Reviewing A Game In Its Sequel's Clothing: "Star Ocean: First Departure"
One of the last RPGs to be released on the Super Famicom (aka “Super Nintendo”) was tri-Ace’s STAR OCEAN. The tri-Ace team was formed after TALES OF PHANTASIA, the first game in the Tales series, was released on the same system. Both games didn’t come to America on this original platform, in this original time frame (1996). But even then, word was out in America that these incredible late-era 16-bit RPGs existed, and their existence was like something of a legend for poor little American boys like myself.
The full story is that Namco took the first game in the Tales series and basically ruined it. Or at least, that’s how Yoshiharu Gotanda, the man who wrote the original plot for Tales of Phantasia, felt. So he went on with some colleagues to form tri-Ace, and their first game would launch what is a fairly well-known sci-fi fantasy epic. Gotanda also wrote the story for Star Ocean, and his team made a game that played and looked in almost every way like Tales of Phantasia. There was time travel, there was a strong emphasis on character interaction and building a sizable party, there was the action-based battle system, and… yeah. The only new thing brought to the game was the skill / skill points system, something that has forever defined the Star Ocean series as something truly special.
A time must come when the things of the past re-surface. More specifically, that time comes when Square Enix decides they want more money with minimal effort. However, with Star Ocean, they knew that this outdated SNES title wouldn’t hold well in today’s market. So they re-tooled Star Ocean, from the ground up, and put it in the form of the second game in the series (STAR OCEAN: THE SECOND STORY for PlayStation, which did come to America). Both of these games were released on PSP as STAR OCEAN: FIRST DEPARTURE and STAR OCEAN: SECOND EVOLUTION respectively. The company TOSE worked on the remake of the first game, and the port of the second game, in tandem with tri-Ace and Square Enix. But it was mostly TOSE.
The jump from Star Ocean to Star Ocean: First Departure was big. Graphically, all environments were changed to gorgeous pre-rendered scenes (a common thing for PSX RPGs). And the battles switched from a top-screen 2D to the 2.5D of Star Ocean 2. In other words, Star Ocean: First Departure was the plot of the first game put into the skin of the second game. Truth be told, it was a really great idea.
And, in my humble opinion, this game needed the boost. Because, despite all the myth and legend about this “incredible” Super Famicom RPG I’d heard as a youngster, it’s really not a great game. The brief experience I’ve had with the original version was that it a) wasn’t as good as Tales of Phantasia, 2) had a really awful encounter rate, and iii) would have sold terribly in the US.
The game took me about 40 hours to conquer. And by “conquer,” I don’t just mean end credits. I mean absurd level-grind in secret dungeon, evil secret last boss, and another insanely-hard enemy you can summon on the world map. The only thing I didn’t do was play the game a second time to get all the characters. The game limits your party to 8 characters (4 of whom are mandatory in SO1), out of a total of 12 playable characters. I witnessed something crazy, by accident, in my own playthrough: a character died. It was an optional scene that you can avoid in one of two ways, and they actually added a special anime cut scene just for this event. I was sort of glad to get rid of her, because with the free space, I picked up Welch Vineyard, the secret character they added to the PSP ports, who was first introduced in STAR OCEAN: TILL THE END OF TIME (aka SO3) for PlayStation 2. And all I have to say about her? “Nibelung!!! something-or-other…” hilarious!
Spoiler alert for brief plot synopsis. Some humans with tails (Saiyans?) from the planet Roak start turning into stone one day. They think it’s from a naturally-occurring illness, but it turns out it’s a biological weapon being used by some crazy folk. The people on planet Roak are “underdeveloped,” in that they’ve yet to make contact with outside planets. Some very Star-Trek-style people from Earth show up (seriously, Ronyx looks and acts like Spock). They explain the situation to two young adventurers: Roddick and Millie. Roddick, Millie, Ronyx, and Ilia go through some lengthy exposition, and then decide to fly to the Planet Styx and beg the acorporeal “gatekeeper” of the Time Gate to let them go 300 years into the past to get a tissue sample from the evil creature “Asmodeus,” who seems to be the original host of the “turn-you-to-stone” disease.
(aside: there was something in the game’s exposition about Roakian blood being copper-based instead of iron-based, and how their blood looked invisible to everyone except other Roakians, and that blood could be used as a cloaking device. This plot point goes nowhere by the end, but it would’ve been a cool thing to work with…)
So you end up in the Roak of the past, where 90% of the game takes place. After kicking butt there, going through all manner of quests and picking up a full party, you defeat Asmodeus, then find out about a sinister third party. And then there’s something about the continent of “Mu” (it’s like Atlantis, but in the Pacific instead of the Atlantic), and how a meteor that destroyed the continent sent humans to planets all over the galaxy. It isn’t as interesting as I made it sound. So that’s a bad thing.
Music is by Motoi Sakuraba (of course). You either love it or you get tired of it really fast. Me? I switch my opinion of the guy like I switch underwear. So I won’t say anything more about him.
So, outside of the plot, virtually everything about the game feels like Second Evolution, which I’ve already reviewed. Having played both games, I’m going to cut this review short (at 1000 words…short?) and just say the game gets a 4 out of 5. Great gameplay formula, great remake, but the original plot and characters just don’t sell themselves as well as those in SO2. That’s an opinion right there. I have a few of those.