For two decades, the Star Ocean series has occupied a very special place in the heart of many JRPG lovers. Today, just three weeks away from the series’ 20th anniversary, we celebrate the debut of the franchise on the current generation of consoles, with Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness.
Incidentally, I’d like to apologize for the pun in the headline, but you will understand as you read further.
The story is mainly set on a primitive planet that has no contacts with the Pangalactic Federation, stuck in a medieval-like technology level, enhanced by signeturgy, a form of magic that operates through stigmas placed on the user’s body. If you played the first game, this should sound familiar, as the initial situation isn’t too different.
The young swordsman Fidel Camus has been tasked with protecting his village and training its inhabitants to defend themselves, after his father departs to become the military advisor of the Kingdom of Resulia. Things start to go awry after the village is attacked by a group of outlaws, causing Fidel to set out for the capital accompanied by his childhood friend and signeturge Miki, in order to request reinforcements.
The two meet a mysterious child named Relia, and help her escape from enemies wielding unknown energy weapons. Gradually, the wider world comes knocking, as Resulia is attacked by the neighboring desert nation of Trei’kur, where the mysterious weapons make another much more widespread appearance.
In the meanwhile, they’re joined by Victor, a young officer of the Resulian special forces, the powerful signeturge and researcher Fiore, and a pair of interesting vagrants, Emerson and Anne, who appear to know a little too much about what is going on.
For the first few hours of the game, you might be tricked to think that the story isn’t very good. It starts very slow, as Fidel and Miki plod through the landscape trying to solve their local problems with no real idea of what is going on.
Things get a lot more interesting about a quarter of the game in, when the first major plot twist happens, and the pacing of the narration changes radically, for the better. Unfortunately, that plot twist is so heavily telegraphed that there’s no surprise whatsoever. Hell, you might have guessed it just by watching the trailers.
That said, the plot is very enjoyable if you consider its entirety, even if it’s not the deepest story we have seen from a JRPG. It’s also not the longest, as the main story will take you between 25 and 30 hours of gameplay, depending on your pace and on how many side-quests you complete.
What really shines is the cast: basically every major character in the party is well rounded, memorable and interesting, each for different reasons. Fidel struggles in the shadow of his famous father. Victor finds himself overshadowed by Fidel in the graces of said father, that also happens to be his mentor.
Miki is one of the best examples of stereotypical “osananajimi” (childhood friend) in recent memory, at least for games. She’s goofy and often childish, but her flaws end up painting an adorable portrait when considered as a whole.
Fiore isn’t just one of the sexiest ladies in the genre (screenshots really don’t do her justice, wait until you see her walking in front of you), but she comes with a lot of depth and a keen intelligence. Do yourself a favor and don’t let her outfit distract you. Instead, allow the many nuances of her personality enchant you, and I promise that she will take your heart.
Anne and Emerson are downright awesome, but I really can’t tell you why, because it would be a big spoiler.
Relia ties the whole group together, and plays a crucial role in the growth of Fidel and Miki. Thanks to her, especially Fidel is able to come to terms with many aspects of his relationship with his father.
Villains are a lot less nuanced, and I would say rather forgettable, but the main cast is plenty to give solid foundations to the narration, turning Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness into a good entry in the franchise story-wise, almost entirely on their own.
Unfortunately, the quality of the English localization isn’t up there with the story. The voice acting is mediocre, pretty much on par with the traditional quality of low-budget JRPG localization, with actors pushing their voices to slightly unnatural pitches in the effort to make their characters more recognizable, at times with pretty jarring results.
Even worse is the actual translation, with the localization team taking a lot more liberties than they should, adding elements to the discourse that simply aren’t there in the original Japanese script, even when those aren’t really needed to make it more understandable or elegant in English.
Things drop into the realm of ridiculous just a few minutes in, when you discover that Miki calls him “Fiddly.” Just let that sink for a moment.
Now that that horrible nickname sank its talons in your heart, I have to say that it was admittedly a difficult one to localize, as the original is “Fidel-Nii” (with “nii” being an affectionate way to address a brother or a brother-like figure in Japan), but “Fiddly” is downright silly and extremely jarring, especially considering that Fidel has really nothing in common with the definition of “fiddly” in English.
This is, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg, so we have to seriously thank Square Enix for doing the sensible thing and including the Japanese voice acting as an option. It predictably sounds a lot better than the English one, and if you don’t know the language, you probably won’t notice the disconnect with what is said and the subtitles.
Basically the only positive thing that I can say about the western localization, is that the team opted not to tone down Fiore’s outfit. I know a couple of publishers that would have covered her up without a second thought, and it’s good to see that Square Enix respected the original design. I am aware that it’s rather sad that nowadays something this simple actually warrants praise, but that’s another story for another time.
Now that I got the big problem out of the way, let’s talk about the massive positive of the audio: the music. Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile’s ancestral composer Motoi Sakuraba is absolutely at the top of his game here.
The game’s soundtrack is so good, that I would easily classify it among the best in the industry, at least in the past few years. The large variety of tracks underlines the action and the most emotional moments perfectly. Personally, I could say that if I didn’t get the game as a review copy, I would easily purchase it for the music alone without the slightest hint of buyer’s remorse.
The visuals of Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness are a bit hit and miss. They certainly suffer from the game’s nature as a cross-generation game, even if the PS3 version never made it to the west. To put it down simply, the main characters look awesome, and pretty much everything else looks sub-par.
Let’s start with the bad, that covers most secondary NPCs and basically every environment in the game. Models are simplistic, and textures lack detail and depth. Basically, they’re pretty spot-on for a PS3 game, but radically outdated for PS4 standards.
PS3 memory (and possibly budget) limitations cause even the biggest cities to look like underpopulated villages. As a matter of fact, even capital cities are pretty much as big in their explorable areas as Fidel and Miki’s starting village. You can forget the sprawling cities of games like The Witcher 3, or what we have seen of Final Fantasy XV. The technology of Star Ocean 5 simply isn’t even on the same planet.
On the other hand, the models of the main characters are absolutely charming. Their outfits are highly detailed and masterfully put together, and the character design is top-notch in both quality and variety.
I’m aware that there have been endless puns about Miki’s apparently dumb expressions, but static screenshots don’t do the character design style justice. Add animation to them, and faces suddenly turn into something extremely expressive and enjoyable, with a style that I would place in-between anime and a Pixar movie.
Battle effects are another really positive element of Star Ocean 5‘s visual, with colorful and flashy particle effects that really stand out, turning combat into a rather spectacular business, regardless of the drab environments.
It’s unfortunate that the PS3 dragged the overall visuals down, and I personally hope to see a new Star Ocean exclusively on current generation platforms down the line, but it’s obvious that the development team decided to put all their hardware eggs in one basket, and the result isn’t that bad, considering how relevant character interaction is to the genre and to this game in particular. If you want to see more of the visuals, you can find plenty of my screenshots here.
Gameplay-wise, the development team made a couple of very weird choices, and we’ll start with those. I know that some will hail this as a gloriously hardcore callback to the old times, but in 2016 it isn’t acceptable anymore for games to launch with no autosaving at all, combined with having to rely exclusively on save points.
Save points aren’t a hardcore feature. They’re a fruit of technical limitations that consoles don’t have anymore, and should be a thing of the past. This is made even more problematic by the cumbersome way PlayStation consoles handle saving. Unless you want to have a gazillion different files, you have to go through this route: Press X to save -> Select save game -> Press X to confirm – Press right to select “yes” to overwrite -> press “Ok” to return to the game. It gets old really fast.
The problem wouldn’t be as bad if the development team didn’t go out of its way to make it as unpleasant as possible. Quite often save points are locked and inaccessible, and a few of those cases happen to be just before majorly challenging boss battles.
If you fail the boss battle (and at least in one case, unless you’re majorly overleveled, you will fail, possibly repeatedly), you don’t have to redo just that boss fight, but also the previous battle. In the instance I’m talking about, you’re also deprived of your main healer for the first half of the fight, which means that you could easily find yourself struggling there too. That’s not all: you’ll also have to grin through all the unskippable dialogue between the fights.
This can be extremely frustrating: personally I had to repeat that specific battle three times, with all its baggage of an additional fight and plenty of talking. You can very well imagine that by the end I was quite annoyed, and that ruined one of the most emotional moments of the game’s story, that happens to be right in the middle.
I have only three words to say about this awful design choice, and they begin with the acronym “WTF.”
While certainly less problematic and annoying, the way Private Actions are handled is also rather questionable. Private actions are small moments of fully voiced dialogue that offer more insight in a character’s background and personality, scattered across the cities.
The idea is absolutely charming in itself, and it’s great to have a chat with Fiore about a certain someone that she happens to mention quite often, while you’ll laugh at Miki’s unstoppable love for restaurants. Unfortunately, the implementation is convoluted and detracts a bit from the value of the feature.
You would imagine that those conversations would feel the most natural if you met the characters randomly while visiting the cities, naturally engaging in conversations with them. Unfortunately the developers wanted to turn it into a gimmick, adding a cumbersome mechanic on top of it.
Basically, when you enter a city, you’ll see a Private Action marker on the map. When you enter the corresponding circle, your companions will spread out, and you’ll have to hunt down the right ones (also marked on the map) to trigger the conversation. Then you have to walk back to another circle in order to reconvene with the group.
The fastest way to unlock the next action is to go to sleep at the inn. This means that your visits to a major city will be a cycle of walking into circles, hunting for conversations, and sleeping at the inn. It ends up being excessively mechanical, and it could have been handled much better.
Cities will also offer a bunch of sub-quests, but unfortunately those are one of the elements where an apparent low budget hurt the most. Basically, if you exclude a few offered by the returning Welch, they will all be offered via message board, with no actual NPC interaction. 99% of them also simply involve gathering a number of materials of killing a number of monsters. This creates a major disconnect with the world, and misses the chances to enliven the interaction with its inhabitants, most of which are basically soulless entities walking around just for show.
Quests will also prompt you to revisit the same areas a gazillion of times, which is made worse by the fact that for a sizable portion of the game you’ll have no fast travel methods. In order to simply travel from a city to another, you’ll have to plod through a map or two. You can skip a few of the fights just by running by, but after the fifth time you have to make your way through the same map, fighting almost exactly the same enemies, it really starts to get old.
The fact that the environments are really drab and that navigation is often interrupted by invisible walls, certainly doesn’t help in making things more pleasant.
Star Ocean‘s action combat is certainly one of the positive aspects of the game. It’s fast, fluid and varied, placing an enormous amount of skills and abilities at your fingertips. It can also be quite challenging on normal (Galaxy) difficulty, unless you seriously overlevel.
The basics work on a simil-rock-paper-scissors philosophy, where strong attacks break guard, guard blocks weak attacks and weak attacks interrupt strong attacks. While on Galaxy difficulty you don’t need to pay too much attention most of the times, mastering this system is really satisfying, and adds a large layer of fun to the whole battle gameplay.
During engagements, you’ll also fill your Reserve Rush gauge. This is a fairly deep mechanic with very interesting risk/reward implications. Performing weak attacks fills the red part of the gauge, that gives you XP bonuses, making you level faster. Strong attacks fill the blue part, which gives you percentage bonuses to monetary earnings. Successfully guarding fills the green part of the bar, giving you SP Bonuses.
You can accumulate your reserve rush bar and let it sit on the best bonuses, or you can use it for devastating special attacks. It’s on you to decide which balance to keep between finishing off enemies much easier or improving the speed of your characters’ progression considerably. The way this mechanic is implemented is absolutely lovely.
Each character of your party can also be assigned up to four roles, that are learned by spending SP after unlocking them in various ways. This lets you loosely customize the way in which they’ll act, and grants them a number of bonuses. There’s a ton of depth in the way you can arrange your roles, and those who love min-maxing will absolutely adore the system.
Unfortunately, party AI isn’t exactly the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. You can control only one character at any given time (even if you can freely switch between party members freely), and your companions won’t perform even close to as well as a human would.
In many boss fights, healing performance is absolutely crucial, so you’ll often be faced with the choice of either sticking with your favorite character and having to put in twice the efforts to win, or just spending the fight on Miki, spamming the biggest group heal you have over and over and running away from enemies to avoid being interrupted.
On the other hand, enemy AI often appears to be a lot smarter. At first sight, they seem to operate with an “aggro” mechanic very similar to what you commonly find in MMORPGs, with opponents often turning on your healers to try to cut off your life line.
This can be quite annoying during a few fights in which losing a specific character means an instant game over. Enemy combatants will simply bum-rush that character, and often obliterate him nearly-instantly with the sheer weight of numbers unless you’re very fast or switch on your healer again.
Gathering and crafting is also an extensive part of the game, with several “specialties” you can learn and evolve. You can build equipment and enhance it, concoct consumables, and even cook food for temporary bonuses. The system has a lot of depth, and lets you improve your group’s performance very visibly.
Ultimately, tri-Ace’s latest labor of love comes with a rather relevant baggage of flaws and questionable design choices, but I can’t honestly say that it’s a bad game. It’s certainly hindered by having to support the PS3, and by a budget that (at least at a glance) appears to be on the low end for a JRPG belonging to a popular franchise, but it doubtlessly includes quite a few positive elements as well.
If you can look past the issues, you’re left with a very solid story with great characters, a mostly enjoyable combat system with deep character progression and interaction (not just mechanically, but also story-wise) and comprehensive crafting/gathering mechanics. The crown jewel of it all is an absolutely fantastic soundtrack that will tug at your heart strings.
The return of Star Ocean could have certainly been better, but if you love the genre (and you’re used to its quirks) and the series, you’ll most probably find plenty to enjoy in Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness.