Oh, it's an ocean, alright.
With a name like "Star Ocean", there are endless possibilities (hence the name, I guess) as to how this game might turn out, especially since its parent company Square-Enix is capable of releasing some stellar, Grade-A titles - Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, and new IPs like Kingdom Hearts and The World Ends With You.
[image1]Then there's Star Ocean, a proud member of the Square-Enix “B Squad”.
Star Ocean: First Departure is a remake of the original Star Ocean game from 1996 that never managed to make it to the States. And even with this being a “remake”, it's obvious what time period it's from as the whole package feels like an early PS1/late SNES-era RPG. The character models look like they were ripped straight from the SNES (complete with basic animation), forgetful music drips through the tinny speakers, bland environments are to be explored (though instead of “Mode 7” or static maps 16-bit maps, they're in beautiful jaggy polygons!), and the “edgy” characters are just as annoying... only this time, you can actually hear them speak. How nice!...
Fighting enemies is boring, but at least they were trying for something different. Instead of sifting through menus to determine your methods of attack, you only control the main character Roddick (though in the arena, you can control whomever you throw in there), while any and all of your companions act independently of your commands. You can move about the play field and target whatever enemies you like, provided they're the closest to you at the time.
[image2]Each character has a roster of attacks, but they're akin to equipment, meaning that they need to be chosen between fights. This can be a pain when you don't know what you're up against (whether it's hoards of slime-like creatures or gangs of roaming bunnies – yup, you fight one-hit-kill bunnies). Also, the battles are completely in real-time and can come down to button mashing at times to keep the physical attacks raining down on any foes. It's a real shame, since this almost seems like a testing ground to what Square-Enix eventually created in the Kingdom Hearts series
The only interesting thing this game brings to the table is the ability to manipulate your character's levelling up. You go into town and buy what is basically a “pack” of abilities, and then as your level increases and you earn skill points, you can decide how you should upgrade your stats. You can even learn specialties which allow for extra abilities outside of battle, like choosing the ability to try and avoid battles altogether. As each character levels up, they learn new abilities, and as each skill levels up, the battles become more and more interesting since some of the abilities will be used at random, just to help out.
As far as story goes, this one is just as formulaic as they come: save every town you walk into, save the world, save your friends, with the added emphasis on figuring out everything yourself. I was lost for two hours looking for the next place to go, grinding the entire time, asking every villager in every town I saw, and yet none of them were able to help me get anywhere. Most of them wanted to do something mundane, like yell at their children or tell me their husband is fighting a war they don't approve of. I wish I could have responded with a hearty “Look, lady, I'm only here to break in, talk to your family to find out anything that might help me, and raid any chests you might have lying around. So tell me what I want to know or I'll use my sword for a tracheotomy!”
[image3]This entire game just has a feeling of... typical. There just isn't anything particularly special about any specific areas throughout the world: the same enemies seem to show up branded in different colors, which is typical for many RPGs. Every character has their “quirks”, yet none of them seem to have anything more than a bland personality and an annoying voice actor behind them (seriously, how many characters have to look out the window and comment “It's like an ocean... of stars!” to get the point across?), which might not be so irritating if it wasn't for a complete lack of Japanese voice-work. I thought all “modern” RPGs came with the option of Japanese actors and English subtitles.
If you're looking for a game that can suck up time, but not feel like you're making any progress doing anything, then I guess you might be able to find a nugget or two in Star Ocean: First Departure. Same if you're searching for a throwback to the days when a solid translation wasn't a “must-have” for the role-playing genre. But when there are so many better, more interesting RPGs on the PSP, why bother with one that simply drains your system's battery life?