Like a loving art restorer, removing the plaque of time from a masterpiece, Square Enix has dug deep into its catalog and breathed life back into the game that, at least for the Star Ocean series, started it all. Star Ocean: First Departure R is an enhanced version of the PlayStation Portable remake of the same game, Star Ocean: First Departure, now brought to the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch consoles.
To really appreciate the modern console release of this title, we need a little history first.
Star Ocean: First Departure R
Developer: Square Enix
Producer: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch
Initial Release: December 5, 2019
MSRP: $20.99 (Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch)
First released for the Super Famicom in 1996, Star Ocean was an RPG developed by Tri-Ace, a brand new development studio formed from the departure of developer Wolf Team members that had worked on Namco’s Tales of Phantasia the previous year.
Star Ocean was ahead of its time, requiring the use of a special compression chip, due in large part to its exceptional graphics and voice-acted intro and battle cries, which compressed the game data so that it would fit on a cartridge.
Enix, who shut down their American operations shortly before the game’s release due to poor western sales, was unable to release the game in the western market. It didn’t help that Nintendo had shifted their focus toward the future, with the imminent release of the Nintendo 64 looming over the game’s development.
Thus, the Super Famicom version of Star Ocean reached neither American nor European shores.
Over a decade later, the game was remade and enhanced with new features by developer Tose for Sony’s PlayStation Portable handheld, which had become a bastion for such remakes, remasters, and re-releases.
Yoshinori Yamagashi, producer of the series, said in a statement that he wanted to make the game feel completely new, and we have to admit, he certainly succeeded in just that.
Thus, the PSP remake, titled Star Ocean: First Departure, featured all new art, newly created anime cutscenes, new characters, improved graphics and combat, and other benefits of using an upgraded version of the same game engine used to produce the game’s PlayStation (PSX) sequel, Star Ocean: The Second Story.
This may be the crux of the game: If you liked Second Story back on the Playstation, you’re going to be a lot more likely to enjoy First Departure R. In adapting its sequel’s game engine, it also picked up many of its idiosyncrasies and quirks.
Star Ocean: First Departure R picks up where the PSP remake left off, taking the game, yet again, to the next level. The game further enhanced the games graphics and art style, and even lets the player choose between the PSP-version art style and the all-new art style in the in-game options menu.
The character sprites are crisp, smooth, and vibrant. Each character also sports an all new portrait illustrated just for this version, though the game does not include new cutscenes featuring this new character art.
This can be a little disruptive, as the new designs are significantly different and it may even take a moment to realize which character is which.
Like many game’s of the mid 90s, the game switched between graphical styles periodically. The default mode is 2D sprites over a pre-rendered background, which admittedly looks the best of all.
Dungeons and towns blend beautifully with the characters’ sprite work. With vivid and unique locales, no two towns or dungeons look the same or heavily reuse assets; making for a distinct and recognizable world. Abandoned mines, snowy forests, scientific laboratories, spaceships, beaches, and colosseums; the world of First Departure R is one crafted with love and care.
The overworld is presented in 3D and allows the player to rotate the camera freely. This 3D environment gives depth and scale to the landscape, with towns and dungeons littered about. The overworld also features a world map, so locations are always easy to find and you are rarely at a loss on where to go next.
Should you get lost, however, the game features a helpful reminder from party members upon leaving town after a Private Action–a feature that allows you to partake in extra story events and build your social ties with your party, which is available before you enter any town in the game. (More on this later.)
Exploring beyond the beaten path can lead to some rewarding finds, including optional dungeons and exceptional, albeit missable, story moments. There are several unmarked areas to find, and the game is gorgeous such that simply finding a spot with an amazing view of the sky or the ocean is worth the time and effort.
Lastly, the games combat takes place in a 3D environment with character and enemy sprite overlays. The combat visuals range from exquisite to bland, though we might argue it’s unreasonable to expect every battle location to be a work of art. Regardless, enough care was taken in the design that the transition from one style to the other isn’t jarring and does not break your immersion.
Combat is one of the places that Star Ocean: First Departure R really shines, setting itself apart from other JRPGs of the era. With full manual control of your characters on a three-dimensional plane, the quasi real-time battles are fast-paced and fun.
You control one character at a time while the computer controls the rest of the party, but you can alter your party’s tactics via menu settings. You can also change tactics settings mid-combat, so if you’re in a pinch, set your swordsmen to protect their friends or your healer to… well, heal.
You’ll use a menu to issue commands, use items and spells, hit shoulder button hotkeys to initiate special attacks, and smash the base attack button to perform a basic auto-combo. It’s easy to get lost in the fun of battle, which makes random encounters much less of a chore and compensates, at least a little, for the tedium of grinding.
The game isn’t as grind heavy as many games of its time, and using characters’ individual and group passive specialties can reduce the grind even further. Still, it is an old-school JRPG, so you will want to spend at least some time leveling up.
The combat has plenty of opportunities for down to the wire, life or death moments. There are battles where you are racing the clock to heal and watching your mage chant the Raise spell to bring you back to life even as the enemy charges forward.
In others, you may find yourself switching from character to character, desperately trying to cure status effects, resurrect critical allies, or use just the right spell to bring the battle to a close.
For a JRPG to get your blood pumping in such a way is rare. For one from the age of the Super Famicom to do so is nothing short of amazing. The combat in First Departure R brings a level of urgency that is rare in the genre.
First Departure R‘s skill system is multifaceted and serves a great many functions throughout the game. The core mechanic is relatively simple: Buy skill books from town which will unlock new skills for the whole party (and collect some special ones that aren’t for sale) and gain SP each level-up to distribute over the myriad of different skills each character has learned.
Things get tricky from there, as skills cover a variety of game-critical aspects: passive stats/attribute gain, passive skills, equipment smithing, item appraisal, active skills, combat abilities, consumable item creation, combat item creation, unique abilities like in-dungeon shopping and pickpocketing, altering the in-game music, and even getting game tips.
There are even more skills than those listed here. Adding points to Determination first, which lowers the SP cost for all remaining skills, is a highly recommended strategy.
Further, the skills are often reciprocal, interacting with one another–both on a single character and across characters–to unlock even more skills, traits, or abilities. The right combinations of skills will unlock characters’ “specialties” which allow you do do things like lower the chance for random battles or increase that character’s exp gain.
Further still, getting the right combination of skills or specialties across your whole party will unlock “super specialties”, which similarly allow you to alter aspects of the game; in this case, those that will affect your entire party.
The game’s skill system is one of its biggest highlights. If you’re not interested, you can play the game in the modus operandi of a sledge hammer, grinding your way to victory through basic skill allotment and power-leveling alone. You are not forced to explore the game’s rich and intricate skill system.
However, for those who revel in the chance to explore true mastery over a game, and we know many of us enthusiasts are up for just such a challenge, the skill system affords us a myriad of ways to proceed through the game. Combined with the fact the game, like its sequel, offers multiple endings (so many in fact, finding a specific one requires a trip to GameFAQs), each playthrough of First Departure R can be completely different than the last.
The game also features an insanely difficult (level 200+) post-game dungeon that will redefine the meaning of mastery, and afford you the chance to continue playing even after the game is beat.
The soundtrack, while not bad, doesn’t break any molds or stand out in any meaningful way. It’s not catchy enough to go on any playlist. It’s unapologetically basic JRPG background music.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the music is ambient and appropriate for the situation. The music is even more inconsequential, as in the midst of combat, whatever music you would hear is soon to be drowned out by the repeated yelling of your party. They will call our their special arts names with every use as if the party were comprised entirely of shonen anime protagonists.
Star Ocean: First Departure R would still be worth the playthrough if all it had was deep, interrelated game mechanics that make strategy and forethought paramount, but combined with an epic narrative that hybridizes fantasy with science fiction, the game makes for one of the best retro-RPGs you can get your hands on.
In fact, in terms of narrative, we’d argue that the original is far more intriguing that its successor, whose story was never really a selling point. Sure, like any classic RPG, there’s a bit of the par-the-course, castle-to-castle, warrior-of-light routine, but it manages to avoid being overly formulaic by coloring outside the lines.
On the scientifically underdeveloped Planet Roak, the story follows the adventure of
three two friends who venture out to find a cure for a fast spreading plague that petrifies its victims with no known cure.
They soon come across members of the Terran Aliance, a pangalactic federation based on Earth that oversees law in space. This unfolds into something much more epic than the three friends had ever imagined.
You’ll meet many characters along the way, and even be forced to choose some over others. All of them come with their own respective backstories and unfolding drama, which is, for the most part, intriguing. It makes for interesting dialogue (via Private Actions) throughout the story.
We might argue these dramas often never truly unravel to their conclusion or otherwise fail to truly define the characters rather than simply paint a backdrop from which you can recruit them, but for the era this game was produced, we think the characters show a level of depth uncommon for the time.
The characters themselves each have unique personalities, goals, and outlooks. Coming from vastly different walks of life, ages, and even worlds, all interact with one another in a believable manner which makes for a much more interesting and organic plot.
Seeing how they each approach the events unfolding in the world around them keeps the normal save-the-world trope from getting stale. On top of the main story, Private Actions (PA) offer extra segments in each town. PA’s change periodically depending on how far into the story you are and who you have recruited to your party, and many are very missable.
Not only does the Private Action system open up more story and background for all the characters and build their character through their mutual interactions, but certain PAs also lead to game changing decisions. They can raise or lower your affection level between characters, in turn changing things such as access to hidden skills and abilities, different recruitable characters and quests, as well as the many different endings available to find.
Star Ocean: First Departure R is bursting at the seams with content, both story and gameplay. Between its beautiful retro-visuals, it’s deep skill system, and it’s intricate plot that features not just multiple endings but multiple paths to reach those endings, the game truly harkens to an age of gaming long past.
One where story and gameplay were king and innovations were around every turn. We thoroughly enjoyed our 30+ hour playthrough, and could easily spend another 30+ hours doing it all again.