Doing a review for a game you loved is easy. Doing a review for a game you hated is easy, too. Reviewing Star Ocean: First Departure, for the PSP, isn’t going to be easy. For the first 10-12 hours I was playing it, I was considering quitting; it just wasn’t grabbing me. Then I started digging into some of the ‘extras’ and treating it almost like an MMO, my focus turned to building strong characters efficiently rather than driving the storyline forward, and then I was really enjoying it. But that could only carry me so far, and when the game finally ended I was both satisfied *and* relieved.
So let’s break it down a bit. This is a pretty typical linear JRPG. There are some side quests but mostly it’s a straight shot from unknown farm boy to hero of the world. And honestly the story was pretty average. It started interesting, with some time travel and the ultimate goal being to cure a disease; surely a noble cause. But really that boiled down to having to kill Foozle, and in order to kill him you first needed to find the 4 Widgets of Wonder to access him. It at least made sense, and if you pay attention there’re ties into real world legends and so forth, but it just didn’t really draw me in, and the only real ‘twist’ felt like something stuck in to bloat the length.
As for characters, you have a core of 4 characters plus 4 open slots to fill with extra characters. There are more than 4 of these so if you want to play them all you’ll have to play through the game at least twice. Only 4 of your characters are active in combat at any time. You can swap them out at will. When I was enjoying character building I was trying to keep everyone an even level, but when I started my drive to finish, I picked 4 characters and relied on them alone. At the end of my play through, my ‘core’ characters were level 72 and my extras were still in their 40s.
Combat is action based, which would be fine except the camera (which you can’t control) is usually too low. When you have a bunch of baddies and 4 of your characters on screen, it can be really hard to figure out what’s going on, and I spent a lot of the game button mashing my way through. You can change which character you control by tapping the circle button, which pauses combat, then the “D-pad” lets you cycle to whomever you want to control. Pressing Triangle pauses and opens a menu for using Items, Fleeing battle, and so on. Pressing the Square pauses and lets you change your target.
And that’s cumbersome: that you have to pause and cycle around to get the target you want rather than just running up to it. Combat also pauses when big spells go off in a classic Square Enix style of flashiness that you’ll get *incredibly* sick of by the end of the game.
The three characters you aren’t controlling are AI powered. I spent 99% of the time running the ‘main character’ and letting the AI do the rest of the work, and it does an admirable job. The healer in particular was great at healing just enough, just in time. She also knew to run away when she got aggro. My mage was ok, but was prone to unleashing a big, slow attack when the battle was almost done, which just wasted mana and slowed things down. Still, the AI was pretty good; no complaints there.
It took me 25 hours to play through the game, and as mentioned, by characters were in their low 70’s. You level *frequently* in Star Ocean: First Departure, and when you do you get skill points to spend. Skills are used both to build up ‘crafting jobs’ like alchemy or blacksmithing, and (for some of them) to add to your stats. So Smithing adds to strength plus is required for the Blacksmithing ‘job’ (which is actually called Compounding). There are also combat oriented skills like fast spell casting or defense breaking. So there’s a lot of decision making about who is going to do what job, and what percentage of skill points are going into combat vs crafting. With the right materials, a character can write a book about one of his skills and pass it to another character to read in order for them to raise that skill without spending points.
To make a finely honed party you really need to plan this stuff out. There’s no reason to have, say, two alchemists. However Compounding only works on the weapons you can use. (Generally you combine a weapon and a mineral and hopefully get a better weapon, but you might end up with junk.)
The crafting system is pretty deep and pretty interesting and was my favorite part of the game. (There’s a music system, some kind of art system, systems that require the whole party to join together to work on a project..lots of stuff.) That said, I’m told the game has a level cap of 250 (!) and a hitpoint cap of 9999 (my dudes had 5000-6000 HP by the end) so if you’d rather grind levels then mess with Crafting you probably could do so.
Sometimes it’s hard to avoid grinding levels due to random encounters. You know that old school vibe…walk for 3 seconds, have a combat encounter. Walk another 3 seconds, have another. There’s a skill called Scouting which is supposed to help you avoid random encounters (or, heaven forbid, get more of them) but I didn’t have much luck with it.
The Save System is a little annoying. You can save anything on the world map, and here and there in dungeons. You can’t save in towns, not even at Inns (where you can sleep to regain HP and Mana). That meant a lot of time running out of town to save before trying something crazy.
All in all, I’d give Star Ocean: First Departure about a 3 on a scale of 1-5, but it is definitely a game only for fans of JRPGs. I ended up higher level than most, from what I’ve read on gamefaqs, and I’m not really sure how or why, but because I did the game was never very difficult. There were lots of parts of the Crafting system I never really had use for, and I rather wish I would’ve been ‘forced’ to either use them or deliberately grind levels. I do like that the “I’m going to grind until I’m uber and can mop the floor with the bosses” option is there for those who enjoy playing like that, but I think you should have to deliberately attack the game in that fashion for it to work. That I ended up over-powered “by accident” indicates a bit of a balance problem, IMO.
There’re apparently multiple endings depending on how well your party got along (there are certain opportunities for ‘special events’ in most towns that’ll help there) and there’s a post-game dungeon in case you want to keep leveling, but for me, one time through the world of Star Ocean: First Departure was plenty.