Isn’t it a real treat when a shot-in-the-dark purchase turns out to be one of your most wonderful surprises of the year? I’m talking Star Ocean: First Departure R, of course – an enhanced port of the 2007 PSP version, which was an enhanced version of the original Super Famicom game. Enhanception.
Before we proceed with this review, let me be clear: I have no pony in the Star Ocean race, as I have never experienced the franchise in any shape or form prior to this outing. However, this budget-friendly remaster of a 20 year old game – or 10 if you want to just count the PSP version – has single-handedly piqued my interest for any future entries that might come to the Switch.
Star Ocean: First Departure R features a truly terrifying epidemic within the confines of the planet, Roak, in place of an initial, focal antagonist. The protagonist, Roddick, witnesses the life-threatening illness spread like wildfire, leaving petrified, but still very much alive, victims in its wake.
In search of anything that may cure their homeland from this malady, Roddick and friends head off into the mountains in search of a herb that is rumored to cure the affliction. Upon reaching the summit, however, the group is startled by a pair of individuals that materialize from a beam of light. Surprisingly, the mysterious duo from another planet knows exactly what ails Roak, but unfortunately the fix will be neither an easy or straightforward endeavor. With no other choice but to watch their homeland succumb to this illness, should they do nothing, Roddick and friends decide to trust the duo, thus beginning their worlds-spanning journey.
No sci-fi adventure worth its salt isn’t without some space travel, and Star Ocean is no different. While there are enough of these elements present to label it as such, Star Ocean: First Departure R also very much leans into a high fantasy setting more so than you might expect. With that in mind, if you were hoping to be the next Captain Kirk of your own Enterprise, you might be surprised at the fantasy-to-sci-fi ratio present here. Ultimately, there are enough elements of both that should satisfy each side of the thematic fence.
Star Ocean: First Departure R demands multiple playthroughs if the player is interested in experiencing everything the narrative has to offer. While the base level of character-specific exposition may be enough for the average player, additional context, via a scenario system dubbed “private actions,” further expands on the backstory of the main characters. In addition to fleshing out the characters, private actions also provide the occasional opportunity to recruit some additional characters, and even shape the conclusion of the story based on the decisions made along the way. Even if you skip these – there are lots, and they are somewhat clunky in execution – Star Ocean: First Departure R should provide more than enough base context to earn the average player’s interest.
The main story path in Star Ocean: First Departure R is rather linear despite the optional choices available. The occasional side mission will pop up from time to time, as well as opportunities to complete certain objectives in the order of your choosing. Regardless, prepare yourself for a decent amount of backtracking, as the narrative will inevitably force you into taking a few laps around the world to revisit previous areas – a non-issue for me personally, since it generally made sense to do so within the context of the story. The game world isn’t crazy big, but there are enough variety in the various locations that it shouldn’t prove to be too tiresome.
Whatever route you take, you are sure to run into lots of baddies. The action combat system present shares many similarities with earlier Tales titles – and rightly so, considering that tri-Ace was created when a sizable chunk of developers from Tales of Phantasia jumped ship to form their own studio.
The player can move around the battlefield with up to three other party members, with the adjustable AI controlling whatever team members you aren’t controlling at the moment. During an attack, characters will line up with the targeted enemy and funnel all non AOE attacks into a straight line, meaning surrounding enemies may or not be affected by every attack in every situation, even if they are clustered up together. Up to two special abilities can be equipped at any time, in addition to a standard melee strike that can be used with no resource restrictions. It is possible to adjust the active party member, as well as their tactics, directly in-combat, providing ample flexibility to adapt to any adversary as needed. It is a simple design by today’s standards, but an effective and engaging one nonetheless.
Some may have qualms about the uneven difficulty progression, as the occasional one-shot by the enemy it isn’t an uncommon occurrence later in adventure, some of which will likely never be subverted no matter the preparations you make beforehand. However, these cases can somewhat be offset by properly timed evasive maneuvers and ranged attacks, but can still feel cheap at times. The strangest part is that these difficulty hiccups generally come from the random encounters instead of the boss fights – an absolute cakewalk in comparison if you simply surround the boss and spam your most powerful attacks. The description for this updated version of the game suggests that battle balance has been adjusted, but the truth behind that remains to be seen.
In recent years, crafting has been given a bit of a stigma due to its often half-baked implementation, or just general over-saturation within the genre. The specialty (i.e. crafting) system in Star Ocean: First Departure R doesn’t tick the box just for the sake of it though – it actually is an impressively detailed, extremely useful boon for adventurers that is tied directly into character progression in more ways than one. While the granular details regarding specialties are beyond the scope of this review, it should be noted that you can perform actions, such as crafting new gear, customizing existing pieces, synthesizing new poultices, cooking up restoratives, appraising unidentified items, scouting hostile areas to increase/reduce encounter rates, creating – and subsequently selling – art, and much more. Each individual branch serves its own purpose, and are all useful in one way or another. A beneficial end result when crafting isn’t a guarantee, though.
Star Ocean: First Departure R ups the stakes by putting your individual skills to the test, punishing you via frequent failed crafts if you aren’t proficient enough at the task, while generously rewarding you with incredibly powerful items, and useful resources, should you prove successful. The result is a risk/reward loop that encourages you to specialize in specific disciplines per character, rather setting up a single individual to be an all-inclusive specialty god, which is kind of impossible given the amount of unique specialties available. This way, it makes you think about what you want to invest your skill points in, and encourages preparation as to not waste precious resources.
In this way, crafting in Star Ocean: First Departure R can be compared to Final Fantasy XI – a game with notoriously frustrating, but immensely rewarding crafting that could frequently ruin your day when synths failed. And I will admit: even the very top-end of tradeskilling here is still a little too random, even with proper talents, but the rewards are worth the effort nonetheless. Save-scumming can be abused here, if you want to avoid potentially losing incredibly powerful equipment to failed synths, and nobody will judge you if you partake in such an action (except me- ed).
The previously mentioned skill points are obtained upon each level up, which can then be distributed into a number of individual skills. Honing in on specific skills will unlock the previously discussed specialties, while others are there to only increase your combat prowess. That said, some of the specialty-specific skills serve a dual purpose, not only improving the efficiency of specific specialties, but also providing healthy stat bonuses, to boot.
Though the total skill list appears small in the beginning, it quickly blossoms out into a rather overwhelming list of choices. Fear not, for there will be plenty of skill points to allocate in the end, although some care should still be given as to what to focus in on, at first. Between the different character playstyles in-combat – swapping them out to best serve the current situation – and the amount of customization associated with skills, character development in Star Ocean: First Departure R consistently feels rewarding for the player.
While many people are still clamoring for every retro RPG under the moon to be remastered in Octopath’s HD-2D engine, I’ve found the presentation here to be just as good- if not better- in many ways in comparison to the Octopath guise. Pixel art and prerendered backdrops have received a polishing pass from its PSP predecessor, resulting in an exceptionally detailed, sharp canvas that should appeal to both the old fogies and the new blood.
Throw in some subtle – but appreciated – lighting and water reflection features and you have something that aims to please a modern audience while remaining very true to its roots. The only time it fails to impress is on the world map, but that is due to a lack of objects, such as foliage, more than the art direction itself. Motoi Sakuraba flexes his musical affinity here by providing an assortment of fitting, catchy tunes that rarely wear out their welcome. In fact, the soundtrack as a whole has been so impressive that I’ll be dedicating a future Bard Banter article to it!
There are three voice acting options that allow the player to experience two Japanese versions, as well as a single English dub. While I have no issue with the quality of voice acting itself – it is passable – the lack of an option to turn off the anime-esque battle cries is really frustrating, as there are only so many times that one can hear “SHOCKWAVE SWIRL” before they want to squelch all sounds.
In a year already stacked with a number of quality Switch RPG releases, Star Ocean: First Departure R has been a pleasant, budget-friendly surprise. At the reasonable price of $20USD, this 20 hour adventure – bolstered exponentially if you intend to see everything – is sure to satisfy fans of retro JRPGs. Star Ocean: First Departure R certainly shows its age from time-to-time, but it also proves that those years are a non-issue if you’re ultimately having fun. Don’t sleep on this one – it is a journey well worth taking despite its shortcomings.