Star Ocean: First Departure - Staff Review  

Where No Man Has Gone Before
by Adriaan den Ouden

Click here for game information
20-40 Hours
+ Enormous, easy-to-use crafting system
+ Fast, fun battles
+ Story and dialogue change based on choices
+ Great visuals
- Crafting system can make much of the game too easy
- Only two planets in so-called ocean
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   I've always liked the name Star Ocean. The imagery captured by the title is incredibly romantic; a vast, sprawling sea of stars and planets just waiting to be explored and conquered, unmapped, uncharted, and unknown. It's a feeling that has been lost from the real world for well over a century, ever since the last of the globe was mapped and the Earth was totally defined. Since the first satellites were launched in the '50s, stories of space exploration have been a science-fiction staple, but none have managed to capture the true essence of the concept like the name Star Ocean. Tri-Ace's action RPG series began humbly on the Super Famicom, and now for the first time in North America, fans can finally experience Star Ocean: First Departure.

   While faithful to its roots, Star Ocean: First Departure is a complete remake of the original title, making use of an upgraded version of the Star Ocean: Second Story engine. Star Ocean tells the story of Roddick and Mille, tailed inhabitants of a planet called Roak, which has been struck by a terrifying plague that is turning its inhabitants to stone one after another. When Mille's father and their companion Dorne are struck down by this illness, space-faring Earthlings Ilia and Ronyx J. Kenny (future father of Claude C. Kenny, hero of Star Ocean: Second Story) step in to intervene. They soon find themselves visiting Roak three hundred years in the past to seek out the source of the plague in hopes of saving the future and preventing an intergalactic war.

   In truth, there is something of a conflict between what Star Ocean wants to be and what it actually is. The name suggests a vast galaxy to explore, filled with civilizations, people, and mysteries to discover. Reality, sadly, is almost the opposite, as Star Ocean takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single world, just like the hundreds of other fantasy RPGs out there. Thankfully, although Star Ocean doesn't quite live up to what its name envisions, the ideals of exploration and discovery are not lost, and in fact are done better than virtually every other RPG on the market, even ten years after the fact. What sets it apart is that the choices the player makes influence the story to a degree that few JRPGs and even most western RPGs simply cannot aspire to.

   The story itself is a fairly typical JRPG affair, with a plucky hero trying to save his homeland and making friends along the way. Star Ocean: First Departure features a dozen cast members, but only four of those are guaranteed to join one's party. The choices the player makes, what characters are met, and more importantly, which ones the player chooses to take with him, affects everything in the game world. It affects the dialogue, how certain plot points play out, and even which characters can be met and recruited later on. Every player's experience can be different, and oftentimes taking the less-obvious path can lead to greater rewards. While the overall plotline remains the same, the significant impact player choice has on the details of each event is quite frankly unheard of, even today.

The 2D sprites are detailed, and the 3D backdrops are even moreso. The 2D sprites are detailed, and the 3D backdrops are even moreso.

   The sense of discovery that Star Ocean tries to capture is further enhanced by its wonderful item creation system. As characters advance in level, they are granted large quantities of skill points to invest in the game's myriad of different skills. By leveling up certain combinations of skills, a wide variety of item creation and support techniques can be unlocked, everything from cooking health-restoring food to taming a pet bird to fly away and do some shopping while the party is busy with a dungeon. Characters can learn to play music, forage for materials, create potions, and even talk to the "gods", with the gods in this case being the game's developers who have some helpful and not-so-helpful advice to give. What's even better is that the skills used to learn item creation often buff a character's battle ability as well, increasing stats, reducing casting times, and other helpful bonuses.

   Materials are cheap, and skill points are handed out with such impunity that playing around with the item creation system is easy, fast, fun, and most importantly, effective. The items that are created through the system are, by and large, random to a certain degree, but experimenting can lead to the production of some truly incredible pieces of equipment far beyond what would normally be available at that level. There is a drawback to this, however, as the item creation system can easily deteriorate any challenge the game would normally present. It's easy to abuse, and as a result, Star Ocean: First Departure is a rather easy game. However, unlike the crafting system in Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, the power of crafted equipment is limited to its initial stats, keeping the balance in check, and by the time the game reaches its conclusion, equipment of equal power to what can be crafted can be discovered in chests.

   To make things more interesting, each character has a set of special talents that they start with and that they can learn, which enhance the success rate of certain specialties, encouraging the player to spread specialties out across all characters rather than just one. Unlocking a new talent also awards one hundred skill points, providing an additional benefit. It should also be noted that several additions to the crafting system have been made specifically for the PSP remake, or so the "gods" informed me. These include new skills, new specialties, and the addition of super specialties, which are acquired when a character or characters learn two specific normal specialties. Super specialties allow characters to work together to produce items of high quality, and generally make use of more materials than normal specialties. While the cooking specialty only requires one food product to create something, the master chef super specialty requires two.

   Much like the rest of the game, First Departure's battle system has also received an overhaul, bringing it into line with Star Ocean: Second Story. Combat takes place on a pseudo-3D battlefield, with the player taking control of one character in real-time. Three other party members are controlled by AI, but control can be changed on the fly as necessary. Each character has a basic attack combo, and two special skills can be bound to the L and R buttons. A battle menu can be opened to make use of spells and items, and that's pretty much it. Combat is extremely straight-forward and basic, but battles are over quickly and are generally quite fun. One grievance is that basic attacks do not combo well into special skills. Only certain skills seem to be capable of being activated immediately after a combo, and the game makes no mention of which these are, leaving it to the player to experiment.

Full anime cutscenes help to bring the characters to life. Full anime cutscenes help to bring the characters to life.

   Equipment plays a major role in how effective each character is in combat, and because of this, combat feels less reliant on skill and more reliant on the preparations that were made before. A new set of armor can often mean the difference between a character being hit for a quarter of his health or being hit for one measly point of damage. Likewise, a new weapon might turn a minute long battle into a ten second slaughter. Interestingly, this only really becomes problematic during the middle portions of the game, once the customization specialty is unlocked. Before then, the game is balanced around what can be acquired from shops, and as the game draws to a close, enemies are balanced for powerful equipment anyways.

   One of the more impressive upgrades made to Star Ocean: First Departure is in its visuals. Although the engine is based on the PlayStation game, Star Ocean: Second Story, First Departure is a huge step above. The 3D environments are much crisper than the PlayStation original, and the textures are incredibly detailed for a handheld title. In the game's first town, there are signs on the buildings that can be read in clear, perfectly legible English, a testament to both the art department and the localization team's attention to detail. The character sprites are also wonderful, particularly in battle with some extremely flashy animations. One rather irritating feature of the game, however, is that the lengthy spell animations cannot be cancelled and must be watched in their entirety every time they're cast. This can be extremely nerve-grating, as the battle pauses during this time, and a spellcaster can easily cast several large spells per battle near the end of the game.

   The graphics engine is cut away from occasionally with full-motion anime cutscenes, and these are quite spectacular. Produced by Production I.G., a studio well-known for producing game cinematics, these sporadic scenes really help to bring the characters to life in ways that the sprites aren't able to.

   The audio is also very well done. The music is mostly average Motoi Sakuraba compositions, but what is truly astounding is that Star Ocean: First Departure features full voice acting throughout the game. Every major story scene is voiced in entirety. This is an amazing feat for a handheld game, and made even more impressive when considering how many different variations on the dialogue of each scene are possible with various characters in the player's party. The voice acting is quite good, though there are some rough spots, and fans will be happy to know that Yuri Lowenthal stars as the protagonist Roddick. The localization is fairly good as well, and definitely a huge improvement over the garbled mess of Star Ocean: Second Story.

   Despite a few minor issues, Star Ocean: First Departure is a fantastic game and unquestionably one of the best RPGs available for the PSP. With a twenty hour quest and the possibility for many, many playthroughs, it can easily eat up hours of time. While the story is showing its age, Star Ocean is first and foremost a game about exploration and discovery, and for those willing to brave the unknown, it will not disappoint.

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