This year, the Star Ocean series celebrates its twentieth anniversary with the release of its fifth game, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness. This week, publisher Square Enix invited members of the press to preview the game's less cutscene-heavy approach to storytelling and combat, an approach that thus far, appears to be working.
JRPG players are accustomed to (perhaps addicted to) the alternation between action and cutscene; the grandiose stories woven by games in the genre more or less demand it. Developer tri-Ace is taking a risk in abandoning that formula in favor of one that blends interactive and non-interactive sequences. Not only does that mean there are no pre-rendered, eye-poppingly gorgeous story breaks; it means a plethora of new technical difficulties for the development team.
The player is nearly always in control, and while this isn't as complicated to handle as an open-world situation, it still multiples the number of things that could go wrong during storytelling intervals. During my hands-on time, it seemed to be working pretty well, with only a couple of wooden moments. The game restrains you to some extent, forcing you to walk at times instead of run, and artificially stopping you when important information's being conveyed. Still, it's definitely less jarring to walk into a room and have a conversation start organically than to see a black screen and then start the scene from an entirely new camera angle.
The streamlining extends beyond storytelling to include combat and party mechanics and that's where things could really become controversial. Expanding upon the previous Star Ocean games' four-character control, Integrity and Faithlessness now lets you control up to seven characters at once. You can set characters' skills and roles, and decide how micro-managey you want to be by toggling auto-AI on or off. You can also swap among characters (but only during battle).
Lacking the pre-battle prep screen found in other JRPGs, you can't choose your best characters and bench the rest. There's no strategic exclusion here, which is certainly more immersive (would your friends really just stand there and watch you be killed by giant slugs?) but makes for a lot more activity to manage and a lot more on screen chaos. Also, when the battle's done, the game auto-swaps you back to the main hero Fidel—something that does get sort of annoying.
Anyway, aside from how you're eased into and out of battles and story sequences, Integrity and Faithlessness feels very familiar, even if you have no experience with the Star Ocean series. Though perhaps more sci-fi in places than other JRPGs, it still exhibits a distinct fantasy vibe that romantic JRPG fans are likely to enjoy. The characters (designed by Akira “akiman” Yasuda of Darkstalkers 3 and Streetfighter fame) are appealing and distinct, easy to tell from one another and designed to help you know at a glance what their individual skills are.
Movement, camera controls and combat moves are also easy to grasp, but for new players there's an extensive tutorial. An on screen map makes it easy to get around and though the atmosphere would benefit from more random interactivity, it's easy to recognize and find your objectives. Of course, like any JRPG, the main item, skills and crafting menus are extensive and could prove overwhelming for players new to those things.
Having only spent an hour or so with the game, the new streamlined systems seem to be fairly effective. It's hard to say exactly how they'll work with all the heroes gathered and lots of enemies on screen, but finding out will be interesting. It'll also be interesting, to see how many alternate endings tri-Ace supports since they've kept the relationship mechanic (where you can befriend or even becoming romantically involved with different characters) and have added three additional heroes to the mix. What I can say thus far, is that the game looks beautiful and more or less delivers on its promise of interactive fluidity.
Star Ocean is set for a June 28 release and will be available as a Standard Edition ($59.99) and a Collector's Edition ($109.99). The latter comes with an art book, a Pangalactic Federation ID card, six a download code for in-game items, a steelbook case, and “The Sounds of Star Ocean”: a CD sampler soundtrack featuring 16 tracks from famed composer Motoi Sakuraba (Tales of series, Valkyrie Profile series, Dark Souls series).