Game Review # 459: Star Ocean: First Departure R (Nintendo Switch)
Reviewer: Allan Jenks
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 12.5.2019
Buy Star Ocean: First Departure R from the Nintendo Switch eShop here.
How’d I Miss This One? Oh… Wrong Continent!
For someone who absolutely loves the jRPG genre, I certainly find a lot of games from my youth that fit the bill, but I never managed to play them or even hear of them as a kid. It’s probably because I only got new games for my birthday and Christmas, except for rare second-hand purchases and the occasional Blockbuster Video rental. I still played some of the best: Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, Final Fantasy VII-IX, Breath of Fire I & II, etc., but one of the great ones never found its way to me. It might be because Star Ocean didn’t get a release in North America on SNES, and only finally made it over here for the PSP in 2008 under the name Star Ocean: First Departure, which was an enhanced remake of the original.
The original Star Ocean was already pushing the limits of the Super Famicom when it was released in Japan in 1996, boasting voice acting in the intro as well as during battles, and taking advantage of the S-DD1 decompressor chip in order to handle the huge amount of sprite data needed to pull off the visual feats of the game, but First Departure took that and added even more. In the remake, they added tons of additional voice acting, and through the use of a slightly altered version of the engine used for the sequel, Star Ocean: The Second Story, which was released alongside First Departure on the PSP, they also added pre-rendered backgrounds, animated cutscenes, and 3-D battlefields.
In the new HD remaster that I am reviewing today, Star Ocean: First Departure R, the game difficulty has been re-balanced, the world map movement speed has been increased, and you have the option to choose between the character portraits from the PSP version or from the designs based more off of the original Super Famicom version. You can also choose English or Japanese voice acting. Since, as I said, this is the first time I am experiencing Star Ocean in any form, this is all new to me, so let’s jump in and see what I thought!
An Ocean of Stars Between Them
Star Ocean: First Departure R tells the story of Roddick and his friends, who, upon searching for an herb that is supposed to cure their villages of a disease that is turning everyone to stone, come in contact with a couple of strange travelers from another world. It turns out these travelers are from Earth, and one of Earth’s enemies, another space-faring species called the Lezonians, has released the aforementioned disease onto Roddick’s home planet, Roak, in the hopes of harvesting a special material in the blood of the Fellpool race (Roddick’s species) that can be weaponized. In order to cure his planet, Roddick and friends must travel back in time to when the original host of the virus was still on his planet. Along the way, he will encounter many more friends and travelers who will help him with his quest to save his world.
Not Your Average Turn-Based RPG
The story was unexpectedly addicting, and drew me in right away, but what drew me in even more so was the battle system. At first take, I was a little confused as to what had just happened. There is not much in the way of an immediate tutorial—though once you get to the shops in town, the attendants in the skill shops will explain a little bit more to you. Unlike most jRPGs I have played, like Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger, the battles are played out live instead of in a turn-based fashion. You do not control all of your characters at once, only one at a time, and while you are controlling the one character, all of your other party members are acting on their own based on whatever tactics you have them programmed to carry out, almost like the paradigm system in Final Fantasy XIII, minus the ability to save custom paradigms for on-the-fly switches.
You can have them give everything they’ve got, meaning physical attacks and spells are all fair game, you can set them up to conserve their spells—and their MP as a result—you can instruct them to stay away from enemies, or even to focus on healing other party members. At any point in the battle, you can change which character you are controlling and use both physical and magic attacks as you see fit for the character you are controlling. Once you are in control of the character, you can also change their tactics mid-battle to get a party member out of immediate danger or to start healing other party members as needed. In addition, you also have the option to use items, as long as you are far enough away from any enemies to do so, otherwise the items icon will be crossed out and unusable. You can also attempt to escape from battle if you’re in a bit over your head at times.
The entire battle takes place on a 3-D isometric battlefield where you can roam freely throughout the battle. The battle system really gives you a lot to do, while at the same time making the game feel a bit more action-oriented than the typical jRPG usually does, so I was intrigued and excited to try it out. It took a little getting used to, but once it clicked, I was quite impressed with the whole system and its design.
What’s Your Specialty?
On top of the active battle system, you also earn skill points upon leveling up in battle, which can be used to level up different skill sets. This, in turn, will help you learn special skills, and even group skills; for example: leveling up the Knife, Recipe, and Good Eye skills will, in addition to improving some other stats, also level up your cooking ability. This means that, when you cook ingredients to make food, the higher your cooking level, the better the effects of the food you make while using this skill. Each character can learn all of the same skills, but each character also has a natural affinity for certain skills, be it Roddick’s natural talent for cooking, or Ilia’s innate talent for playing a musical instrument, so it is good to level up skills wisely throughout your party.
You also gain new techniques as you level up, which can be programmed as technique shortcuts using the L and R buttons to trigger these abilities during battle. These are the MP-consuming abilities I mentioned earlier, and they are quite useful during tough battles, but since they do consume MP (sometimes very quickly) it is important to use these techniques sparingly if you are deep into a dungeon with no save point in sight—which is often, as the game is not generous with mid-dungeon save points.
Skills for the Birds
The dungeons often become a war of attrition, and you will often use up most of your MP-recovering items first. There is, however, a skill for that. You can use your Survival skill to search for items that can be used for recovery or for cooking, or you can use your Familiar skill to send a bird to the store for some supplies—if the bird likes you enough to help you out, that is! There are just simply loads of different skills, abilities, and techniques at your disposal that allow for a very customizable strategy, but while there are so many available variables to use, it didn’t really feel overwhelming like some RPGs tend to do, as each of the skills has a very specific—any quite useful—function in Star Ocean. The lack of hand-holding was appreciated as well, because this game has a very intuitive and organic-feeling system that really is a lot of fun to figure out on your own, while at the same time not being overly difficult to decipher.
Audio & Video
I mentioned earlier that the graphics were already pushing the limits of the Super Famicom when Star Ocean was originally released, and the PSP release was an enhanced remake. First Departure R takes these enhancements a step further and gives the game an HD makeover. The graphics are beautifully done, and really are a shining example of how gorgeous pixels can really be when done correctly. The different perspectives and overhead distances give a lot of depth to the world of Star Ocean: First Departure R, and it makes me kind of sad that I never got to experience this game as a kid—but then I remember that I get to experience this version of the game for my first ever encounter with the series, and I feel better about that.
The soundtrack is also strong, and sound effects as well, but where this game really shines is with the voice acting. Almost all of the main story dialogue is fully voiced, and the actors really did an excellent job. Each character is voiced extremely well, and it just gives the game that extra little bit of warmth that really brings you that much further into the story.
Wrapping Up, or Just Getting Started?
I am truly excited to have gotten to review Star Ocean: First Departure R, and I now need to play all of the other Star Ocean games that have eluded me for all of these years. If you even remotely like a good jRPG, then you should check this one out. If you like a good action-RPG, then you definitely need this in your collection. It’s an amazing game with just the right amount of difficulty to keep you in it, without making you want to destroy your controller in the process—although I have had a few moments where I had to walk away and try again later, just in case! Go to the eShop and get this game right now!
Buy Star Ocean: First Departure R from the Nintendo Switch eShop here.
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*A game code was provided for review purposes.