For a long time, Star Ocean has always seemed like the one of the black sheep of the Square Enix JRPG family. Final Fantasy has enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, filled with lots of marketing, spin-offs, transmedia and a budget to spare, whilst Star Ocean looks in from outside, sitting in the cold, damp outskirts of the limelight. It was Tri-Ace’s job to create an exciting, sprawling RPG and after playing this game through, I’m not sure they nailed it. It’s not their fault, I openly admit, this series just hasn’t been given the same love and attention that it needs to thrive.
You play as Fidel Camuze, a swordsman living in a small town of Sthal. In defence of his village from attackers, he and his childhood friend Miki go off in search of extra troops from the capital. There’s a war going on and they don’t really want to help, and on your way back to your town you meet Relia, a very strange young girl who can wield powerful magic previously unseen. The two forces waging war against each other are bad enough, but a race alien to Faycreed wants Relia, and they’ll stop at nothing to get her. It all sounds pretty cool, but not many of those story beats really play out in super interesting ways, perhaps due to the brevity of the game itself.
Combat is the main focus of the game, you’ll do it a lot just moving from place to place, which you also do a lot as fast travel isn’t given ‘til midgame, and then taken away not too long after. This boils down to pretty much just mashing and holding buttons. The characters all move toward the targeted enemy whenever an attack is hit, so besides a little dodging there’s not much movement at all. Attacks move between light and heavy, and a block, and skills can be assigned to holding those buttons, depending on distance. It’s not terrible, truly, and whilst there is a rock-paper-scissors mechanic to it, it’s barely needed at all. I think this style of combat was done much better in the Tales Of series, where strategy played a lot greater a role.
One thing I do quite like though is the role system. As you progress through the story, or level up other roles, you unlock what is the equivalent of skill bonuses or AI for other characters, in the forms of Roles. Insect Killer might give allow you to do more damage to insects, or be more aggressive in fighting them. A character might choose to focus on altruism instead, not taking part in the battle but earning you a passive gold bonus through their inaction. The more you use these roles, the higher level they get, unlocking more roles, and better bonuses as they do.
On the other side of that coin is the Specialities system, where you unlock things like mining, fishing and item creation, and level them up with points earned in battle. I liked this too, but often you’re searching way too hard for ingredients to stay relevant with the recipes you’ve acquired, so you could probably go through the entire game without using this at all. A lot of these are given through side quests too, which is a whole new set of problems.
Side quests are…how best to put this – incredibly prevalent. The game loads you up with sidequests at every single town, and whilst they could be ignored, as I said before some of them give skill books, specialities, weapons, and other stuff that’s super useful to the game. Whilst you can check what’s rewarded at the end of a quest, you can’t see what that item actually does, so you may unlock a book for a new speciality, only to find out it unlocks emotes or something similar, which is completely useless. I mentioned the fast travel issues before too, and these side quests really bring out that frustration. Moving three towns over to do a sidequest may take fifteen minutes, when you factor in random battles, and it just ends up being amazingly frustrating.
There are also issues with the camera, bopping around when you move, and being completely in the way in battle, and downright annoying when you’re going up or down a hill. In story scenes you have very little control, and the game puts up big red X walls to make sure you don’t move too far forward, or back, which can also be seen if the game doesn’t want you to go to a location, sometimes without telling you why at all.
Lots of little frustrations mar this experience, and it’s something I am quite annoyed about, as I wanted this to be awesome. I wanted some cool sci-fantasy RPG to play, with a cool story. Maybe it’s because this didn’t have the budget, maybe it’s because it was an older RPG, coming out on PS3 in Japan, but this is a game that left me wanting more, and it just never provided it.