The Star Ocean franchise has been on the outskirts of my gaming backlog for years. As an avid JRPG fan in the mid-90s and early 2000s, I always knew these games existed, but never did take the time to dive into one… until recently.
Originally released exclusively in Japan on the Super Famicom in 1996 as the first Star Ocean title, then remade for the Playstation Portable in 2007, First Departure R is both a remake and a rerelease of the title that launched a franchise. With six main-series titles as well as an unfinished manga and anime series, Star Ocean has an established history. So how does this remake hold up today?
To set the stage properly, Star Ocean: First Departure R is not a remake in the same vein as the long-anticipated Final Fantasy VII: Remake. This is a remake in the sense that First Departure R stays true to the classic Star Ocean look and the feel of a mid-90s real-time JRPG while adding voice over for main dialogue, animated cut-scenes, and some quality of life improvements over the original 1996 release.
Within this review, we will be giving an overview without spoilers, examining the gameplay, progression systems, and some of the main themes found throughout the game before wrapping it up with a final score. Let’s dive in!
In case you missed both Star Ocean and Star Ocean: First Departure (like I did), here is a quick plot synopsis:
Star Ocean: First Departure R begins with a lofty description of humanity’s present posture: explorers within a vast universe, an ocean of stars to navigate (hence, the name). Not all is peaceful within this universe; a weapon has been unleashed on the unsuspecting planet of Roak by an alien race known as the Lezonians that would set off a chain of events reaching far into the past.
Meanwhile on Roak, in the small village occupied by a humanoid feline known as Fellpool, three young, residents, Roddrick, Millie, and Dorne, serve as part of the Kratus Defense Force. Their daily task is to protect their village and the surrounding area from mercenaries and thieves. Little do they know, things are about to get much worse for them and very, very weird.
A strange disease was unleashed upon Roak by the Lezonian weapon. Transferable on contact, this disease transforms the infected into a stone-like state. Millie, a practitioner of the healing arts of symbology tries to heal her infected father, but with no luck. As a last resort, the trio makes their way to the top of a local mountain whose herbs are revered for their healing powers. Along the way, it is revealed that Dorne has contracted the disease and if fading fast.
Atop Mount Metorx, the trio is met by a flash of light and two strangers: humans from the startup Calnus. Searching on behalf of the Earth Federation to discover why this planet was attacked and the purpose of this disease, the crew of the Calnus discovers a shadowy third-party behind the attack and the Lazonian’s desire for a peaceful end to conflict. All of this leads to the discovery of the disease’s source: a demon king taken from Roak 300 years prior. Crossing both space and time, this crew must track down the demon king Asmodeus, save their families, and end a bitter war.
Aesthetically, Star Ocean: First Departure R stays true to the 16-bit design, but does it in a way where it does not feel quite so dated. The visual details and musical score both come very close to capturing the essence of what made games like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana so iconic beyond the reach of their age. There is a whimsy when needed while darker moments are forecast in both color and sound.
In traditional 90s RPG style, you navigate most area from a (semi) top-down viewpoint with an overworked map in between locations. One addition from the original Star Ocean release is that First Departure gives you a mini map with points of interest highlighted on the map. These points of interest are typically towns, dungeons, or passages between locations. Each town you explore has the usual suspects for any RPG: NPCs to interact with to provide contextual clues, an inn to recover health, mana, and heal from status effects, vendors, ferries to other port cities and more. There are also locations called Skill Guilds which provide knowledge about skills - which we will cover in a bit.
As you complete the objective within a town, you have the option of returning to town in social events called Private Actions. During a Private Action sequence, each character in your party will be scattered throughout the town and you will have the opportunity as Roddick to interact with them. These conversations will provide clues about the nature of relationships between characters. For example, one such interaction with the human Ilia revealed Millie’s feelings for Roddick while an interaction with the captain of the Calnus, Ronyx, revealed a personal loss that drives him forward in his quest for answers.
Star Ocean: First Departure R plays like JRPG with a twist: it foregoes turn-based combat for real-time battle sequences. This is not an active based system like we have seen in other titles of its time, this is live combat. While you only control one character in your party, the rest are controlled by artificial intelligence. The AI is decent for a game of its time, but its strengths are highlighted when controlling casters. Casters under the direction of AI will choose spells based off of an enemy’s strength relative to that of your party. They will also choose spells based on the elemental weaknesses of the enemies on the field. So, no one is wasting resources to cast the wrong spell!
Each character has the typical Heath and Mental Points bar, but they have as a Stamina bar. Stamina serves as time needed between Symbology casts. A spinning commands menu (a la Secret of Mana) can be pulled up, pausing the batter and allowing the player to run from the fight, use an item, spin up a spell, or change the attack strategy. This is where Tactics come into play.
Each character on the field can be set to a specific tactic, such as “Focus on healing my friends” or “Do what it takes to win”. If a particular enemy type seems to be giving your party problems, switch things up and to see how a simple change of plans can improve your chances at victory. While you can set these outside of combat, it is possible to change on during a battle.
You can also set up each character to uses two special skills (which will consume Mental Points) alongside their default attacks during combat. These skills are allocated to the R1 and L1 buttons, so when you switch between characters you have easy access to them. Unfortunately, there does not seen to be any intuitive way to switch characters in combat. This was not a big deal in the early game, but later on, as enemy difficulty scaled, I had to wait for my part to die of attrition. There was no way to command the living party members outside of changing tactics or commanding a retreat. This does not always assure a successful rally. Given that this is a classic JRPG with no checkpoints, the omission of this feature makes the scaling difficulty at end game very punishing if you happen to make one small misstep.
Semi-related to combat, but requiring a bit of context is this: the main story, as mentioned earlier, does have voice over dialogue in both English and Japanese. The Japanese language selection has an extra option for both First Departure and First Departure R, depending on how closely you want to stick to the original.
While having this in game does add some nice depth to the story telling at times, line delivery can feel a bit disjointed at times - like the voice over artists were recorded out of context. There are also moments in combat where party members are yelling the names of their special moves over each other, then tripping over each other’s victory fanfare commentary. After around 700 combat encounters (no exaggeration, Star Ocean counts…), it got really, really annoying. Much like cycling between characters in combat, there is no options to deal with this.
Within Star Ocean: First Departure R, you will develop your characters with both experience points (EXP) and Special Points (SP). EXP is automatically applied to a character, growing them naturally to their makeup, but Special Points are used to earn skills earn that you learn along your journey from visiting Skill Guilds.
Skill Guilds offer three things at each location: tips for gameplay, the opportunity to purchase a rank within a specific skill set, and what skills that particular skill set has to offer. These skills set - Knowledge, Sense, Technical, and Combat - can be combined to develop crafting professions while enhancing your base character stats.
For example, the Mineralogy raises a character’s Intelligence by 3 per rank of Mineralogy, but that skill can be combined with Technology (which raises Strength) and Faeriology (which also raised Intelligence) to learn the Item Creation skill Alchemy. As you rank of each of the individual skills, the rank of a skill like Alchemy will increase along the way. These skills can also be developed deeper in Specialties and Super (or Group) Specialties. Keeping with the Alchemy theme, if you develop Alchemy and Customization, you will be able to access a Blacksmithing. While you are using these skill, your party members may develop a Talent like Nimble Fingers which will help in later crafting.
This system is not without its pitfalls. Some skills, like the previously mentioned Customization (the art of improving a weapon with special materials) will only allow that characters to craft items for themselves. On top of that, if you fail at crafting, you lose the materials. This gets really punishing when you have a party member that has one skill like Mineralogy, but has not fully develop Alchemy or Customization. when you are using the Super Specialty menu, you cannot select which character is crafting and will likely waste materials trying to craft items.
Blemishes and all, it is a really interesting and rather deep system for progression that makes characters feel a bit more unique from each other. While there is not much help in the game to understand how all of it works together, there are plenty of guides which can save you tons of wasted materials. My best advice of crafting is to hold of on doing it until you are a higher level of the skill.
Like many of its era, Star Ocean: First Departure R tries to tell an ambitious story with concepts bigger than the game itself. It is a story that uses time, space, and culture to illustrate the smallness of distance between even the most diametrically opposed people.
While Ronyx and Ilia have traveled across the galaxy to bring an end to a conflict, they are not so different in their values from Roddrick and Millie. They may see things through different lenses, but their plights are the same. They share values of strong family/friendship ties, the feelings of helplessness in loss, the struggle with the tension of holding onto faith in what is unseen while wresting with what is tangible. They are looking for healing - whether its between races or illness.
Now, I did say that it tries… and for the most part it does fairly well at getting developing these themes. There are, however, some rather hamfisted moments that come out of left field, making little sense within the context of the story or having little-to-no payoff by the end. For example, there is a dig conversation about interfering with under developed planets at the beginning of the game that turns into a environmentalist sermon by the end. All of that aside, the story is one of the stronger elements of the game and when it’s on track, it is a story worth participating in. The Private Actions help to drive home the very personal nature of the mission Roddick finds himself on.
Star Ocean: First Departure R has a familiar feel to it. Not familiar as in a carbon copy, but familiar as in it evokes a sense of nostalgia for an era of RPGs that helped transform video gaming from a form of entertainment to a medium of storytelling. While its story may not have the same cult following as others of its time, First Departure R stays close enough to its own lane to grant me an extra layer of appreciation for a series that has only graced the edged of my experience until now.
The depth of character customization and progression are interesting, but along with character switching and repetitive voice over lines, First Departure R trips in a few key places that detract from the overall experience. Much of these issues could be attributed to the genre itself still experiencing adolescent growth during the era of its original release.
If I am reading the intentions of Square-Enix right with this release, it seems like they wanted to introduce a new generation to the Star Ocean franchise with fidelity to the source material rather than releasing a full-blown re-envisioning of the title that launched the series. After all, they already have their hands full with another one of those!
After over 20 hours of gameplay, I found my experience with Star Ocean: First Departure R to a pleasant trip to another time period… but also remembering that time period experienced some awkward growing pains.
If you are looking to scratch a JRPG itch and you have never tried a Star Ocean title, it might be time. Don’t expect perfection, but do anticipate a warm experience to will make you want to dust off your SNES… at least for a little while.
- In-depth character customization system
- Private Actions scenarios build character depth and story
- Decent story length (~20 hours) with multiple endings
- Party AI is fairly smart for a game of its era
- The JRPG grind still exists. Even if it is to a lesser degree, the difficulty scale is quite steep quickly.
- Voice over lines and music get very repetitive, very quickly
- No character swapping in combat
Full Disclosure: Our copy was reviewed on Playstation 4 with a code provided by PR