A cross between Xenosaga and Final Fantasy in the graphic and presentation department, throwing in a gameplay similar to both Star Ocean 2nd Story and Tales of Symphonia.
The character design looks very similar to Xenosaga, which isn't my taste, but other people might like it. They are designed much like animated characters from Xenosaga. If you never played Xenosaga, I suggest you either pick it up now for cheap or watch any typical Japanese animation to get a feel for what the characters look like.
The music is rather fitting for the game but none of the tracks really stand out. I can safely say that the Motoi Sakuraba (the music composer for many renowned RPGs like: Tales of Symphonia, Tales of Destiny series, Valkyrie Profile, and Star Ocean series) wasn't in his best form for this game. Comparing the battle music for Tales of Symphonia and SO3; SO3 battle music just didn't pump me up for battle like in TOS and other games.
The voice acting in the game is average, except for Cliff which is amazing and stands out from the rest. The voices for other characters just feel too generic to me. They feel inappropriate and emotionally lacking.
The game progresses less linearly then most typical RPGs. You get to choose which characters you would recruit (8 characters total, 3 characters during battle). Depending on which ones you choose, you will have extra dungeons and bosses to play and fight. Also each character has many unique private actions. If you played Star Ocean 2, you will remember private actions but I'll give a brief description for those who never played. Private actions are a dialogue/event you can engage in while in town with party members or NPCs. Usually, you will make response choices. Based on the responses you choose, the affection between you and party members might increase or decrease. This also applies to party members who have not joined you yet. The choices you make will determine the ending.
The battle system is very dynamic and addictive compare to traditional turn-based battle system. Similar to TOS, you have total control over your character. But unlike TOS -- where you can only move back and forth in a 2D plane -- SO3 allows you to move freely in a 3D plane (360 degree movement). There is a fury gauge, performing special actions (like attack, special tech casting spell, or using an item) depletes your fury meter. You regain your fury simply by standing still for a while. This is a nice addition that allows for a more strategic gameplay, since you just can't hack-hack-hack all you want.
The guard/defense system is very unique. There is no guard button; you simply defend against your foes' attacks by having a 100% fury meter. By successfully blocking/guarding against an enemy attack, your character will emit anti-air aura (AAA). Calling it anti-air is misleading because you can guard against ground attack too! At the early stage of the game, you only learn a few basic AAA like stun. As you progress through the game, collecting certain items and leveling up, you will learn more advanced AAA. The effect can cause damage to the enemy, emit multiple aura and stun/damage multiple enemies, etc. This is a well-implemented game feature that adds strategy to the gameplay.
There are two types of attacks: weak (X button) and strong (O button). Weak attack causes less damage but is quicker than strong attack. This allows you to pull off impressive chain combinations with it. For each type of attack, there are short and long range. So, you have 4 types of attack: weak attack - short range, weak attack - long range, strong attack - short range, strong attack - long range. Range is determined by the distance between you and the enemy. There is a range indicator in the upper-left corner of screen. Some characters are more effective in short range while others are geared mainly toward long-range attack. It is up to you to experimented with all of them and choose characters that best suit your play style.
Weak attacks can be blocked by an enemies if they have a full fury gauge. Strong attack is slow, but deal much more damage than weak attack and cannot be block by the enemy. This adds strategy to the gameplay. You don't want to keep using strong attack as some foes can be extremely fast and will avoid your strong attack easily. Nor do you want to relies entirely on weak attack as some enemies have a very high fury recovery rate (allowing them to have full fury most of the time). They will most likely block your weak attack.
Another minor feature that allows for further customization of each character is the additional status distribution. Every time your character level up, he/she gains status bonus points. You can spend these status points on four categories: hit points, magic points, attack, and defense. If you want your character to gear toward heavy attacker, spend points on hit points, attack and defense. If you are a long-range attacker/healer, spend points on attack and magic points. It's another nice feature that allows you to develop each character the way it works best for you.
SO3 brings back the item creation system in SO2 with a little twist. In addition to your party members being able to create items, you are now able to go around the world and recruit many different inventors to create items for you. Each inventor comes with unique talent and specific items they can create. Do not neglect this feature, the best weapons, armor, and accessories by the item creation system.
All games, come with certain annoying features, and SO3 is no exception for me. The thing that irks me the most are the boss battles. In normal difficulty, boss battles in SO3 are very easy. Some boss fights last only 30 seconds to 1 minute! Did I over-train my character by wandering around a dungeon trying to find all the items? I certainly don't get the adrenalin rush I get from other RPGs when fighting most bosses. That is a huge disappointment. Perhaps this problem will go away when I play the game the second time on extreme difficulty. In fact, getting to the boss is a much more challenging task then fighting the boss itself. I have been annihilated by random enemies a few times but I never die from boss battles.
Another annoying feature in SO3 is that you can't hit an enemy that is falling down. Playing Tales of Symphonia, using Lloyd's beast to make enemies fall flat on the ground and continue to attack them in the most brutal manner spoiled me. Targeting an enemy that is falling down guarantees hitting air. This is annoying because it disrupts the flow and the dynamic of the battle. Often, when I tried to do a powerful special tech and chain combo, I missed because my partners knocked the enemies on the ground or because my previous attack make them fall. This is extremely annoying!
SO3's AI is too simplistic. There are no settings for: which enemy to attack, how frequently to use spells, or how to position the character. Each character comes with only 5 simple settings with no customization.
Another feature in the game that you will notice is that all the dungeon and cities in the game are huge. This can severely slow down the pace of the game as you have to spend a lot of time exploring them. You will spend somewhere around 1-2 hours for each dungeon. Sometimes I ask myself when I will be able to finish this dungeon because I have been fighting the same enemies over and over again for the last hour. Or I wonder when I will be able to get out of this city to go to my next adventure. If you are a perfectionist and looking to get all the items, be prepared to spend a lot of time in one specific place.
Story 7/10 - Galactic warfare with a mix of medieval setting, twisted plot, nothing mind-blowing like Xenogears.
Graphic 7/10 - Average and does it job, doesn't have anything that sets it apart from many other RPG.
Sound 7/10 - Music is fitting for the game but none are memorable and are enjoyable to guarantee a soundtrack.
Voice Acting 6/10 - Average at best; most characters are generic and lack emotion with the exception of a few like Cliff.
Gameplay 9/10 - Addictive and intense real time battle system, return of item creation feature.
Replay 9/10 - 4 difficulty modes, many battle trophies to collect, many items to create, different characters to recruit on each play, multiple endings. Replay is quite high for RPG fanatics out there.
Verdict 7.5/10 - A fine installment to the series, SO3 fulfills its legacy as one of those games that focus on fun and addictive gameplay rather than mind-blowing story. The game is good despite some of the annoying features I have mentioned above. If you are looking for a fun and enjoy RPG to play, look nowhere else. If you are looking for a mind-blowing story, this is not the game for you.