By Jenni . October 29, 2008 . 6:35pm
Star Ocean: First Departure offers a unique opportunity for Star Ocean series fans – it is the first time that the title has been released outside of Japan. This alone would make it stand out and a must buy for fans of the series, but Square Enix went a step further and added in extra features, new graphics and built on Star Ocean: The Second Story’s engine to refine the title and make it even better. Its is a wonderful addition to the PSP’s robust RPG library.
I’ve been a Star Ocean fan since Star Ocean: The Second Story. (It was the reason I bought a PS1.) So I was beyond delighted to hear about the remakes of Star Ocean 1 and 2, and even more enthused when I heard both were scheduled for North American and European releases.
Then, I was given the opportunity to play Star Ocean: First Departure, and I was entranced. At first, I thought I had mistakenly received Star Ocean: Second Evolution, because the backgrounds and character sprites looked too good. It took me a moment to realize that when Square Enix said they were going to update the graphics, they really meant it. The backgrounds and environments in towns, outdoor areas and some dungeons especially look great.
The story begins with the three young Fellpool (kind-of like cat people) Roddick, Millie and Dorne, who live in the small town of Kratus and act as the village’s defense force. They basically protect everyone from monsters and bandits. One day, a neignboring town suffers a debilitating disease which turns all of the residents into stone. Roddick, Millie and Dorne travel to the top of a nearby mountain to get a plant which can supposedly cure disease.
When they reach the top though, they run into the Earthlings Ronyx and Ilia. A biological weapon has been dropped on Roak, causing the infection that turns Fellpool into stone. Roddick, Millie and Dorne agree to go with Ronyx and Ilia in the hopes that they can somehow find a way to stop the infection and save the lives of their friends and family.
There is also a captivating storyline. There are some predictable RPG moments, but for the most part everything is interesting and there are some twists to keep things interesting. Despite having a distinct Star Trek feel (with the space travel, multiple species and such), it is mainly a fantasy RPG.
Plus, there are so many different available characters, each with unique talents and skills. I could honestly see replaying the game taking a different approach, using different party members and recruiting different characters. This is especially true since certain characters will only join if you have a certain number of party members or make the correct choices. It makes the game much more interesting and engaging.
Square Enix also added in loads of voice acting. The casting is perfect, and the different characters all seem to come to life thanks to the voice acting talent of actors like Yuri Lowenthal and Julie Maddalena. Even some NPCs are voiced, which is a pleasant surprised.
There are also gorgeous anime cutscenes littered throughout the game. These tend to pop up at major points in the story. I loved watching them. Thankfully, Square Enix included a Movie Gallery that you can access from the opening menu, so you can go back and rewatch scenes you’ve unlocked so far.
The part I enjoy the most, by far, is the skill system. All Star Ocean games allow you to teach characters skills, which means that they can then learn certain item creation abilities or specialties. Star Ocean: First Departure is no exception. In fact, the reason I made it through the pirate’s lair early on was due in part to Ilia’s use of the cooking skill. Different characters have initial and innate talents, which make them more successful using certain skills, which makes you think more critically about assigning talents. Characters can also combine their specialties to perform a whole new ability. Its an incredibly complicated, yet satisfying, aspect of the game.
The Private Action system is also present, and is also a joy. When approaching a town, you will sometimes be able to press the square button to have the party enter and split up. You can then talk to other characters alone to build relationships and learn more about your fellow party members.
The only two qualms I had about the game had to do with battle. The AI for the characters you aren’t controlling (since the Star Ocean games have real time battles like the Tales of series, where you only control one character at a time) is mediocre. I found myself constantly tinkering with the strategy and tactics outside of battle until I finally found a set-up which worked for me.
The second issue was somewhat minor – for a decent portion of the beginning of the game, you are left with no healer. This isn’t catastrophic, but I personally always feel more comfortable in an RPG when I know I have a healer either in the party, or on the sidelines waiting to join the party. This is a storyline quirk though, and not really something Square Enix could have fixed.
Overall, Star Ocean: First Departure is just a fantastic game. It may not seem revolutionary now, but it was when it first came out. The original Star Ocean was a pioneer, introducing voice acting, character relationships that could changes based on private interactions with the characters, real-time battle and elaborate graphics at a time when these things weren’t common-place. And while the plot and features may not seem as fresh, now that other games have also included similar concepts, fans of JRPGs, Square Enix and the Star Ocean series of games should definitely give Star Ocean: First Departure a chance.
Images courtesy of Square Enix.