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   Star Ocean: First Departure - Staff Review  

Not Much of an Ocean
by Charles Reimer

PLATFORM
PSP
BATTLE SYSTEM
#
INTERACTION
#
ORIGINALITY
#
STORY
#
MUSIC & SOUND
#
VISUALS
#
CHALLENGE
Moderate
COMPLETION TIME
20-40 Hours
OVERALL
3.0/5
+ Excellent cast with considerable replay value.
+ Dozens of skills and specialties...
- ...Many of which are useless.
+ Amazing sounds and visuals.
- Tons of backtracking.
- Clunky combat.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   The original Star Ocean hit Japan in 1996 during the final days of the Super Famicom era. The game pushed the Super Famicom to its limits, using high quality visuals and sound files. Unfortunately, Star Ocean missed out on a Western release. Even after the success of its two sequels in the west, the original title remained a Japan-only game. However, the media blitz leading up to the release of Star Ocean: The Last Hope finally gave Western players a way to legally experience the original entry in English. Remade on the PSP, Star Ocean: First Departure brings the story of Roddick and Ronyx to portable systems across the world.

   Star Ocean: First Departure features a pseudo-3D action-RPG battle system. Each random encounter loads up a little rectangular arena for the heroes and monsters to do battle upon. Movement is 3D, but the stoic camera preserves the 2D details of the sprites. The player chooses one of the four party members to control and can change control on the fly with the battle menu. The remaining party members are controlled by AI settings, which are assigned out of battle and can be changed during battle. The AI characters will follow their setting with relative efficiency. The battle menu allows access to each character's special abilities, and two offensive abilities can be assigned to the R and L button outside of battle to allow for shortcuts in battle. The battle menu also features the escape command and the item menu. After using an item, a small icon appears in the bottom left corner of the screen that means no more items can be used. Actual combat boils down to smacking the attack button until the enemy disintegrates. This is where things become clunky. Once the attack button is pressed, players lose control as their character blindly runs face first towards the nearest enemy to attack. Upon landing the first blow, players can repeatedly press attack to build up a small combo. Pressing the attack button during an enemy offensive can allow blocking, but since blocking and attacking are accomplished via the same button it is unreliable. While in attack mode, the player cannot go into the battle menu and select skills or items. In dangerous situations, attacking characters will continue their assault, even if they should be focused on healing. Worst of all, the lack of targeting removes most tactics. In order to change targets, characters will need to run around like idiots until they are in range of the desired foe. During this period of time, the characters will typically be open to whatever attacks the enemy swarms can throw at the party. The simplicity of the battle system results in one-button controls that remove most influence from the player.

   Outside of battles, players can customize their characters. The main menu is fairly simple, but the submenus can be annoying to navigate through. So many submenus exist that sorting through items can take some time. The game features hundreds of items, and the menus can become cluttered in no time. Equipping new gear takes little time, and elemental alignments are displayed, but special bonuses and the meanings behind the many numbers they display are not explained. Over time, players will generally figure out what all of the different statistical numbers and different text colors represent, but a small tutorial would have been welcomed. The menu also contains vital battle set ups, like ally AI and party positioning. Each AI set keeps each character's role in mind; a healer would have healing oriented AI option, while a warrior would have special abilities oriented AI option. The party positioning feature lists possible sorties for the start of battle, so healers and mages can be kept towards the back.

   The bulk of the menu is dedicated to dealing with skills. Different sets of skills can be purchased in shops, and these skills can be learned by each character. The skill points earned from battle and events can be spent on leveling up each skill. As skills are learned, new specialties open up ranging from item creation to boosting the experience earned in battle. Of all the skills learned, only randomly activated combat skills will affect battle, with their rates of activation being dependent upon level. All skills max out at level ten. Learning different sets of skills unlock group Super Specialties, which involve the whole party in more advanced item creation or bonus stat boosts, but Super Specialties randomly chooses who performs the item creation, causing some complications if the random character lacks proficiency in the necessary skills. Many of the item creation skills are mandatory for acquiring the best gear in the game, but most of the other specialties serve very auxiliary purposes, with many of them being a waste of limited skill points.

With your blackhole inventory, of course! With your blackhole inventory, of course!

   Item creation is a huge aspect of Star Ocean. The various item creation skills upgrade gear, manufacture valuable items to sell, and produce food for healing. Specific tools are necessary for each type of item creation, and all of the tools are available in shops. Most of the tools can only be used once but are cheap, while the non-renewable tools are extremely expensive. Even with all the proper items and tools, success is not guaranteed. Each character has special affinities to different skills, so some have higher success in creating different items. However, even with the proper affinity and maxed out skills, item creation can still frequently fail, and the tools and items used will be lost. Here is where the loading feature comes into play. Players should always save before attempting to create new items. If the item creation fails, the game can quickly be reloaded, so players do not need to deal with a lengthy hard reboot. Due to the lower success rates on the rarer items, players will frequently be saving and loading until they achieve the desired outcome.

   Between the endless random battles and menu navigating, a vast, beautiful world lies open to be explored. Each town and city features a unique theme of stunning architecture. The pre-rendered backgrounds contain intricate details, and these beautiful images bring the world of Star Ocean to life. Not to be outdone by the beautiful artwork, Motoi Sakuraba's score breathes further elegance into each locale. Haunting tracks turn dungeons into mysterious, spine-chilling labyrinths, and the peaceful, vibrant town pieces each fit the various styles seen across the continents. The character sprites lack some of the environmental detail, but the artwork for each character is top-notch. During most cut scenes and special character interactions, high quality voice acting enlivens even the more dross moments. The single complaint with the aesthetics stems from the world map. Unlike the rest of the game, the overworld is 3D and its visual quality drops. Very simple, repeated designs replace the unique visuals, and the main character's sprite looks out of place in this 3D world.

   The cast of Star Ocean is one of the best parts of the game. The story focuses on four main characters: the Roakians Roddick and Millie, and the Earthlings Ronyx and Ilia. The two Roakian leads fall into the classic JRPG archetypes of the courageous, sword-wielding youth and the peace-loving cleric, respectively. However, Ronyx and Ilia provide a tad more originality. The two adults are both foreigners to the planet of Roak, and their different perspectives add some charm to the interaction. However, these four characters are only the peak of the iceberg. Nine other characters can be recruited during the course of the game, but only four can join in one playthrough due to the party limit of eight. All the characters have their own personalities, abilities, and requirements for recruitment. There is almost no right or wrong answer when it comes to selecting additional characters to recruit. Furthermore, special actions open up for each city during the game. These Private Actions allow Roddick to interact with his various teammates, expanding their characters in scenes that can be fairly memorable. Unfortunately, the core plot does not compare to the detailed cast. The initial ideas of space and time travel are undermined by most of the game being spent on the undeveloped planet of Roak, so that the game features more swords and sorcery than planet hopping sci-fi. The story can be fairly scarce, and the plot twists are not terribly impressive.

Yes, they are all furries. Yes, they are all furries.

   Star Ocean lasts just over 20 hours. Much of the play time is inflated by vast amounts of grinding and backtracking. The game's mid-point devolves into a series of fetch quests, and the backtracking can become mind-numbing. Meanwhile, a lot of grinding will be necessary. Enemies do not naturally drop a lot of EXP, and very few skill points are earned with each level up. A lot of time will be devoted to raising skills that increase the number of skill points earned, increase experience gained, and lower the costs of obtaining abilities. The difficulty of the game follows a pretty constant curve, but the characters do not level up fast enough to make the game a breeze. Under leveled parties can die in the blink of an eye, enforcing the necessity of grinding. Once the game is complete, a new bonus dungeon exclusive to the PSP remake opens, extending the playtime.

   Overall, Star Ocean: First Departure is a fun game. The combat and backtracking can be grating, but the beautiful world and fun cast saves the game. Short length and portability invites replay of Star Ocean for the various party set ups. Those looking for a complex battle system may need to look elsewhere, but the rest of the game features many attractive qualities. Item creation is vast and rewarding, and the Private Actions are addictive to unlock. The high production values of the remake and localization show, and any Star Ocean fan who has yet to experience the series' first departure should not pass up the chance any longer.

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