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Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness

"Between its endless backtracking, lengthy, unskippable cutscenes and space battles in which nothing happens, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness feels like a five hour game that was padded out to five-times its length."

Let's be real: You've played Integrity and Faithlessness before. It's got a glaringly familiar Motoi Sakuraba soundtrack. It's got a basic item crafting system. It's got a blue-haired, sword-wielding protagonist with daddy issues, joined by a ragtag bunch of blasé stock characters. Naturally, it's even got the broken promise of a sweeping space epic that players have come to expect from this series. The first Star Ocean title in seven years is tri-Ace at their most conservative.

Taking cues from the series' first entry way back in 1996, Integrity and Faithlessness opens on the vaguely medieval planet of Faykreed IV, where backwoods town watchman Fidel and his childhood love interest Miki embark on a grand adventure to find the parents of Relia, a little girl found in a crashed invisible spaceship. Along the way, they end up embroiled in a war between the neighboring kingdoms of Resulia and Trei'kur, the latter of which has mysteriously come into possession of technologically advanced weaponry. Oh, and there's a spaceship named after a post-punk band named after France's most famous general. Sound familiar yet? Well, OK, maybe except for that last bit.

It's not just Integrity and Faithlessness' story and setting that are recognizable; the entire game feels like a hodgepodge of past Star Ocean titles mixed with recent Tales games. Not unlike Star Ocean 3, field maps are a mix of wide-open pastures and tight corridors, though now they're all packed with harvesting points, ala Tales of Xillia. Also like Xillia, several towns contain a bulletin board from which the player can take on a selection of MMO-style sidequests, ranging from item delivery to monster subjugation. Battles now take place right on the map, like Tales of Zestiria, and each character has the ability to fire off a unique Mystic Arte Reserve Rush, a high-powered special move preceded by a cutaway pose. Fidel and his companions even engage in Tales Skit-style conversations (albeit without animated portraits) while traversing the world map, as part of a new take on the series' mainstay Private Actions. Star Ocean and Tales have always felt like spiritual sisters due to their shared DNA, but it's obvious that tri-Ace have been closely watching their erstwhile friends' work at Namco Bandai.

Joining Fidel, Miki and Relia on their quest is Victor, a knight whose chivalry borders on cluelessness, and Fiore, a respected academic and talented signeturge (think mage) who's barely dressed in an impossible outfit because, reasons. Rounding out the party are the mysterious and comically mismatched Emerson and Anne, a shameless flirt handy with a crossbow and his level-headed and long-suffering pugilist companion, respectively. With its party of seven, Integrity and Faithlessness has fewer playable characters than past entries, but a cool feature is that they all participate in battle. No swapping out reserve teammates here, when you've got a full party, everybody takes to the battlefield to crack some heads. Integrity and Faithlessness' action-based battle system is one that longtime fans of the series will have no problem getting used to, and will surely gain pleasure from mastering the new Rock/Paper/Scissors system of Weak Attack/Strong Attack/Parry.

However, things tend to get pretty hectic when you've got six teammates and several foes running around trying to brain each other, and it tends to become quite difficult to keep up with it all. The hyperactive camera spins and pivots feverously, occasionally diving into the tall grass and obscuring the view as the field is covered with graphical effects coming from a dozen different attacks executed all at once. It's very difficult to parse what's going on in any given battle, especially since many attack animations include opaque effects. Fidel's Reserve Rush in particular sees him leap to the sky and fire a laser beam, before filling the screen with an opaque layer of blue waves. That's all well and good, except the action doesn't stop while the screen is obscured. I watched as red numbers appeared rapidly, a sign of the enemy unleashing a vicious combo against me, and I could do nothing to stem its tide. More than once I found myself KO'ed after Rushing, so by the middle of the game I'd taken to furiously mashing the buttons blind so as to protect myself as best I could. It's confusing, to say the least.

Party members that you aren't playing as are controlled by the AI. Whereas previous games allowed the player to issue behavioral commands, companions in Integrity and Faithlessness follow new Roles; unlockable presets somewhat resembling a simplified take on Final Fantasy XII's Gambit system. It's a nice idea in theory, though one that turns out to be rather inconsistent in practice. Early on I equipped Miki with a spellcasting Role, only to find that she indiscriminately burned through all her MP halfway through the very first field map. I unequipped the Role to see if she'd tone down her behavior, only to find that now she wasn't taking any action at all. These problems persisted all throughout my journey; I later equipped Miki with a Role focused on reviving downed teammates, and although she had full MP and a full inventory, she almost never bothered to do so, leaving it to me to switch to her and fire off revival spells manually. Oh, and it's worth mentioning that characters automatically unequip all Roles and accessories whenever they leave the party. And I do mean whenever. I've lost count of the number of times that the party would disband for a single cutscene, before immediately throwing me into battle with a full party who'd proceed to stand around and get slaughtered. Roles and accessories can be re-equipped while in battle, but that doesn't make their automatic removal any less frustrating.

And battles only get worse as the game goes on: bosses have ridiculously high HP and tend to endlessly spam area-of-attack skills that can't be interrupted. No matter what their individual roles, my AI teammates were keen to stand in the way of these skills and get wiped out time and again. To balance these repeated deaths, revival items and spells cost a pittance, which is not the best solution. Things take an egregious turn around the halfway point when the game introduces a handful of "Protect X" battles: Ill-advised tower defense-inspired battles in which one of your party members becomes a defenseless tower and is beset by foes from all sides. The AI made these missions infuriating; my party members would rush off in all directions, leaving the defenseless character to get dogpiled. Even my own character wasn't safe; auto-targeting would often force me to run off in pursuit of a distant foe when I eliminated a nearby one. I'd have to furiously press the shoulder buttons to re-target the enemies demolishing my teammate to get back before it was too late. Naturally, the punishment for losing these battles is a trip back to the title screen, and each Protect mission is preceded by a lengthy unskippable dialogue scene in which you walk at a snail's pace. Battles would just be boring after awhile, but these Protect missions and their crummy AI ensure that Integrity and Faithlessness becomes an outright hostile player experience.

Integrity and Faithlessness' conservatism isn't just philosophical, but also appears to be fiscal. I previously mentioned in my preview that an early portion of the game saw me traversing a stretch of land called the Dakav Footpath no less than five times in a row. This happens to be a trend that codifies the entirety of the game. I'd lost track of the amount of times that the plot would dictate Fidel and Co. travel down a lengthy path to have a single conversation before travelling back the way they came. Most notably, a late game scene sees the party about to board a spaceship. Fidel is told that he may never see his home planet again, so he and Miki travel back to the game's starting town to say their goodbyes. A short cutscene follows, after which the player must run all the way through numerous fields (including the Dakav Footpath!) and towns to reach the location where the spaceship is ready to receive them. This takes at least 20 minutes if you're avoiding battle, and when you board the spaceship? Surprise! It's nothing more than a fast travel hub for the planet you were just told you'd never return to.

The time you do spend on the spaceship manages to be just as boring and budgeted as the rest of the experience. Every so often a space battle will occur, but there's no fighting to be done, or even any compelling visuals to see: When ships engage in "combat", characters just stand on the bridge and describe which ship has moved where, and which ship is taking damage. These battles are literally nothing more than conversation cutscenes, and there's not a single laser blast or explosion to be found. You can't even see out of the windows, as they've been covered with a metal plate to hide the fact that nothing's actually happening. It's the ultimate example of "tell, don't show".

When Integrity and Faithlessness isn't retreading well-worn ground, it's showing off its fanservice in an attempt to titillate its audience. I previously mentioned Fiore's ridiculous costume which allows for liberal butt and cleavage exposure at the expense of taste, but the rest of the female cast (save for Relia) each get their own panty shots, just in case you were wondering what their drawers looked like. Plot-wise, the game tends to go beyond fanservice and into some very creepy stances on gender. There's a running gag of fat jokes at the expense of 90 pound waif Miki, where several characters tell her she should cook more and eat less. These scenes feels less like light hearted banter than they do a toxic worldview. Later, Miki chimes in that she's got the sudden urge to do laundry in the middle of our adventure. What, because she's a girl?

When the credits rolled on Integrity and Faithlessness at the 25 hour mark, I was simultaneously relieved and aggrieved. Between its endless backtracking, lengthy, unskippable cutscenes and space battles in which nothing happens, this feels like a five hour game that was padded out to five-times its length, with some ridiculous cleavage grafted onto it in an attempt to distract. Integrity and Faithlessness is not a game that respects or deserves your time, and perhaps Star Ocean is a series that's ready to be jettisoned from the airlock.

© 2016 Square Enix, tri-Ace. All rights reserved.