adc's Star Ocean: First Departure (PlayStation Portable) review

There are a lot of rough edges.

It bothers me when people complain about Square Enix's policy of bringing forward its old games. The fact of the matter is, RPGs are expensive to develop. The fact of the matter is, Square Enix needs to keep the lights on while working on its latest magnum opus. And even if those things weren't the case, the fact of the matter is that both Enix and Square were making amazing games in Japan that never saw the light of day int he United States.

Enter Star Ocean First Departure, the rebuild of one of the last RPGs Enix made for the Super Famicom way back in 1996. That old game never formally made it to the States, but its two sequels saw impressive sales on both sides of the Pacific and in the States in particular. With this series developing a solid fanbase and being one of the most unusual in Enix's stable, there was never a doubt that, when the first game got its rebuild, it would make it to the States. And so it has, on Sony's PSP. Good thing.

The Star Ocean series primarily draws its inspiration from Star Trek, and it shows all the way from the Federation-like Alliance to the transporters to the universal translators. Yet this is a Japanese RPG series, and that means it's still all about the swords and sorcery when it's time to make the game's nuts and bolts. And this first game centers around a planet where there are no phasers but the people live in peace — until a nefarious hidden enemy attacks the planet with a biological weapon that causes the population to turn to stone. From this point our heroes will be swept into a battle across two time periods and three worlds, all to save the planet and defeat the hidden enemy.

Our heroes, by the way, including the two main characters who are from Roak in the year 346; two supporting characters from same-year Earth (yes, the same Earth we live on — they even show a map); and a small mob of party-fillers from Roak 300 years in the past. Among all these are several swordsmen, a few magic-users, and even a couple of oddities, for a total of (depending on how you look at it) 12–14 playable characters, each with their own story. The focus is definitely on the two main characters, Roddick Farrence and Millie Chliette, with some bones thrown to the Earthers, Ronyx J Kenny and Ilia Silvestri; the party-fillers are only peripheral to the main story and get their stories build primarily in optional "private action" story sequences. That's fine by me; ofttimes when a game has too many "main" characters, it turns into a mess with no actual main character to wrap the story around. This game's character structure allows the player to choose how much time to spend on any given party-filler.

The main story is a standard "save the world" product with few twists and a goal-oriented structure, as was fairly normal for games of this vintage; it gets the job done but isn't geared to touch the player emotionally. Our heroes go into the past (in violation of the game's version of the Prime Directive) to find an antidote to the hidden enemy's biological weapon, which requires them to defeat the Archfiend Asmodeus (yes, this does form a pre-destination paradox: These people defeat the bad guy, so life on Roak is good for 300 years, then these people are born; if they choose not to go back in time to defeat Asmodeus, they'll cease to exist because their ancestors will never have existed in the first place. It's not mentioned in the game, and you shouldn't think about it too much or you'll probably go cross-eyed). Of course, things are never as easy as going from point A to point B in these games, as our heroes become separated and have to take advantage of the kindness of the party-fillers to reunite, and then they have to get permission from the game's four kings (who bear some resemblance to the kings in a pack of cards) before they're allowed to save the world. It's all pretty normal stuff, and if you're going into this game expecting more than that, you're going to come away disappointed.

If, however, you're looking for modern production values to sexy up the old game, you've come to the right place. If there's one thing Square does well, it's production values. In this case, the well-regarded animé house Production IG came on board to produce several animated sequences and animé-style character artwork. It's not the highest quality artwork, and Roddick in particular has this starey look in the eyes that makes him look constantly stoned, but it works out pretty well most of the time.

All of these sequences, and many in-engine story sequences as well, are fully voiced in English, and that's also a hit-and-miss proposition. Sam Gold's performance as Captain Ronyx is very good, but most of the actors try too hard to sound younger than they are, and the result comes off as shrill at best, miscast at worst. Alicyn Packard simply has the wrong voice for catgirl Pericci, and Julie Maddalena's Ilia is an almighty spike in the ear. The creators remain obsessed with casting Yuri Lowenthal in the male lead role, and the most I can say for him is, he's more correct for this role than he was for Cecil in Final Fantasy IV. That's not a compliment. I continue to lament Square's standard practice of not including the Japanese voices in these games, and this game offers the additional slap in the face of not having an OFF switch for voices.

The rest of the sound is quite good, as Motoi Sakuraba's soundtrack has held up very well over the years. And in-engine visuals, featuring 2D sprites against rendered backgrounds, are absolutely gorgeous. The world map is built entirely in 3D and looks very good, though the creators had to use fog effects and camera trickery to disguise (not entirely effectively) the 3D engine's rather short draw horizon. In order to create the illusion of distance, the creators also made our party run like a dead tortoise. With the sheer amount of random encounters the game presents, this is not a good thing. But it does look really good.

The large amount of random encounters are all handled throught he game's real-time battle system, which has been geared to play fast but seems slow and unbalanced at times. Under ordinary circumstances, attacks, techniques, and defense work just fine, but magic causes the whole battle to stop while the long, slow effects wash over the screen. I noticed that enemies seem to have initiative when casting magic, but maybe I was simply unlucky; either way, I often found Millie just about to cast a Cure spell when she was pre-empted by an enemy's spell. The result was that Millie cast that Cure spell on a corpse, though she'd started her spell while the other character was very much alive. The logic of the artificial intelligence settings is very basic and limiting, but there's no way around using it as long as the battles are carried out in real-time instead of a turn-based structure. Generally speaking, the healing-intensive AI casts too-strong spells on characters who don't need to be healed, while more balanced AI settings are usually too little, too late with the healing. Non-healers fare better, as their only task is to wipe out the enemies as quickly as possible. The magic-intensive AI is generally fine, but sometimes the spell choice and timeliness are questionable.

It is fair to note, of course, that this is the first game developed by tri-Ace after breaking away from Namco's Wolf Team (Tales). This is what they were capable of while making games for the SNES. I'm disappointed that they seem not to have made improvements for the new version fo the game.

One of the hidden strengths of SOFD, which can be used to help with the sometimes annoying nature of the battles, is the game's robust item creation system. As our heroes level up, they become able to craft weapons, armor, and accessories for use in battle; medicines and comestibles to restore HP, MP, status; music and literature to augment status and improve skills. There's not a lot of fat on the story's bone, but there's still a lot to do for the obsessive-compulsive gamer. I found the item creation system to be very helptul later in the game, and that's fine because that's when it needs to be helpful. Whether it's because of the questionable (but unquestionably fun) battle system or because they just wanted to be mean and ramp up the difficulty toward the end, this game does demand dedication to item creation as well as level-grinding.

At the end of all, Star Ocean First Departure is as notable for its limitations and omissions as it is for what it does have and what it does do. The game is easy to play but hard to succeed at. It's fun, but sometimes the enemies get a cheap hit in and you lose three hours' worth of grinding. It has two time periods and three worlds, but about 80 percent of the game is locked into one time period and one world, making the other parts essentially extended dungeons. It has a great item creation system, but it offers no indicaiton of what you're going to accomplish during such creation, and sometimes it simply reports that you failed, offering no explanations. In short, it's the first game in a series, and it's the first game of this type for this developer. There are a lot of rough edges.
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