The Star Ocean series has been around for a long time at this point, but it’s never been a high-profile series. The first game to bear the name was a Super Famicom game that never made it out of Japan. The second, Star Ocean: The Second Story was a PlayStation gem, while the third, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time had a twist that had some swear off the series for good.
Before the fourth and fifth games were released, Square Enix released Star Ocean: First Departure, a remake of the first game that actually made it to North America. Unfortunately, it was released for the PSP, so it never made much of a splash. Star Ocean: First Departure R is a remaster of that game for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, so it has a much better chance of gaining attention, which is good because it deserves some.
Ask any fan of the series what the best thing about any Star Ocean game is, and the answer will probably be the combat. While the sci-fi nature of the setting offers some interesting stories, the combat and dungeons are the bread and butter of this series. While the combat in Star Ocean: First Departure R is simplified compared to some other games in the series, there’s still plenty of depth.
You have a single attack button plus Special Arts and Spells, which you can map to the left and right bumpers. These have wind-up times, so you can’t just spam them and watch as every enemy dies unless you’re over-leveled. While you won’t find the cancel combos and other touches that make the combat so engaging in later games in the series, the sheer amount of abilities and options spread across your party keeps things from getting stale.
Developer tri-Ace and TOSE, who helped handle the PSP port, made an interesting decision when remaking Star Ocean. Instead of sprucing up the Super Famicom version’s graphics or switching to a 3D engine, they instead used a version of the engine used by Star Ocean: The Second Story. This means that Star Ocean: First Departure R is a hybrid 2D/3D game. High-quality 2D pixel art is used for the characters and most of the backgrounds, while 3D backgrounds are used for the combat scenarios and world map.
The result is a game with beautiful 2D pixel art that holds up much better on modern systems than a fully 3D game released for the PSP would have. Even better, there are no attempts to smooth the art, which often results in an unnatural and at times unpleasant aesthetic. For a recent example, look at the Grandia port in the Grandia HD Collection.
The characters and backgrounds look great on the Nintendo Switch in handheld mode, but that’s to be expected. The bigger surprise is that they still look great on a large TV screen. You won’t mistake this for a recent entry in the series, but it can stand easily on the strength of its art.
Most RPGs, especially those with their roots in the 1990s, are known for including a little bit of backtracking. Most of the time, this is limited to sidequests, and it’s often optional. Neither of those are true in Star Ocean: First Departure R.
In the opening hours of this game, you’ll find yourself visiting the same areas fairly often. This is a sign of things to come, as you’ll do a fair amount of backtracking throughout the game as a whole. While the interesting combat helps keep things fresh, the random encounters make these trips back and forth through the same locations feel even longer.
While you can hold a button (ZR on the Switch, R2 on the PlayStation 4) to run faster, you won’t find anything like the fast-forward option included in recent Final Fantasy re-releases. This, or especially an option to turn off random encounters, would take some of the pain out of the backtracking.
If you’re new to the Star Ocean series, you might wonder at some point during your playthrough of Star Ocean: First Departure R when you’re actually going to go into space. After all, this is science fiction series, right? Well, yes and no.
Every game in the Star Ocean series spends most of its time on planets where most people are unaware of even the possibility of space travel. While you make your way on to a spaceship very early in Star Ocean: First Departure R, you don’t spend much time there before you’re back in a quasi-medieval setting.
One thing new in Star Ocean: First Departure R is new character portraits and voice acting. While the new portraits help point out that the anime cut scenes haven’t been updated, the option to choose between English and two variants of Japanese voice acting (the original and the updated version) are nice to have.
If you’ve played more recent games in the series and wonder its roots are like, Star Ocean: First Departure R is a great way to find out. It’s also a great option if you’re looking for a more action-heavy RPG for your Switch, as its options are far more limited than the PS4.
I had a great time playing through this again, even though I’d played it on the PSP a few years ago. Now I’m hoping that Square Enix brings the updated version of Star Ocean: Second Evolution (a remake of the second game for the PSP) to North America as well.
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