Science Fiction isn’t a genre that is often fused utterly and completely with JRPGs. We often see sci-fi elements in Final Fantasy in the form of flying ships and magic-meets-mechanics technology, while many other Japanese RPGs like Disgaea and Dragon Quest focus on a world of demons and medieval technology.
This is one of the reasons that Star Ocean as a series is so refreshing. Described by the developers as their attempt at making a universe that felt like a Japanese-created RPG-based version of Star Trek, Star Ocean has only gotten more deeply involved with classic sci-fi clichés as the series has continued.
Despite this, only two of the four titles in the series have been released in the US so far, with only one making it to Europe. With the original game dated by the SNES hardware and Square Enix determined to introduce the series to gamers who have never played it before, Star Ocean: First Departure was born, a fully fledged 3D remake for Sony’s PSP system.
Star Ocean: First Departure makes use of the engine from Star Ocean 2 from the PS1, updated and tweaked to get the maximum performance from the console. Aside from adopting the pre-rendered backgrounds and fully 3D rendered battlefields common in PS1 RPGs of the time, the game also boasts new character art and animated cutscenes, a new translation, full voice acting and all new characters and areas.
The game is pleasantly presented, placing 2D sprites onto both pre-rendered and real-time 3D backgrounds in a way that won’t be too unfamiliar to PS2 RPG fans. The technique has been used time and time again, particularly in Nippon Ichi titles such as Disgaea and Makai Kingdom. It looks great, and while the sprites are obviously of a lower quality than most high budget games these days, it gives the title a pleasingly retro feel, reminding you that the game you’re playing is a little bit older.
Older doesn’t always mean worse, though. If you’re a fan of retro RPG style - turned off by massive changes like Final Fantasy XII but heart sent aflutter by simple remakes like Final Fantasy IV DS, Star Ocean: First Departure is the perfect choice for you. You’ll find yourself traversing a world map, visiting towns and exploring dungeons, getting into battles all while levelling up and upgrading the equipment of your party of characters in order to take down the next set of powerful enemies.
Even the action RPG style of the game feels old-school, not as complex as that of Crisis Core or Kingdom Hearts, but clearly an earlier, younger sibling of those games. You’ll take control of one of your four characters, the AI taking over the other three, and you’ll then have to attack with X and the shoulder buttons. The twist in this system is that you can easily switch between which character you’re controlling mid-battle, allowing you to take advantages of any given characters’ ability when you need to.
The game also features an addictive, fun item creation minigame and skill system that rivals even modern RPGs in depth, allowing for some truly interesting character customisation options. Any RPG fan should find quite a bit of joy in this gameplay, and it’s easy to see why an all new series in a strange, sci-fi setting got picked up for a second game when you remember just how old the original version of this game is.
While this game’s charm lies in its age and style, especially the fact that it’s quite deliberately kept its SNES-fashioned, formulaic approach, it also means that in some areas it’s particularly shallow. Once you’ve talked about the pretty animated cutscenes, serviceable voice acting, 3D environments and interesting but aged gameplay, there’s not much else to shout about.
The plot is incredibly predictable and prescribed, less complex and interesting than other RPGs of the time such as Secret of Mana or Chrono Trigger. The characters are clichéd; the designs are nothing you haven’t seen before and the actual in-battle gameplay can become repetitive.
Despite all this, Star Ocean: First Departure is still a damn fine game. It's nice to look at, nice to listen to, and on the whole fun to play.
If you go into it expecting a modern masterpiece, prepare to be disappointed. If you go into it remembering that the original version is 12 years old and this is a faithful conversion – simply bringing it technically to a modern level, leaving the gameplay near untouched – you will be impressed.
It’s a serviceable remake and a fine entry to the series for anybody who hasn’t experienced it before. In spite of the fact the game shows the original’s age, we can’t dock many points for that as in places it is charming and quite endearing. Perhaps one to try before you buy, but if you’re a fan of the SNES era of RPGs, you should love this game.