Game Ramblings #165 – Star Ocean: The Divine Force

More Info from Square-Enix

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Windows, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S

This is a very particular type of game in that I don’t think it’s necessarily a good game, but it was a generally fun game. It doesn’t really do anything all that well. It’s generally a pretty absurd experience. But despite that, it’s never really a huge issue to play, at least until the end. However, that’s tri-Ace in a nutshell over the past few decades, so I guess I can’t really say I was that surprised.

I say until the end up there because I never actually finished this game. Per my PS5 tiles, I finished at around 94%. What this ended up suffering from was really a case of “but wait, there’s more!” Not that it’s unusual for a JRPG, but this had too many false endings. I’m pretty sure I’ve killed the main baddy three times already and was lining up for another. However, I hit another surprise dungeon that involved my two least-favorite JRPG tropes – removing your party and making you re-fight bosses as unnecessarily tanky versions.

It’s one thing to do either of those, but both at once is obnoxious. After spending 30 or so hours getting a party setup I want with skills that I want, the last thing I want to do is have to figure out how to fight with a now weaker party or one with different mechanical pros and cons. What I really don’t want to do is then redo fights I’ve already done. Not harder mind you, just longer. Not more interesting, just more boring.

Of course, that gets us to where I don’t really think the game is good. One of the bosses in this section is a great example. It has a mechanic where it splits into four around a target, then attacks toward center. As the player, I can dodge out of it fairly easily, regardless of taking some damage. If you aren’t the target, you just….have to stand around waiting to avoid damage. The AI really loved just pulling a Leroy Jenkins here and getting themselves killed in super tanky refight variant. So what’s the easiest strategy? Let them die and be just me and a healer, because the healer will always stay back and I will always be targeted, and there’s nobody left to die. So in this case, bad AI with bad tendencies and lack of situational awareness just makes for a draining fight.

Outside of situations like this though, the game is fun despite the jank. Combat is extraordinarily fast in a way that even the Tales games don’t approach. Is it pretty button mashy? Sure is! Does that make it fun? Sure does! This is backed by some skill tree and skill strengthening that does enough to make sure you remember there’s a JRPG in here somewhere, while also giving you some flexibility in steering your party’s play style. Traversal is largely the same. You sprint like a fucking psychopath through an environment that is far larger than it needs to be, then you’re given the ability to fly like a super hero. Does it make any sense? Nope! Is it fun? Yup!

So, this game exists in a weird dichotomy. It’s not particularly good. It’s incredibly janky. It has a really bad ending sequence. But despite that all, it manages to be fun. I guess in that respect I can’t really recommend it but I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it exists. It may not be a home run, and certainly doesn’t have the life of better supported mainline Square-Enix series, but it at least gives me some hope that the series isn’t just abandoned, and within the quality bar the series usually sets it doesn’t even end up being that bad. It’s a strange one.

How’d It Age #2 – Star Ocean: First Departure

More Info from Square-Enix

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PSP
  • Also Available On: PS4, Switch
  • Originally On: Super Famicom

This is definitely one of those games that kind of got away. It didn’t come out in the US until the PSP, and I completely missed the boat on that. It coming out again a couple years ago on modern consoles reminded me of its gap in my library, but it still took until now for me to finally get around to picking it up.

It’s been almost 6 years since the last Star Ocean in my playlist, and the benefit of hindsight shows so much of how that game ended up where it was. My likes playing that one basically read like a laundry list of my likes here.

This is a relatively short game, clocking in at under 15 hours. Because I finished around level 75, you can get a good guess about how quickly I was leveling up. The other benefit is that this allowed me to power through the skill list extremely fast. That in particular is one of my favorite things about leveling in this game. Ya, you get your leveling stats, but the skills are key. Want to load all in to offense with random armor breaks and offensive boosts? Go nuts, load into those skills. Want your healer to just spam heals to support your glass cannon shenanigans? Go ahead and load into skills that reduce cast and cooldown times. Take all of that and load into skills that reduce your point usage and increase your EXP gain and you’re just flying through the game. The customization possibilities there are a lot of fun and really end up being the focal point of a core metagame that still really works well 25 years later.

The combat also still manages to be fun, despite its relative simplicity. There’s definitely been games that have done it better in the years since, not the least of which are newer SO titles let alone series like Tales Of. However, this works well enough to allow me to just forget about how modern action-focused JRPGs have gone. The simplicity of having movement, an attack button with a fixed chain, and a couple of skill hotkeys is such an easy thing to fall into. I’m not remembering combos and weaknesses and anything extraneous. I’m just watching out for attacks, dodging them when I can, then spamming the hell outta my attack button to kill things. It combines with some of the skill stuff above (hell ya random dodge chance!) and the short length of the game to really just be enough to keep me going.

The things I do end up missing though are some of the little modern features that just aren’t here. The first of these is really just a lack of direction, and I don’t mean that quite so literally. Every story cutscene ends with a point where you’ve kind of got a random chance that they actually tell you something useful about where to go. More often than not I was just aimlessly wandering. Sure, people will complain about being handheld, but having a blip of like just generally go around here goes a long way to letting me explore and check things out while still eventually knowing the right way to head. I also just severely miss autosaves. Again, I think a lot of people will go “well, they make the game too easy” but I would argue just the opposite. Autosaves allow games to be much harder without wasting the players time. Save often, make individual combat situations difficult, and let players die without time loss. Modern JRPGs have started leaning into this a lot and I much prefer having a quick retry / reset to just before the fight to regroup option because a lot of the general fights in this game were just needlessly easy.

This is stupid, but I also just hate the town layouts. Why are the shops and inn so far apart from each other in pretty much every town? Why are the layouts all mazes without central squares? This was made more frustrating by the fact that you run faster in straight lines than diagonals, so navigating towns was just a slow process.

So then the question is less of a did it age well, because it did. It becomes more of a is it worth playing now? I think it’s a yes, perhaps with a bit of hesitation. If you’re kind of on the edge for the genre, I’d perhaps steer you to something modern likes Tales of Arise. If you’re a heavy JRPG fan, absolutely. There’s enough here to be fun, it’s short so it won’t waste a bunch of time, and it’s still entirely modern enough in combat feel to not be distracting. I may recommend waiting a bit for a sale, but even at its current price of $21 on PSN/Nintendo eShop, that’s not too bad of a deal for a pretty solid piece of gaming history.

Game Ramblings #16 – Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness

More Info from Square-Enix

  • Platform: PS4
  • Genre: JRPG

So I’m a bit of a sucker for JRPGs, and the Star Ocean series has never been any different.  However, it’s been a while since The Last Hope, and that one was already a pretty big step down for the series.  The unfortunate thing is that, while SO5 showed some promise in my playthrough, it’s not reversing the slide.

If you’ve played a Star Ocean game before, this one pretty much follows the pattern.  You’ve got a cast of people on a usual nonsense JRPG story.  You’re on a backwater planet that happens to be thrown into the midst of fighting between the advanced civilizations in the galaxy.  The characters themselves are probably an overall step up from The Last Hope, including an often entertaining, but definitely hilariously dressed mage. The battle system is still a solid action battle system, pretty similar to past titles.  In what could have even been an improvement, you get up to 7 active party members at one time, which is one of the larger JRPG parties I’ve seen.  However, the game ended up feeling like it was rushed to shipping, and never really pulls into a very cohesive whole.

On the surface, this is a very short game.  I ended up clocking around 20 hours to completion, though that was admittedly not a 100% run.  What it ends up doing though is progressing the plot extremely quickly, so the story is over as soon as you really feel like you’re growing into the characters.  It also means that leveling is EXTREMELY fast.  I ended the game just short of level 80, so you can imagine the leveling pace as I was actually fighting through the world.  The unfortunate thing is that unlike other Star Ocean games, you’re effectively rooted to one planet.  There’s a few excursions to space stations, but nothing permanent.  To combat this problem, the enemies scale in the world after certain plot points, but traversing the same areas definitely grows dull.

There were also some very distinct points that drew me to annoyance.  In general, the main healer for the party was pretty incapable of staying out of trouble, so I always kept a lot of healing and resurrection items on hand.  There were also a handful of boss fights that were effectively the worst kind of escort mission.  One in particular had me facing waves of enemies while one of my party members was hacking a door.  However, if she alone died, it was a game over.  She also would not defend or heal herself, and the enemies would beeline towards her without being able to be tanked by the rest of my party.  To say it was frustrating would be a massive understatement.

The unfortunate thing in the end is that I did legitimately enjoy playing the game.  Individual fights were just fun, the little side story moments that the series often has were generally just funny, the game generally looked pretty visually solid (if not a bit busy at times).  This is just one of those games that very clearly could have benefited a lot from more cycles of iterating on what they had going, because it’s so close to really being a great RPG.  At this point I’m just hoping that tri-Ace is now setup with the technology they need for the next few years, so they can truly just spend time working on a next-gen game, rather than next-gen technology.