Star Ocean First Departure R Review — Hidden Among the Stars
Star Ocean First Departure R is an underwhelming port of an excellent but often forgotten Square Enix JRPG.
Even though Square Enix’s Star Ocean has been an ongoing series since the early 1990s, it has failed to catch on in the west like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest or even Mana. That being said, the series may have a second chance to gain a western audience as Square Enix has been paying a bit more attention to its classic properties. Over just this past year, the publisher has re-released some Romancing SaGa games as well as localized and announced a remake of Trials of Mana. Star Ocean First Departure R, an enhanced re-release of a 2007 PSP remake of the first game in the series, is now giving PS4 and Nintendo Switch players the chance to get into the series with the entry that started it all.
That’s a good thing too, as the original Star Ocean still remains a great game in 2019 and First Departure is a very good remake and way to expose the series to new people. As a result, Star Ocean First Departure R is definitely worth checking out if you are interested in the series, though the transition from PSP to home consoles hasn’t really enhanced that much.
Ports and re-releases from Square Enix tend to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have the solid, if overpriced, Collection of Mana with ports of the first two Mana games and a localized version of Trials of Mana. On the other hand, you have the PC port of Chrono Trigger that carried over many problems from the mobile version of the game and had to be improved via patches for months. As a port, Star Ocean First Departure R falls somewhere in the middle.
The improvements in First Departure R are mostly minor. Some minor game balancing has been done, but it is negligible, especially to those who have never played the game before. Both versions of the PSP voiceover as well as a new one with the original cast from the SNES release days are included as well. While the English localization is spotty and mostly held up by a strong performance from Yuri Lowenthal, both Japanese voiceovers are good. All three can be toggled on and off at all times, so the game does give players the tools to find their favorite.
Traversal can now be sped up at the press of a button, which is helpful as the basic movement speed in Star Ocean is definitely slow. Finally, all of the character portraits have been redone by illustrator Katsumi Enami, which is definitely appreciated as the original First Departure portraits are pretty rough by modern standards. Like the voices, these illustrations can be switched on a whim via in-game menus for those who may prefer the previous ones more. Those changes are all good but fairly minute.
Other than that, the game is obviously in HD now. Though things do look a bit better, HD also highlights the rougher edges of this PSP remake. Locations and characters are all still well-designed, but they can look quite muddled and pixelated when blown up on a large HD screen. Nowhere does this hurt more than in the anime cutscenes. Even though Star Ocean First Departure R only contains about 10 minutes of these, they weren’t converted over from PSP well and don’t look great. They feature the mediocre First Departure designs too, so it doesn’t always mesh with the new art. Fortunately, these scenes were rare, but they are emblematic of the fairly low-effort port that Star Ocean First Departure R is.
Still, I can get past the lack of significant improvements because the base game is such a hidden gem and this port does not actively worsen that experience in any way. While Star Ocean First Departure R may seem like a somewhat generic fantasy RPG at first glance, it was actually atypical for the genre at the time of release because of how it presents a more traditional fantasy experience through a sci-fi lens. Star Ocean sees Roddick and co. traveling across the continents of Roak to slay the Archdemon and find a cure to a disease that is turning people into stone. That being said, the twist is that Roddick is actually from the future and was whisked away by travelers from Earth after a chance encounter.
While much of Star Ocean First Departure R plays out like a standard fantasy RPG, its world is interesting and the sci-fi backdrop raises the stakes and gives the whole experience a unique twist. Tons of side events called Private Actions also exist to flesh out characters and impact endings. Most of this dialogue is fully voiced too, and seeing everything the game has to offer can definitely take over 20 or 30 hours.
The combat was atypical for the time too as it is real-time and not turn-based. Party members range from typical sword users to mages, or in this game’s jargon – symbology. Even though players can only control one character at a time, four partake in every battle and tactics can be set for every character. For the most part, the AI was solid, though players do have the ability to switch which character they control if an issue does pop up.
Though characters do gain money and experience after a battle, as is typical for the genre, Special Points that can be applied to special abilities for use outside of battle. Special Points add a ton of customization options for each character and was definitely ahead of its time. These abilities let players do everything from creating consumables in the field with Cooking or raising and lowering enemy encounter rates with the Scouting ability. Options like these have only been added to most JRPGs in recent years, but you can see the ideas in their earliest stages here in Star Ocean First Departure R.
Fans of RPGs still owe it to themselves to try out the original Star Ocean, even 23 years later. Its unique blend of sci-fi and high-fantasy, the real-time combat, and Special Points systems all were ahead of their time and allow the game to still be enjoyable in 2019. While Star Ocean First Departure R itself doesn’t feature a ton of significant improvements for those who already played the game on SNES or PSP, that likely won’t even be noticed by new players that can finally experience this hidden gem.
As the JRPG has become more mainstream in the west over the past couple of years, now is the best time for Star Ocean to try and capture a bigger audience. Re-releases like Star Ocean: The Last Hope – 4K & Full HD Remaster and Star Ocean First Departure R are the series’ best chance at doing so sans an entirely new entry. One can only hope that Square Enix will continue on this path and re-release Star Ocean: Second Evolution as well so the entire series will be playable on PS4.