Star Ocean: First Departure – Staff Review

While trying to decide how best to open a review of Star Ocean: First Departure, I came to the painful realization that I couldn’t possibly do so without taking you back in time. Just wasn’t gong to happen. So generate 1.21 gigawatts, strap yourself in, and set your coordinates to Akihabara, July 19, 1996.

(insert Huey Lewis interlude and “Great Scott!” exclamation here)

Welcome. You’re just in time (nudge nudge wink wink), the buzz on the street is about… well, let’s not delude ourselves. Everyone’s talking about the N64. The 16-bit era is at its end. However, dig a little deeper and you’ll catch a few rumblings about this new RPG for the ol’ Super Famicom, developed by a new studio – tri-Ace – what split from Wolf Team over creative differences regarding Tales of Phantasia. The graphics are stunning, the audio features vocals during battle and some cutscenes (though they’re compressed something hardcore), the plot is engaging and full of complex, interesting characters, and the Motoi Sakuraba score is mind-blowing. Variable endings depend on relationship values between characters built between battlefield performance and a wide range of plot events, utilizing this revolutionary “Private Action” system. Battle plays out in real-time random instance, while crafting is run though a rather intuitive (for the most part) skill system. 64 bits may be the future, but these sixteen are giving the next generation a healthy run for their money.

Back in the DeLorean, Spanky; we’re jumping three years and a continent. Anytown-with-a-WalMart, USA, May 31, 1999.

We can see from here the ramifications of the Nintendo 64, specifically the shift in the RPG market to the Playstation and its big, beautiful CD-ROM media. One such example is an unassuming two-disc title called Star Ocean: The Second Story. Why the second? Who knows. Word has it it’s the sequel to some game that came out in Japan a few years back but never saw a U.S. release for any of a number of reasons (niche market, huge cart with a proprietary decompressor chip, would require a complete re-dub, very late to the SNES party, closing of Enix America Corp., etc.). Heritage notwithstanding, SO:tSS seemed to be straddling a line between the old and new: detailed character sprites, rich with last-gen nostalgia, traverse pre-rendered backgrounds as shiny as any you’d find in Final Fantasy VII or VIII or whichever they’re up to. Real-time battles, crafting, skills, affection levels determining variable endings… It’s like they’ve tried all these things out before and just made some refinements. While the Western world isn’t completely dumbstruck, the Second Story is generally well-regarded among those who know games.

Fire up the Mr. Fusion again, ‘cuz we’re coming home. Present Day, Present Time.

Everything old is new again, and nothing beats a port for cost-effectiveness… especially when it’s a game that a certain region hasn’t been (legally) exposed to yet due to some combination of cross-Pacific complications. Final Fantasy III, Space Channel 5: Part 2… what harm is there in adding Star Ocean to the list? Originally announced at the Square Enix Party 2007, Star Ocean: First Departure is the first step in updating the initial two offerings of the series to the larger-capacity PSP.

Now, keep in mind the timeline that these games kept through the late 1990s. The original Star Ocean dropped in mid-1996, with the Japanese release of the Second Story a mere two years later. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, however, didn’t see the light of day until 2003, a full five years (and third dimension) beyond its predecessors. So, since the first two games were so close together, and share so many mechanics, it only makes sense to port the GUI of the more recent version and simply retrofit the first game to the newer standard.

Clever, that.

so107.jpgNow that we’ve had our history lesson, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of First Departure. You assume the role of Roddick, a moderately angsty catboy charged with the defense of a sleepy little village, where nothing really happens… until some schmo starts playing the game, in which case all manner of catastrophe shall visit. Sure enough, a pox descends upon the land, turning all in its wake to stone… never mind that there are “Stone Cure” items available in most every town, thus predating the “Aeris/Phoenix Down” argument by a full six months.

Our intrepid band of hometown heroes searches for a cure, leading to a RPG Convention Board Standard #106 “Retrieve the Herbs from the Mountain” quest… only to be interrupted by Spock and Janeway… erm… I mean, Ronyx and Ilia, two spacefarers who happen to be breaking the Prime Direc… gaaaah… “Underdeveloped Planet Protection Pact” by being there, only they feel something’s amiss and needs fixing with SCIENCE. (And a healthy slice of time-travel handwaving just to be safe.) Roddenberry’s Renegades lay it on our home team that these herbs won’t do jack (save for making the statue-ified townspeople taste better), so we all jump back in time 300 years to find a cure.

As fun as the snark is, the plot is the true strong suit of this game and, in fact, this series. Any game can have strong, interesting characters; but the chance to set your PCs loose in a town and interact with them on their own terms is a rare find. You feel the drive to find out what’s next, regardless of who or what gets in your way. The one stumbling block was a slight bit of Final-Fantasy-VIII-itis near the very end, as the final section of the game feels a little bolted-on, as though it were some attempt to arbitrarily stretch the game out for another two hours or so.

Let’s talk about chopping down that “who or what.” Random encounters on the map or dungeons or whatnot drop your force of up to 4 against a handful of foes, and from there the melee proceeds in much the same fashion as the old Konami side-scrolling beat-’em-ups from that bygone Arcade era. Your position in front of or behind the foe will be of utmost importance – AKA “The Curse of the Isometric Viewpoint” – and you will get to know the sting of throwing your big-shiny-special-over-9000-attack a few pixels behind a razor-thin rabbit. Camera notwithstanding, the battles – augmented by a bevy of diverse techniques and spells – come into their own and become downright enjoyable later in the game, so long as your PSP’s set firmly to “MUTE.”

Any veteran of the Second Story can relate horror stories of the one time they recruited Precis and forgot to evacuate the room of glass objects. Unfortunately, and despite the passing of nearly a decade, the vocal work hasn’t done much better. Sure, it sounds good enough in plot sequences… I’d even call it “above average” in those situations… but having to listen to two interjections before and after every battle can drive even the most even-tempered gamer to the brink of madness. I honestly wanted to punch Ioshua right in the wings, batter-dip and deep-fry him, and serve him to Cyuss just to get the two of them to SHUT. UP.so110.jpg

I’ll go one step further, and cite the brand-spankin’-new anime cutscenes (courtesy of Production I.G.) as another groaner. Not due to any particular flaw in the animation, mind you, it’s smooth and well-done from a visual standpoint… but the vocal work seems so far off the mark, what with jarring starts and stops, rushed and/or mistimed dialogue, and – tragic flaw of variable-party RPGs – the “Kisaragi/Valentine Exclusion,” also known as “NO ANIMATION BUDGET FOR YOU.” If you recruit them along the way, you’d better like their piece in the opening cutscene, because that’s all you’ll see of them.

Honestly, the issues with the spoken words in these situations seem like things that could’ve been fixed with a little script-work, and it breaks my heart that it’s such a glaring flaw in an otherwise healthy game. Just a simple option to disable vocal clips during battle could save significant quantities of time and goodwill. In a game as detailed as this, where your characters’ most basic talents are laid bare and their skill at whistling is quantified from 0-10, you’d think you’d have that level of control. I could’ve spent the last two paragraphs discussing the intuitive crafting system, or how your skills can have ramifications on base statistics. Instead, I had to gripe about the vocal work. The English dialogue in the Super Famicom version sounded more natural and well-paced. I’ll leave that to sink in.

Easing the pain on the ears, though, is a Motoi Sakuraba soundtrack that can only be described as (no pun intended) stellar. One of the hallmarks of the Star Ocean series has been its superb arrangements, and this remake has the sense to avoid altering a good thing. The vastness of space and the twinkling glory of the heavens are represented time and again in swelling bass lines and delicate, ever-so-fragile harp musings that, perhaps moreso than the game itself, encapsulate the universe.

Done with that? Good. Time for me to lay this one out for you. Star Ocean: First Departure is a good idea with a couple hangups. Had it been a straight port of the SFC version, one might be a little more willing to forgive its missteps; as it stands, updating the most advanced RPG of its time to the mechanics and standards of today is a great way to see the holes that a good dose of nostalgia can fill. It’s not groundbreaking in this day and age, but it has some good ideas that were cultivated in its successors. (Well, at least until the crafting system was thrown out in Till the End of Time and replaced with its own abomination.) If you’ve never heard of the series before and are expecting something mindblowing on your PSP… well, good luck with that, because you won’t find it here. If you’re unfamiliar with Star Ocean, but know a mechanically sound game when shown it, you’ll enjoy First Departure. Finally, if you’re miffed because I left Blue Sphere out of my timeline, you probably own the game already.

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