Star Ocean has been a well known franchise in the JRPG (Japanese role-playing games) community for many years. The previous title, Star Ocean: The Last Hope, must have sold well despite not being recommended by most members of this community. With that in mind Square Enix has just recently released the latest in the series, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, exclusively on the PlayStation 4.
Given that Star Ocean has always been a PlayStation staple until the timed exclusive The Last Hope title, it’s interesting to see how fans react to this new entry. The good news is that it does have a promising start. The middle ages setting of planet Faykreed IV is somewhat reminiscent of the first two Star Ocean titles. Even the main duo consisting of childhood friends, Fidel and Miki, are a callback to the various friendships explored in previous titles.
The main motivation for this duo to go off on their own adventure is to find a way to protect their village from a local group of mercenaries. However, this all changes when they rescue a mysterious girl called Relia from a group of unusual people with very strange technology. Turns out that the Kronos alien race which have been long time rivals of humans and the other races in the Pangalactic Federation have been conducting research on this planet. If this sounds similar to a plot story in Star Trek then it’s because it is most likely inspired by one. After all, the Pangalactic Federation even has a directive to not get involved with planets that make use of primitive technology such as the one the story takes place in.
Soon the gang is joined by other characters, including two humans from the federation poorly disguised as locals, as they try to find why Kronos troops are so focused on getting little Relia back. Perhaps it’s this obsession that turns into the eventual downfall of the title. It soon becomes clear that our raggedy band of heroes is not capable of keeping the girl under their custody. It’s almost comical how many times she gets kidnapped (part of a plot twist) by different antagonists that even include troops from the rival nation that Fidel’s nation is at war with. It feels like most of the story boils down to one very long session of hide and seek.
Another major issue in the story is that despite being set between the events of the third and fourth video-games, it only takes place in the current planet. In a way this really is Fidel’s story and the alien races are there to start a conflict that only he and his band of heroes can solve.
In terms of actual game-play, the title does a decent job of immersing the player in this world. The size of the characters and the closer camera view means that environments explored look huge in comparison. It’s difficult not to feel impressed during the first two or three hours playing the title. In fact, these few hours of exploration are easily one of the very few highlights of this title.
A welcome trend in new JRPGs is the lack of a loading screen when fights start and end. Instead characters instantly start fighting enemies. Although this also creates some new problems due to the narrow pathways found in most areas. It makes it difficult to avoid fighting every enemy group that is in the way.
Along the way there are quests that are found in a board within each of the towns visited. Although not particularly exciting to complete, the descriptions for these are very detailed and rather creative. It’s amusing to imagine the reaction of the people who get the items required by these quests to fulfill their goals of looking better and so on.
In battle, characters make use of battle skills that use up mana points. Some of these special arts or signeturgy spells are only learned with the aid of books. Up to two artes are equipped to buttons and spells are initiated from a menu that appears with a button press when fighting. The main issue here is how easy it is to get used to just spamming the same arte. Fidel for example has a particularly effective arte by default that will pretty much do the trick for most of the battles. Each character also has a special ability that players can activate by using a Reserve Rush meter that gets filled up on the right side of the screen.
At various points of the story, characters will leave the group for all kinds of reasons. One such character is the main healer making it incredibly difficult to survive battles in her absence. Even after being able to teach another character to do basic healing spells.
In other instances the group needs to protect one specific character in the battle. This ends up being borderline sadistic game design since every enemy will specifically target that character. It means having to constantly heal that character whilst also trying to defeat enemies closer to her. There is no way to resurrect said character with spells or an item if she dies since it’s game over.
This video-game seems to have a tendency to severely punish players for losing certain battles. Most of the boss fights found are designed in such a manner that dying results in losing a significant amount of progress. This is due to the fact that on several occasions even if the save point is located just before a boss battle, it is not possible to save since players are not permitted to use it. It just means having to defeat whatever group of regular enemies is in the way over and over again until finally being able to defeat that particular boss.
Perhaps in an attempt to avoid such issues, the development team has introduced the roles system. Basically, each role is classed under a different area such as attack. These are unlocked by using skill points earned with progress and by leveling up other roles. Each character can have a certain number of roles equipped. The idea is to make it so AI controlled characters can focus on certain functions depending on the situation. In theory equipping defensive roles on the character that needed to be protected, along with tough armour and defensive accessories, would make the situation better. However, it isn’t clear that the AI controlled characters actually benefit from this system in practice. It feels like systems used in past Star Ocean titles were more effective in forming battle tactics. Even the fact that the player can switch between characters doesn’t help much since it makes it harder to keep track of the whole group. It also seems like the AI controlled characters don’t make use of items which obviously makes fights even tougher.
In addition, there are specialties unlocked throughout the course of the story to make it possible to harvest items, create items and so on. Those looking for a challenge can also take part in the extra dungeon battles found within the Cathedral of Oblivion.
Dying over and over again also brings up another glaring issue involving the in-game cut-scenes. To its credit, the title does an excellent job of using the in-game engine to display most of the story developments. It’s just a shame that characters deliver some of the more sensitive lines of dialogue with the emotional depth of a Vulcan. It’s bad given that character development is such a vital part in this genre and it means not feeling that involved in what happens. Regardless, it’s not possible to skip the dialogue for every in-game cut-scene. This is made clear by the rare moments where a normal cut-scene does pop up and it is skipped by pausing and pressing a button. Having to view the same conversation several times is the equivalent of being force fed food you didn’t like as a child.
Then there are the various inconsistencies found throughout the course of the story. The frame rate tends to drop significantly during busier moments, such as when visiting bigger towns that have more NPCs walking about than usual. Characters have no collision detection and are frequently seen casually walking through each other. Subtitles lack the name of who is delivering the current line. Even the characters don’t seem to enjoy their roles. Their lines of dialogue are usually spoken like they have been stuck doing the same monotonous small theater roles for most of their lives. The traditional optional interactions between characters in towns and locations usually feel devoid of any emotion. A major issue given that these interactions affect the story and its ending.
It’s a shame to see such a beloved franchise get a mediocre new entry and on its twentieth anniversary no less. There is no denying that it does seem promising at first, but the many unusual design choices end up making it feel more like an endurance test to check the patience limits of the average human being.