IGN Review of Star Ocean: First Departure
Fusing the realms of fantasy and science-fiction together has become common practice in modern storytelling, especially when it comes to the medium we happily refer to as videogames. But ten years ago, combing aspects of sci-fi and traditional fantasy wasn't quite as common, yet that was the main theme driving the original tri-Ace franchise, Star Ocean. The original Star Ocean was released on the Super Famicom more than a decade ago but never made it to the United States. The first Star Ocean we had the chance to play was the sequel, Star Ocean: The Second Story.
Thanks to Square-Enix, the original Star Ocean is now on its way to U.S. stores in the form of Star Ocean: First Departure. A PSP remake of the first game, First Departure adds a number of new elements to the experience, including all new backgrounds and a tweaked battle system, while still preserving the story and themes of the original. Although I have a special sentimental attachment to the series, considering my profound enjoyment of Second Story, I still feel that First Departure isn't as good as it could be, especially when compared to recent RPGs on the system. Regardless, First Departure is still an enjoyable game that RPG fans should consider, especially if they've enjoyed Star Ocean games in the past.
First Departure begins firmly grounded in the "fantasy department," besides the entirely sci-fi riddled prologue. Roddick, Millie and Dorne are three Fellpool youths trying to pass the time as sentries for a small village near the woods. Unfortunately, a mysterious plague sets in and begins turning people to stone, so the three friends travel to a nearby mountain in order to gather medicinal herbs.
To make a long story short, Ronyx and Ilia, members of a Terran Alliance reconnaissance mission, suddenly beam down to the surface and surprise the citizens of the "underdeveloped" planet Roak with advanced technology. The two officers explain that the plague is actually a biological weapon that goes far beyond the medical technology of the planet, and the group soon finds themselves on board a space vessel discussing ways to save the people of Roak from this mysterious attack.
The majority of the game actually takes place in the past, because the party realizes that the only way to save the people of Roak is to collect a particular genetic sample from the Roak of old. Like any RPG, I could go on, but let's just leave the story at that. Most of First Departure sticks with the fantasy backdrop and only rarely strays into sci-fi town, which was a little disappointing but understandable.
The gameplay of First Departure is fairly traditional for an RPG. You move about a world map on your journey and traverse the expected set of towns and dungeons, progressing the plot as you go. Outside of towns, you can hit Square to start a Private Action, which sends your characters into the town so you can talk to each of them individually, to learn more story details and also get little glimpses into their backgrounds.
The battle system in First Departure, however, is far more action-oriented. You control one character at a time while the AI handles the remaining three. You can move around the battlefield freely and execute normal attacks with the X button. Hitting either the L or R triggers will perform special attacks which you can assign prior to the battle. Thankfully, you can switch which character you're controlling at any time with a quick press of the Circle button.
Star Ocean: First Departure also boasts an item creation system as well as a fairly extensive skill system which can be used to boost certain attributes of your party. For example, spending SP on the skill Godspeed gives your fighters boosted speed in battle and occasionally allows them to teleport to the selected target. Alternatively, spending points on the Knife skill is not only critical in developing your "cooking" item creation ability, but it also raises the character's strength by ten points per level. Bonus.
That's really all there is to First Departure. The game does a number of things quite well. First, Star Ocean is reasonably enjoyable and the combat system certainly has its moments. The game's loading times are also admirable and the background environments -- while unfortunately static -- are still very eye-catching and nicely detailed. But the problem with First Departure is how all the minor annoyances add up to detract from the total package.
The entire experience, despite having some interesting themes, is extremely formulaic and there are no gameplay mechanics worthy of special note. I also thought that the plot was fairly bland and the characters had little depth to speak of. Although I was quite taken with Ilia (she had one of the strongest female voice roles), I didn't find any of the other characters (besides Ronyx) to be particularly interesting, which is a shame considering the importance of solid characters in an RPG.
The flaws would be forgivable if the battle system delivered, but issues extend into that domain as well. Because your character will automatically lock-on to and run towards your target, you'll spend most battles, literally, pounding away at the X button with almost nothing to mix up the action. More challenging battles will play out later in the game and they require much more thought and effort, but the majority of your time will be spent button-mashing. Luckily, there's lots of character growth to achieve through that grinding, which at least brings something of a reward into the picture.
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