Thursday, March 14, 2013

Star Ocean: First Departure review

Star Ocean is a long running series that dates back to 1996 on the SNES, where it was developed by Tri-Ace and published by Enix. I believe what happened is that key members of Wolfteam who were responsible for Tales of Phantasia were dissatisfied with the way they were treated by Namco on that project, so they split off and formed Tri-Ace in order to create a new series.

Compared to the likes of Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy or even the Tales series, the humble Star Ocean series has had very few releases over the years, with just four main titles and a Game Boy Color spin off called Blue Sphere to date.  The PSP remake of the first game that I am reviewing today is also the first time that it has officially been available in English, and having played all the way through the main story I think it is a good thing that those of us who aren’t fluent in Japanese can enjoy this game in an enhanced form. 

Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Tri-Ace
Expect to pay: £10 - £15

The game sees you take control of Roddick Farrence, a young denizen of the planet Roak and member of the Fellpool race (humanoids who have tails).  This begins fairly slowly as Roddick patrols the sleepy town of Kratus with his two friends, the pink haired girl Millie and best friend Dorne.  After taking care of a few bandits that are causing trouble for the residents, word arrives of a disease that is turning residents of a neighbouring town to stone.  While trying to figure out what is going on, Millie’s father and then Dorne both contract the disease. 

Roddick and Millie then travel to Mount Metorx to try and find a herb that will cure everyone, when they encounter two tail less strangers who appear from out of thin air.  They are Ronyx J Kenny and Ilia Silvestri of the starship Calnus, also here to try and save the population of Roak.  After informing Roddick and Millie that the herb will not cure their loved ones, they end up beaming about the Calnus and set off on a journey through space and time to set things right.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
While Star Ocean won’t blow anyone away with amazing looking 3D graphics, the 2D work displayed here is really pretty.  What you have for the most part is a combination of highly detailed painted backgrounds and well animated character sprites.  The 3D that is in the game is saved for the world map and the battles, and is not great looking but is serviceable.  All of this is backed up by some excellent animated video by acclaimed animation house Production I.G.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
First things first – the voice work in Star Ocean: First Departure is extremely high quality stuff.  It is both well written and acted.  The cast includes some industry veterans such as Yuri Lowenthal in the lead role, but also plenty of names that I’m not familiar with.  My favourite has to be Ronyx J Kenny, performed by Sam Gold.  He does the job of starship captain well, being both serious in tone yet kindly in nature.

The soundtrack was put together by Motoi Sakuraba, an incredibly prolific composer whose distinctive sound can be heard throughout the Tales and Golden Sun series as well as many other RPG’s. My only problem with his work is that often one piece of his music can sound very much like another, and this problem also applies here.  There are a few stand out tracks in the game, but most of it sounds like it could have been transplanted directly from something like Tales of Eternia.  Still, when you have to come up with music for as many games as Sakuraba does, I suppose it would be inevitable that similar themes would emerge.  That’s not to say his stuff is bad – it’s just… samey.

While the Star Trek influences at the start of the game are cool, they are not developed nearly enough and most of the game plays like a standard fantasy RPG.  A shame.
Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
The Star Ocean games are action RPG’s as such they do fall into the trap of degenerating into button mashers fairly easily, unless you happen to face a group of monsters that can inflict status ailments on your party or a powerful boss that keeps you on your toes.  The majority of the game is pretty easy if you keep pace with levelling up however, so most encounters will consist of you mindless spamming the X button until everything dies.  Battles are still triggered randomly on the world map and throughout dungeons, and I’m afraid to say that they can be infuriatingly frequent.

Another problem I have with the game is that eventually you will have to backtrack halfway across the world map to places you’ve been before, yet the same old enemies remain.  You will trigger battle after battle that serve little point other than to slow you down, because by the point you start revisiting locations you will be so over levelled that the amount of XP you receive from enemies is pathetic.

Luckily there is more to the game than just a fairly standard battle system.  Should you get into the intricacies of the skill and crafting systems you will find there are dozens of options available, including cooking, customization of equipment… even writing books and composing music are options.  Again though, while taking the time and trouble with these systems can certainly help against with the optional post game content, the main game itself is so easy that you don’t need to bother much.

Finally there is the Personal Action system, which allows you to view optional scenes between the different characters and build up a hidden PA value.  Increasing this value can have an effect on the ending that you see upon completion of the game.  I should also say that there are many recruitable characters throughout the game, and bringing some into your party locks you out from recruiting others.  This also affects the scenes that you will see at the end of the game and helps the replay value.  As the story is quite brief at around 20 hours I could possibly see myself playing through a second time at some point and taking an entirely different group of characters through to the end game.

I do also have to commend the game for its incredibly quick loading times.  It can be quite easy to overlook this aspect of PSP games but it is an important one.  If you have a spare 30 minutes to fill and you choose to do so by playing a game on your handheld, if a third of that time is spent waiting for the game it can be infuriating.  I speak from experience… much as I like Kingdom Hearts, playing it on the PSP can be rather painful even with the game installed to a memory stick!  Star Ocean takes seconds to get in and out of battles however, which is fantastic.

Innovation and Cleverness:
5 out of 10
I can’t really be too generous in this regard I’m afraid because despite the extensive skill system and multiple endings when it comes down to it this is a fairly rudimentary action RPG.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
As already mentioned the game can be completed in 20 hours, which is not many at all for the RPG genre.  However this doesn’t take into account a sizeable optional dungeon that can be taken on afterwards.  I don’t know how many hours exactly that this would add on to the overall experience as I have not attempted it myself yet.  You do take your character from around level 80 to 160 though so I can see that it would take a while!

Then there are all the optional characters and the effect that different parties have on the ending.  This goes a long way to making playing through a second time both viable and appealing.  Even if the story itself is not exactly the most amazing work of literature, the likeable and well written characters make up for this weakness.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Despite the fairly mundane battle system and overall lack of challenge, Star Ocean: First Departure was a great way to spend the journey home every day.  Hopefully the weaker aspects of the game have been tweaked for the sequel Second Evolution, as I am about to begin playing that.

The presentation and the likeable characters are a big part of what makes this game fun. The brief length of play is also to the games credit, as it would probably have grown tiresome if stretched out much further.  I also hope later games in the series do a better job of making good on the whole “Star Trek RPG” concept, as this game very quickly goes from sci fi to your bog standard fantasy fare.  I mean… it’s a universe where space travel is both possible and prevalent, and yet the designers have you stuck on the same planet for 95% of the game? Let me explore other worlds next time, Tri-Ace!

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