In the final year of the Super Famicom, gamers were treated to some classic games in all genres, but especially by the ways of RPGs. Dark Half, Tales of Phantasia, and most importantly, Star Ocean, all came out during this time frame.
What once was a development team under the supervision of Namco, tri-Ace split away from the mother company after the release of the quintessential RPG, "Tales of Phantasia". After proving themselves with the surprise RPG of early 1996 (Namco? The company who makes Pac-Man and Tekken, releasing a great RPG?), they set out to top even that game.
To start with, the programmers wanted to make a game that would push the Super Famicom to its utmost limits, so they used the largest cart size available, a whopping 48 megabits. To aid in some of the graphics and sound effect processing, 64k of onboard RAM was built into the cartridge. With these elements in place, the now independent tri-Ace proved themselves worthy by creating one of the best SFC RPGs ever.
Captain's Log Stardate 346... A mysterious explosion happens in the far corners of the galaxy, while in the meantime, our hero, Ratix, meets up with his friends Dorn and Milly. Ratix (Rati for short) and crew protect their home village of Clatos from evil, so when a band of thieves led by the foul-mouthed Vayard attack, they're quick to jump to action.
After a solid day's work, they receive an unsettling letter from the neighboring village of Hot. It seems a disease has been spreading around the village that turns a human almost instantly into stone. Milly's father sets out to find out what's happening in Hot, and the worried Milly quickly chases after him. Not being one to leave a beautiful young maiden out in the wilderness, Rati and Dorn chase after her.
While at Hot Village, Milly's father and Dorn quickly catch the contagious disease, although it's rumored a cure exists atop Mount Metox. After much sorrow and tears flowing from the eyes of Milly, Rati and Milly decide they need to find this cure, but what they find atop the mountain utterly shocks them. People from Earth land aboard the mountain to tell the two about a disease spreading, the mysterious Rezonia company that manufactured the disease, and that the party must return to the past to defeat Asmodeus, the original carrier of the disease.
Without further ado, they discard their weapons, jump in a Time Gate, and start on the planet Roak, 300 years in the past. Along the way, there are plenty of twists and turns, long cinemas chock full of quality writing and entertaining storytelling, and various endings.
Immediately after turning on Star Ocean, you'll be apt to notice the graphics. The game pushes the SFC to its graphical limit, with an intense amount of on-screen detail and color. The graphics are quite varied and are intricately detailed, from the tops of Mount Metox to the firey depths of Asmodeus's lair. There's so much going on in the graphics that you'll just want to stop and admire the pretty scenery.
Trees, shrubs, dirt, rocks in the ground, all look varied and completely move away from the "tiled" look prevalent in most other 2-D RPGs. Spells are vivid and explosive, and the animation is of high quality.
The enemy design is, quite honestly, a bit lacking. Although there are a few exceptional looking boss encounters (especially the Ruin Guarder and Asmodeus), the majority of the enemies seem to be a tad on the small side. Players and enemies also tend to use very dull colors, which is a direct contrast to the bright and detailed backgrounds. These problems are just simple complaints, and most people won't even notice after staring at the beautiful backgrounds, towns, and dungeons for so long.
Musically, the game shines. Every main character in the game, including the villain, has voice-acting in battle. They'll shout out taunts and insults, victory cheers, techniques and spells cast, and even have some small speaking parts in the game. The voice acting is top-notch, utilizing some professional voice talent from various Japanese anime. To top the speech bit off, there's even a fully spoken intro (in English, which is even better!) that will remind more than a few people of Star Trek.
The actual soundtrack shares many similarities with Motoi Sakuraba's other works. The music is very dreamy, using lots of harps and strings, although certain songs have a more electronic and sci-fi feel. Even though many different styles are covered, from the heroic mountain song, to the funky bassline in the battle theme, to the mysterious dungeon music, nothing sounds quite out of place.
Although many of the songs are great and well suited to their location, what really stands out are some of the battle themes. They're fast, exciting, and upbeat, really putting you into a battling mood, and enhancing the effect of the Full Motion Active Battle covered later in this review.
The sample quality is, as expected, top notch, and the music sounds a step above many of the other Super Famicom RPG soundtracks. As a further bonus to the music connoisseur, you're able to play back the music in the Sound Test as you hear it in the game. In all, this is one game I would love to pick up a soundtrack for!
The story harkens back to Star Trek and other sci-fi shows. As soon as you view the intro, it's obvious that Star Trek was an inspiration to the creators, yet the whole game has much more of a sci-fi anime theme to it.
The whole setting of the game, apparently in our universe in a not-too-distant future, really adds to the plot and gives a further background for the game world. There are lots of intricate details in the storyline, and although the game is rather short, you get the feeling that it's a lot longer than it is due to the detail and the history of the world and its characters.
Scientific moral themes, such as the effects of genetic modification are also brought up throughout the course of the game. The writing and character personalities are good, you'll chuckle at many of their comments, and their distinctiveness.
Although several characters don't have much of a background, the ones that do usually get special scenes to further flesh themselves out. The special private actions (in which you're able to go around town and interact with various party members) allow Rati to develop his own personality through the eyes of the player, and depending on the way he answers the party members' questions, they tend to start liking or disliking him.
How does this affect gameplay, you ask? Well, if the characters get along with each other, they'll be more inclined to fight by each others side, and the character's AI will make them heal or protect the ones they care about! Detailed? You betcha.
Where do I start on Star Ocean's gameplay? Well, first things first, the battle engine. Star Ocean utilizes a "Full Motion Active Battle" system, where you only have control of one character at a time, and the others react to preset AI modes. The character then is able to target a single enemy, and he'll run over to that enemy and attack. Meanwhile, the other characters will attack enemies, run in the corner to hide, heal the party, or unleash vicious magic on the foes, all depending on how you set up their special artificial intelligence.
The battle system is fast, furious, and strategic, since if an enemy is mauling your friends in the opposite corner of the screen, the character you're controlling must run all the way to the other side of the screen before being able to slash at the enemy. This presents a great deal of strategy when you select your line formations and battle plans.
Characters earn special techniques as they gain levels, which can be used when you target an enemy. They'll also earn Skill Points that allow them to gain proficiency in various skills; learn many skills, and you're able to invest in the Item Creation portion of this game, where raw materials can be fused together to make various items. There are all sorts of different Item Creations like Art, Medicine, and Cooking, all dependent on how skilled you are in them.
The Skills and Item Creation systems are quite detailed (although they've been considerably enhanced and become more essential to survival in the second game).
Star Ocean brings many innovations to the RPG genre, in terms of its complex Skills and Item Creation system, and its semi-real time battle system, but the big question with innovation always remains... do the innovations help to hinder or enhance the gameplay experience? Luckily, it's the latter.
Combat is fast and action-packed, constantly keeping you on your toes, forcing you to pay attention to everything going on around you. The skills you learn and divide up into your characters have some subtle effects in battles and may just very well be the difference between victory and defeat. The item creation mode allows you to create and discover lots of items not seen in normal gameplay, although truthfully, it's not necessary to beat the game, just more of an interesting feature.
The game has a fair enough balance, although it may be a bit challenging at first as you start getting used to the unorthodox combat structure. Towards the end of the game, your characters seem to be able to walk through the regular game with ease (the final boss is rather a disappointment), although, upon winning, you're faced with the extremely challenging secret dungeon. And, you still will have to watch out for the enemies that turn you to stone, since if you're not quick, your whole party can be instantly wiped out. Quite frustrating, indeed, but those who persevere will be duly rewarded.
There are quite a few bonuses in this game, even though it's a bit linear at first. Two side-quest dungeons can be found for the sole purpose of collecting treasure and leveling up, along with a 3rd, extremely challenging dungeon, available after you've beaten the game. There are lots of items to discover (and create on your own with the Item Creation abilities), a great number of enemies to fight, and even multiple endings (although I am not quite sure on how exactly they're triggered, though I feel it has something to do with the other characters' opinions towards you).
Although the game is short, there's a lot to see and do. If there's any major complaint I have about the game, it's the fact that it's very short. After playing, it's obvious that the game was slightly rushed (a few bugs creep up in gameplay, and the game only lasts for ~20 hours). But, this makes sense considering the SFC was breathing its dying breath in Japan. It makes you wonder what the game could have been like if tri-Ace had more time to develop it...
In general, Star Ocean is a technical masterpiece. Unbelievable graphics, beautiful music, top-notch programming, and incredible storytelling all round out this massive 48-megabit package. If you have a working knowledge of Japanese, or don't mind reading a walkthrough while playing, you owe it to yourself to try this game.