It is not the graphics, story, or music that keeps fans addicted to the Star Ocean series; since the original came out for SNES in 1996, it has always been deep gameplay and superb replay value that kept folks coming back. Nevertheless, the music deserves praise in its own right, as all three games have soundtracks that are consistently above average in the world of JRPGs. With a heavyweight like Motoi Sakuraba at the helm, this should come as no surprise.
Sakuraba, the prolific composer for various ex-Wolf Team member franchises like Valkyrie Profile and the Tales of series, has always saved much of his most creative and experimental work for the Star Ocean series. More so than just about any of his other work, the Star Ocean games present a wide range of styles and interpretations. You get gorgeous string music, hectic modal jazz improvisation, elegant preludes, fugues, harpsichords, progressive rock, and electronica all on one one CD–and it all fits somehow!
The first Star Ocean, being the least sci-fi of the series, sounds thematically similar to other late 90’s RPGs, including Tales of Phantasia. What First Departure does that the SNES original could not, is add muscle to the instrumentations with more complex arrangements and flourishes. Most of these changes retain the spirit of the original game. Tracks like “Innocence” and “One Challenge” keep the melodies intact but feel much more grand thanks to thicker brass and woodwind sections.
Everything sounds better, though there were weak spots in the original soundtrack. The battle music for normal and boss fights is not very good, though it sounds a little better this time around. The incidental music and village themes are not particularly memorable, though tracks like “Sunny Place” and “Calm Time” present some nice woodwind melodies at various quiet moments and villages.
The soundtrack is a mixture of solid and excellent songs, the former working well as background music, and the latter being worthy of buying the soundtrack itself. Some examples of the stand out tracks would be “Federation,” “Mission to the Deep Space,” and “Sweet Time.”
“Federation” has a marvelous pulsing drum section on top of which the strings layer chords with the brass taking the melody. The melody itself is fantastic, briskly building to the octave halfway through the phrase, and then transferring to the strings in a subdominant section for eight bars. It is an exhilarating piece of music. “Sweet Time,” like “Federation,” is a village theme, used for only one town in the game. The harpsichord melody in the first section is assured yet delicate. The gorgeous harp arpeggios throughout suit the bourgeois atmosphere of the town itself, and I found myself hanging out there in the game quite often just to hear the tune.
My favorite track in the game is the “Mission to the Deep Space,” the theme for the Cave of Trials and the same music used in Star Ocean 2 and 3’s respective secret dungeons. The song symbolizes everything I like about Star Ocean. The opening evokes a training montage in an ’80s sports movie, and the electronic organ theme following it really adds to the sense of danger considering the dungeon is dozens of floors with super powerful enemies and no save points. In short, the music reminds you that you are playing a game. The Cave of Trials has nothing to do with the story; it is completely optional and unnecessary. It is there only to test the player. There is nothing overly dramatic or pretentious in the music. The song can be listened to for hours on end without getting old because of how well it is arranged.
First Departure’s soundtrack is in every way better than the original. The extra town themes are excellent, and the handful of stand-out tracks are worth it for fans of the series. It falls short of being a great album in its own right, but it is still a respectable addition to Sakuraba’s catalogue and a generally good collection of songs.