Star Ocean: First Departure R Review
The Star Ocean franchise has been somewhat on rocky footing in the west over the last several years, but it has managed to persevere despite some setbacks. While the mobile game Star Ocean: Anamnesis closed its English client just last month and Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness released in 2016 to mixed reviews at best, a few re-releases have recently been making their way to modern platforms. Next up is Star Ocean: First Departure R, which is a remaster of the 2007 PSP remake of the original 1996 Star Ocean game.
On the underdeveloped planet Roak, friends Roddick, Millie, and Dorne protect their usually quiet hometown from monsters and bandits. Things start to take a turn for the worse when the populace begins to turn into stone. Just when things begin to seem hopeless, intergalactic travelers Ilia and Ronyx appear suddenly, and the group teams up to save a planet from imminent doom.
The storyline guiding the game forward is relatively simple. You ultimately learn that in order to save the people of Roak, you need to grab a blood sample from a demon found in the past, and you'll spend the lion's share of the game slowly approaching that goal. On the way, the team will run into other characters on Roak with their own struggles, and depending on your decisions, they may join to help Roddick temporarily or stick around until the end. This first entry's plotline keeps things fairly straightforward, though a few larger universe-building elements are also lightly introduced, some of which later are expanded upon in later Star Ocean games.
Square Enix calls Star Ocean: First Departure R an HD Remaster, but it feels more like an upscaled port of the PSP version with only a few notable enhancements. The most obvious one is the new portrait artwork for all the characters done by illustrator Katsumi Enami. Otherwise, the game is mostly just like the PSP version, including the menus and UI. The new character artwork itself is really great, bringing a more detailed and lively style to the generally flat/simple style of the PSP version artwork.
However, it's not quite an ideal addition for a couple of small reasons. Firstly, the few animated cutscenes found in the game are based on the PSP artwork, but these scenes are generally rare to begin with, so it's not all too problematic. More significantly, some of the characters have been given considerably different costumes. While Ilia and Ronyx's newly drawn outfits generally match designs found in the original SFC release, the PSP sprites don't reflect these outfits, so you kind of just have to get used to the portrait/sprite mismatch for a few characters.
Luckily, you can toggle between the old & new art at any time. The spritework itself also looks great in this port, avoiding any sort of smoothing effects you sometimes find in re-released classic RPGs.
Star Ocean uses a real-time battle system, where your party faces off against enemies in a combat arena, triggered by a traditional random encounter system. You can take on foes using a standard attack or a pair of special Techniques tied to the shoulder buttons.
Sadly, the combat in First Departure nearly inevitably turns into nothing but Technique spamming, eventually. Techniques not only deal the most damage, but can often stunlock enemies in place, diminishing their threat. Using the same Techniques over and over is easily the most effective and most efficient way to take out enemies, and there's really no reason to not use them. Replenishing the spent MP is also trivial. It's effective, but not terribly interesting - just click L1 a bunch during combat and your character will automatically line up and attack with the Technique. You often don't even have to move your character yourself as they can line up the attack for you.
The combat design in place simply gears itself towards this mundane strategy. If there were higher difficulty levels available, it's possible such a spamming strategy wouldn't work, but First Departure doesn't have anything above standard (unlike its followup, Star Ocean: Second Evolution). It makes participating in combat a bit of a drag.
In the pre-release marketing for this game, Square Enix boasted that it had 'Adjusted Game Balance', stating specifically to expect 'more challenge in combat'. It's been several years since I played the PSP version so I can't specifically identify how things might have been tweaked, but it largely doesn't feel too different from what I remember. If I had to guess, perhaps the enemies around the half-way point in the game (after Eckdart) have been given a buff to their stats.
The earlier Star Ocean game do have a couple of unique elements to them that I am genuinely appreciative of. Four slots of your total party roster can be filled with eight different units depending on choices made in the game, and some of the choices vary up the story progression slightly. It's not quite like having completely diverging story paths, but considering the game's relatively short run time compared to other JRPGs (about 20 hours for the storyline), it's a nice way to add some replayability for those revisiting the game.
Star Ocean also has a sub-system in place outside of combat where characters can spend accumulated Skill Points (SP) to learn various out-of-combat Skills. Learning various Skills can also unlock enhanced skills known as Specialities, and multiple Specialities can unlock party-wide Super Specialities. One such Speciality example is Art - which allows characters to create combat items with various effects. Another Speciality is Customization, where a character can combine weapons with other items to (hopefully) create better equipment. Other Speciality effects include lowering the encounter rate or replicating items.
Getting into all the details of the Speciality system would take too many words, but if you know what you are doing, it ultimately can offer a sort of Final Fantasy VIII style avenue to 'breaking' the game wide open. Not only can you craft some strong weaponry far before you can obtain them naturally in-game, but about halfway through the game, you can literally give yourself an infinite money source so you never need to worry about funds again. You can also relatively quickly boost your character levels to extreme heights, basically throwing the rest of the game balance into the dust. It's as simple as composing some Trumpet Music, Arting some Experience cards, Replicating as many of these as you want, and summoning a creature that gives high EXP.
Sure, exploiting such systems can mess with the general difficulty balance of the game, but I find manipulating the tools in place enjoyable, whereas things would be a bit more boring if I was stuck to a standard slowing-increasing-stats leveling curve.
There are a couple of missed opportunities for small additions that could have been made to this re-release. While the game now allows players to choose between three different voice tracks - two Japanese and one English - I actually found myself wishing I could turn voices off entirely. Not only do characters shout their battle ability names literally every time they are used - which gets tedious in any language as it only takes a second to use a technique - I also would have liked to read textboxes myself rather than either waiting for the voiceover to complete each line or clicking through it.
It also would have been nice if some sort of encounter rate toggle could have been implemented. While the encounter rate can be lowered somewhat through various means, Star Ocean has a fair amount of backtracking, especially if you want to see more of the character Private Action events which often require revisiting earlier cities, some of which are out-of-the-way. A simple on/off toggle would have been nice to check these events out without having to run into low-leveled enemies several times en route, which bogs down everything. This re-release does include a new faster run speed, which is nice.
Star Ocean: First Departure R is a fine port of a mediocre RPG. It's great that the game is playable now on modern platforms outside of a PSP UMD, but all the same flaws are still present, and a couple of small opportunities to potentially smooth out the experience weren't made. Check out the game if you are curious to experience the original Star Ocean story in some form, but it doesn't stand tall against its peers.