Though Star Ocean: First Departure is technically a remake of 1996’s Japan-only Star Ocean for Super Famicom, most of us missed out on its magical fantasy-meets-space travel story and real-time battles, which at the time were drastically different from the Final Fantasy series' orderly turn-based system. Although not quite as outstanding as other Square-Enix remakes as of late (Final Fantasy IV, Dragon Quest IV, and the upcoming Chrono Trigger), First Departure holds its own if you can squeeze it into your busy RPG schedule.
The story begins as a plague that turns its victims into stone sweeps the land of Roak, and a young boy named Roddick and his local team of do-gooders set about finding a cure. While picking medicinal herbs on a local mountain, they're confronted by two space travelers who tell them that an aggressive force is laying siege to their rural planet with some kind of biological agent. To make matters worse, the germy pox comes from an ancient demon that hasn’t existed for over 300 years, and an antidote can't be synthesized without its blood. Luckily, the spacemen know the location of a mysterious time portal, which takes them all back to a time called the Demonic Wars, where they embark on a quest across the continent to find the source of the illness.
With auto- or semi-auto-targeting and AI controlling all but one character, the real-time battles can be mindlessly button-mashy, but not in an altogether bad way. In addition to jamming on the X button to attack, you can also choose two magic attacks that deplete MP, one on the left shoulder button and one on the right. Magic attacks can be short or long range, so equipping yourself with one of each adds a little extra strategy.
The best and most addictive feature of Star Ocean is its extensive specialty system. Each time a character levels up, he’s awarded some specialty points that he can allocate anywhere among a vast array of abilities. What makes specialties so interesting is that they affect every aspect of the game, not just battle abilities or stats. Through the specialties system, you can learn to cook healing items, increase or decrease the amount of random encounters by scouting for enemies, and even increase the rate at which you level up (although your battle stats will take a hit as a trade off). The wealth of options allows for much flexibility when developing each character.
The story itself is pretty typical, but the juxtaposition between futuristic/sci-fi atmosphere and the typical rural fantasy-RPG setting adds a lot of flair to what would otherwise be generic. As long as you don’t mind the shallow real-time battles, Star Ocean: First Departure holds up amazingly well.
Oct 20, 2008