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Star Ocean: First Departure (PSP) artwork

Star Ocean: First Departure (PSP) review

"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.

honestgamer's avatar
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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overdrive posted December 01, 2008:

I have the SNES translation of this game on my computer and own 2 and TtEoT and you touched on one of the biggest issues I have with this series. You have yourself this awesome galaxy concept where it seems the possibilities should be endless as to what you can do. And then you spend the lion's share of the game in medieval lands. Complete with the whole concept that you can't be corrupting their primitive minds with your advanced technology, so you have to use their sorts of weaponry, so you essentially have a medieval game with occasional sci-fi segments thrown in. Makes you just wish they'd completely jump into the "Star Ocean" theme. I mean, if random people are going to randomly land on planets, why can't they occasionally land on one from ANY time period that ain't medieval?
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honestgamer posted December 01, 2008:

I knew I had to mention that because so many people are sick of medieval stuff. Me, I like medieval stuff and this didn't bother me as much as it could have... except from a purely intellectual standpoint. ;-) I knew it would really bug some people, though, so fair warning seemed a necessity.
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darketernal posted December 01, 2008:

Well, the second game does sort of force you into such a scenario.
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jerec posted December 01, 2008:

I remember in Till the End of Time, being on that one medieval planet for so long, I'd actually forgotten the sci-fi beginnings of the game. Going back and forth through dungeons trying to find what the engineers needed for their weapon... and then you're hurtling through space and into a very strange plot twist.
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overdrive posted December 01, 2008:

Yeah, I've made it that far. I think I stalled in the tower after you beat the smarmy guy on the entry floor. There are really tough spider-like enemies that kill me a lot. I read in a FAQ that this is one of a handful of areas where you really shouldn't fight many battles. I'm a little too stubborn for that. Which might explain why it's been a year or so since I've played it. One day, I'll get back to it and (hopefully) finish it off.
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zippdementia posted December 02, 2008:

Wow, this is a remarkably solid review. Reviews of RPGs can be very difficult, because an RPG has so much to focus on, which is the same reason I think that RPGs have a tendency to receive lower scores than other genres. I mean, if you're playing Tetris, there's not much to criticize. As long as they get the falling and stacking right, it's gonna be hard to give the game anything lower than an 8.

But in an RPG, you've got to combine good combat with good visuals with good setting with good story...

Ah, yes, story. Story is the RPG's main cannon. The trump card that it so often uses to best the sum of its faults. The lesser trump card is the graphics, though this isn't utilized so much by RPGs in general as it is mostly used by Square Enix (which does an addmitably amazing job in this regard).

Anyways, I got off track there for a moment. The point was, I think you tackled this review very well, immediately picking out the salient points that can make StarOcean a great experience. What's even better is that you highlight how this same items can break the game. I love reviews like this, because rather than just bitch or cheer, they actually give you a set of criteria to look at: "do you enjoy this? Then you'll enjoy this game."

Interesting that the real time "Tales of..." Battle system seems to be the new Turn Based system, as far as how often it's used in RPGs today. I'm not neccesarily complaining, I think RT beats the hell out of the turn based. And I enjoyed it a lot in what I played of Radiata Stories. Again you did a good job of evaluating the system in this review, pointing out its repetitiveness, which really is the bane of ANY combat system.

Another thing that interested me was the item combination, and another point goes to you here, for discussing how it will appeal more to casual gamers than hardcore fans of item combo.
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honestgamer posted December 02, 2008:

Thanks for the kind words. If there's any type of game where I'm able to offer an expert opinion, it's console RPGs. I've played through an astounding number of them, particularly the classics. That leaves me able to at least comment intelligently, which I tried to do here. The main thing I don't like about my own review is its length. I try to stay between 1000 and 1200 words, but this one was more in the 1400 to 1500 range. Still, there's not really anything I'd happily cut, so I had to let it be what it wanted to be. I am disgusted that the average word count in my reviews seems to be creeping upward again, though...
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zippdementia posted December 02, 2008:

I need to start paying attention to my own review length, actually. I'm going to start setting a limit for myself. I like limits. They force us to get creative.
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overdrive posted December 03, 2008:

This might sound weird, but I've found the occasional Atari 2600 review I do does wonders in helping me keep my overall length down. Just because those are all in the 2-3 KB range AND I'm basically saying everything humanly possible about the game. So, when I'm writing a longer review, it seems when I hit the 6-7 KB range or so, I start feeling like I'm just rambling because the review seems "huge". That has really helped me in finding ways to condense things and make my points without saying too much.
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EmP posted December 03, 2008:

I like to ramble.

Everything I say has worth!
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zippdementia posted December 03, 2008:

But not ALL of us can be Emp. We have to find ways to compensate.
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Felix_Arabia posted December 03, 2008:

[This message was deleted by an HG moderator.]

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