"It's all quite basic and it works smoothly without any noteworthy hitches except the obvious one: it gets repetitive. By the time you reach the end of the game, you'll probably have faced more than 800 different enemy groups, with most battles won simply by spamming your basic sword strokes and perhaps the same projectile spell. You can experiment with numerous variations if you like, but there's no incentive to do so... especially since almost any rival can be overcome simply by level grinding (though frankly, that's seldom even necessary)."
Games have come a long way in the past decade, even within the RPG genre. As a result, the spectacular experiences of the 1990s aren't always going to please gamers of the new millennium, even if you dispense with tweaked visuals and improved balance. That doesn't stop developers from trying, though, and Star Ocean: First Departure is only one of several recent attempts to bring old-school RPG magic to a new audience. To succeed, the PSP remake needed not only to work within the original template, but also to polish the beloved formula to make it relevant for folks who cut their teeth on the likes of Final Fantasy VII and Kingdom Hearts. Against all odds, that's almost exactly what happened. It's just that, well... there are a few problems.
For insatiable RPG fans, the primary concern will likely be the plot. While it's true that the end game is full of fascinating twists, turns and attempts to engage the player in a bit of introspection, the majority of the experience comes down to a band of heroes romping through a fantastic world where magic--known here as symbology--and castles are as common as dandruff and bad breath. Sound familiar? Except for some characters thrown into the mix at the beginning and a few hints at futuristic technology throughout, there's not much here that would feel out of place in a Dragon Warrior title. References to the 'star ocean' that lies just beyond the firmament help to fuel the imagination when intrigue is running low, but overall you'll spend a full three quarters of the game wondering when the science fiction will return.
In general terms, the story revolves around two characters: Roddick (a young man with blue hair and a sword) and Millie (a pretty young sorceress). They're part of a three-person band of juveniles who have been tasked with protecting their backwoods village on the planet Roak. Their limited ambitions and world views are soon put to the test when a mysterious illness begins to spread through the surrounding villages. Just as total heartbreak seems imminent, two strangers from another world materialize from thin air and offer a solution. If the youths wish, they can embark on a time-spanning quest that may allow them to save their world.
Even at the time of its original release, the story in this first Star Ocean installment wouldn't have won any awards for originality. It worked, though, and it still does. To spruce things up a bit beyond what was possible on 16-bit hardware, key moments in the tale are now assisted by animated cutscenes. These don't happen nearly enough but always look spectacular when they occur. Additionally, any plot-centric dialog accompanied by expressive character portraits and is fully voiced by actors who do a nice job of putting emotion behind their lines. There's a general absence of hokey lines, even when folks get preachy--fortunately not a regular occurrence--so that it's easy enough to get involved despite any failings.
Whatever your eventual thoughts on the narration, the next thing likely to catch your attention is the character customization. Each time you level up your warriors, they gain skill points that can then be distributed as you see fit. Throughout the world, you can obtain texts that allow you to master useful arts such as cooking, alchemy and even musical composition. Many of these have practical purposes that are immediately obvious, such as the ability to turn a raw material such as iron into a practical accessory. Others seem less beneficial at a glance, yet still are worth your attention because as you combine things, you'll grow more proficient at important tasks. The first time you try to mix silver with a sword, for example, you might produce a creaky old staff better suited for life as kindling. Later in the game, though, finely-honed talents allow you to create equipment that simply isn't available in shops.
The customization is neat and a staple of the Star Ocean franchise, but it also represents the sort of micro-management that some people simply won't like. Later games such as Atelier Iris have used similar mechanics to positive effect, but that style of RPG remains a niche that genre enthusiasts as a whole remain reluctant to embrace. First Departure may have been one of the innovators, but now it feels almost shallow compared to its new contemporaries. I actually liked that just fine because it kept that element from becoming overwhelming, but I can appreciate that some may expect more.
The flaws inherent to the simplistic combat system aren't so open for debate. Battles are triggered at random. When one begins, you're swept into a field area where you then trade blows with your opponents in real time. Offensive and healing skills that you've learned can be mapped to the 'L' and 'R' buttons as you see fit, plus you can assign tactics to your allies if desired. Otherwise, you can make quick switches to change which of four active party members you control. Items are also available, though rarely needed in the heat of the moment. It's all quite basic and it works smoothly without any noteworthy hitches except the obvious one: it gets repetitive. By the time you reach the end of the game, you'll probably have faced more than 800 different enemy groups, with most battles won simply by spamming your basic sword strokes and perhaps the same projectile spell. You can experiment with numerous variations if you like, but there's no incentive to do so... especially since almost any rival can be overcome simply by level grinding (though frankly, that's seldom even necessary).
If you get tired of waging war against the limited variety of monsters, you can use your acquired skills to reduce the frequency of their appearance on the world map. This is a welcome feature, one that you'll probably wind up using a lot thanks to the amount of backtracking that is often required. Frankly, it sometimes gets out of hand. Particularly in the early stages, it seems like you're always on the road to some familiar destination on the opposite side of the map, with your character waddling the whole way. The snail's pace prevents you from feeling like you're being assaulted by random battles every few steps, but it also means that your third or fourth trek through the same territory can feel particularly tedious. Late in the game you can ride ships to swiftly hop from one island to another, but even then there's a lot of walking.
Don't get the idea that First Departure is a bad game, though. While it's true that I've spent most of this review talking about negatives--an often generic plot, plus simplistic combat and item customization that have arguably been done better in other titles--it's important to remember that a lot of it comes down to personal taste. Simplicity isn't always bad and sometimes is even welcome, plus there are numerous strengths that help the whole adventure to break free of the doldrums. It's just that so many of these positive attributes don't clamor for your attention with the same energy as those few flaws. When you're wandering along the docks in a bustling sea port, for example, everything looks just plain gorgeous but doesn't necessarily register as breathtaking. Secret characters and a post-game dungeon are easily overlooked as well, but definitely bring value to the table. And when you're delving deep into an abandoned mine and gleefully slaughtering beasts the whole time, sometimes it's easy to forget how many more complicated games turn such exercises into a bloated mess.
All of this just goes to show that while the genre may have grown a lot over the past decade, those elements that still make for a worthwhile experience haven't changed much at all. Star Ocean: First Departure is an enjoyable and thoroughly competent remake that far too many people will likely overlook because it isn't flashy enough or because it didn't land on the preferred hardware. If you're an RPG fan with the means to do so, pick up a copy and see what they're missing.
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 30, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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