Every generation, there are gems in the Square Enix family of games that never make it to North America. In the most recent generation, North America was robbed of Front Mission 5 and Dragon Quest: Shounen Yangus to Fushigi no Dungeon. In the PSOne generation, we lost out on Tobal No. 2 and Another Mind. Back in the 16-bit days, we lost out on Square titles like Bahamut Lagoon and Enix titles like Terranigma. With current handhelds being as powerful as they are, we’ve seen release of titles never before seen in this territory, such as Final Fantasy III, for example. Now, Square Enix gives us the chance to play through another of these missing gems: Star Ocean: First Departure. Is it worth picking up? If you’re an RPG fan with a PSP, the answer is undoubtedly yes. That’s not to say that Star Ocean is perfect, as there are issues with the title that make it feel archaic, but anyone who liked The Second Story or Till the End of Time will fall in love with this game.
The main flaw of Star Ocean: First Departure – and just about the only portion of the game that is telling of the fact that it is a remake of a 16-bit title – is its classic story. Players take the role of Roddick, member of a smalltown militia on a backwater planet whose citizens are beginning to turn to stone. With his two best friends Millie and Dorne in tow, they venture out to find a cure for the disease that’s begun to affect Millie’s father. When looking for an herb that supposedly will cure the disease, the three run into two members of a spacecraft’s crew, one of whom is Star Ocean: The Second Story protagonist Claude Kenni’s father. The Earthlings expose the fact that the disease is in fact a bioweapon, and as Dorne falls ill, the other four travel into the past to discover a cure for the disease. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the story, as it provides a passable structure for the game, but the dialogue lacks flair and the story doesn’t flesh out until near the end of the game.
One redeeming feature of the story is the fact that the voice actors aren’t bad at all. While it’s certainly not the best voice acting heard in a video game, there’s nothing even remotely resembling Star Ocean: Till the End of Time’s Farleen, whose voice could shatter eardrums. There’s none of the Engrish from The Second Story (though one of Ilia’s final cries reminds me greatly of “That’s gonna be about eighty points!”), though players won’t be remembering lines to spout to their friends as they might in other games. Sakuraba’s soundtrack is good, but like the dialogue, I can’t remember a single bit of music that makes me want to find the OST. Sound effects, following suit, simply fill out the rest of the game.
It’s not such a stretch to follow the fact that the graphics are also fairly average, though, again, there’s little that is actually bad about them. The 3D environments that make up the overworld are pleasant, though there’s not much in them aside from the towns themselves. Character sprites are 2D on these backgrounds, and look like the sprites from your average PSOne game, animating well enough. None of the special moves are mindblowing, though some enemy spells are fairly impressive. There are character portraits for main characters’ dialogue, and they look good, though players used to seeing a moving mouth on these portraits won’t get that with Star Ocean. Much like the rest of the game’s presentation, it’s not bad, but it’s just not great.
The gameplay and underlying systems, however, are the redeeming feature of Star Ocean: First Departure. The title features the action-oriented bent that most tri-Ace games share, as well as the ability to be broken by someone who understands these systems well. The battle system itself has been updated from the original Super Famicom version to be identical to the system from Star Ocean: The Second Story. Players control one of the characters in battle and are able to freely move them around to attack, use a semi-automatic attack system that allows them to have limited movement, but more accurate attacks, or a system that leaves most of the movement to the computer. Each character tosses out three or four hit combo attacks, which can be combined with special attacks, found on the shoulder buttons. Unfortunately, only two of these special attacks can be bound, and there’s no modifier button that allows the binding of more attacks.
None of the battles are particularly difficult, and actually near the end of the game tend to be rather mindless button mashers. However, the battle system retains a fun factor throughout the majority of the game and is supplemented well by Star Ocean’s skill system. While characters gain basic statistics when they level up, they also gain skill points to be distributed amongst myriad skills. These skills become available gradually, as players must purchase the skills from vendors before they’re able to distribute points to them, but become a powerful part of how characters work. These skills can be either combat-oriented or craft-oriented. The combat oriented skills give characters more power, speed, defense, and sometimes special abilities, like the ability to randomly teleport to the monster the player is attacking. Some skills modify other skills, and the system ends up being very complicated and, for those who are willing to delve deeply into it, very rewarding.
The skills also give players access to a complex item-creation system, which ranges from identifying random drops from monsters to creating symphonies that make themselves more effective to making swords out of steel. This creation system, unlike the relatively easy-to-understand yet complicated skill system, can be rather obtuse for rookie RPG players. However, those who have played around with Star Ocean: The Second Story’s crafting system, which is nearly identical, or other tri-Ace titles’ skill systems will be right at home. This is where the majority of players are going to find the worth in Star Ocean: First Departure, as the majority of the game’s presentation is limited.
The game’s replayability is a bit of a downer, too. The game gets most of its bulk from having players do a lot of backtracking on Planet Roak, and this can be a bit tedious closer to the end of the game. Like The Second Story, however, players will end up with different characters in their party depending on the choices they make early on. This will give the hardcore a reason to run through the game again, though the casual will probably leave it be after a single playthrough.
Star Ocean: First Departure is not for everyone. Newcomers to the RPG genre should find their fix elsewhere first, though veterans will find themselves right at home with this tri-Ace title. It’s obvious that the game is an older title, and there are lots of things that have been done sharper in newer titles. The fact of the matter is, though, if you’re a fan of RPGs and own a PSP, you should probably find yourself a copy of this game.