Star Ocean is, at this point, one of the longest ongoing JRPG series. I don’t think I’m alone in saying I didn’t expect another entry after Integrity and Faithlessness; I thought that one completely missed the mark. Having never had numbered titles for its mainline releases, Star Ocean is now mere weeks away from its sixth installment: The Divine Force. A fitting name, because I believe the fact that this game even exists implies there might be some divinity at work within Square Enix. There’s a demo available right now on both PlayStation and Xbox digital storefronts (yet somehow not on PC), and today I’ll be sharing my initial impressions of the Series X demo.
Fans of the Star Ocean series will be all too familiar with the game’s opening. You’re on a spacecraft, there’s a blonde dude in charge, and something goes wrong. It’s quite charming that tri-Ace, the Star Ocean development team, haven’t tried anything new for The Divine Force’s intro sequence, and I mean that with only the mildest implied sarcasm. The opening may lean on what is by now a bit of a tired trope, but it sure keeps consistency with the series’ identity. The scene is flashy and chaotic, which isn’t inherently bad, but things moved a little too quickly to properly establish any exposition. It’s hard to care about the main character, Raymond, getting separated from his dear comrades when we’ve barely blinked twice since they were introduced.
The graphics serve their purpose nicely, with anime-styled character models reminiscent of those used in Star Ocean: The Last Hope. The open-area environments, on the other hand, are a bit of a mixed bag. While some have some gorgeous vistas, others feel distinctly generic. The art team did a great job highlighting the landmarks. However, there was obviously some compromises made to make these areas interesting to explore while balancing their distinctive identities. I’ll go into more detail about the new exploration mechanics later on, but from what the demo showcases, I’m assuming there was a design decision to focus more on making the zones fun to play through and less on keeping areas constantly breathtaking and unique. The trade-off will need to be worth it in the full game, or these larger areas will feel unnecessary despite the new methods of travel. There are also noticeable framerate issues, even when using the option to prioritise performance over graphics, that I hope are gone by launch day.
One of the most noticeable things straight off the bat, however, is some very janky lip-syncing for voiced lines. I think we’re all used to lip movement in JRPGs not particularly lining up with English dialogue by now, but the animations for the mouths are distractingly rigid. Throughout the demo, the voice work itself is pretty solid, albeit lacking coherent direction. A wonderful example of this is Raymond pronouncing the name of another party member, Laeticia, two different ways in the space of a simple scene transition. Sometimes the actors seemed unaware of the context of their lines, and I wonder whether they were recorded out of chronological order.
Laeticia’s voice actor has a lovely alto timbre, which I appreciated considering the “squeaky” anime voice that many lead female characters have in JRPGs, but her demeanour changed almost every time she opened her mouth. You hear her go from robotic sounding, in the “we’ve just heard an actual android speaking in the intro; is she one as well?” sense, to the airs and graces of royalty, through to a more relaxed and jovial approach. I love character development for sure, but these changes happen within minutes of meeting her. Looking at the voice cast’s extensive past credits, I’m inclined to believe it’s more an issue with direction than the actors’ skills, and it’s certainly forgivable given the remote-working culture we’ve had to adopt these past few years.
Moving into the gameplay, The Divine Force expands ideas from previous Star Ocean games while also taking some real risks. For example, in combat, you can accrue bonuses to things such as EXP and Fol, the series’ currency, but it’s changed up a little here. The Last Hope handled its combat bonuses through a “board,” delivering various bonus tiles via methods such as how you deliver the finishing blow to foes. You could spend considerable time and effort building up these tiles across many battles, which made grinding a much more bearable experience, only to lose everything by taking an unexpected hit.
The Last Hope often left me feeling like I’d been punished for messing up rather than rewarded for doing well, which The Divine Force seems to have addressed. Instead of perilously heading into consecutive battles wondering what will become of your precious bonuses, it now appears that executing certain moves will grant a flat bonus for that specific battle. Gone is the pressure to maintain peak performance if you don’t want to lose everything. I imagine this will prove a divisive change. While I personally prefer it, it does remove the risk-versus-reward aspect that some may have enjoyed. Masochists, the lot of you!
Blindsides also make a return and are tied into a new key gameplay element in The Divine Force: D.U.M.A! I have no idea what the acronym stands for, but it refers to a hovering drone-like companion who grants the party some truly gratifying movement abilities. D.U.M.A can carry you through the air in short bursts, both in and out of combat, which proved surprisingly fun. I quickly learned that you could activate D.U.M.A’s charge feature mid jump, allowing me to get a bit of height before soaring off to my destination. Performing this charge in combat allows you to Blindside your enemies, leaving them stunned and increasing the damage they receive. I enjoyed charging into a large group, Blindsiding multiple enemies at once, and reaping the benefits of the aforementioned combat bonuses. Dare I hope tri-Ace are on to a winning formula here?
I’d say that out of all the gameplay elements in this demo, D.U.M.A is the most fleshed out and innovative. I had a great time shooting around the environments. That said, D.U.M.A’s utility sticks out like a sore thumb alongside the world-building. The planet in the demo is what Raymond refers to as “underdeveloped,” a term used throughout the Star Ocean series to identify planets that haven’t hit certain technological advancements yet. Here, however, he not only zips around large open spaces with his highly advanced machine pal, but is also accompanied by a princess. One particularly jarring scene sees the party entering a small rural village in which Raymond suggests they hide D.U.M.A so as not to confuse the locals. After the cutscene ends, however, you’re free to switch the player character to Laeticia, the princess of this realm, and fly among the rooftops with alien technology. Maybe I’m just being picky here, but it seems highly unlikely that not a single person would bat an eyelid.
Aside from D.U.M.A, I don’t think the demo gave the best impression of what combat will be like in the full game. The portion is obviously from the early game, and I’d like to hope the combat will further develop over the course of the full game. The basic flow of combat seems to entail using your combo skills on enemies until you’re out of AP, then either engaging D.U.M.A for some aerial beatings or… running away. The AP system reminds me of Secret of Mana, in that you have to wait for a brief recharge before you can attack. Every combo skill you use drains the AP metre, which then refills after a brief pause. I’m happy to see the series moving away from a traditional MP system, as there are much more intuitive ways to control how many abilities the player can use in succession, but flow is also critical. I imagine it’ll play out like a tag-team between ground skills and D.U.M.A, but as I said, it’s not clear from what you have access to in the demo. It shows promise, but could also become boring and repetitive if there isn’t enough variation.
While I clearly had my concerns, I enjoyed The Divine Force’s demo. Lessons have been learnt since Integrity and Faithlessness, with actual camera direction returning to cutscenes and a greater emphasis on how the player character can navigate environments. However, I am reticent to recommend the game until the full version launches, almost entirely because the demo left me wanting more. I wanted to see how the combat evolves, whether the story goes in directions that contradict the tropes of its foundation, and whether the jank is cleaned up.
My demo impressions may seem to be on the negative side, but it’s purely coming from me wanting to see the best for the series. Each subsequent Star Ocean game has seen a dip in quality, so despite having fun with The Divine Force‘s demo, I can’t deny I’m worried that things won’t come together as I’m hoping they will. The competitive nature of the modern gaming market doesn’t allow room for failure, and tri-Ace have a lot to prove if they want to restore fans’ faith in the series, which is somewhat ironic considering the last entry was titled Integrity and Faithlessness. I still believe that games can be highly enjoyable despite not hitting that AAA polish, and I can see The Divine Force having great potential if it builds on what this demo establishes. Let’s hope we’re all pleasantly surprised and that the series is back to a positive trajectory come October 27th.