Monday, September 26, 2011

Review - Star Ocean: First Departure

(I'm going to try and have the Theme Song or Opening for every Review.)

So, I know it's a bit 'late' to be doing a proper review of Star Ocean:  First Departure, considering it's been out since October of 2008 (In the States, at least), but this is a game that I want to review, because of the fact that Star Ocean, as a series (I say that a lot) will probably always have a little place of importance in my gaming heart.  They're not great games by any measure, but they are really good at quite a few things and have laid a great groundwork for some other developer to crib off of; if any of them will do it already.  It helps that the first two games in the series were quite fun on their own merits, even if the stories are fairly.....forgettable is the nice term, but I'll get into that later on in this.

The important thing to note about Star Ocean:  First Departure (henceforth referred to as Star Ocean) is that, if nothing else, the gameplay is fairly solid and allows you to do quite a few things that are fairly unheard of in other RPGs, at least with the frequency that StarOcean allows.  As you may have noticed when I was speaking of the skill system in the other recent Star Ocean post, the system, with it's three-tiered approach is very rich and very varied, and while it basically serves to really empower the strengths of your characters and it can't make your characters do other things (I can teach Roddick the Symbology Skills that increase damage, reduce casting time, etc. but he's not going to learn Symbology) at its base, the evolution into Specialties and then Super Specialties is where it really shines.

As you may have noticed in the above-linked post, or if not, I'll explain here anyway, the Specialties offer you so much that the game itself honestly can't take it.  Or, rather, it can and was possibly planned out that way, since it technically does take quite a lot of work to get to the degree of power that I described as "Breaking the game" and it was from an era where your efforts were rewarded with ultimate power.  See:  Ultimate weapons in Final Fantasy Games, unlockable hidden characters, etc.  Whether you're for or against this practice, it lives strong in Star Ocean if you delve enough for it.  But at its base, it's not inherently broken and just sits comfortably on the level of 'useful'.

At modest levels, you can use Alchemy to make precious ores that you can then turn into accessories via Crafting to assist you in battle, as some accessories do quite well in that department.  Music can make your life easier with certain songs that refill your HP and MP while walking, prevents random encounters and raises your chance of success via Item Creation, while others you can use to help grow by summoning enemies, making random encounters more likely or similar things.  Of course, there's also Train that I mentioned that will give you more experience per battle in exchange for just a little cut-off access to your full potential.  Several other specialties are abound and the good portion of them are useful in -someway- if even just to create something for the explicit purpose of selling it.

The downfall or benefit to this is that Specialties all but require your character to have the required talent (or in some cases Talents, plural) to produce anything but the 'joke' item (pebbles for Alchemy, doodles for art, Books of 'Prophecy' for writing) with anything approaching normalcy.  The benefit being in that Talents can be learned through a few failings of the specialty that requires it.  After cooking so many burnt meals, you'll learn Taste and your meals will suddenly not turn out terrible, through careful composition of music and playing it, you'll get Rhythm Sense and Listening, and so forth.  The drawback to this is that some characters simply cannot learn all the talents, so some are doomed to fail at something no matter what.

That does lend to every character approaching unique, however, which is another strength of Star Ocean.  While most every character can likely be linked easily to any number of tropes and archetypes, they are also characterized and really developed as well.  Often, they don't 'evolve', but at least you get to know them better and you get to see why they are how they are and the like.  Characterization in Star Ocean is very, very important and this is made clear quite early.  This is done through the use of the Private Action system.

The Private Action system is....well, it's one of the elements I haven't really seen in a lot of other games and would like to, quite a bit.  Star Ocean recognizes simultaneously that your characters usually travel together so tightly that they use the "(Character) emerges from (Main Character)" approach seen in so many early RPGs, but they also allow everyone to have a little freedom; provided you do as well.  Upon moving towards a friendly town on the world map, a box in the upper right corner pops up that says "Private Action" and then displays a symbol indicating you should press square to activate it.  On doing so, you'll walk into town and split up to relax.  With only the main character in the party now, you can walk around and find other party members scattered around the town doing whatever they please.

Occasionally, you'll enter events with characters doing this, which will help build relationships, both good and bad between the many characters in your party.  And those events could even trigger other events later on when you gain more party members.  My stand-by example is, early on Roddick and Ilia are alone and Ilia can be found in an item shop that sells accessories.  She's eying one of the pairs of earrings and Roddick then has the opportunity to buy them, tell her she doesn't need them or simply act oblivious (I believe these are the options anyway).  I, wanting Roddick to be fairly smooth with the ladies, chose to have him buy them for her.  She then goes on to wear them for the rest of the game (they're not really an item, it's just flavor) which opens up two more events later on when you have more characters.

These types of little touches are the really, really important things to the characterization of everyone.  While they're superfluous technically, they really draw you in, really make you like these characters you have to use, when otherwise you may not.  Talking with this character and finding out more about the circumstances of losing his sister, or this character and learning just how he lost his arm makes them less a 'character in a video game that uses magic or stabs things' and more 'a character'.  Not even necessarily a character you can empathize with or anything, just something to appreciate as having a little thought put into them.  Maybe I'm a sucker for really caring that much for little details, but I really, really do because they're important to me.

There's quite a lot of downfall to the game unfortunately, which I've sort of alluded to a few times already and they vary from little irks to really big issues.  The above picture shows my first complaint which comes into play pretty much in the first hour of play and this is one of the little complaints, but it's one of those things in a game that really just grates on me.  If you'll notice the portrait shown, it's of a blonde woman in all black who is, quite apparently, not one of the sprites.  Except she is, unfortunately; she's the blonde on the left in the bright orange adventure clothes.  It ruins any sort of illusion of surprise to the knowledge that Ilia (and Ronyx, the guy with a friggin' quiver of arrows on his back) will eventually become part of your party and generally just indicates a lack of desire to go the little extra mile for seamless transition.

It's worse because it's not like she (and Ronyx) only spends a few minutes in their uniforms before switching clothes; it's closer to an hour or so of gameplay before they change.  There's even a private action that centers around getting Ilia new clothes!  And when I did it, I did it wrong on accident, so she didn't even take the clothes and decided she was going to keep her uniform 'for just a little longer'.  And then when we left, she had switched her portrait to her 'Adventure Gear' portrait for reasons that I can't discern.  It's every shade of silly and just seemed really, really sloppy.  The point I'm trying to drive at here is that they should have made alternate sprites considering how long those characters needed them.

The other problem is that, in general, the story is fairly weak and the driving narrative is weaker still; you'll always know what you have to do, but it's never driven in particularly hard and you'll be passively reminded if you activate Private actions when you show up and leave the town.  One of your characters will say "Aren't we supposed to go meet with the King of Astral?" or something to that sort, but there's absolutely no urgency.  Even towards the end of the game when the end-goals are clear and you know exactly where you have to go and why, the desire to do so is only driven by your own desire to beat the game.  Which, now that I say it, might have been why it took me so long to beat Star Ocean 2 in the first place; it only gives you the base reason as to why you should.

The other big thing that really drove into my side, and this might be a mild spoiler, was the fact that some enemies, especially late-game enemies were either resistant or absorbed damage from the strongest weapons in the game, rendering two of my characters, my main two at that, completely and utterly useless.  There's absolutely no way to change equipment once in a battle, so if you slash an enemy and green numbers pop up, you are screwed.  In both occasions, my only saving grace was the fact that my third damage-dealer didn't have a weapon with the same attribute as the other two, so she could take out the enemies with no real danger, though her damage wasn't that great.  So I ended up downgrading to weapons with 700 less attack overall just so I could reliably deal damage to every and any enemy to come my way.

Overall, there could have been a few more things and a little more effort put into the port, but considering it was done by TOSE, Squeenix's in-house Port Factory, there's not a lot one could expect.  I imagine if the situation was different and it was a NISA product (wholly), they would've taken a page from Star Ocean 2 and made a new story from Millie's perspective (as the second game does with Rena) which would have been really, really appreciated in the game.  What we got, despite my few complaints with parts here and there, was well enough, however.

The Good
  • Thanks to the Private Action system, the Characters are very well-defined and thought-out.
  • The Skill System and by extension, Specialty System, gives you quite a lot of variety in actions you can perform.
  • It's quite a pretty game and the spritework (what's done of it at least) is very nice.
  • There's a decidedly large amount of freedom in the game.
  • The combat system is fun.
The Bad
  • The story is almost an afterthought, filled with nonsensical religious connotations and cliche'.
  • Poor enemy design makes the game impossible to win with the best equipment. 
  • A few key oversights make for some really silly moments.
  • Getting to know all the characters requires several playthroughs.
  • Besides "Beating the Game" there's little other reason to want to...well, beat the game.
Mogs Says
Star Ocean:  First Departure does a lot right and offers an adventure worth getting into.  While you're not going to find anything inherently great, you'll find things that are genuinely nice and interesting and, if you're like me, you'll find a little inspiration in the fact that it exists because it means it could be implemented in something else and much better.  Unless your tolerance for nonsense is high, you might find reason to put this down early, however, and you might not miss out on much in that case.  However, the good might outweigh the bad for you, so I recommend you give it a shot if it interests you.

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