So They Are Making A New Star Ocean Game! (Also, SPOILER WARNING!)
Star Ocean: The Divine Force was announced recently for the PS4 and PS5 with a 2022 release date. That coincides with the franchise's 25th anniversary, and while many were speculating something big from tri-Ace, a full-fledged game seemed low on the list. With Star Ocean effectively hibernating since the 2016 release of Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness (aka Star Ocean 5), most fans suspected an HD Remaster of one of the older games as a more likely outcome. But here we are, and the press release and debut trailer for The Divine Force surfaces a lot about what to expect from the game. Much like its predecessor, it looks like a pseudo-MMO in the style of Monster Hunter and Xenoblade Chronicles. The game's reveal trailer showcased vast open environments and an assortment of anime-ass characters murdering hapless monsters. The best way I can put it is to call the sizzle reel incredibly "safe."
Nonetheless, you might be surprised to know the first thing I did when the game was announced was to check the press release to establish the "Stardate" for the story. You see, while there is some sense of a continuous narrative with the Star Ocean franchise, each game has haphazardly navigated the series' continuum in leaps and bounds. Star Ocean: The Last Hope (aka, Star Ocean 4), for example, is technically the furthest back in the series' timeline, and Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (aka Star Ocean 3) continues to be the franchise's awkward endnote and more on that in a little bit. Disappointingly, I discovered, after a bit of sleuthing, The Divine Force's start date is listed as the year "583 SD." This date means the game takes place after Star Ocean 5 but BEFORE Star Ocean 3. Which I suspect will frustrate long-time fans of the Star Ocean franchise because it is YET ANOTHER sign that tri-Ace continues to be in denial about how badly they fucked up the Star Ocean canon with their godawful plot twist in Star Ocean 3. Speaking of which,
Let's Talk About A Plot Twist So BAD It Almost Killed A Franchise!
For those of you who look at Star Ocean as a bit of a pipsqueak in comparison to JRPG titans like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, The Legend of Heroes, and the Tales of games; you would be correct. Even during the series' "peak," which I would estimate is Star Ocean: The Second Story (aka Star Ocean 2), it always lived in the shadow of bigger and better games. Even glowing reviews of Second Story at the time couldn't help but declare it as a decent companion piece to Final Fantasy VII. That said, the franchise has its defenders who have followed it as far back as its initial offering on the Super Famicom. And much like the games they are compared to, the Star Ocean games constantly endeavor for a level of mechanical quality other Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest knockoffs do not usually aspire to all the time. Shit, even Blue Sphere, an early GameBoy Color release, is worth checking out as a solid proof of concept of a bite-sized handheld-based JRPG experience. Narratively, Star Ocean definitely showed its Dragon Quest influences. While its early games certainly had stories, they felt ancillary to their mechanical innovations to genre standbys. Personally, I enjoy Star Ocean: The Second Story's action-oriented battlefield and gameplay far more than its Tales of contemporaries. I find Second Story snappier, and its skill and crafting mechanics far less convoluted.
All of this nostalgic musing suggests the first handful of Star Ocean games were pleasant experiences. You will never see me put a Star Ocean game on my proverbial "Greatest Games of All-Time" list, but you might see me suggest a few titles as gateway JRPGs for newcomers. Unfortunately, that is far from the case with Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (aka, Star Ocean 3). In the lead-up to the game's release, tri-Ace promised an epic story, as well as an improvement to the real-time JRPG combat fans had grown to love. In comparison to previous Star Ocean games, Till the End of Time's sense of scope and scale dwarfed its predecessors by a considerable margin. To highlight, single acts and one-off environments doubled the in-game world of the first game. For many, seeing tri-Ace pine for the skies of JRPG stardom was worth the price of entry alone, and I would be one of them had it not been for the game's final act. Overall, Till the End of Time is a fun and fast-paced adventure for upwards of 80% of its playtime. Sure, you have to get over some groan-inducing moments and the expected anime tropey horseshit endemic to this genre, but the story, for the most part, holds its own. Likewise, while you whale away on trash mobs and allocate points into characters, the worlds you explore are stunning. Sure, the protagonist is named "Fayt Leingod," but the game successfully conveys a spectacular space-faring galaxy.
And it's not just the game's ending that is "problematic." The final act of Till the End of Time continues to be a sore point among fans and in the Star Ocean continuity. You see, near the end of Star Ocean 3, the game starts to ramp up its digital artifacting and even starts spouting out game code as if you are a character in The Matrix. Eventually, the characters of the game encounter a man by the name of "Luther Lansfeld" who reveals he is a "Fourth Dimensional Being" and Yup, the whole Star Ocean metaverse is outed as being a game within a game. All of the characters you loved and enjoyed in the previous Star Ocean entries were just avatars controlled by an ancient alien race. Obviously, the game implies that these fourth-dimensional beings are you and me and Luther Lansfeld is our representative. So, it's "Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions" but anime. Predictably, the characters of Star Ocean 3 reject this reality, claim they have achieved sentience, and promptly delete Luther Lansfeld to prevent him from erasing the universe they know and love. The entire epilogue of the game involves you controlling the main character and asking every member in your party how they plan to live their life. That might sound compelling on paper, but in execution, you get one lecture about human consciousness after another for about two hours. It is undoubtedly one of the most painful video game epilogues I have ever witnessed in my life.
Regardless, it's worth mentioning how Star Ocean 3's plot twist has its share of defenders. Some view it as an interesting inversion of the isekai genre, whereas others applaud the story for rejecting standard epic storytelling conventions.One of the more interesting defenses of the game comes from Kotaku's Ethan Gach, who, in 2017, shared why they found the narrative ambition of Star Ocean 3 far more compelling than the mechanical rigmarole of Star Ocean 4 and 5. Obviously, I entirely beg to differ, but there's no denying tri-Ace went for it in Star Ocean 3. What continues to rub me the wrong way is how Star Ocean 3 entirely discards decades' worth of worldbuilding for the sake of a cheap one-off twist that the series has repeatedly failed to make good on since it happened. Yes, Star Ocean 5 is essentially an MMORPG, and because of its mechanical trappings, it somewhat leans into the possibility of its world being an MMO. Nonetheless, the in-game story barely addresses the implications of your characters being avatars of an alien race or if anyone you control has achieved consciousness. To me, tri-Ace refusing to own up to their fuck up by either retconning the ending of Star Ocean 3 or doubling down and making it the series' raison d'être proves they had no idea what they were doing.
One of my all-time favorite memories of 1Up.com was when tri-Ace brought Star Ocean 4 to their office, and the site's usual JRPG reviewers refused to let a PR representative dodge questions about if the game addressed the ending of Star Ocean 3. Eventually, tri-Ace was forced to recognize that "all stories in the Star Ocean family are to be respected, but each game is its own story," and that has been the stance they have maintained since. Star Ocean 4 is a prequel to all previous Star Ocean games and entirely dodges the issue as a result. And as I mentioned previously, every time I bring up this fundamental issue with the world of Star Ocean, someone chimes in about Star Ocean 5. These commenters tend to claim that the series slowly becoming a single-player MMO is the developer recognizing the legacy of Star Ocean 3. But if that were the case, they should make this the whole point of the games moving forward and explicitly communicate it to the audience! This roundabout ambient storytelling is WEAK SHIT! In my opinion, the creative leads at tri-Ace are a bunch of fucking cowards, and they need to decide on what they want to do with this part of the canon. Otherwise, why the fuck should I care about any of these characters?
But What Does Any Of This Mean For Star Ocean: The Divine Force?
Here's my big prediction about Star Ocean: The Divine Force. tri-Ace does jack shit to resolve any of the dozens of questions people still have about Till The End of Time. Like the last two games, as well as the awful free-to-play mobile game, they are likely going to plug their ears and pretend no one remembers Star Ocean 3 exists in the first place. MAYBE, there are "hilarious" references to the fact the universe of Star Ocean is a fake video game world. I would not discount there being a single NPC that spouts a random line about knowing the machinations at play that govern the franchise's shared metaverse. However, will any plot holes this premise presents ever get resolved? NOPE! Never say never, but the chances tri-Ace even gives a shit is virtually zero.
And I don't know, the game in the trailer looks incredibly mediocre? With the series increasingly erring towards the mechanics of Monster Hunter, I honestly hope tri-Ace does something stupidly ambitious with their storytelling. Otherwise, I think they run the risk of exposing their low-rent sensibilities. The games they develop independently cannot possibly hope to stand on the laurels of tight mechanics or marginal innovations, as they did in the PS1 and PS2 era, with the RPG market as crowded as it is today. Which, honestly, is why I want them to do something crazy. tri-Ace had a massive role in making Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns. I get they only provided additional programming and design help in those games, but they are no strangers to the "right kind of schlock." That would at least lead to something more compelling than yet another Monster Hunter clone. And with this game, what do they have to lose? The franchise has been in a rut for over five years, so now is the time to shake things up!