Review by BusterLegacyFF7
Bore Ocean 5: Death of a Franchise
Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is the fifth main Star Ocean game, taking place chronologically between Star Ocean: The Second Story and Star Ocean: Till the End of Time. In it, players follow the tale of Fidel Camuze, a blue-haired swordsman living on the underdeveloped planet of Faykreed IV. Embroiled in war, Fidel's home nation of Resulia finds itself on the retreat thanks to a mysterious new weapon employed by their opponents. The balance of war, however, stands to be shifted when a mysterious girl appears out of a crashed spaceship, and Fidel and his friends find themselves among the first on the planet to make contact with a developed extraterrestrial civilization. Within days, Fidel's conflict escalates from that of a soldier in a medieval war to one of interplanetary proportions, and the cast soon finds themselves fighting not only for their lives, but for the fate of the galaxy itself.
The strongest parts of Integrity and Faithlessness's story presentation are easily its cast of characters and its world building, though neither are particularly strong by the genre's standards. World building is handed subtly, delegating small, expository tidbits to NPC dialogue or side quest descriptions. Additionally, plenty of extraneous information is stored in the in-game glossary, which provides lore-friendly context to what's going on in the story and beyond. Wandering through the various towns and safe areas of the game causes passing NPCs to yield simple conversational text boxes that further add to immersion. Also located in towns are the series' staple PAs, or Private Actions, where the party scatters throughout town and players have the opportunity to interact with them in a series of personal, intimate conversations. These PAs are handled with care, develop the cast in interesting ways, and are highly entertaining to watch, but also serve to highlight how noticeably two-dimensional the characters are. Each character can be broken down into a handful of cliches or traits, which becomes increasingly apparent with each PA.
Integrity and Faithlessness does nothing to move away from conventional storytelling, expected plot devices, or stereotypical character archetypes, and as a result suffers from a bland, predictable narrative. It plays far too strongly on established tropes in the genre, including (but not limited to) the childhood friend, the hometown burning, and the mysterious girl with amnesia. Moving through the story, the weak scenario writing stands out in particular, and the pacing of the game's main plot points occur in a weird staccato that tarnishes most attempts at desperation. The first half of the game centers around Fidel and doubles as a coming of age story, but midway through changes pace drastically to involve the cast as a whole, which creates intense narrative diffusion that only hurts the storytelling. The weak character archetypes that have all appeared in previous Star Ocean games don't contribute to the storyline in any meaningful way, yet the nuances of their characterization can be somewhat entertaining at times.
Cutscenes in Integrity and Faithlessness occur live and in scene, which is not only a strong deviation from the series' traditional cinematic approach to narrative, but a noticeably revolutionary method of attempting to tell a story in a video game in general. During cutscenes, players have full control of Fidel and can move him around a restricted space in which the scene takes place while dialogue between characters occurs. Additionally, players have access to a wide repertoire of silly emotes for Fidel to interject in creative and wonky ways, which certainly breaks immersion but adds a slight entertainment factor to otherwise dull conversations. Unfortunately, live cutscenes are completely unskippable, which is incredibly frustrating during story segments players have already seen. Difficult boss fights and mandatory story encounters that end in repeated Game Overs could find players watching the same cutscene multiple times.
To players who have played previous Star Ocean games, namely Star Ocean: The Last Hope, it quickly becomes apparent why Integrity and Faithlessness earned the nickname "budget game." As players navigate planet Resulia, assets like environmental props and enemy species appear to be frequently reused. Most enemies share identical models with that of their counterparts in The Last Hope, and the vast majority of locales are reused, uninspired, and just plain boring to travel through. Many combat animations and attack names come straight from other games in the series, most notably from Till the End of Time. Even the game's soundtrack borrows heavily from previous games in the series, and the tracks that are original to Integrity and Faithlessness lack the inspiration and spirit of their predecessors; aside from the kickass battle themes, they aren't much more than "stereotypical medieval" or "stereotypical sci-fi."
Integrity and Faithlessness's battle system is most accurately described as an amalgamation of mechanics borrowed from other Star Ocean games, sprinkled with bits of originality and inventiveness to keep it modern. On the surface, players and enemies dabble with a repertoire of quick, light attacks, guard stances, and heavy attacks. By design, light attacks are meant to interrupt heavy attacks, heavy attacks punch through guards, and guards parry light attacks. Creative at a glance, the self-described "rock-paper-scissor" battle system falls apart in its application. Animations are sudden and lack indication, but cannot be predicted with accuracy, meaning players essentially gamble on having their light attacks parried or their guard broken with every press of a button.
Battle Skills are equipped outside of battle and are triggered by holding down either attack button. When activated, they launch more powerful attacks at the cost of some MP. Each can be upgraded by spending consumable items found in the world or through use in combat. Battle Skills offer either AoE options for dealing with multiple, quick enemies or heavy single-target damage, and players are strongly encouraged by the game to spam them often due to their generously cheap MP cost. Because of this, battles can often devolve into the kind of sustain-fighting traditionally found in MMOs, with DPS characters chewing through massive amounts of HP while healers keep them alive.
The game's RPG mechanics are more or less what players have come to expect from the Star Ocean series. There's no significant changes to stat balancing or character building, but the introduction of the Role system lets players customize their party's behavior and attributes in other ways. Each character can equip up to four Roles at a time, and each Role affects how they perform in battle. Some Roles increase aggressiveness towards and damage dealt to a certain species of enemy, some command AI party members to behave passively and stay out of danger, and some benefit survivability stats like health and defense significantly. Roles are unlocked in a variety of ways from PA participation to leveling up existing Roles to defeating a certain number of foes. Roles increase in level and potency by spending Skill Points (SP) earned in battles. Mixing and matching Roles adds an interesting spin on establishing character builds within a party, and with over one hundred Roles to play around with, toying with Role sets is an excellent way to experiment with each character's potential.
Perhaps the most significant changes to the series' battle system overall is the game's emphasis on fluidity and continuity in relation to the game world. This push is seen in-game in two ways. First, battles occur seamlessly in the game world, where battle arenas and transition screens are eliminated in favor of staging battles right in the existing space. This helps maintain immersion overall, but sometimes creates cramped hallway fights with large, powerful foes that can make the camera go crazy. Second, Integrity and Faithlessness allows all seven party members to fight on screen simultaneously. Conceptually, this makes plenty of sense and is something JRPG players have imagined for years, but Star Ocean's battle animations utilize an absurd amount of multi-hit, particle heavy attacks. Even the most common encounters tend to be met immediately with a wall of attack spam from your party members, and the screen gets filled frequently with clutter, damage numbers, and particle effects which make keeping track of the game's many battle elements unnecessarily difficult.
Finally, Integrity and Faithlessness offers a noticeable lack of post-game content in comparison to other games in the series. Boasting a total of one end-game dungeon, the game relies more on RNG min/maxing of equipment and intense difficulty curves rather than actual unique content to deliver replay value beyond the main story. The few superbosses require refined strategies to tackle, but are mechanically simplistic enough to cheese with a few specific party builds. As someone who sunk dozens of hours into the battle arenas of previous games, I found this incredibly disappointing, and ultimately stopped playing the post-game content out of a lack of interest.
Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is ultimately an enjoyable game, but critically, it's mediocre mess of half-conceptualized ideas added to the stale formula that made the series so great in the past. It does nothing creative in terms of writing, instead providing players with an abomination of cliches and tropes one could expect from a middle-schooler parroting well-known stories. For the majority of the game, the cast simply seems to exist because it needs to in order to deliver certain plot points. Developmental arcs are sloppy, and the characters' archetypes are ones fans of the series have seen in every other Star Ocean game. The poor writing could be excused, however, if the battle system was engaging on multiple levels. Sadly, it is not. The light/heavy/guard system is technically an improvement to the franchise's aging straightforward-design philosophy, but falters in execution because it seems too limited in real-time options. Early on in the game, combat feels heavy and impactful, but as stat parameters increase and the game's RPG elements manifest themselves, seeing success in battle shifts from requiring concrete skill on the battlefield to putting together a strong, cohesive, and strategically organized party. Seeing as how this game was developed on a budget, the shortcomings of Integrity and Faithlessness could very possibly - and very unfortunately - indicate the death of a classic franchise.
Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Product Release: Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness (Day One Edition) (US, 06/28/16)
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