Tri-Ace released Star Ocean back in 1996 and the Super Famicom action role-playing game was an instant success and kicked off one of the most beloved JRPG series of the past 20 years. It finally got a North American released in 2008, when it was remade for the PlayStation Portable and now an enhanced version of that has been released over a decade later on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 called STAR OCEAN: FIRST DEPARTURE R. While it is the best way to play the historic title in 2019, it does not hold up as much in a more modern context.
This is a faithful HD port of the PSP remake of Star Ocean, and that proves to be a plus and a negative. On the upside, that means that players get additional playable characters compared to the original game and the ability to enjoy a fantastic soundtrack. The downside is that it feels even more aged now than it did back in 2008. Plus, a lot of the 3D battlefield settings for combat look underwhelming and aren’t taking full advantage of the Switch’s power.
The story is the real draw here as the franchise’s sci-fi setting is still refreshing as the genre tends to focus on traditional fantasy. Unlike its sequels, though, the original Star Ocean is sort of a mix of fantasy and sci-fi, unable to fully commit one way or the other. Despite this small identity crisis, the core storytelling is captivating as members of a small town’s guard find themselves wrapped up in a planetary war that involves biological warfare. There’s plenty of time travel involved on their quest for a vaccine and the RPG is filled with memorable characters.
Star Ocean: First Departure R Review | A fresh presentation is delivered
The insultingly low difficulty was one of the biggest issues with the PSP port of Star Ocean. There were multiple difficulty options in the game, but they were only accessible if players downloaded a modified save file. First Departure R continues the trend of not having any difficulty levels, but the gameplay has been completely rebalanced in order to offer up more of a challenge.
This is certainly a good thing, at least in concept, but it wasn’t handled all that delicately. Rather than slightly amping up the difficulty as the game goes on, this version features a bunch of sudden spikes, such as when reaching the third in-game continent. Some foes have more than 150% the amount of HP they had in the PSP version, and it necessitates more grinding than the original did. This makes the game feel more drawn out than it should be, and some difficulty options would have been a better workaround.
The most notable improvement in the Switch and PS4 versions is that First Departure is in high definition for the first time. While the game isn’t going to wow anyone with how it looks, as it’s ultimately still a 2D game designed for the PSP, the sprites do look sharp on the occasionally muddy overworld. The biggest quality upgrade is within the animated cutscenes as getting to see those scenes in HD is quite the treat for fans as they look fantastic. Beyond that, this isn’t a graphical wonder and the isometric 3D battles look pretty bad despite being stylized to a slight degree.
Aside from some rebalancing, this remastered release also has new illustrated drawings that appear while characters talk. These have all been done by Katsumi Enami, who did the character art for the fourth Star Ocean game, and are based upon the character’s original artwork. These are much more detailed than the original drawings (which can still be used if you prefer them) and are a big improvement. Since so much of its visuals are simplified sprites, these illustrations help bring the characters to life. However, this new art also creates a visual dissonance to the animated cutscenes as they all use the original character designs.
Star Ocean: First Departure R Review | Hurt by its dated core
Beyond the gameplay rebalancing which is not exceptionally done, this is a pretty standard remastered release. Considering the original is 23 years old, some extra work would have gone a long way towards making this classic RPG more approachable by general fans of the genre. Unless you’re looking for a history lesson on Star Ocean or are a die-hard fan of the series, there isn’t a ton of reason to play this. First Departure R is a good version of a historic game, but one that fails to show why the game was special back in 1996. The series deserved a better port than what fans are getting here.
Star Ocean: First Departure R‘s biggest problem is its repetitive gameplay. There isn’t a ton of depth to its combat, which is understandable considering the action RPG originally released in 1986, and no changes have been made to expand upon it. Throw in the required grinding that players now have to do due to the harder difficulty and the battles grows even more stale as players have to partake in encounters that are semi-meaningless.
Star Ocean: First Departure R does its job of bringing First Departure to the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, but fails to do much beyond that. Almost all of its improvements arrive with an asterisk as the gameplay is more difficult but not in a balanced way, and the new character art looks great but isn’t reflected in animated cutscenes. It isn’t the celebration of the historic role-playing game that the series truly deserves, and it is not a must-play RPG in 2019, especially when both platforms it is releasing on have a breadth of classics in the genre. Being the best way to play Star Ocean in the modern day doesn’t mean it is also the best RPG to play in the modern day.
GameRevolution reviewed Star Ocean: First Departure R on Nintendo Switch with a copy provided by the publisher.