data as you could just several years ago, but the scenario we first imagined, if we had done it straight-ahead, we calculated we would have needed 11 discs to tell that story. (laughs)

Kojima: Any common game data like maps and characters have to be included on each individual disc. Thus if you have too much common data, it actually really starts to limit what you can put on each disc. That’s where the 11 disc figure came from. Such is the burden that RPG developments must bear, I’m afraid.

—You hired CGI animation studio Visual Works to help create the movies for SO4. What was the intention there?

Kojima: Visual Works is an incredible group of creators who know how to use CG in a beautiful way. They’ve worked on cut-scenes for the Final Fantasy series, as well as one-off cinematics like Advent Children. There was a time early in the development when we argued over whether CG movies would actually be needed given the power of the next gen hardware, but as it turned out, the graphical power of these consoles isn’t quite good enough yet to render stand-alone cinematics that are capable of capturing a bystander’s attention, so we decided to team up with Visual Works. It was my suggestion.

Star Ocean 4’s impressive CG opening cinematic.

The Secrets Behind SO4’s Fascinating Cast of Characters!

—Were all the character illustrations drawn by Katsumi Enami?

Sawamura: That’s right. We first held an in-house design competition. We had our employees who were good at drawing characters create a number of draft designs, then we created some 3D models based on those, and then had Enami create illustrations from the ones we chose.

Yamagishi: That’s how tri-Ace always works. We have our in-house designers create something first, which we then pass off to a dedicated manga artist or illustrator.

—Looking at the concept art, I think Meracle’s early designs have a lot of oomph to them. Who drew those?

Kojima: It was Onishi, one of the Radiata Stories designers. He told us “I’m only doing Lymle and Meracle, that’s it!”

About the name “Edge”, by the way… was that chosen just so the line “Edge no Ecchi!” could be used…?! 1

Iwao: We chose that name because, at three letters, it’s concise and easy to remember, so no, that was just a coincidence. (laughs) It came about from the scriptwriters messing around with wordplay.

—Well then, let’s get into how the characters were created. What was the original concept for each character?

Iwao: For Edge and Reimi, nothing in particular. Faize and Lymle were envisioned as complementary characters, two sides of the same coin. They have the same personality, but what they have, and what they have lost, are inverted. That’s why they’re attracted to each other… that was our concept when making them.

—How about the other characters?

Iwao: Bacchus is named after the greek god of wine. We had the image for him first and built his character outward from that, and seeing his strong, manly physique, we thought a name with a dakuten (voiced consonant) would be best, and Bacchus just came to us. 2

I guess Meracle would be what people call a “moe” character, but our image of her was simply that of a bright, cheerful girl. She’s of the Lesser Fellpool race–a less advanced branch of the Fellpool–and we wanted to show that distinction through her cheerfulness. Myuria was a character with a dark past, and we tried to depict a more mature woman with her. Her way of talking is a little strange, but we wanted to make a character anyone and everyone could love. Arumat’c concept was the silent, military, diligent worker type of human.

Tamura: Arumat was an older man in the early drafts, wasn’t he…

Sawamura: Yeah, there’s some concept art with an older version of him, with short hair.

Tamura: It’s kind of sad, we had to have a stereotypically “handsome” (ikemen) character for our game, so the old man got the axe.

Everyone: (laughs)

Kojima: I was one of the people insistent on that, that we have ikemen character.

Tamura: Yes, the minute Kojima said that, the old man went “poof” and disappeared.

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Alternate design drafts for Arumat. (click to expand)

Iwao: I think Reimi’s expanding bust size was Kojima’s work too.

Kojima: What! I seem to recall that was Tamura’s idea? (laughs)

Yamagishi: I remember hearing it was done on your behest Kojima.

Sawamura: Yeah, we were only following orders. “Bigger is better!”

Everyone: (laughs)

—There’s a lot of women in the party this time.

Iwao: Actually, there was one more character we had wanted to add. He appears in the story. It’s Giotto Vandione from the En II artificial planet… he was supposed to join your party, and he would have balanced the party composition to 50/50 male-female. We ended up replacing him with a different character though.

Kojima: Yeah, he was going to be the last to join your party. That ordering sort of doomed him.

—Are there any characters you’re particularly fond of?

Iwao: Hmm, first I’d have to say Crowe, and then Eleyna. I love both of them. Crowe is who I personally aspire to be.

—Did you ever talk about having Crowe be a playable character…?

Iwao: From the beginning, we knew we didn’t want that. Part of that was his important role as a storyteller, so we wanted him to be moving in parallel with Edge through the story. The moment he became a playable character he would lose a lot of the “cool factor”, and his farewell scene would have become something very sad. By giving him the dramatic send-off we did, we were able to bring out the anger and frustration in Edge all the more poignantly, so we opted not to make him a party member.

—How about the common NPCs you encounter in town?

Iwao: We didn’t want them to just be standing around, so we tried to imagine what each person’s day-to-day life and routines were like, what kind of habits they had, and so forth. We asked that the dialogue writers be conscious of those things too when they wrote their lines.

—You had some female characters with very intense descriptions, too. “A sickly woman with a short temper”, “A woman burning with jealousy”…

Ukawa: You know how sometimes you have to go visit an NPC for a quest or something? We added those descriptions so it would be easy for players to recognize who they were meant to talk with. It was a way to give a “first impression” of NPCs to players when we couldn’t rely on facial expressions or motion.

—I’d like to ask about Welch next. She only appears as a hologram, but is there an actual living version of her out there?

Iwao: Well now… I wonder? It’s been said that she resides inside the Pangalactic Federation Army’s information database, but whether she actually is there or not, no one knows. It’s a mystery.

—Is she a different Welch from the ones that have come before, in previous games?

Iwao: She’s completely different. Hers is a busy existence. As I said, it’s a mystery.

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Welch’s internal design sketches. (click to expand)

—Do you have a favorite character?

Kojima: I only ever used Reimi or Bacchus in battle, and I like them both a lot, as characters too. I remember the debugging team Bacchus was so strong, they said, “He’s a powerhouse! I bet this guy could even take on the Iselia Queen.” As for Reimi, it’s all about her powerful criticals.

Yamagishi: Yeah, I only used Edge in battle. As the main character he’s easy to use, and is probably the most orthodox. In terms of their personalities, Reimi was adorable as the “heroine” type character. I almost always choose the little chibi characters in games, but I’m glad I went with Reimi this time.

Iwao: When just playtesting the game on a normal day, and when doing balancing, I always used Edge, without fail. And in terms of characters I always had in my party, I’d say Limle. She can use both offensive and healing magic, so she’s indispensable in the first part of the game. In the latter half, Sarah takes over as healer, and for offense I use Bacchus and Edge, and sometimes Arumat.

Ukawa: Once Myuria joins the party, I end up using her for the rest of the game. During the development, I would use Deep Freeze in every fight to freeze enemies, then use Lightning Blast to shatter them, but battle designer Shiraishi saw me doing this and he started nerfing the freezing effect.

Shiraishi: I was watching, and that’s literally the only thing he was doing! “But it works so well!”, he said. “Damn it!”, I thought to myself, realizing I’d made it to effective, so I went back and adjusted it.

Ukawa: Even so, that time left its imprint on me and now I always use Myuria. Character-wise, I like Sara. I forced the designers to give her that ahoge 3 She’s special to me. (laughs)

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Three-dimensional ahoge

Yamagishi: You almost never see those ahoge rendered in 3D.

Kojima: They make the character really difficult to work with, if you give them one.

Iwao: Yeah, she was a tough one.

Sawamura: Creating Sara’s wings in full 3D was no mean feat. They often got in the way of event scenes because of their size. On the Calnus, there’s a special chair made specifically for Sarah. Her wings wouldn’t fit in a normal chair, so even though it was sort of putting the cart before the horse, we went ahead and made a special “Sara Chair” for her. (laughs)

—What is that chair for? Somehow it seems like it might be more of a liability for her…

Iwao: Don’t worry, the electricity has been cut to Sara’s chair. (laughs)

Shiraishi: For me, I’d long been wanting to make a robot character, so Bacchus is my favorite character. During the development, I tried to force them to make all of his special moves use his support mecha somehow. But the fact that he became so strong wasn’t particularly due to my intervention, just so you know. (laughs) That’s just the kind of character Bacchus is.

Iwao: But if he had this imposing, tough appearance, and was actually weak, I bet you would have been really mad, right?

Shiraishi: Well, in the beginning of the development, he had very low MP, so if you set him to use Special Arts when under Auto control, he’d very quickly run out of MP. This led to complaints from our internal playtesters: “What the hell, all he does is shoot his gun.” We tried to reassure them. “Don’t worry, he’ll be quite usable in the latter half of the game,” we explained.

Also, I’m personally a big fan of the Grigori monster. We were able to use them in a lot of clever ways.

Sawamura: I always used Bacchus in battle, but when Arumat joined I was bewitched by his power. It was like, “Holy $%^*, this guy’s strong!” After that I never removed Arumat, Edge, or Bacchus from my party, with either Reimi or Lymle as my fourth member. In terms of favorite characters, I love how cute Lymle’s animations are, they’re just fun to watch. So I tried to use her a lot.

—Some people see Bacchus as a kind of “moe” character himself. What do you think of that as the developers?

Iwao: Well, in terms of our intentions, we just wanted to make him a fun, interesting character. He has this straight-laced, stoic aura… oh, and I’m the one who wrote Bacchus’ dialogue, by the way. (laughs) That serious attitude got broken down more and more as the writing process went along, and I think the other devs started to play around with him more too. There’s a funny story with Bacchus… Visual Works divides their workload into two teams, a character team and a background team. And Bacchus was actually made by the background team. (laughs)

Yamagishi: We said to think of him as a toy.

Kojima: Or as a piece of home electronics. We said just relax and have fun with it! (laughs)

Tamura: Meracle is the character I used in battle the most, because I liked her blindside. The movement on that attack is totally unrealistic though. (laughs) I also like Bacchus and Myuria’s blindsides.

I also have a lot of love for the ship, the Calnus. In the beginning of the development when we were all discussing the overall concept for SO4, Norimoto was the one who said we should do the blindsides, while I asked that the player’s starship be usable throughout the whole game, to the very end. It’s breaks in the end, of course, but.

Iwao: Yeah, one of the developers from SO3 made a request: “Please, be sure to make the Calnus crash land at some point.” And the way the Calnus gets destroyed at the very end is something of a tradition for us at this point.

—The battleships had a very distinctive design this time, they give off a different atmosphere from the earlier games.

Sawamura: We asked freelance designer Kazuhiro Taneda to design the battleships for us. Their distinct form you mentioned, that’s his style. We did our best to faithfully translate his illustrations into 3D. Taneda’s image of the Eldar ships was more lithe and curvaceous, so in turn we asked the modelers to use curved, not straight lines, in their 3D designs.

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The initial version of Edge’s Calnus ship, which undergoes several significant changes over the course of the game. (click to expand)

Now this is tri-Ace! Creating a World to Lose Yourself In

—If you stop for a moment on the map, and look at the ocean, you can see whales in the sea… there’s tons of intricate details like that everywhere in the game.

Sawamura: The designers ran wild. (laughs) Those details weren’t there in the beginning. But during the development, there would be periods when the devs would have some free time open up. I guess they noticed then that certain aspects of the game looked a little bare. Before I knew it, they had added funamushi (sea louses)… seeing that, I said, “Oh, nice… these actually add some atmosphere, don’t they?” It was really just a casual remark, but by the next week there were tons of them all over the game. (laughs) I got a little angry, though, because I had told them how adding things like this was going to make the bug-checking take a lot longer.

—Right. If all of a sudden there’s supposed to be a whale here, and you don’t see it, yeah… it would add a lot more items to check.

Kojima: The scariest thing wasn’t specifically placed details or movement patterns, but the ones that were designed to move around randomly…

Sawamura: Yeah, I remember the butterfly wings would stick around and never disappear. “See, this is why I told you not do this stuff!!!” (laughs) The area the designers played the most was Roak, so try standing still and inspecting your surroundings. You may make some startling discoveries. There’s some things that are very rare, too.

—Were there any other surprises you found, that the developers had covertly added?

Sawamura: Yes, lots. (laughs) There’s also Minomushi (bagworm moths), grasshoppers, cicadas. There’s jellyfish and dolphins too.

Kojima: Wow, most of what you just mentioned, I didn’t know was there. (laughs)

Shiraishi: The one that surprised me were the snakes. “Wh, what’s that moving over there?!” (laughs)

Iwao: Ah yes, I saw those. In the desert, right?

Shiraishi: Yeah, and they’re in other locations too. In the towns, in a place where Edge and the party can’t go, you can see two cats skulking about…

Ukawa: You can just barely see them there.

Shiraishi: Yeah, you can’t interact with them, they’re just there to be enjoyed. At first they’re fighting, but if you wait awhile they become friends.

Sawamura: I saw that! (laughs)

—Speaking of details, why did you put so much detail into Shimada’s death scene?

Iwao: Shimada was designed to be a very simple villain, and as we made him, we gradually came to have more and more affection for his character. We thought it would be a real shame if he just gets snuffed out in instant, so we tried to give him a fitting ending for a villain.

Yamagishi: I know he says “konna hazu de ha~”,4 but what else does he say at the end again?

Iwao: “Doo Bee Doo Bop” and “This is overcooked!”, I think.

Kojima: I love that “Doo Bee Doo Bop!” line too.

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Shimada’s key art from the mobile spinoff Star Ocean: Anamnesis, for which he was upgraded to a playable character due to popular demand. (click to expand)

—By the way, you finally added more (a lot more!) of those the fleet battles that Yamagishi has long wanted..

Yamagishi: Yes, they had lied to me many times before, “oh yeah, we’ll add that.” (laughs)

Kojima: It wasn’t like we didn’t want to, it just ended up not working out, that’s all.

Iwao: It’s not to the same extent, but there’s some fleet battles in SO3, for what it’s worth.

Yamagishi: The battles are shown with movies this time. It was really a matter of waiting till the time was right, and now we’ve been able to do them justice.

Iwao: According to the setting and lore, the Terrans don’t have enough power to field fleet battles on their own, so they had to borrow the power of the Eldar and the EnII.

—Did you ever think about a mode where the player gets to control a fleet himself?

Iwao: We thought about something where you have to withstand, maneuver, and escape an enemy ship’s attacks, but it was just completely different from the rest of the core gameplay so we didn’t do it. We were concerned it would feel like a STG game.

Yamagishi: We talk about it every game, but ultimately it always ends up being too much of a deviation.

—It sounds like there’s a lot of people at tri-ace, irrespective of their department, with that strong spirit of creativity. Is that true?

Sawamura: Hmm, I wonder. There may be some truth to that, for how things work here.

Iwao: Well, on the other hand, it has an affect on our productivity… people go way overboard sometimes. (laughs) Our basic stance is to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the players, and as long as we can make something fun, we’re good.

Sawamura: That’s true.

Yamagishi: tri-ace has been like that from the very beginning, a bunch of overachievers.

Everyone: (laughs)

—Regarding the music, there’s a lot of remakes of previous songs. It’s a real treat for the veteran fans.

Iwao: We actually had a list drawn up in advance, in our planning documents, of the songs we wanted to remake for SO4. And we wanted to connect this game up with the first Star Ocean, so the sound director had some suggestions there too. By now Motoi Sakuraba is quite familiar with the series, so he gave us something very solid and fitting.

Star Ocean 4’s version of Star Ocean 2’s beloved battle theme, “Stab the Sword of Justice”.

Exploring the Event and Gameplay Systems

—The Private Actions and events in SO4 are all focused around the Carnas.

Ukawa: Since you finally get to have your own ship in SO4, we designed it so it to be a base of operations that you periodically return to. The Carnas is necessary for Item Creation, and it’s a good environment for striking up conversations with your party members, which let us initiate Private Actions very naturally, I think.

Are there any events or Private Actions that are particularly memorable for you?

Tamura: For me, the event with Welch. The one where you Lymle is trying to touch her but passes right through her. With polygon graphics it was easy enough to create, but the idea itself was great, I thought.

Sawamura: I like the event with Bacchus and Welch in her maid outfit. We (the art team) created that outfit ourselves from scratch, with no idea how it would actually be implemented in the game. So it was quite a surprise when I encountered it in the game–“Wow, they actually did it.” (laughs) We can call that the event teams version of “getting carried away.”

Ukawa: Overachievers, as you said. (laughs)

Shiraishi: My favorite is the event where you turn on Welch’s hologram and she’s fat. Edge’s laughing spree made me laugh, then we were just laughing together in unison.

Sawamura: We used Welch’s 3D model as-is for that scene. Our graphics tools allowed us to mess with the models, like just making their heads big. We could change the body’s proportions however we wanted too. When the rest of the team saw what we had done, they asked “Are you sure you’re not overdoing it?” We checked it with Iwao though, and he was like, “Nah, you’re good.” (laughs)

Ukawa: Um, my favorite events are with Welch too… in the scene she doesn’t realize she’s been called out, and she’s just lazing around there, and all her little knick-knacks (which you never see in any other scene) are laid out in a row there… that’s my favorite scene. Manga, that pile of candy, it was fun coming up with all those.

Iwao: The Private Actions were mostly done by the people in planning, and we discussed having more comedic episodes this time. My favorite Private Action is the one where Limle is tempting Cerberus to bite her. After Cerberus bites at Faize, I actually wanted Limle’s reaction to be harsher, for her to snicker and laugh. Another Private Action that’s memorable for was the one where Edge wakes up next to Meracle unexpectedly, and Reimi walks in on them. When we did the motion capture for those scenes, we actually had them act it out just like that. (laughs) That scene was really well-directed.

Yamagishi: My favorite… that one, probably.

Iwao: Reimi’s shower scene?

Yamagishi: He’s done for, I thought. When he’s running around meowing like that. (laughs)

—Reimi’s nude model gets used multiple times in the game.

Iwao: That was Yamagishi’s request. (laughs)

Yamagishi: What! Well, I did say to create a nude model. (laughs)

Kojima: My favorite scene isn’t a Private Action, it’s the scene where you open the door to the men’s room and find Bacchus sitting on the toilet there. When I saw that it was like, “Huh?” And then I tried opening it again and he was gone. After that there’s a Private Action titled “Sudden Disappearance”, and I’m guessing the toilet scene is part of the lead-up to that?

Iwao: There’s stuff leading up to it before that.

Yamagishi: During that Private Action I thought he’d be in the toilet, so I went there. But when I opened the door he wasn’t there, and I was disappointed. The next time I opened it he was suddenly there. But then I opened it and he was gone again! A very impactful scene. (laughs)

—Next I wanted to ask about the Item Creation system. In this game, you invent the recipes first and then craft the times, but what was your intention in making it this way?

Ukawa: Our biggest priority was that it be easy to understand. The recipes show the ingredients needed, so it’s clear for players what they’ll need to look for when farming ingredients from the different planets. Ultimately, the director told us that rather than have everything be completely predetermined, we should add some element of chance, so we added bonus creations.

—I wanted to ask about the room assignments for the party members. How did you come up with that system?

Ukawa: It started off from the idea of wanting to give players some way to intervene in the affinity stats. Rather than just having Private Actions occur in pre-assigned rooms, we figured players would be happier if they felt like the Private Actions took place because of assignments they made themselves. When I tried to make the rooms co-ed (my personal mission), they refused at first, but eventually relented. I wanted to make that a reality. (laughs)

—Bacchus plays the part of the joker there. His lines are so perfect.

Ukawa: Iwao wrote Bacchus’ lines.

Kojima: I think he abused him. “Think of him as a toy”, remember that?! (laughs)

Ukawa: We originally wanted Bacchus to behave in a very manly, masculine way, but if we had done that, it would have made the room assignments impossible because of the way the affinity system works… so we instead made him a “joker” type who can be anyone’s roommate. That avoided the situation where having low affinity would consign you to sharing a room with the same-sex only.

—In addition to the Private Actions, you’ve also added Quests to SO4.

Ukawa: We wanted to give players a motivation to return to planets they’d already visited. That’s how that idea got started. We set it up so that, if you just play through the main quest, you’ll end up with insufficient Skill Points. So we wanted players to build more points by taking on the quests. Those players who do more and more of them will eventually become very strong, which was our intention.

The Evolution Continues – Battle Actions

—In SO4 you’ve added the ability to move vertically. Why did you add the jump actions?

Shiraishi: In SO3 you could dodge attacks with the “step” ability. Then we had the new blindside ability for SO4. In the beginning, we talked about needing the jump ability as a part of using blindsides. Later we wanted each character to have their own special jump action, so we changed it, and if we were going to do that, we might as well let players use the jump freely. Sarah and Reimi have a high jump that can dodge low attacks, Limle has a roll that she can use to evade… we tried to give them all unique movements that way.

—It’s interesting that jumping was originally planned to be part of blindsides.

Shiraishi: In the beginning, when the target cursor was fixed and you jumped, that was how you performed a blindside. Unfortunately, that led to situations where depending on the direction of your jump, you could sometimes jump inside the enemy’s line of sight. It was also buggy sometimes, like if the jump caused a distance to open up between you and the enemy, it would look then like you attacked the thin air. One idea to fix it came up, which was to make characters have to flank the enemies to perform a blindside, and then we figured we might as well make different blindsides for each character. Since jumps were no longer connected to blindsides, we could focus on making them more about spacing during fights, and dodging attacks that come at you.

—How did you decide on the different movements for each individual character’s blindside?

Shiraishi: Edge was just your standard flanking action, which made us want to do something more unique for the other characters. So we started brainstorming and our goal was not to do the same thing twice for any two characters. When we had something functional, we showed what we’d done to Norimoto and Gotanda. “They should look a little more showy and impressive,” was their advice. So then we went to the event team, and asked them to create some storyboards of more flashy flanking animations. As they finished each one, they’d give us directing pointers on how the cameras should move in those scenes, and then we took those to the programmers and had them implement it all.

—A lot of people were involved, I see.

Shiraishi: It was crazy. When the Blindsides were completed, our reaction in the battle team was “Awesome! These look exactly like the storyboards!” But then we showed them to the event team, and they said, “This is completely wrong! You call this cool…?” (laughs) To the end I had my own personal doubts–“do these really fit…?”–but we steadily hammered away and finished all 9. It was the most time-consuming part of the development for us.

—I love how you can counter an enemy’s blindside counter, too.

Shiraishi: We were concerned about enemy counter attacks which the player couldn’t do anything about. When an enemy enters their attack animation, they won’t counter you, but when they do manage to counter, we didn’t want players to feel like they were helpless and had to take the hit.

—It’s a nice evolution to Star Ocean’s battle system, all these new moves.

Shiraishi: Well, the main one was the blindsides. Then we wanted the rest of the combat to feel rich and fulfilling, so we added a smattering other new features.

A simple, 11-years-old compilation video of Star Ocean 4’s blindside animations.

—By adopting the Rush Mode system, you can no longer wail on the enemies so one-sidedly. It makes fights harder, but I also feel like it’s a big improvement.

Shiraishi: Exactly. It’s very easy in an RPG development for the battle systems to become one-sided, in the player’s favor. As the developer we spend a of time trying to create advantages for the player, so we always knew we’d need something to balance that out. There’s also the Battle Bonus Board to consider, and we wanted the timing of enemy criticals to be easy to understand.

—Right, because enemy criticals break the bonus board.

Shiraishi: We didn’t want it to be something where criticals are random and the player thus feels their only option is to completely avoid the enemy’s attacks. If it was like that, the sense of despair when the board gets broken would be overwhelming. We want players to realize, “Ah, I see, I shouldn’t approach enemies when they’re in Rush mode.” For that reason we added the rule that if you receive an attack from an enemy in Rush Mode, it will be a critical.

—It ups the tension during the fight.

Shiraishi: It was funny, I remember one time I saw both the enemies and the player in Rush Mode at the same time, aggressively going at each other. “Now this is intense,” I thought. (laughs) Rush Mode doesn’t give either side an advantage, but it adds an element of unpredictability to the fights, not knowing who will win or lose, that I thought would be fun for players.

—You mentioned the Battle Bonus Board a moment ago. What was the idea behind adding that?

Shiraishi: The Heat Up Gauge was SO3 was a big influence, as you can probably guess. With the Heat Up Gauge you got a bonus depending on what you did when the gauge became full, but it was difficult to intentionally aim for a specific bonus. This time you can select the bonus you want, to a degree. Also, it’s really a downer if the board breaks and you lose everything, so we made it so that if there’s adjacent crystals of the same color, you’ll only lose half.

—I can see grinders setting them all to green and spending hours accumulating SP.

Yamagishi: That’s tri-Ace for you, encouraging game addiction!

Kojima: I’m like that. I set them all to green and never turn my console off.

Iwao: The idea to have you only lose half partly came from Kojima, actually. “It really pisses me off when they go into Rush Mode and I lose everything!”, he said.

—Tell us about Chain Combos and Rush Combos.

Shiraishi: The Chain Combos are actually closer in form to SO1 and SO2 than SO3, but we wanted players to be able to link special attacks too. We tried letting you assign 3 different abilities each to the left and right triggers. Rush Combos came about because we wanted multi-character combo attacks. But creating dedicated multi-character “combo special attacks” would have necessitated creating an incredible number of extra attacks, so we opted instead to use special abilities that individual characters already to create linked combos. In the beginning, the button combos you needed to press were actually more complicated.

As is typical for tri-Ace games, fans have worked to explore and master the very limits of Star Ocean 4’s combat system, efficiency be damned.

—The “Chain Limit Exceed” is another unique feature of SO4.

Shiraishi: For that, we wanted to give players an advantage for attacking an enemy after they’d flanked them with a blindside. Just adding more critical damage felt kind of uninspiring, because we already had plenty of other mechanics based around crits. It was then suggested, “Well, how about allowing players to create crazy chain combos?” But we couldn’t allow infinite combos, so we lowered the damage output. It was basically a nod to people who love comboing–have at it!

—I wanted to ask about the ability to swap party members during battle, another new mechanic for SO4. Were you trying to encourage players to be more varied in the characters they use?

Shiraishi: That was part of it, but there’s also situations that come up in battle, where depending on the affinities/immunities of the enemies, you might not be able to defeat them with your current party. For example, sometimes it happens that you enter into a boss fight without having prepared your party beforehand. We figured it would be better in situations like that if players could swap out characters on the fly.

Ukawa: I was the one who gave the order to include in-battle party swapping. My issue was, if you’re adventuring around with 8 party members, then just 4 die in battle and it’s suddenly game over… what’s that all about!? You should be able to bring out the 4 guys in reserve, right? So I had them add that function.

Yamagishi: It’s pretty impressive how long we resisted including it, all the way to SO3. (laughs) It’s not that it was impossible to do or anything.

Kojima: Of course, if you have members you rarely use, they’re going to be under-leveled and under-geared, so they’ll die right away anyway.

Shiraishi: They’re there for first aid duties. (laughs)

—Why did you add the BEAT system?

Shiraishi: We thought it would be a good idea to have an extra mechanic players could use to match their individual playstyles. But changing the leveling and skill system would have been pretty difficult, so the BEAT system was our answer for allowing players to tweak their playstyles.

Iwao: Blindsides can be a roadblock for players too. Once you’re used to them they’re easy enough to execute, but we were concerned about new players finding Blindsides too difficult and just always doing regular attacks.

Shiraishi: It’s balanced such that, if you continue to use a single BEAT style (S, N, or B) until the end, that BEAT rank will end up reaching max rank.

Item Collecting, Hidden Dungeons, and More! The Bonus Systems of SO4

—The volume of the in-game Special Arts trophies to collect for SO4 is quite impressive. Were you trying to issue a challenge to players…?

Ukawa: Yeah, you could say that. (laughs)

Yamagishi: We always go overboard with things like that. (laughs)

Kojima: I remember there was a big issue with who in the world was going to spend the time checking all these individual entries…

Shiraishi: It was hard for the staff who had to create them, too. Knowing which conditions meant you needed to add an entry, and which didn’t, could sometimes be counter-intuitive… (laughs)

—Did you, in fact, have someone look through all the entries and doublecheck them?

Kojima: The programming team couldn’t spare anyone, so it got put on a single person to check the entire Special Arts trophies, which of course meant unlocking them all.That task fell to a valorous soldier from the bug checking team, and it took him two full months. (laughs) Even on my own personal playthrough, when I was trying to remove the level caps, I had finally gotten Reimi to 50%, and Arumat to 47%, and thought I could take a breather… 5

Shiraishi: When you realize you have to unlock every character’s level cap to see the whole art collection, it fills you with despair. It’s like, “You can’t be serious…” (laughs) But we wanted players to use every character, you know? By adding 100 different achievements for the characters, it was one way for us to draw attention players’ attention to the characters they weren’t using. As developers, we thought “this is a great incentive to get player’s using everyone!”

—There’s some collection items, like the spaceship ones, that are easy to forget about, or even completely missable.

Yamagishi: That was us being mean. (laughs)

Kojima: Personally, I think the collection was added because Iwao wanted to show off how much he knew about the game lore.

Iwao: Hah, no, no… I just thought it would be fun to be able to look back at all the stuff you’ve collected along your way. I mean, that was the idea.

—It was cool that you added enemies like the Psynard, from SO2, to the monster collection.

Iwao: Yeah. The monsters are never talked about in-game, so this was the only way we could include lore about them. The dictionary (a mainstay since the beginning of this series) was added for the same reason.

Kojima: Of the SO4 monsters, I think the Eagle Ranger boss is a real standout. I would point out the missing Pink Ranger, though. (laughs)

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Star Ocean 4’s rendition of the Ethereal Queen, a superboss that has appeared in almost every tri-Ace RPG to date. In SO4, she can be encountered multiple times within the Wandering Dungeon, growing more powerful with every defeat.

—Speaking of the Eagle Rangers, there’s two post-game bonus dungeons. What made you want to make a dungeon like the Wandering Dungeon with randomly generated floors?

Ukawa: Well, first off–and this is an attitude we’ve had with all the previous games too–our mindset when making SO4 was that the main storyline would only comprise 50% of the content of the game.

Yamagishi: We’re all about the bonus content. (laughs)

Ukawa: We started off by wanting to simply make more content, volume-wise, from the previous games, and we started brainstorming on how to do that within the confines of the memory available to us. It was the programming team that suggested we try a procedurally generated dungeon. When I first heard that I wasn’t especially optimistic. “Um, yeah, sure, if you think it’s possible…” (laughs)

—As you go deeper into the dungeon you can encounter the Ethereal Queen too, multiple times even.

Ukawa: The memory plate records your victories over the Ethereal Queen, too. According the programmers, there is technically a limit to the number of floors the Wandering Dungeon can generate, but the number is so astronomically high that in practice it would never be reached. (laughs)

Shiraishi: But I bet you there are players out there who’ll try to counterstop it…

Iwao: No, that’s totally impossible. (laughs) The max number is in the millions; you’d have to go through hundreds of thousands of floors.

—The most sensational thing about the Wandering Dungeon, in my opinion, is the appearance of Santa the Mercantilean.

Sawamura: The design for Santa in SO3 was amazing, wasn’t it? That brought out our competitive spirit: “We have to do one better!” (laughs) So our designer started off using the SO3 design as a template, and then showed me what he’d done. Naturally, this wasn’t a decision I could make on my own, so I showed it to the director. “Is this alright? Do you think he overdid it?” But the director seemed unfazed: “I don’t know, looks good to me.” (laughs)

—The bunny model has a nice real-feeling texture to it too.

Sawamura: We’d gone to the trouble of including the bunny, so we took the extra step of trying to give him fur. (laughs) We tried to make him look fluffy like that in SO3 too, but there were limits to what we could depict on the hardware, but we suspected it might be a challenge we could overcome this time. We talked about making him more cute this time, and that’s what the designers came up with.

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Concept illustrations for Star Ocean: The Last Hope’s offbeat interpretation of Santa. (click to expand)