Star Ocean: First Departure ReviewJoe Shaffer
Perhaps you're familiar with the phrase "hasn't aged well." I'm sure I've dispensed those three words when reviewing retro titles more than a few times. I typically say this when a remake or enhanced port of a rather aged title exhibits certain flaws I was able to look past when the game was new(ish) that can't be ignored these days. I used to think that a fresh coat of paint, so to speak, would mask any game's cracks. Then I played Star Ocean: First Departure, a portable remake of the classic SNES RPG Star Ocean that blends fantasy with science fiction. Bear in mind that I'm not saying that First Departure is a terrible game, but even with its improved visuals, modernized combat system, and fresh soundtrack and voice acting, some of its content remains old fashion.
To wit, First Departure's campaign and plot smack of the mid-'90s. Here you have a collection of mostly likable characters, from the confident teenage protagonist Roddick to the injured war vet Ashlay. Even Ronyx and Ilia, the game's sci-fi-themed duo, have a few enjoyable moments. Unfortunately, First Departure doesn't take its charming cast anywhere we haven't already been, even by 1996's standards. There's no shortage of castles, caves, or old ruins, which might cause you wonder when the sci-fi elements are supposed to come into play.
At one point, four of the characters travel back in time to embark on an important mission, but end up in different parts of the world. From then on, they spend a fair portion of the storyline wandering around and considering where the rest of your entourage could be. It isn't until you've explored most of the planet that the main objective comes back into focus, and by then you might find it difficult to care. I'm not saying that First Departure has a poorly written story, but it saves all of its noteworthy developments for the latter phases when it should have showcased them throughout its campaign. For the most part, the events leading up to "good stuff" consists of your checking various towns, occasionally slipping into a simple dungeon, and then repeating the process.
I will admit that I was intrigued by the game's lore, though. Several locales you visit house wondrous lost technology, plus the main antagonists have some pretty complicated origins. Unfortunately, some of the lore pertains to either past events or those transpiring in other parts of the galaxy, and you end up wishing you were part of those occurrences instead.
The good news is that the game maintains many of the non-narrative elements that made the original a terrific RPG, with a handful of tweaks. In particular, First Departure still eschews turn-based battle in favor of real time brawls. All characters and monsters move about freely, pelting each other with punishing combination attacks, unique offensive maneuvers called "special arts," and symbology (read: magic). Although this makes for simple, snappy, and action-packed altercations, I do have a small gripe in the form of spammable offenses. Constantly reusing certain super effective special arts, for instance, dulls the challenge factor of many scuffles. One of the worst offenders is Roddick's Dragon Breath, in which a spectral dragon manifests and barrages your opponents with a multi-hitting tongue of blue flames and smoke. The cool down time for this special art is just about instantaneous, so you can easily overwhelm foes--ahem, bosses especially--with repeated uses, thereby removing any sense of strategy. Thankfully, Dragon Breath and its ilk require magic points in order to operate, otherwise the game would be a yawn-fest.
The spoils of war are what make hacking up foes worthwhile. Through gaining levels, you obtain more than just experience, cash, and items. Each character earns skill points when leveling up, which you can then allocate to various skills in an effort to learn abilities that beget major advantages and/or allow you to craft loads of goodies. For example, you could boost Roddick's eye for detail, aesthetic design, and smithing so he can acquire the ability "customization," which transfigures weapons using ores. There's a plethora of other skills to learn, some of which can even boost stats and are highly recommended for particular characters.
Imagine how banal First Departure would be without this system. Thanks to this, you can customize characters and create roles for them outside of combat. On top of that, the prizes you receive through item creation are unbeatable. There are certain healing items that are chiefly secured through the ability compounding, for instance, not to mention specialty weapons, armor, accessories and even consumables that allow you to boost some skills.
If there's anything else worth mentioning, it's that the game's voice acting doesn't make me want to drive a pencil through my ear canal. No, you're still not dealing with Oscar-worthy performances, but at least the sugary voices, over-acting, and mind-numbing lack of expression that was plentiful in the PlayStation era is pretty minimal throughout First Departure. I know I shouldn't laud adequate or mediocre work, but having survived the age of truly awful voice overs, believe me when I say it's a blessing when vocal tracks don't make you wish you were born deaf.
Although I ultimately enjoyed Star Ocean: First Departure, I feel that the game needed more than a visual makeover. Sadly, asking developer TOSE to upgrade the campaign and story wouldn't be the wisest move, either. If you're going to go to that much trouble, then why not just program a whole new title? Without those touch-ups, though, First Departure remains a game that looks and sounds appealing, has all the proper rule systems to be recognized as an adequate RPG, but doesn't possess the campaign to take all of its best facets anywhere noteworthy. Although I appreciate the game, I'm sure I'm going to forget its story by the start of the coming year. That's not something I should say about a title that comes from a genre that's known for featuring engrossing tales and lore.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.