Star Ocean The Divine Force - Five things I want to see in the franchise's next entry
When tri-Ace revamped the Star Ocean series' website and Twitter account last summer, I knew that Star Ocean 6 was eventually going to be announced. With recent comments by the developers and unearthed job postings at the company, it was pretty clear that they were working on a new console-bound entry. I did not expect that the debut trailer for Star Ocean The Divine Force would land just a few months later, however.
Star Ocean is a series that I have some fondness for but has historically had a hard time putting it all together. The Last Hope had some relatively solid combat & exploration buried under an absolute disaster of a plot & character cast. Integrity and Faithlessness had some great narrative and gameplay concepts on paper, but it was shackled by poor execution across the board.
With The Divine Force set to release later this year, I found myself thinking about the sorts of things I hope to find in the game. A wishlist, of sorts. Things I hope they keep altogether, significantly adjust, or tweak slightly. So, below is my wishlist for Star Ocean The Divine Force.
I'm not going to waste too much ink listing 'make the story better' or 'improve the characters' or anything quite so obvious on the writing front. These things don't really need to be stated outright, though I of course hope Square Enix and tri-Ace can bolster these components as well. The Second Story still seems to be the high-water mark on the narrative front, which tri-Ace seems to be cognizant of, considering the return to a dual-protagonist structure here.
Without further ado..
Improve Character Models and Animations
Star Ocean games, ever since Till the End of Time, have had a distinct look to them, for better and worse. You play as human or humanoid characters, but with a slightly stylized look to them in terms of character proportions and clothing style. Shortly after the release of Till the End of Time, former Star Ocean producer Yoshinori Yamagishi is on record stating that characters were intended to be action figure-like. This has somewhat maintained itself in more recent entries, although sometimes characters can look uncanny or doll-like instead.
When the debut trailer for The Divine Force played during PlayStation's State of Play last year, obviously the space-themed setting was the first indication, but when the first character showed up on the screen, you immediately knew it was Star Ocean. It's maybe hard to pinpoint exactly what is the tell-tale sign of the franchise character design is here - perhaps the faces, the color schemes, the slightly-bigger-than-typical heads, but it's got a look.
I actually didn't realize initially that the characters in The Last Hope were designed & drawn by Katsumi Enami (Star Ocean: First Departure R, Ys Seven, Trails from Zero), because the original Xbox 360 release of the game stripped out his distinctive artwork for the less artistic and more creepy in-game models instead. This was back in a period of time when it felt like Japanese games were afraid of being *too* Japanese for a Western audience (perhaps as indicated by the initial Xbox 360 exclusivity). That always stuck me as odd, because the character models were definitely not great there, and having them plastered all over the in-game UI was weird .. and kinda ugly.
At the very least, this was rectified in the International release of The Last Hope, as well the next entry in the franchise. However, one of Integrity and Faithlessness' biggest drawbacks is that its production already felt several years outdated when it launched. Cutscenes are rare to begin with, with most dialogue being given as pure narration on top of gameplay. But even in the sparse cutscenes that do exist in the game, characters move like marionettes, with jerky arm movements and stiff body positioning. Not only do faces look a bit like plastic dolls, but facial expressions also animate like dolls too - that is to say, not much at all.
From what little we've seen of The Divine Force so far, not much was shown in terms of scene direction or model animations, but I hope things get a face-lift next time we see it. Just like its predecessor, characters here are designed by akiman, and so far the designs themselves fit the part for me personally. I just hope the fidelity in animations and cutscene direction do them justice.
Reduce Viable Skill Spamming Battle Strategies
This is a problem in nearly every Star Ocean title. Once you've proceeded far enough in any given SO game, the most effective way to play is to spam certain skills in battle. In First Departure, having Roddick spam Dragon Roar or Firestorm Blade is the way to go. In Till the End of Time, Fayt's Side Kick or Cliff's Hammer of Might will clown most any enemy you come across. In The Last Hope, Arumat's Dragon Roar will again wipe just about anything, and Edge has several skills suited to spamming. In Integrity and Faithlessness, I was partial to Fidel's Shotgun Blast.
The short of it is, there is no reason not to spam. It does the most damage, in the most effective way and in the least amount of time. Approach combat from any other direction and you are handicapping yourself as your DPS falls. Sure, there's nothing in place to say to have to skill-spam, but you are simply making it harder on yourself if you don't. It's effective, it's efficient, and it's boring. Integrity and Faithlessness does have a Cancel Bonus feature in its mechanics, which at first I thought might address this issue, but since you can simply stack a cancel bonus of a skill onto itself, it does not.
Other party-based action RPGs, such as the Tales of series, have tried numerous methods to avoid this sort of issue. Tales of Graces (among others) implement an Arte tree, where you must perform certain actions in sequence, and you reach the best damage output by chaining different skills properly. Tales of Arise will literally reduce arte effectiveness if you don't vary it up a little, once again coercing the player to use various skills in combos rather than just using the 'best' one time and again.
It'd be nice if Star Ocean took some inspiration on this specific element to have gameplay be a bit more intricate. As weird as it is, the JP-only Game Boy Color spinoff Blue Sphere seems to handle this particular component the best, as that game rewards proper attack timing and punishes overuse by having characters wear out in battle. Take some notes from that, I guess?
Keep the Crazy Crafting, Specialties, and Other Sub-systems
One of my favorite components in Star Ocean comes when you dig deep into the game's underlying mechanics and subsystems, such as personal skills, specialties, various forms of crafting, and likewise. In fact, these sorts of systems are probably the components most unique to the series, and I hope The Divine Force continues to have these mechanics in spades.
Basically, Specialties are usually some sort of ability that characters can perform outside of battle, often with descriptors like Machinery, Compounding, Music, Synthesis, or similar. There is *a lot* you can do with these systems .. if you take the time to mess around and experiment a bit.
As I stated in my review of First Departure R, getting into all the details of what the Speciality systems entail can get into the weeds pretty quickly. But if you know what you are doing, it can ultimately change the dynamics and balance of the gameplay to extreme degrees, even offering an avenue to 'breaking' things wide open if you want. You craft some strong weaponry and armor far before you can obtain them naturally in-game, and in the most extreme cases, you can even manage to give yourself an infinite money source. In some SO titles, you can even abuse these systems to quickly boost your character levels.
Even outside of the game-breaking cases, these systems on their own allow Star Ocean balance to be quite flexible. I find manipulating these tools in place enjoyable, instead of just having basic level-ups and new gear at each new town. While like most JRPGs, characters in Star Ocean usually fill set roles, oftentimes you can mold characters ever-so-slightly to suit certain needs in battle. There's a level of flexibility there not often seen in the genre.
To use a more specific example, Integrity and Faithlessness introduced a 'Role' system, in which 4 separate Roles can be placed on any given character. These not only affected how that character's AI would behave in battle, but they also imparted numerous other effects in their battle utility. In my playthrough, I decided to make Emmerson an annoying stunlock attacker, as I equipped roles that had him attack much more often with stun-based effects. Miki was set to cast spells as fast as possible (being a healer) while Victor was set as tanky as he could be, drawing attention from enemies. With over 100 Roles possible, combined with all the other Specialities, there are a lot of options to the player in progressing their team.
Due to their flexibility, Star Ocean games are fun to mold or even break wide open, and whether it's with Specialities or Crafting or Roles or something else, I hope the same is true for The Divine Force.
As an aside. series recurring character Welch (pictured above) often has something to do with the game's crafting systems. It's only natural she should return here too. (based on JP voice cast promotions, Tomoe Hanba is credited in The Divine Force, so it looks like Welch will return; also Square Enix please get Melissa Fahn to reprise the role in English, thank you).
Go All-in on Post-game Nonsense
Many tri-Ace games have lengthy and ridiculous post-game content. From optional dungeons to ballooning stats, Gabriel Celeste, and Santa Claus, there's a lot to find here if you are one to dive deep. I hope The Divine Force maintains course.
This point kinda continues on from the previous item in this list, as achieving success against powered-up post-game challenges usually requires some knowledge and dexterity within the game's mechanics. I don't need there to be more story content or what-have-you after the credits, just give me super-bosses that push the game's combat to its limits. I want pure nonsense, just look at this shit.
I don't have much else to say here. One reason why I like this content in Star Ocean (among other tri-Ace games) is that it really forces you to become an expert at the game in ways the main storyline usually does not, understanding how to build the best characters with the best equipment and best party configurations, even if the combat itself still usually boils down to skill spamming (see item #2 on this list). You absolutely must make sure characters have proper effects, resistances, behaviors, and more set if you want to have a nice time here.
Also, if the post-game dungeon doesn't use Mission to the Deep Space as its BGM, and if Ethereal Queen doesn't have some rendition of The Incarnation Of Devil, I'll be disappointed. It's kinda nice this has become something of a constant, you know?
Improve Private Action Implementation
For the uninitiated, Private Actions are essentially optional short conversations or events between characters. They are similar to skits in the Tales of series, but they have something of a unique flair to them. In earlier Star Ocean titles, how these worked is that whenever you entered a non-hostile city-area, you could split up your party so that each character runs off doing their own thing in town. I always liked this concept, showing that characters have their own lives and identities separate from tagging along the rest of the party at all times. You could then have the main character chat with your team members in various circumstances, some serious and some silly. What sets PAs slightly apart from Tales Skits, in my opinion, is that they often take into account location, environments, or NPCs, rather than just pure dialogue with other party members directly.
It's certainly a smart concept to have, and an effective way to build on character dynamics, personalities, or quirks separate from the main storyline. In earlier titles, Private Actions could also play a role in determining which characters joined your final party, though I highly doubt we'll ever return to optional party members in the modern era (it'd be interesting to be proven wrong!). However, the way Private Actions have been implemented in the most recent games in the series has been less-than-ideal.
In The Last Hope, most Private Actions took place on the ship as you traveled between planets. It's been a while, so I can't guarantee my memory is infallible here, but I recall often having to return to the ship, potentially traveling elsewhere, just to see if any new Private Actions became available. Having these scenes take place during moments of interstellar travel makes sense, but functionally as a game it simply wasn't fun. Some of the game's character-specific ending sequences also have very strict PA requirements in order to achieve, which nearly necessitates following a guide in order to unlock them. It certainly doesn't help that the cast in this game was abysmal.
In Integrity and Faithlessness, Private Actions returned to cities, but the implementation here is extremely tedious. You need to enter the designated circle for characters to split up in town, then you need to take Fidel over to his party members to hear a short dialogue with them. After that, you return to the aforementioned circle, then leave-and-re-enter the city in order to see more Private Actions. Now imagine doing this dozens or literally hundreds of times. It became tedious quickly and got old fast. There are also something like 300 private action dialogues in the game, which I think probably could have been trimmed a bit in favor of quality over quantity here.
I don't quite have a specific answer to 'how do you improve' Private Actions, but I suggest reducing the number of them for fewer but more memorable conversations, as well as making them easier to find & perform. Make it something I want to seek out for fun rather than trudging through tedious hoops to fill out a Private Action checklist.
Star Ocean The Divine Force is set to release in 2022 for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC.