When I played this game, I honestly wasn’t expecting much. I haven’t heard anything particularly good about the Star Ocean series, it doesn’t look very unique, and I found it for $8 during my trip to the USA. I gave it to my friend last Christmas because I completely forgot about the holiday and had no presents ready (Please don’t comment on my thoughtfulness in a gift, I receive plenty of complaints in that department in real life.), and I recently got it back to play because I had to go to China and knew I needed more things for my ADD self on the airplane ride. I went in thinking it’d be a mediocre game with overused plot, one-dimensional characters, and very dated combat. What I got was a fun game with overused plot, one-dimensional characters, and very dated combat that I somehow enjoyed. I don’t know what happened here, considering how I was much more indifferent about Grandia and Chrono Trigger, and I actually consider the latter to be a much more polished game (that actually stood against the test of time) than Star Ocean. I guess this is like one of those games that you inexplicably like, despite all its shortcomings.
Our main character is Roddick, a very bland dude who doesn’t do much and never becomes angsty or hot-headed at any point in the story and gets overshadowed as protagonist very, very fast (on the bright side, that means there is no opportunity for him to become annoying). Heck, even the plot synopsis in the manual makes it sound like he’s just some side character! Anyway, he’s got his childhood friends Millie and Dorne, and the three of them are together in the town defense force which does basically nothing, because their standard fantasy RPG starting town is peaceful and quiet. One day, they receive news of a disease hitting some nearby town that causes the infected to turn into stone. Dorne catches this disease, and the three of them decide to climb up the local mountain to get some herbs. On the top of the mountain, two humans from Planet Earth suddenly appear in some sci-fi military outfits, informing them that they will all turn to stone and can either go with them to find a way to cure the petrification or eventually die with the rest of their planet.
Just as the plot is starting to sound very sci-fi and you enter their fabulously high-tech space ships, you get thrown back into the medieval fantasy planet you started in (albeit 300 years ago, and it seems like medieval stasis took place) and proceed to spend the majority of the game there. You’ll visit a grand total of two planets despite the game being titled “Star Ocean,” and one of them is accessible at the very end and contains four locations on the entire map. There’s some minor time travelling, but the actual involvement of the scientific details of time-travelling are next to none. Like Chrono Trigger, time-travel is used as a simple plot device and thankfully game doesn’t even try to justify it in detail (or else the plot could have ended up in a giant mess instead of a fast-paced, simple story). Being at 20 hours long, the pacing is fast and it will jump into the main plot in a matter of minutes. The pace was praise-worthy until near the end, where it became too rushed and what seemed like the midway plot twist was actually the climatic twist. Don’t try thinking too much into the plot, its strength lies in its charm.
What I enjoyed on the non-combat side were the “Private Actions.” They’re somewhat similar to the skits in Tales games where they reveal character interactions outside of battle or the main plot, but the major difference is that they only happen at towns and the main character can still interact with the environment (e.g. buying stuff from shops, talking to NPCs, taking to party members that aren’t involved in the private action). Which private actions you view can also lead to different scenes in the ending, and they also affect the hidden affection stat between party members. Speaking of affection stats, everyone has affection stats with everyone. It doesn’t just involve party members and the main character. I was pretty surprised with this, coming from a 1996 game. The cast itself doesn’t stand out from the crowd, but I liked some of them and could tolerate the rest (thanks to the brief dialogue not giving my disliked archetypes time to whine).
The actual combat is extremely outdated, and not very strategic or skill-based for an action RPG. It’s also very easy, to the point where literally all you need to do is press X for most battles. There isn’t even any need to run up to the enemy, because pressing X will make you character move to their target automatically (even aerial enemies). Character learn a variety of special arts/spells, but only mages get to use their entire arsenal of spells in battle because they get to manually select what spell to cast from the menu. Close-range attackers get to use a total of two special arts in battle, and that applies to characters you aren’t controlling too. There is also no blocking button in the game. All guarding happens automatically (based on certain stats, if SO4 is anything to go by), which takes away a lot of the strategic elements of real-time battle systems. The ally tactic options are also few, and you can’t command a party member to use a specific spell or change their combat tactics while in control of someone else. Star Ocean’s battle system certainly did not stand against the test of time, or anything, for that matter. I don’t think this battle system was any more exciting in 1996, considering how actual action games and Falcom ARPGs existed back then. Also, whenever anyone casts a spell, the entire screen will stop and play the spell animation. Very annoying, for a game with real-time combat.
Lackluster battle system aside, the rest of what Star Ocean tried to do did impress me. It’s got a variety of skills for each character that you can put skill points into, and they range from abilities that aid in battle (such as reduce casting time, increase certain stats, or making herbs heal more) to other uses such as pickpocketing (steal items from NPCs, actually decreases party affection!), alchemy, weapon customization, and various others. Tri-Ace was clearly very ambitious, although the very luck-based item creation system was certainly annoying because you had to save and reload way too often. The in-game descriptions also aren’t very clear for the most part.
Encounters are random, and occur very often too. Plus, movement on the world map is snail pace and you’ll never get an airship or vehicle that can give you fast travel, despite this being a game where you would probably want to revisit old towns. Backtracking becomes a pain in the ass, and if you want to revisit the first town (necessary for the recruitment of a certain character)? Have fun climbing up and down a mountain (counted as a dungeon, albeit a very linear one), after walking slowly on the world map. Oh, you gotta go through that again to get outta there to get on with the plot.
What really stood out about Star Ocean was the character recruitment system. You’ve got four mandatory main characters who will be forced into the party no matter what, but there’s eight slots in total. That means you can recruit four optional characters. The catch is that there are definitely more than four optional characters available in the game, which means you’ve got to think wisely about who to recruit. Certain subplots will only be introduced and resolved if you’ve got the right characters recruited, and certain story-related events will see different dialogue or more revelation from a different side, depending on who you’ve got. Recruited characters and affection values will also affect certain scenes in the ending, along with private actions. There is no way to see everything on one playthrough, making Star Ocean surprisingly non-linear and replayable.
If you’ve read my review up to this point, then you can probably tell that Star Ocean is very flawed. All the complaints about older RPGs apply to it. Dated battle system? Check. Annoying random encounters? Check. Guide Dang It item creation? Double check. Unoriginal, overused medieval fantasy setting? Check. The opening with space ships flying through space and explosions would tell you otherwise, but you are purposely dumped onto the usual SNES era fantasy RPG land despite all the other potentially interesting world that should exist in the universe. Even so, this game was very enjoyable. It’s got charm, it’s surprisingly non-linear, it has some funny character interactions, and tries to do a lot despite some areas not succeeding. If you don’t mind the overly easy and dated battle system or have no qualms about the common complaints of Eastern RPGs, Star Ocean is worth a look.