Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Star Ocean is the greatest SNES RPG westerners never got to play. In terms of its scope and design, it blows even Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy games out of the water. With its cutting edge skill system, excellent graphics, memorable music, variable endings, voice acting (in an SNES game!), hectic combat, secret characters, and generally sublime gameplay, Star Ocean is that rare peerless RPG that serves as a benchmark to other games in the genre proclaiming “This is what is possible. This is what can be done.” I played the game in college, at a time when I felt both spoiled and bored by PS2 and Xbox RPGs, thinking in the back of my mind that the game would be just another Final Fantasy rip-off.
I was wrong of course. One of the reasons I am so glad to finally see a remake of this game is the fact that I believe it is better than any Final Fantasy game out there (a biased opinion, I know) yet Square Enix is aiming for triple digits now with the total number of Final Fantasy remakes. First Departure is a textbook example of how a remake should be done. Let me break it down for you.
There are a couple of reviews of the original game on RPGFan, so if you want to know about the original game’s combat and skill systems, check there. For the most part, SO1 is similar to the other two games. First Departure strikes an excellent balance between revamping and maintaining the original game’s system. The developers borrowed heavily from SO2 and SO3 to make combat more flexible and fluid, as well as expand the world map and beef up the item creation and skill systems.
In battle, players can now take individual control over any character in the party, like in the later games. You can move characters around with the control pad, and regular attacks come in multi-hit combos with smooth animations. Ally AI is controlled by preset tactics that can be changed mid-combat, and as always, you can make characters attack specific enemies or use desired spells. While I like most of these changes, I did have two gripes. First, characters can now only equip two special attacks at a time, whereas the original game allowed four with slots for distanced and ranged attacks. By changing to SO2’s system, the characters have fewer strategic options in battle when compared to the original game. Second, the game feels slower. The original Star Ocean’s battles where extremely fast-paced for an RPG, which made the game more exciting and challenging. SO2 was the slowest game in the series, and First Departure plays like it.
Taken as a whole, the changes in the combat system are much more positive than negative. The addition of the world map, with a distinct overworld containing separate towns and dungeons, makes the game more conventional and accessible. The skill system has also been amplified with new specialties, abilities, and group abilities, again taking a page from SO2. Characters can compose music, play instruments, learn to cook, practice machinery, paint, train animals, write books, scout for enemies, customize weapons, use smithery to make armor, create accessories, publish novels, and even pickpocket every single NPC in the game. The fantastic thing is that all of this stuff is completely optional and how you utilize the skill system will change with each play through. Since there are a variety of secret characters who cannot all be obtained in one playthrough, along with randomly allotted innate talents that influence skill use, no two runs through the game will be alike, which cannot honestly be said of most RPGs.
The first Star Ocean is more linear than the second, and so all of this open-ended character development suited the second game more. By adopting SO2’s massive skill and ability system, I felt that the game became much easier than the original, which is a shame since the first game was not insanely hard to begin with. Even the Seven Star Ruins and optional bosses can be conquered with little difficulty once your characters crack level 100 (they will gain levels after every fight in the ruins anyway).
Fortunately, there’s enough variety to give the game a good deal of replay value. There are two new characters this time around, with their own story sequences and private actions that affect the game’s various endings. There’s also tons of new items, weapons, food, and some new enemies to boot.
I cannot think of a remake in recent memory that has taken such a smart approach toward upgrading visuals. First Departure maintains simple character sprites, only now they are much more fluid and colorful, with excellent animation. There is a plethora of character art with unique expressions to match dialogue sequences, and also new designs for all of the game’s myriad of items and weapons. What will really impress you, however, are the game’s locales. Several of the towns are absolutely breathtaking, and the level of detail in some of the later dungeons and sci-fi destinations is amazing. With a number of anime cut scenes, jazzed up spell and special attack animations, and improved monster designs, First Departure makes all the right moves when it comes to kicking the game’s style up a notch.
The original game did not have a phenomenal story. This has not been remedied much in the remake, which features two new characters and some new plot elements including Josh, Eris, and certain private actions. The game maintains the same badly paced, somewhat random sci-fi / fantasy plot as the original game, centering around a 300 year old demon king, a disease that turns people to stone, and a quest back in time to find a vaccine. Most of the characters are one-dimensional, which is understandable since you can beat the game without having most of them join your party. The plot progression was necessarily made flexible enough to accomodate a variety of casts depending on who joins the party and when, and as a consequence, some character stories feel a bit thin. Joshua and Eris’ drama is more fleshed out this time around with the latter becoming a playable character (though she’s basically a clone of Joshua). There are new private actions and character endings, which add to the fun of multiple play throughs. It’s not a fantastic plot, but it seems to fit, and everything else is so right with the game that I didn’t mind.
First Departure has a splendid soundtrack and top notch voice acting. The latter in particular added a lot of depth to some otherwise shallow characters. I particularly liked Ashlay’s gruff, rustic voice. Random NPCs and enemies now have spoken parts, and the cutscenes are all fully voiced with subtitles. The music is also consistently good, with the SNES tracks now fully orchestrated. Some towns have completely new songs and the game’s opening theme is enjoyable. All in all, there just aren’t any real faults with the game’s music, voicing, and sound effects.
The game plays like a mix between SO2 and SO3. The combat is more like the latter game, while the skill system is identical to the former. They mix well, and I had no trouble conducting battles, exploring dungeons, or managing character advancement. The overworld system makes it easier to navigate between locations; the last game featured dozens of field maps that players had to cross between towns, which made trekking back and forth something of a chore.
As I stated above, Star Ocean: First Departure is a textbook example of how to do a remake correctly. The game maintains enough of the core gameplay of the original game to keep fans happy, while offering enough new content to warrant going through the game all over again. The graphics and sound are unarguably better, stylistically consistent with the original, and more than able to compete with current generation games.
I should stress that one of the reasons that First Departure works so well as a remake compared to other games, is the simple fact that the original Star Ocean is such a fine game. The first design choice for developers when remaking a game is deciding which game to remake. Fortunately, Star Ocean was ahead of its time, and in its SNES form, is still more interesting and innovative than most fifth and sixth generation RPGs. tri-Ace simply added more to do, and wisely took some chances making changes to the gameplay, 90% of which improve the game with maybe 10% being undesirable. Whereas Final Fantasy IV DS, which saw five other versions over two decades, felt forced and dated, First Departure is polished, fun, and able to stake its own claim not only as a remake of a classic but as one of the better RPGs out in today’s market.