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March 2024

Star Ocean The Divine Force

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: tri-ACE
Release Date: Oct. 27, 2022


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PS5 Review - 'Star Ocean: The Divine Force'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 26, 2022 @ 4:00 a.m. PDT

Star Ocean: The Divine Force features a story that blends fantasy and sci-fi settings, a plethora of different playable characters, side stories, and a battle system that allows for thrilling fights using simple and instinctive controls.

I often have mixed feelings about the Star Ocean franchise. Most of the games are fun enough but usually having a couple of glaring flaws that keep them from being great. My favorite game in the series is Star Ocean 2; it's weird and ambitious, and it tried to do a little bit of everything, leading to a unique game that hasn't been replicated since. Star Ocean: The Divine Force is the franchise's most blunt attempt to recapture what made Star Ocean 2 so special. It has a similar premise and enough callbacks and references to evoke nostalgia in fans of the PS1 classic. Unfortunately, it's proof that nostalgia alone isn't enough. Ambition is laudable — but not when you don't have the time or budget to back it up.

The Divine Force follows two protagonists, Ray and Laeticia. Raymond Lawrence is the captain of a space merchant ship on a routine delivery mission. His ship is attacked by a Pan-Galactic Federation battleship. Forced to evacuate, his escape pod lands on an underdeveloped planet that's close to the kingdom of Aucerius. There, he meets Princess Laeticia, who is on a quest of her own. The two strike up an alliance. Ray will help Laeticia with her quest, and she will help him find the missing members of his crew, who have also landed on the planet. Nothing is simple, and the pair becomes embroiled in a war against an evil empire and a group with access to advanced technology.

The Divine Force is the first Star Ocean since Star Ocean 2 to allow you to choose a protagonist. However, the game doesn't feel like it was designed around that. The main characters meet early on and spend most of the game together, but whenever they separate, one character has something to do — and the other does not. One of the most absurdly dull sequences is when Laeticia goes to infiltrate the evil empire while Ray remains behind to help some scientists. That means Ray sits around for seven days, interrupted only by some trips between a couple of locations. It isn't the only time this happens, but it is the most egregious. Having one path would've worked much better. Star Ocean 2 wasn't exactly perfect about this, but you didn't feel like you got to be the important one or the boring one.

There are some cool ideas in The Divine Force, but they are largely in the back end, and they deal with transhumanism and responses to it. Whatever strengths the story might've had are dragged down by the title being one of the most poorly told tales that I've played. It's clear that the game concept far outstripped its budget, and the result is a mess. Cut scenes are poorly directed, with characters standing around in stiff poses while they stare into space and the camera randomly zooms around them. It makes me long for the low-budget fix of using simple 2D portraits. Far worse is that the game is unable to show action happening. There are a couple of distinctive scenes and then a whole lot of things happen off-screen while people talk about them.

Nowhere does this stand out more than in the second half of the game, which returns to space. Imagine an episode of "Star Trek" where they became embroiled in an interstellar war. Now imagine instead of showing that war, you have hours of cut scenes of characters staring at readouts while talking about the fighting that is going on outside.

That is the majority of the latter half of The Divine Force.

There are one or two brief clips of ships fighting, but most last for about one second. It tries to make do by having the camera randomly flying around and occasionally showing a 2D image of blocks. Even more frustrating is that none of this is playable. You go into space, epic space battles happen, and you watch characters giving orders via cut scenes. You can make that work if the game is strong visually, but you can't remove player control and ask them to stare at nothing. There are also times when the game depends on the players assuming things. For example, one late-game boss appears to be human in the cut scene. Without any fanfare, he appears as a monster in the ensuing battle. Then he returns to human form in the cut scene afterward.

Even this might be forgivable if the visuals were better. Even lower-budget games can pull off anime-style 3D models, but The Divine Force doubles down on the plasticky doll-like models from the previous title. The characters stand in extremely stiff unmoving poses and stare straight ahead, so they sometimes look stuck in a T-pose. The facial animation is barely able to convey emotions. Combat animations are decent, and the environments are basic but have some rather nice art design.

The game doesn't run well. Any sufficiently large and busy area sees severe frame rate drops (even with the "Prioritize Framerate" option selected). There's one mid-game area that has a dungeon beneath a town with no interruption, which is a cool idea in theory but made the game run badly the entire time I was there.

In The Divine Force, you can run and jump around freely, and many environments have hidden secrets. More importantly, your robot pal D.U.M.A. has access to anti-gravity tech. At any time, you can hold R1 to temporarily float off the ground and zoom toward an area, Gravity Rush style. There is no real limitation, except you can only do it once (later twice) before you need to touch solid ground again. This offers more vertical movement than I'm used to in these kinds of titles. Even in towns, you're able to hop on rooftops, which often hide secrets and items you might otherwise miss. If you hit a location but are a little off, your character grabs onto a ledge to pull themselves up.

Alas, the coolness of D.U.M.A.'s "flying" is brought down by many of the areas being immensely closed in, either by invisible or literal walls. The wide-open areas seem mostly frontloaded, and as the game progresses, you'll get boxed into tight corridors or tiny rooms. In areas where D.U.M.A. flight should be useful, things are blocked off for no reason. One late-game area is bewildering because it's a wide-open space where almost every path is blocked off without reason. It feels like the developer originally intended for there to be a lot more mobility but couldn't keep up with designing areas around it. Later, you unlock a "double" flight ability that makes it slightly easier to move through towns. It has all the hallmarks of a cool idea that ran out of time to develop properly, so it ends up feeling oddly secondary.

Combat in The Divine Force fits comfortably into the action-RPG mold of previous games in the series, or offerings like the Tales of franchise. You can freely move your character around the battlefield. The Circle, Square and Triangle buttons are all bound to attacks. Rather than having defined combos, you can set up customized combos for each button, like a standard fast-fast-strong hit or buffing before a really powerful hit. The limitation is your Action Points (AP), with every move costing AP. If you don't have enough AP, you can't finish a combo, but you can cancel from one combo to another to lessen animation lag and create more complex combos.

Probably the most distinctive element of the combat system is D.U.M.A. As with movement, you can use D.U.M.A in combat. Initially, this uses the levitation ability, which also creates a barrier around your character to nullify damage. Target an enemy, and you'll zoom toward them, with each character having a special attack. While zooming toward an enemy, you can tap a button to quickly change directions. Time this well, and you'll zoom around the enemy and put them into a status called Blindside, during which they take more damage and are easily stunned.

Later, you gain the ability to put D.U.M.A. into a defensive mode to project an area-wide barrier that massively reduces damage and flinching. This mode has no limitation, but you don't build up Vanguard Assault (VA) energy while using it, so you're basically swapping between offense and defense. Some enemies are immune to blindsiding, but they are few and far between.

Blindsiding and defending also impact your AP. By default, you have five AP to spend on attacks, but every time you successfully block an attack with a barrier or Blindside, you gain AP, up to a maximum of 15. This lets you perform longer combos or use powerful moves in rapid succession. The downside is that every time you take a hit, you lose AP, down to the minimum of five. The more damage you inflict and the more damage you avoid, the better your attacks will be. Keep taking blows, and you'll be stuck with basic combos. AP replenishes quickly if you're not attacking, but dodging or sprinting pauses the recharge.

The strengths of the combat system are dragged down by a lot of basic problems. Perhaps the biggest one is the AI, which clearly has trouble avoiding attacks. Nowhere does this stand out more than an early game boss, which leaves burning puddles on the ground that characters gladly stand in and die. I had to use every fire-resist item I had and take direct control of the healer, so I could keep the other characters alive long enough to rack up damage. It seems like the game is aware of this limitation, since it gives you a no-cost, damage-halving barrier field, which is basically the one thing keeping your team from all dying in a remotely complex fight.

Likewise, the AP system is poorly considered. In theory, the game rewards players for smart plays with more combos. In reality, it is frustrating since you lose an AP per hit, so a random mook with a machine gun can take out most of your AP in half of a second, forcing you to build it back up at a handicap.

… or at least it would if not for the other bewilderingly broken part of the system, which is also based around the healer. Nina can't directly attack enemies but fights using a bell that creates auras around her. Since she doesn't attack enemies, she builds AP by "hitting" two or more allies with a single move. This means that you can spend time building up your AP again via blindsides and dodges, or you can swap to Nina and get it all back in basically a single combo. She even has a move that brings everyone close to her, in case you don't feel like running around. It nullifies a lot of the gameplay design when you have a character who breaks the rules. Since she is the only healer in the game, she'll never actually leave your party.

The closed-in feeling of The Divine Force also makes a lot of the VA elements feel meaningless. It often feels futile to work out a Blindside when you're in an enclosed corridor and the camera is struggling to keep up with your character. Once I got it, I kept the barrier mode up 24/7 rather than bother with Blindsides unless I knew I had enough space. The bonus damage was rarely worth the trouble, especially since you can upgrade the barrier mode to give you a flat bonus to damage and longer buff time. It also reduces damage, so I don't have to spend so much time keeping my braindead AI companions alive. To the game's credit, you can swap back and forth between modes instantly and without cost, but it is genuinely weird that the mechanic the game spends so much time teaching you ends up feeling useless.

The level of difficulty is all over the place and usually corresponds to a boss's number of annoying moves. The hardest bosses are the first two because you tackle them before you get a D.U.M.A. barrier and they have powerful AoE damage attacks that the AI seems helpless to avoid. Likewise, random encounters are usually trivial, but certain closed-in spaces can make them lethal, especially during the few gimmick fights where you can't use D.U.M.A. Otherwise, many of the other bosses are basically helpless and offer little challenge. The hardest fights always killed my AI partners the fastest. Random encounters were largely forgettable, since you can stun them with Sneak Attacks, so they die before they can attack.

Continuing the trend of Star Ocean 2 nostalgia, The Divine Force has multiple kinds of crafting options, ranging from alchemy and smithing to authoring books. Each character has their own talents and skills in specific types of item creation, and they can even learn new attributes by repeatedly crafting items.

Like Star Ocean 2, crafting in The Divine Force is a mix of worthless and overpowered. Authoring feels useless. No matter what paper type I used, even for characters who specialized in it, I'd get the same handful of consumable items. Others, like Engineering, are frustrating because they're necessary to craft good weapons for specific characters, but their item pool contains a ton of useless consumables.

Then there are alchemy and smithing, which take the game and shatter it in two. Alchemy lets you convert ore to higher-level ore, and it's reliably good at doing so. The only real limitation is how much in-game money you use to finance the upgrades. Reach a high enough level, and you can craft amazingly overpowered weapons or armor for either of the main protagonists. Like a lot of its callbacks, The Divine Force's item creation feels … lacking. Star Ocean 2's was also a convoluted RNG, but you could find weird or cool items in it. It's possible I was just unlucky in The Divine Force, but it seemed like if I wasn't making super ore and super weapons, there was little reason to interact with it, aside from upgrading healing items. I can't say it is worse than Star Ocean 2's, but it feels less fun while maintaining the RNG of the original.

Outside of crafting and combat, there is a usual collection of minigames and side-quests. Most of the side-quests amount to killing x number of enemies, but you can get some nice loot, so it's worthwhile to do but not memorable. Even the side-quest stories are mostly forgettable, aside from one or two that focus on distinct characters. Probably the most interesting thing are Personal Actions, which are character-specific storylines that you can progress by talking to the character in town. This can reveal backstory elements, more about the characters, or focus on how much they love sweets. Completing enough Personal Actions can unlock bonuses in the game's ending. It's not so different from skits in most modern RPGs, but it helps flesh out some characters.

The only real minigame of note is a collectible card/chess game. You find "pawns" throughout the environment and can build a deck of them. You and your opponent take turns placing pawns on a Go-style board. If your units surround an enemy unit on all sides, then that enemy unit is destroyed. At the end of each turn, pawns do damage equal to the damage numbers of all pawns combined, and the person whose HP goes down first loses. All pawns are replicas of previous Star Ocean characters. More importantly, each one serves as an equippable accessory, many of which have powerful stats, and you'll win one pawn from every challenger you defeat. The only downside is that the enemy AI is pretty bad, and you can win most fights by spamming the highest-damage units, so it can be more tedious than exciting.

In terms of presentation, The Divine Force sounds pretty good. The voice actors all put in serious work and lend a lot of personality to characters who desperately need it. I liked what are objectively some rather bland cast members because their actors put in a heck of a performance. The soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba is good but not great. There are a few standout tunes, but his recent Valkyrie Elysium soundtrack was much better. There isn't a ton of personality to the songs, and I struggled to remember them. Overall, the audio aspect of the game is by far the strongest bit, and I would often listen to the characters speak, which is an improvement over seeing their dull faces.

I wanted to like Star Ocean: The Divine Force a lot more than I did. It has a lot of interesting ideas and concepts, and I'm a prime target for Star Ocean 2 nostalgia bait. The game didn't have the time or budget to do what it wanted to do, and what we have is a half-baked title that does very little well. The story is dull, the combat is repetitive and poorly balanced, and the unique features fall by the wayside as the game progresses. There are glimmers that something great could have been created, but it isn't the game that we ended up with. It's difficult to recommend The Divine Force to even die-hard JRPG fans, since the game's few strengths are eclipsed by its many flaws. Wait for a sale if you're curious, but otherwise, there are plenty of other better JRPGs to play this year.

Score: 5.5/10

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