Review by Makototensai

Reviewed: 04/28/16

Stale Ocean

Star Ocean had a hard life.

If there were a dictionary definition for the phrase “squandered potential,” it should just be a picture of the logo for Star Ocean (next to a poster for Batman vs Superman).

It started so strong too, and most westerners don't even realize it. The first game on SNES never got released in the west, but it is easily up there with Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy VI as one of the best Super Nintendo RPGs of all time. Second Story on PS1 is similarly one of the system's best JRPG's.

Then we got Star Ocean 3: Till the End of Time, Square Enix's big push to get the series into the mainstream in the west. It had all of the great content from previous games – the branching character routes, the insane item creation, the bonus dungeons, the battle system, as well as top quality production value and localization. Unfortunately it didn't quite land the way people hoped. What was billed as a galaxy-spanning sci-fi adventure was in reality more of a traditional sword & sorcery game, a fact that bugged players unfamiliar with the series. It didn't help that the protagonist was not very likeable and the ending twist made everything feel pointless.

So Till the End of Time didn't propel the series into the JRPG vanguard. And neither did Star Ocean 4 thanks to some poorly translated characters and another underwhelming story. Star Ocean 5 may well be the series' final hope given the issues with the last two games. I am sad to say, it has little chance of being the franchise saviour fans have been waiting to see.

Everything about Star Ocean 5 screams “LOW BUDGET.” You feel it in the cheap opening cinematic and in the “epic space battles” near the game's end where all you see is the captain of one ship yelling orders. You feel it in the recycled story that takes place on only one planet, with an even smaller cast of playable characters made up of the same stock personalities (blue-haired swordsman, childhood friend, sexy mage, annoying cute kid, fist fighter, etc). Here is all you need to know about the plot: Teenage swordsman, medieval planet, mysterious girl with macguffin powers, secret evil organization. There are some connections to the previous games, but none are terribly important, and the stakes feel much smaller than the previous three games.

The low budget feel exudes in every design choice. I recall early stories talking about the fact that Star Ocean 5 lets you walk around freely during cutscenes. It was billed as this cool new feature. In truth it feels like a cost-savings tool. Every serious conversation, every dramatic reveal – they all have a bland same-y-ness to them thanks to the fact that Fidel is just wandering around aimlessly throughout. To test the feel, I went back and played some of Star Ocean 3, and it just blew my mind how much more cinematic and polished that game is. The decision in Star Ocean 5 to have battles occur directly on the map instead of on a separate field, has a similar effect. Because your party is so large, the maps have to be designed in a way to create natural 'stages' for enemies to roam where you can fight them. This makes most dungeon and outdoor maps feel contrived and flat. It doesn't help that most of the dungeons look identical.

Having no separate screen for battles really becomes annoying in indoor dungeons, as it really brings out the limitations of the game's camera and character AI. Trying to manage seven characters in large scale real time battles can get disorienting fast in such spaces. At times it does not feel well-tested. For example, you always control Fidel when walking around the map and other characters follow him. If you switched away from Fidel in battle, when the next fight starts you will switch back to that character. However if that character just so happens to be far away from Fidel when the fight starts, the battle will begin with them outside of the combat zone in 'ESCAPE' mode. Multiple times this caused me to start fights at a disadvantage or accidentally run away from encounters entirely. Very annoying, and easily solved by just letting the player change which character they control to move around outside of battle.

Still, combat is fun. It has the same spry arcade feel of earlier games. The skill system is also fairly deep as it has returned to something closer to Second Story's “do stuff anywhere anytime” system. When you factor in the bonus dungeons, the amusing “private action” story segments, and the groovy soundtrack, there is an enjoyable game buried within the mediocre shell. There characters aren't too bad either. Anne and Miki are both quite endearing, and the previously mentioned sexy mage, Fiore, is actually a one of the best written supporting characters the series has ever had. In some ways the game may be more fun for people who have never played a Star Ocean game.

Lack of content is not really the game's biggest problem. The game is not overly short. My first playthrough took almost forty hours (that includes most side quests and bonus dungeons). The issue is how much Star Ocean 5 recycles elements from previous games. At every turn, Star Ocean 5 militantly refuses to innovate. How about we not do another neon-haired teenage boy swordsman with his female childhood friend as the protagonists? Nope. How about we let players equip more battle skills at a time than just four to make things more complex and interesting, like Tales Of does? Nope. OK how about we at least make a large number of new battle skills instead of just copying ones from previous games? Nope. How about we do something different with the magic system? Nope.

It is frustrating because I really love the Star Ocean universe. There are so many interesting elements that we never get to really investigate. Take Symbology for example. It is this incredibly important story concept – carving magic runes into the flesh to let people use sorcery. There are a number of cool things you can do with that. How about a mechanic where you learn new symbols over time and create spells or tattoo them on characters yourself? How about a parallel skill system that lets you modify how spells function? As with virtually everything else, Star Ocean 5 decides to leave what it considers well enough alone.

Taken on its own, Star Ocean 5 is not a great entry point into the series. Neither the story or gameplay are stellar. The combat and item creation are fun, but outclassed by lots of other games. Taken as a sequel, it is even worse. Every previous Star Ocean sequel at least tried to innovate. Second Story had multiple protagonists. Star Ocean 3 revamped the battle, skill, and item creation systems. Star Ocean 4 gave you your own ship that you could decorate, set room assignments, and use to travel from planet to planet. I cannot think of one interesting thing that Star Ocean 5 does differently or better than previous games.

Ultimately Star Ocean 5 does nothing to reinvigorate the series. If anything it just makes it feel even deader. If Tri-Ace and Square Enix really wanted to build the franchise on a budget, they should have just done spinoff as a digital download or Vita game. Star Ocean 5 could have made a great alternative entry with a few different design choices. As a mainline entry in the series, it falls flat and is easily the worst of the bunch. I can really only recommend it to hardcore series fans or people just desperate for a PS4 JRPG.

Star Ocean 5 reminds us that, in spite of their potential, not every franchise is destined to soar. Star Ocean has had a hard life. Perhaps it is best that we allow it to rest in peace.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Product Release: Star Ocean 5: Integrity and Faithlessness (JP, 03/31/16)

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