Despite my hesitance to play any RPG because I know I don’t tend to finish those games, I had my eye on Star Ocean for a while. I had watched a friend play the Japanese version long ago and I was intrigued by the active battle system. One of the things I hate the most about most of the RPGs I play is the turn based battle system. I want to physically control my character. There are a few exceptions to this, but not many. As such, I’ve probably only finished a handful of the RPGs I’ve played or even owned.
So when Star Ocean: First Departure was announced for the PSP, I knew I was going to grab it. Finally, I would get my chance to play an English version of the game with improved graphics and on my favorite portable system!
Sadly, I was I let down hard. This game is perhaps a little too old school.
The story follows the exploits of two friends (and perhaps a little more) named Roddick and Millie. When their world is threatened by a disease that turns anyone infected to stone, they travel to a dangerous mountain in an attempt to find a rare herb that might cure their family and friends. There they meet two visitors from another world. Despite the fact that this would violate the Directive to Preserve Primitive Planets (aka THE PRIME DIRECTIVE), the space wayfarers offer to take Roddick and Millie with them to try and get a cure. They end up on a spaceship only to find that the only way to obtain a cure is to travel back three hundred years into Roddicks’ planet’s past and defeat the great evil Asmodeous.
The rest of the game follows the group travelling along in the past as they attempt first to find each other after being separated and then finding access to the dimension where Asmodeous resides. The whole thing reeks of a bad episode of Star Trek and the overall plot is exceptionally bare bones. The game promises a Sci-Fi setting but instead sends you back in the past with knights and wizards. Also, thanks to a convenient loop hole for time travelling, they can’t bring their weapons with them, so you have to find swords and bows for your party to use. It claims to be a star faring game in the title, but you’ll spend almost the entire game on the same planet you started off on. There’s no space travel to be seen. It’s just another fantasy story.
So how about the characters? Are they at least interesting? Well, that depends on how you play. There are several characters that you can pick up during the course of the game. Some characters won’t join if you don’t have enough free spots, or if you have a certain character in your party. This means that you can have dozens of combinations of party members. The reason this matters is because you can chose to either enter each town normally or via private action. During private action sequences, Roddick will run around on his own. You can talk to each member of your party and depending on where you are at both physically and in the story, all kinds of conversations and interactions will take place. This sounds great in theory, but you have to manually enter these sequences each time and a lot of the time you’ll get nothing for your trouble. The conversations during main plot sequences generally reveal little or nothing about each character’s back story and/or motivation. If you don’t seek it out, the depth isn’t there.
Still, you do get multiple endings and differing paths based on which characters are in your party. Anyone looking for depth will find it, but it can be easy to miss if you don’t stop and look at everything and talk to everyone.
My biggest problem is the many plot holes I found throughout my time with the game. For instance, Roddick and Mille are told that if they chose to go with the trekkies, then they won’t be allowed to return home. This is supposed to add serious weight to the decisions they make, but this doesn’t pan out nearly as advertised. Also (minor spoilers ahead), you discover that the true end boss is immune to modern weapons and can only be defeated by archaic means. So you’re telling me that lasers and bullets won’t hurt the guy, but a bow and arrow might be just the ticket? How about a chick with a pair of brass knuckles? It reeks of a cheap tactic for the end game to involve the characters you used in the past instead of just Ronyx and Ilia (the space dudes). There are so many cheap cop outs and bad Star Trek references that I was sick of it by the end of the game.
Oh yeah. The ending doesn’t gel with the rest of the game. It feels tacked on and neither the boss nor the characters you meet at the end were introduced or even mentioned until the final hour or two of the game. It’s just another example of a cheap cop out.
Like Square did with their Final Fantasy remakes, the graphics for Star Ocean have seen a major overhaul. The backgrounds and environments are beautiful pre rendered backgrounds rich with detail and color. True, you can’t interact with any of it, but you’ll find your eyes slipping off of your character when you’re in towns and a few dungeons. However, a few of the dungeons tend to get extremely repetitive with their visuals. When you’re in a cave, you’ll see pretty much nothing but earthen wall.
The over-world sports true 3D graphics. This doesn’t look nearly as sharp as the pre rendered stuff. The detail is nonexistent. All you’re given to look at is vastly empty space with maybe a few colors thrown in at the most. Small 3D representations of the towns you visit dot the landscape and let you know where you need to go.
When you’re in battle, you’ll also have 3D graphics to deal with. The character models look pretty good for the most part and show a surprising amount of animation. The affects of the various spells and abilities are for the most part fantastic, though a few spells seem like nothing by generic geometric shapes crashing toward the ground. You can really see some upgrades made all around, as nothing looks exactly like it did for the original SNES version.
As far as graphical overhauls go, Star Ocean delivers a solid visual experience.
One of the biggest additions to Star Ocean is the inclusion of voice acting. Nearly every line of important dialogue between characters is voiced by real people. The best part is that the voice acting is excellent. This isn’t one of your typical RPGS filled to the brim with annoying women and dumb sounding men. The characters show real emotion and I can’t honestly think of a bad voice actor in the game.
The music has been re-mastered and sounds better than ever. There aren’t that many songs though, which can cause it to become extremely repetitive. For instance, the music that plays in the town is the same for every town you come across. After a while, you might as well turn the sound off and listen to something else. This isn’t the kind of game you’ll be needing headphones for. Again, the music is good, but considering how long the game takes to complete just the first time, you’ll hear it way too much.
My biggest problem with the audio in the game is that the characters insist on yelling the name of whatever special move/magic spell they’re using. This means you’ll hear “double slash”Â, “meteor palm”Â, “explosive kick”Â and a host of other names over and over and over and over and over and over again. By the way, the use of so many “and overs”Â was very much intentional. When the characters use the moves repeatedly, you’ll be assaulted with these shouts endlessly. It meant that I had to go into the menu to tell the AI to not use the attacks. The audio grew so annoying, that it actually affected the game! This is as a big a no no as I’ve ever seen.
Still, outstanding voice acting and good music mean that the aural experience is a good one; at least until you just get tired of hearing it.
Star Ocean features an active battling system. What this means is that you’ll only directly control one character during battles. From there you’ll be able to move freely along a 3D level and execute attacks and special abilities. There are two types of character: fighters and magicians. Fighters can use powerful weapons and utilize special attacks that deal greater damage. Magicians use weak weapons, but can cast area of affect spells and healing spells. Using a fighter means you’ll be tapping x to attack for pretty much the entire battle with the occasional press of the shoulder buttons to activate a special attack. Using a magician means you should run away from enemies long enough to cast a spell. Though, you might as well just sit back because the fighters can do all of the work by themselves. You might as well save the mp for the when you need to heal.
All of this boils down to an absolutely boring gameplay mechanic. The game tries to tell you that you can counter and parry attacks, but these are activated by timed presses of the attack button. You’re better off just spamming the x button for the entirety of the battle. The only reason to stop is when you need to use and item such as paralysis or poison cure. Boss fights aren’t much different. Bum rushing these guys and surrounding them while constantly beating them with attacks will cause most bosses to get stuck in a loop of being stunned. If they actually land a few hits, your healer can cast a cure all spell and that will b the end of that.
When not in battle, you’re free to move along the over world map and towns searching for plot and shops. Using money you collect from battle, you can buy new skills, weapons, armor, and all kinds of items used in crafting, cooking, music, writing, smithing, etc. For the most part, you can’t interact with anything, although you will find the occasional herb or gem that you can grab. These are represented by glowing yellow sparkles on the map. These are pretty rare, but easy enough to spot because they stand out on the static backgrounds.
Leveling up your characters not only increased your base stats such as strength, agility, and wisdom. You’ll also get skill points which can be used to increase any skill that you have previously purchased. These can be combined to learn new abilities. For instance, learning the knife and keen eye abilities will increase your cooking specialty. Cooking allows you to prepare a meal using any food you’ve collected. The food you’ve cooked can be used to heal your characters. You can also learn abilities that will allow you to craft new items, avoid random encounters, lower prices at stores, etc. These sound a lot more useful than they actually turn out to be. Why bother creating healing items when your magic user can heal the whole party in one shot? The music ability in particular is used only to summon a special boss fight that you don’t need to fight to win the game. Still, you have to spend a ridiculous number of skill points and cash in order to build up the ability and buy the necessary instruments to use it. Only hardcore RPGers need apply.
Dungeons are pretty straightforward. In fact, it is impossible to get lost. If there are two branching pathways, chances are that one will open up into a room with a treasure chest and the other will continue you on your journey. One of the dungeons toward the end of the game was so guilty of this; I managed to find full sets of equipment for three of my characters! It looked like a massive dungeon, but it was mostly treasure rooms! This gets beyond boring after long. You can only get a certain number of healing items before you just want to face the boss and get it over with.
Sure there is a lot of depth for anyone looking for it, but most of the depth exists solely for the purpose of making your characters stronger when they don’t need to be. The game is already easy as pie, which I’ll get back to later.
If you’re the kind of person who loves the story in the game, you’ll absolutely love how much there is for people who play through the game multiple times. There are several unlock able characters to find and the differing combinations of characters will yield a different story each time. There are also five different endings to be found. Completionsists will no doubt spend hundreds of hours getting everything in the game.
The first run through took me about twenty hours, but didn’t delve nearly as deep as I could have with the various skills. This was because I didn’t see the point in leveling or getting better equipment anymore. I was already cutting through the enemies like a hot knife through butter. For more ardent players, the experience can shoot upwards of forty hours if you want to get everything.
There’s more here to go back for than most games in its genre. I’ll give Star Ocean credit fore that.
One thing that Star Ocean teaches us is that if life ever gets too hard, gaining a level or two will help drastically. It was easy to sit right outside of a town and pound enemies until I got too weak. Then, I could head to the inn and heal up completely for less money than I earned in a single battle. Before long, I’d be strong enough to plow right through the next dungeon without having to use a single curative item. The only time the game got hard was when my magician ran out of mana. Thankfully, restorative items for MP were so bountiful that I always had a full inventory and could fix that problem with no hassle.
Actually, there were a few enemies that did cause me some grief. They could turn my allies into stone, which would mean I had to give them a petrify heal potion. This became a problem because these enemies could turn all adjacent characters to stone with one attack. This usually left me with one character to try and heal the rest while not dying from every enemy on the screen ganging up on me. These moments led to the only times I ever saw a game over screen. A few levels later, and these pesky enemies were toast.
Star Ocean suffers from the age old problem that has affected so many a RPG. Leveling solves EVERYTHING.
This is nothing more than a remake of an old SNES game. Sure the presentation has been improved and the gameplay tweaked to play more like other games in the series, but there is nothing new that the game adds to either the role playing genre or the remake.
Travelling between towns is nothing but a long walk over barren terrain. Being interrupted by a random battle does little to quell the boredom, as a few presses of the x button will put you right back on the path.
Fiddling around with the item creation aspects can be a bit fun, but you’ll probably have to restart the game constantly, as failure rate is high and you won’t get the items you used back. Since you’ll need to craft using rare items that you’ll only find a few of in the entire game, this will lead to a lot of frustration. Mithril is a rare resource. I can’t afford to use it create useless accessories that add only a point to my defense.
I can’t express enough how boring the combat gets after a while. You’ll use the same three hit combos and special attacks so many times that you’ll have the images and sounds they make burned into your skull for the rest of your life.
Fans of old school RPGs will no doubt have a blast with this title and this is definitely a game for them. There are a lot of hidden characters and you can play the game multiple times and still not see everything.
If you really need an RPG for your PSP, I’d suggest playing one of the many great SRPGs for the system like Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, or D&D Tactics.
It’s rare that I get excited for an RPG. Star Ocean promised me a great sci-fi story with a fun and engaging combat mechanic. Instead, it offered me the same tired fantasy story with monotonous combat. I feel so ripped off that I can’t put it properly into words. I wanted to travel the stars and explore every planet I could find. I guess the only game that will give me that is Rogue Galaxy.
Square-Enix continues to wow me with how they will screw over their customers when it comes to price. This is yet another remake of a decade plus old game that is charging full price! True, this remake has actually seen some major overhaul in the presentation department, but knocking down the price even ten dollars would have softened the blow tremendously. True, this game has never come to the states before, but a remake is a remake.
Replayability: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Poor
Final Score: Mediocre Game
Short Attention Span Summary
Star Ocean: First Departure is not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. However, it lies about the kind of story it tells and anyone that isn’t already a fan of old school role playing games will not find anything to change their mind here. The combat and exploration is boring and the skills exist only for those are obsessed with that kind of thing. If you love RPGs, you’ll probably love it. If not, find something else to occupy your time. I’ll probably end up reviewing Star Ocean: Second Evolution when it comes out early next year. Hopefully it will deliver on the promises this game made.