Faith endures: Hands-on with Star Ocean 5
Despite what many seem to say these days, I really think Star Ocean 4 was something special. Gleefully (but perhaps not deliberately) silly and ludicrous, it was also home to a solid battle system and a decent challenge - and so I was one of many incredibly pleased to see the series making a return with Star Ocean 5: Integrity and Faithlessness, a title that suggests at least some of its predecessor's hand-wringing silliness remains intact.
Even so, the title is clearly set to be something a little different. Taking the lead as director is Hiroshi Ogawa, a man now best-known for his work on another middling last-generation RPG, Infinite Undiscovery. That's a game we on RPG Site described as "oozing potential" in our 2009 review, but it ultimately fell short. Happily, Ogawa now has another chance to test out his solid ideas on a different franchise and hopefully execute them better.
While Star Ocean is obviously no Final Fantasy XV or Persona 5, this latest entry was still one of the biggest RPGs on show at TGS and one of the busiest and most bustling stands. What was on show was a decent vertical slice of the title, showcasing how Ogawa is bringing key features and influences from his Xbox 360 title into this latest entry in this much-loved series.
Most Japanese RPGs top out at the now-traditional four party members at once - but Star Ocean 5 immediately bests that even in this demo, with a full six party members on the field for battle.
There is a catch here - the player can only actually control three of this crew, but each of the six still has a unique role to fill and a unique set of abilities - which means even AI-controlled characters will have a solid impact on exploiting enemy weaknesses or turning the tide of a particularly difficult battle.
Saying that there's AI-controlled companions in a JRPG is usually a cause for concern, but in the time I played the group seem to strike the correct balance for the correct level of intelligence; they don't quite appear smart enough to breeze through even regular encounters without you playing your part, but they're also intelligent enough that they feel consistently useful to you as you focus on controlling the protagonist. Better still, there's some fun in-party chatter between the crew which seems to indicate the game will be home to some strong if typically caricatured characters, which is quite welcome.
In terms of the character you choose to control in any given moment, Star Ocean 5's battle system feels like a solid evolution of that which was on offer in the previous title. You're holding down buttons to attack, with timing not of too much concern apart from for certain damaging skills or combos.
This doesn't mean the game is easy; even in this short demo, which saw us hunting pirates, I had a difficult time with the boss. Combat feels fun and fluid, and the game looked rather magnificent on PlayStation 4 - though with a slightly iffy frame rate in spots.
My most enjoyable time in Star Ocean 5 was always with the combat; the areas the demo allowed me to explore were gorgeous-looking but rather corridor with little room to wander off the beaten path. That admittedly left me a little bored, but thankfully every combat encounter was exciting, in large part thanks to how dynamic these battles end up looking when there's six friendly characters on screen all acting independently.
Star Ocean 5 seems to represent another angle of Square Enix's vision for the future of the JRPG - it clearly doesn't have the budget of Final Fantasy XV, but instead it oozes charm and sports a vivacity that feels all too rare in Japanese RPGs today. I now go back to desperately hoping that the title doesn't go too dark or serious, keeping its tongue planted firmly in its cheek as Star Ocean 4 did. If it does, Square Enix could be on to a winner.