Review by Onoderas
It isn't as bright, but the Star Ocean is still shining.
Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness (SO5 from here on) is the game no one saw coming, yet so many wanted. With long-time series director Yoshinori Yagashigi departing after Star Ocean: The Last Hope, fans of the series have had to deal with almost 7 years of silence regarding the potential future of Tri-Aces franchise. Thus, when SO5 was officially announced in April last year, shock and excitement ran both simultaneously through the minds of fans, myself included. The waiting is over and SO5 is finally here, albeit with a very mixed reception. Both official publications and fan opinion are incredibly mixed, with publication scores averaging around 5/10, whilst a handful of fans claim that the series has now run its course and that the Ethereal Sphere needs to be turned off.
After sitting down with the game for 34 hours and finishing the main story, side quests and other miscellaneous content (not including the post-game) it has become clear that SO5 does not break any boundaries to redefine the genre, and finds itself falling victim to design flaws that we thought developers left behind decades ago. However, it also becomes apparent that the developers were never aiming for this in the first place, and SO5 is the culmination of experimentation with game-play mechanics, that both make the game enjoyable and frustrating. Whilst many issues make the game feel like it is stuck in the past, as if the developers have been oblivious to the development of the genres mechanics in some regards, other areas shine through showing that underneath the negativity fans are capitalising on, merit exists if one looks closely enough.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the plot of SO5 is that throughout the 20 hour main scenario, there is a constant sense of deja vu. Whilst running across the Resulian Plains to flank your kingdoms opposing army in a mission of vital importance to the government, something in the back of your mind tells you that youve done this before, a dozen times before in fact, in countless other JRPGS. The premise, and unfolding story, is both unoriginal and cliche, as childhood friends Fidel Camuze and Miki Sauvester find their town under attack, and on their journey to gain defences from the capital, encounter the amnesiac child Relia, as she falls through the sky in a space-craft. Joined by a cast of other seemingly cliche, but surprisingly deep characters, the cast seeks to figure out who Relia is, the secret behind her extraordinary power, and get wrapped up in a governmental space battle.
As mentioned above, the plot falls down fast due to a variety of reasons. The main reason for this is the decision by the development team to streamline the games cut-scenes into gameplay rather than distinctively mark them away from the playable environment. Clearly, the development team had good intentions, which makes it only a greater disappointment that the game falls down here. Attempting to streamline cut-scenes is a clear attempt to make the player feel more engrossed within SO5s narrative, to situate them within the world more, yet it quickly becomes a mess, becoming hard to determine what counts as major plot development, and general chit-chat between your party. Without making a distinctive break from the game to highlight that the narrative is developing, players can easily miss out on key points of dialogue. This is in no way helped by the fact that SO5 is a very bright game for the most part, with the subtitles being both small and white, making them hard to decipher with the player consistently having to navigate the camera during cut-scenes if they wish to follow along with the dialogue.
When the player can decipher plot from the hectic cut-scenes, what they see is a plot which is very basic, but by no means bad. Many have already harshly criticised SO5s plot, pointing out its weaknesses, unoriginality and cliche. Yet, at the same time the plot lacks an abundance of plot holes, confusing terminology and development, and (at least in terms of the Japanese track) poor voice acting. There is a need to recognise the difference between basic and bad, with many conflating the two in their assessments of the games plot. The JRPG genre is infamous for becoming stagnant with its stories, and whilst there are a few stand-out games with exceptional plots in recent years (Xenoblade Chronicles for instance), SO5 is not the only game in the last ten years with a plot that feels familiar. It is becoming harder than ever to innovate within the genre as a formula for storytelling seems to be set (childhood friends -> disaster-> mysterious stranger -> party members who know more than they let on -> mysterious strangers power wanted by villain -> heroes stop villain from winning), yet SO5 plays it safe with this formula, resulting in an average, but by no means terrible plot. Regardless of its failings, one must still give the developers credit for attempting to tell a story in an original way in a genre which in recent years, has stagnated on many fronts.
The only gripe that I experienced with the plot besides its familiarity is its pacing, which was most likely due to the streamlined cut-scenes. Major events felt like they came out of nowhere in some instances, and scenes which should have packed an emotional punch, failed to do so, as the camera kept me at a distance from character interaction and failed to allow me to truly become invested in the party dynamic. This pacing issue unfortunately has a direct effect on the game world itself. SO5 was made on a much smaller budget than previous games in the series, with rumors of a rushed development surfacing across the internet. The plot seems to rush through the typical points of this formula, and whilst the world is fleshed out to some extent (with great detail given to the symbology system and its history) lore of Faykreed IV is never given enough time. This only becomes a greater shame when comparing to the lore we were provided in games such as Star Ocean: Till the End of Time. We know the series can expand on its locations, and Faykreed has a lot of wasted potential. The warring kingdoms were simply skimmed over, Emmerson and Annes squadron and home-life could have added so much, yet the game, most likely due to monetary and time constraints, leaves us at the surface of the worlds we are exploring.
Characters and Art Style
The characters themselves and their development however, is a very mixed bag. If one simply plays through the main scenario, without dedicating much time to Private Actions, the entire party can seem incredibly cliched. Spend some time talking to them outside of your main objective however, and some genuinely interesting personalities shine through. Personal favourites include Fiore, who hints at a love lost, Relia who tries to understand human connection and emotion and so many more. Yet, this is side content a great majority of players are likely to skip over. The main plot does these characters no justice, but neither does the awful Private Action system, which requires the player to exit and re-enter an area in order to see more Private Actions, ultimately becoming tedious. Once again, game mechanics have been tested, and have not worked, but the intent shines through with characters that have personalities we want to get to know, and pasts we want to unravel. Blazing through the game without engaging in conversation is perhaps the biggest crime one can commit to themselves whilst playing this game.
Despite what seems like a negative assessment above, I have no extreme qualms with the characters and story of SO5, it is just a shame that they become overshadowed by failed gameplay mechanics. A familiar, yet safe plot is brought up by interesting characters who make you want to see their character endings, it is simply a case of so close, yet so far.
Yet, where the game really gets it right is in its art style. SO5 does not boast the greatest graphics the PS4 has seen, and it is clear that the game also exists on PS3, yet the design choice made by the team fits perfectly, and this truly shines through when the game (rarely) switches to conventional cut-scenes. The blend of anime inspired models and realistic worlds/backdrops simply feels right for the series, and if any future titles are to be released, I only hope they continue with this style. Whilst The Last Hope was not an ugly game by any means, the Xbox 360 version in particular felt a little too real, lacking the anime inspired character style that made Till the End of Time and the first two titles in the series feel comfortable. The return to an art style that feels closer to Till the End of Time is a welcoming one, and it is relieving to see the creators realise how to capitalise on the tone of the series through the presentation.
At the same time, the low budget of the game stands out in the character designs themselves, as well as the world layout. Whilst the actual game looks beautiful, too many dungeons and fields are simply open spaces or corridors, with a few doors darting off to the side with chests in. This seems be a problem carried over from The Last Hope, and one area where the series really needs to improve. Chests and puzzles should be integrated into the environment, not thrown into rooms on the side. Furthermore, Fidel is clearly a reworked version of Fayt. One can however, forgive this due to the low budget, and despite this, character models such as Emmerson and Fiore really do stand out as being well designed. Monster designs are a further mixed bag, with many familiar enemies making a reappearance, and later being pallet swapped for stronger iterations as the player reaches story milestones. Whilst such features would be inexcusable for a big-budget title, bearing the context of SO5 in mind, one can easily see past its flaws and appreciate that the developers have worked with what they were given.
The main reason many fans claim to play Star Ocean in the first place is its tight, action oriented gameplay, and despite its flaws, it is in this department that SO5 really shines through. The battle system takes exciting, yet erroneous decisions, evolving from previous games to truly feel like a step in the right direction.
Since the first footage of SO5 emerged, much attention has been drawn to its ability to have all seven of your party members on the battlefield at once. In a genre which has typically restricted us to a main party with an average of four members, seeing seven teammates on battlefield at once, and getting to use all of the games protagonists is an exciting and welcome move. Its certainly an interesting idea, that both works and is drawn back by minor flaws.
Rather than saying SO5s team includes seven characters, it is probably more appropriate to perceive it as a team of six, as Relia cannot equip weapons or fight. Rather, she is used to add party-buffing roles so that the entire team benefits to her. Relia thus becomes a sign for wasted potential, a girl whose magic is so central the plot could have easily become a mage for the team, yet simply runs around the battlefield (often dying in more dangerous encounters). Having to keep your eye on a character who doesnt really do anything can be both frustrating and distracting, and the game would have been just as innovating (and probably would have worked better) with a six man team.
At the same time, with six people on the team battles can easily become hectic, as skills and spells flash across the screen making it hard to track both the player and enemy, sometimes resulting in button mashing to hope you hit something. This does not however, ruin the battle system, and is only a minor drawback to the gameplay. Whilst characters can often focus attacking on a boss and cause this problem, the six party system really shines through when fighting large groups of enemies, allowing the player to tactically set up their party to target enemies different to the ones they are, allowing for effective handling of a battle. Whilst it may seem daunting to handle so many characters in battle, there was never a time throughout the 34 hours I spent with the game that I felt overwhelmed. If I ever did feel frustrated, it was due to the camera which struggles to keep track of the player through walls/enemies, and often becomes sporadic in its movement. Simply fine-tuning the camera would have ironed out some of these minor gripes.
The main issue with the battle system may not even truly be an issue for many players. Having six people in your party, with three being distance fighters and three being close-combat attackers, makes you feel consistently overpowered throughout the game. In almost every battle, Miki always stays back and heals your party (which in many instances means youre never in any real danger) whilst Emmerson and Fiore attack from a distance with everyone else adding to this damage. Having so many people at once allows you to stomp on enemies with ease, removing any sense of challenge for the majority of the game (occasional difficulty spikes do occur, but nothing to halt progress). This is also aided by the fact that SO5 literally throws EXP and levels at you. After completing 100% of the sidequests and taking on the Castle of Oblivion segments, my Fidel was level 95 before the final boss, with everyone else trailing behind. The game is a little too generous with its EXP handouts, which to some may be frustrating if they seek a challenge (especially seeing as universe and chaos mode are only available on a second playthrough and Galaxy mode does not carry much challenge), yet welcomed by players who wish to get through the game with ease.
Besides the evolution in the number of fighters available to you, SO5 also evolves the series gameplay by refining and tweaking mechanics we have seen before, to great effect. The roles system is a highly effective, deep, and enjoyable one, allowing for customisation and tactical thinking for encounters. In short, players can assign party members with roles which will provide boosts and also designate how they act in battle (attack less, attack more, attack weak enemies, enemies drawn to them etc.), which adds a new level of strategy and customisation to your team. Players seeking to mess around with their party and customise them to their liking will be treated by SO5. Despite finishing the main story, I feel as though Ive only touched the surface of this system, and look forward to experimenting with it further.
Special attacks also make a comeback in SO5, with the Rush Reserve System evolving on what started in Till the End of Time. Players can build up their reserve gauge through attacking (and it can also be depleted by taking damage/caught in a combo etc.) which brings bonuses to fol (in-game currency), EXP and SP (used to level up roles and skills such as cooking and crafting). However, the player can also use up their rush reserve gauge, sacrificing their battle bonuses to unleash a devastating attack upon enemies which can truly change the tide of battle. Its a double-edged sword, that really requires you to think whether or not its worth sacrificing your bonuses, adding a sense of risk ensuring you dont spam super attacks (which was an issue in The Last Hope). The Rush Reserve System simply feels like a step in the right direction, the next step on in Star Oceans special attack system.
Speaking of steps in the right direction, the organisation of side quests brings a sigh of relief after the hectic organisation experienced in The Last Hope. Quests are mainly found on a board in three towns (although Welch quests are found inside her house), meaning that the player always knows where to find side quests and does not have to waste time scouting out NPCs who may or may not offer bonus content for them. Whilst this is a welcome change, side quests themselves feel uninspired, with the majority either being kill X or collect XYZ. This quickly becomes repetitive, and makes side quests feel like a chore rather than something to engross yourself in. It only becomes disappointing further when instances of better side quests, such as the Find Ruddle quest line present themselves.
Linked into this issue is backtracking. I have no issue with a game that cannot allow the player to fast travel for story reasons. What I do have an issue with is, in spite of this, requiring the player to spend the first half of the game travelling back and forth along the same areas without fast travel. Being unable to warp to other areas would be fine if the narrative consistently took you to new places, but in SO5, much of the game remains focused in one area, which means you will be seeing the same fields a lot.
Whilst my review above outlines come clear issues with SO5, I want to make it clear that this is NOT a bad game by any means. I have played bad games (Tales of Symphonia 2), and SO5 is far from a bad game. Whilst The Last Hope spoiled us with a handful of planets to explore, it may feel like a step down to keep the action in one area to some, yet it works, and if anything the story would have become much weaker if it forced space exploration upon us. The narrative is familiar and very basic, saved to some extent by interesting characters which deserved greater development than they were given, whilst the battle system shows a true evolution for the series, despite its flaws. SO5 takes some brave steps despite its budget, and whilst not everything that is attempted works, other features redeem the game to show that there is something worth playing.
SO5 is not the game to save the JRPG genre, nor is it the best game you will play this year. But to anyone seeking something with an old-school narrative, and fun yet deep battle system, SO5 offers something. Despite its flaws, players should not refrain from trying the game for themselves in the face of all the negative press this game has received. We can only hope that despite the reception, Square Enix does not delete all the data for the universe of the Ethereal Sphere, allowing the developers to build upon the unsuccessful steps this game took. Whilst they may not be at their best, the stars in the star ocean havent burnt out just yet.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness (Limited Edition) (EU, 07/01/16)
Got Your Own Opinion?
Submit a review and let your voice be heard.