Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: October 21, 2008
Square Enix's seminal Star Ocean title for the Super Famicon console was never released in the West. However, a sequel to the title made it over to the U.S., was localized to English, and became a popular PlayStation choice for J-RPG aficionados. Another title in the series was released for PS2, earning generally favorable critical reception and especially good notices among RPG fans. Now, as handheld game consoles are becoming the de facto standard for reissues and encore editions of J-RPG games that experienced their heyday two or three generations of platform technology back, Square Enix reaches deep into the catalog for this PSP title: Star Ocean: First Departure. As the kick-off Star Ocean series game, it had never before seen a Western release, but it's now available with full English language translation. It also falls in the latter category as an encore title, featuring fresh animated cut scenes not presented in the original Japanese PlayStation release of the 1990s.
Foremost, with a faithful rendition of the Japanese game for English-speaking J-RPG fans, Star Ocean is a title for everyone who enjoys, even occasionally, a traditional J-RPG title. It's not for anyone who abhors the RPG genre, or even merely dislikes the J-RPG implementation of console role-playing games. If you're more of a living-room or handheld console gamer, Star Ocean is not the title that will open a new world of hybrid RPG gaming for you. Star Ocean does not demonstrate any genre crossover innovations, brilliant or otherwise. It's true to its roots, and, except for some new cinematic animations and English voice acting, remains largely true to the game's original Japanese release.
The title's animated cut scenes, which are new to this PSP version, are well executed and will be familiar, and appealing, to any fan of the more mainstream Japanese anime productions. The art and motion of the 2-D cinematic scenes is lively in the way of modern Japanese animation, and the voice acting is surprisingly superb. Some of the dialogue may mortify you with its silliness, but it's fluffy, mainstream J-RPG dialogue that suits its purpose; it's almost perfectly delivered by Star Ocean's handful of essentially anonymous but skilled voice talents. This is a significant, necessary strong point because the game, in J-RPG style, is far more focused on its unfolding, rich story line than in constant action. As genre tradition dictates, these elements supersede all others as the game plays out: story, leveling up (two principal characters ? Roddick and Millie ? and three supporting players ? Dorne and starship officers Ronyx and Ilia), learning skills and abilities, distributing earned points to enhance learned and inherent traits, buying and discovering appropriate items ? and equipping these items at the right moment.
Combat is handled likewise, with the focus on equipping the appropriate main weapon or single-use combat item, unleashing special attacks and spells, and wise targeting of the worst foes before engaging in battle. Once engaged, beyond the ability to switch between available players characters and use certain combat items ? especially for healing ? combat is governed by one face button activating mostly "canned" attack animations with the equipped main weapon, and directing your retinue in basic tactics, such as an all-out barrage or a full-on retreat in the face of obvious rout. Spells and special attacks can also be executed in combat. As J-RPG players are accustomed, successful combat tactics are not so much what you do in the heat of battle, but what you did prior to engagement, in buying weapons, learning combat skills, using talents to create items useful in combat, and your efforts to level up your characters to be soldiers suited for taking on powerful enemies.
Star Ocean is ultimately a deep game, not only allowing you to "play deep" but eventually requiring that you do. For some ways into the story ? including a mammoth 30-minute interlude that is essentially a long, slightly interactive cut scene ? you can play from the hip, with little thought for overall game strategy and combat tactics … until you abruptly reach the point you can't. An unprepared, gung-ho gamer will quickly discover in the second act that he's not going to make it through without retooling his approach. It becomes priority number one to make those free game saves available almost anywhere in the world map ? although they're not allowed in towns, dungeons and some of the outdoor destinations, such as an important mountainside ? as you are likely to see your whole party fall victim to marauders before you get the hang of preparing for combat. As an example, spectacles are discovered around the various regions, and these are single-use items employed, especially in combat, to suss out the enemy for future confrontations. Not only do spectacles identify the variety of hostile creatures indigenous to planet Roak, but they also describe for the gamer their enemies' soft spots for specific targeted special attacks and combat items.
The graphics and audio in Star Ocean are superb in this PSP incarnation, bearing in mind the standard here is a good contemporary presentation of an original PlayStation game. The pre-rendered backgrounds ? especially of houses, inns, shops and the like ? virtually pop off the PSP's relatively small but bright and high-resolution display. Character animations are simple, befitting the character models of more than a decade ago. The slightly 3-D perspective, which is used when traversing the world map, is also suitably rendered for PSP.
Control in the title is very good, although decent control in a traditional J-RPG isn't particularly difficult to achieve. You can use either the digital d-pad or the PSP analog nub to control character movement. There's no setting for this, and both control schemes are available to the gamer at the same time. For purposes of convenience, outside of combat and interstitial in-game scenes intended to move the plot forward, all characters in a party assimilate into the lead character's on-screen model for moving on the field ? towns, dungeons, et al ? and the world map. It's a conceit, but it works and keeps directing your party around the map from hanging up. It's also a frustration if you're trying to move a formation of distinct character models through tight spaces or navigating a game's levels from a very distant, top-down view of your whole party.
If you own a PSP and you're a fan of J-RPG, you'll pick up Star Ocean: First Departure, with little doubt. The story is good. Refreshingly, the plot and voice acting are better than the same elements in quite a few much-hyped, non-RPG titles of the powerful HD console generation. If you're a post-office-queue sort of portable gamer but you enjoy the occasional J-RPG, you should recall this caveat: Due to the number of medium-length cut scenes, including that marathon whopper fairly early on, and also numerous interstitial in-game scenes of scant interactivity ? during which you cannot save the game, only "suspend" your PSP's state with the power switch ? Star Ocean: First Departure is much better suited to a fortnight of vacation or lengthy swathes of unadulterated time on daily commutes via train or bus. If you don't like RPGs in general and haven't enjoyed at least a few traditional J-RPGs from previous console generations, your chances of finding much to like in Star Ocean: First Departure are slim. Otherwise, First Departure is a very nice reworking of a classic Japanese role-playing title for today's convenient handheld gaming.