In recent celebration of the announcement of Star Ocean 5, i thought it would be appropriate to do a retrospective of the series. As such i'm going to return to using Google images again because i just don't give a damn anymore, if it gets taken down, it gets taken down, at the end of the day i just do these blogs for fun so lets get on with it.
Before i even begin with the Star Ocean series, i have to mention one game in particular which influenced the foundation of the Star Ocean series. That game is currently on my backlog and i have recently started playing it. Tales Of Phantasia originated as a novel known as Tale Phantasia which was written by Gotanda himself. It later received a videogame adaptation thanks to the financial support of Namco who published the game and designated it's development to Wolf Team. Members of Wolf Team included Masaki Norimoto (game designer), Joe Asanuma and Yoshiharu Gotanda (writer and programmer). These three people would later become known as the three aces, hence their subsequent company name.
Tales Of Phantasia's development didn't go smoothly however. A lot of people were outraged by Namco who ultimately used their rights of ownership to alter many of the Wolf Team's design choices to meet their own criteria, changing the title to Tales Of Phantasia among other things. This caused much controversy within the team and caused Joe Asanuma, the teams former director to pull out causing the game's release to be delayed for an entire year, additionally, propositions for a new company which was subsequently labeled tri-Ace were made causing the significant internal collapse of Wolf Team which forced Namco to hire new staff and form an entirely new team later known as the Tales Studio.
My personal experience with Tales Of Phantasia has so far been good though the signs of age are quite potent. I have only just started playing the game though and to be honest i believe part of the game's charm is in dejap's translation. Other than that, there is a lot to like about Tales Of Phantasia and it's easy to tell that it was heavily influenced by the three ace's design though due to the nature of the gaming industry, these features are obviously quite subtle. Nevertheless a lot of the ideas from Tales Of Phantasia were later incorporated into their first game, Star Ocean.
Is this even legal!?
After tri-Ace was formed, they began development on a new title to rival Tales Of Phantasia. The heavily Star Trek inspired team developed what is known today as the Star Ocean series. Their first game, Star Ocean on the Super Famicom, like Tales of Phantasia was never released overseas (besides it's remakes). Star Ocean retained a lot of the design choices from Tales Of Phantasia but with a whole new story and universe. The first thing you will notice with Star Ocean is that the visuals improved dramatically over their former project though due to financial limitations, a lot of the features from Tales Of Phantasia were abandoned. Features such as particle effects which were one of Tales Of Phantasia's most noticeable quirks were an unaffordable luxary and had to be abandoned.
To make up for it, the team decided to improve on their design with their own talents. Additionally Star Ocean used the Super Accelerator chip which enhanced the game's technical capabilities including additional RAM giving Star Ocean an edge over Tales Of Phantasia in terms of tech, so to speak. This allowed the developers to put additional effort into the game's design in order to outmatch Tales Of Phantasia and whilst it is difficult to find those improvements, they are apparent if you look closely enough.
As is made apparent by the two images, the visuals were enhanced considerably, Star Ocean used more detailed textures and sprites to create a more visually appealing world. The traditional world map from Tales Of Phantasia was scrapped in favor of a more linear but more detailed overworld. This was a hit and miss for fans as many preferred the feeling of freedom in the more open-ended world map of Tales Of Phantasia but you cannot deny that this design decision was well thought out considering the circumstances, they needed something in the game to stand out and the visuals were quite possibly one of the game's most stand out features when compared with Tales Of Phantasia.
All in all comparing the two is rather difficult. Both games were very strong in their design that in the end, they both amounted to being just as good, if you look at it from a timeline perspective, Tales Of Phantasia possibly had the edge due to it's financial support but in the end, you cannot fault tri-Ace for this, at the end of the day, Yoshiharu Gotanda is the founder of the Tales series and the three aces all played a part in Tales Of Phantasia's design.
Personally i praise the effort that was put into Star Ocean, particularly the private actions, a feature which was added to the series which was later swiped by Namco, most notably in their mid 2003 game, Tales Of Symphonia. Using the power of variables, the game recorded certain actions the player took during certain events and recorded them thorughout the game to alter future events. This later became the series' most recognized feature, a feature that has provided greater replay value, particularly in the game's sequel, Star Ocean The Second Story which expanded on this feature greatly (i honestly don't believe i gave that game a fair chance in my review).
Before i get onto the second story, i would like to touch on the game's second most prominent feature, item creation. Item creation was a crafting system which allowed the player to create their own items with base materials, requiring a certain skill level do do so. In the first game, item creation was rather tricky due to it's fail rate and required a lot of grinding to be utilized properly. On the other hand, the sequel, Star Ocean The Second Story perfected the system which ultimately paved way for other games such as the Atelier series which primarily focused on item creation.
Star Ocean The Second Story was essentially a perfected version of the original Star Ocean, it took all of it's concepts and ideas and perfected them, similar to how F-Zero GX perfected F-Zero X's ideas but with a whole new story which was very finely linked to the first game. Unlike Namco, tri-Ace chose to focus on it's own features and expand on them, keeping the battle system mostly the same. Unlike the first Star Ocean, free movement was made a lot smoother through use of the d-pad, no longer did you have to use the clunky cursor to move around in battle, you could just move wherever you wanted with the d-pad. Unfortunately, this came at a sacrifice, one of Star Ocean 2's biggest flaws was it's inability to change target manually. This was what the d pad was originally used for in the original Star Ocean.
This personally caused a lot of issues with the game as certain boss fights were downright frustrating as you were often stuck to one target and couldn't switch it easily. Even with it's improvements, the game still feels kinda dated by todays standards, another one of the game's issues was the ability to stun lock enemies infinitely. I swear the stun lock is the biggest issue when it comes to most action games. On the bright side, the private actions were more numorous, the cast of characters was also greater, it is impossible to recruit all of them however as picking one cancelled out another and some were pretty difficult to obtain. This limitation gave the game more replay value and added an element of choice. This feature was in the original game too but in Star Ocean The Second Story is was on a larger scale. The problem with this was that it was difficult for players to obtain certain characters without a guide, i swear i missed so many characters playing through Star Ocean The Second Story, i do want to replay it again, i really do but replaying RPG's is not an easy task as i mentioned in a previous blog: to replay or not to replay.
Visually i still believe the SFC version of Star Ocean to be far more appealing as it felt way more detailed than Star Ocean 2 which chose a more water colour art style. The character sprites were very detailed and some of the locations were well designed. Overall though i do believe Star Ocean The Second Story to be one of tri-Ace's weakest efforts when it comes to visuals in my opinion though it certainly wasn't all that bad, i just don't believe the game stood out for it's time as well as other games on the ps1. Still i'm pretty sure that there are others who think otherwise and appreciate the game's art design, good for them. In any case, Star Ocean The Second Story is the only game in the series to have a traditional world map unlike it's predecessor (unless you count the remake).
When a ps1 port of a 1996 PC game beats you, you might as well give up.
On the contrary, where the game truly shines is as i mentioned prior, it's features. The private actions, the item creation, it's all so much better than the original. Item creation is much more deep than it was in the first game where you could perform item creation with your entire party for new skills. There are so many different professions available, my favourite being contraband which is broken beyond belief, in a good way. From this point onwards, tri-Ace prides themselves on providing the players with the tools to break the game and Star Ocean The Second Story was no exception. Through item creation, players were able to craft the best weapon in the game early and destroy every boss with minimal effort.
The private actions have always been an addictive experience within the Star Ocean series and convince the player to explore at their own pace rather than focus on the story. However without a guide, it's easy to miss over half the game's content so if you do intend on playing through Star Ocean 2 (which i reccomend), be sure to have a guide handy.
The third game changed everything. Star Ocean Till The End Of Time, or as i like to call the Gothic 3 of JRPG's was released in early 2003... but just hold on a second. There is another, lesser known title that i forgot to mention.
Star Ocean: Blue Sphere was a direct sequel to Star Ocean The Second Story. Considering the open-ended nature of the first game, Star Ocean Blue Sphere made little sense, Dias and Leon are both in the party which makes little sense but ok. I've dabbled into Star Ocean Blue Sphere a little and from what i can gather, it appears to be somewhat similar to Seiken Densetsu but with battle transitions. The dungeons feel very Zelda esque and the gameplay feels a tad dumbed down from the previous installments. I never really remember my characters leveling up or getting stronger but then again, i never really made it that far as i couldn't speak Japanese.
Blue Sphere was released on the Gameboy Colour so naturally, memories of my childhood seeped in when i played it. It's a shame it was never localized though (even though the recent title might explain a little bit) and it feels almost forgotten, especially considering the Star Ocean 5 trailer said that it took place between Star Ocean The Second Story and Star Ocean Till The End Of Time but what about Blue Sphere? Will Star Ocean 5 acknowledge it's existence? or will it forever remain non-canon (which considering the nature of Star Ocean 2, perhaps it's for the best).
In any case, moving on we have Star Ocean Till The End Of Time. This game changed everything about the series and focused more on the battle mechanics rather than it's features. Big mistake. The game was released in such a mess that it had to release a directors cut version which was later localized as the Star Ocean Till The End Of Time we've all come to know over here.
For starters, item creation was scrapped in favor of the invention system. My god did they mess that up so badly. Instead of re-living the "put an item into a pot and hope for the best" system, they decided to have the player actually invent the item using their brain power and FOL, lots and lots fo FOL (the game's currency). For starters, using money to create items was a terrible idea, especially since you could end up creating just about anything. In Star Ocean 1 and 2 you have many differrent base items which each had differrent results when used in Item creation so that you could use differrent base items to create differrent items depending on what you wanted. In Star Ocean Till The End Of Time, they were replaced with X components, not actual base products, just components used to design the base products.
This meant that if you wanted to make a specific item, you just had to pray. The item crated depended on the amount of FOL you spend, unfortunately you cannot manually decide how much fol you want as it's decided at random so you have to keep shuffling through FOL costs until yuo find the one you want. Then you have to invent... and boy oh boy does it get worse from here.
Behold, Star Ocean Till The End Of Time's invention system!
If you aren't already bored with Item Creation, you'll probably want to throw in the towel when you find out that the combat is absolute ass. Unlike previous Star Ocean games, using the trigger buttons was no longer used for special attacks, instead to use a special attack you have to press the face buttons (x and o). In addition, to use normal attacks you press the face buttons (x and o) yes, to do regular and special attacks you press the same bloody button. I cannot stress this enough, you never use 1 button for two differrent things, it's annoying. Sure to use special attacks you are told to hold the button down but it's still easy to mess it up and perform a normal attack and vice versa.
In addition, performing special attacks costs the users Hit Points, not that it matters because running out of HP isn't the problem, running out of MP on the other hand is a huge problem as for some reason one of the developers said "hey, why don't we give the play a game over screen when all their characters run out of MP, sounds cool huh"? As a result, the game was plagued with insane difficulty spikes simply due to MP damage. If you've been using Cliff for the entire game, i really hope you're ready for some pain when you enter the Urssa Lava Caves. The worst part is that whereas there is a healing spell for HP, there is no way of healing MP besides the use of items, so MP damage can be devastating even to those who have a reasonably high MP bar (and those who do tend to use a lot of MP).
On the plus side, the game's setting and story were quite enjoyable, to me at least, sure the characters felt a bit lackluster at times but they made up for it with the fantastic soundtrack. Star Ocean Till The End Of Time easily has the best soundtrack in the series (though the first game comes very close in that regard). Some of the sci-fi esque tumes are simply captivating, sure it might not be Valkyrie Profile 2 but it's still up there nontheless. Visually, it gets a pass, though the character models looked a little meh, the environments were bright and colourful and some of the later areas are pretty interesting too. It's one of those games which you either love or hate and as i previously mentioned in my top 5 videogame love hate relationships blog.
Put simply, Star Ocean Till The End of Time was a little rusty and felt unfinished but it had a solid setting that the other games had failed to accomplish. There was a lot more sci-fi in Star Ocean Till The End Of Time than in the previous titles and i find that they got the sci-fi theme right.
Of course i cannot mention Star Ocean Till The End Of Time without mentioning it's infamous plot twist. That Plot Twist changed the fans perception fo the game considerably, in fact it changed the perception of the entire series. It was a massive scale plot twist which changed everything about the Star Ocean Series and it was difficult for a lot of players to accept. Some players on the other hand (me included) welcomed the plot twist and admired it's philosophical concept. No matter how much you enjoy the game, the plot twist will either make or break it for you. If you're new to the Star Ocean series i reccomend saving Star Ocean Till The End Of Time for last as it is the final installment in the series, timeline wise. A bit like Devil May Cry 2 in the sense that it's the final game in the timeline but not the final game in the series.
Finally the semi-infamous Star Ocean The Last Hope, hoo boy, this game sealed the deal. Many people cried out in disgust after this game though they still forgot a lot of the qualities that this game had to offer. For starters, the visuals were amazing and still are, the landscapes are lush and beautiful and the lighting is great too, some of the sci-fi themed areas were really detailed and surprisingly colourful. Despite their creepy doll appearance, i actually really liked the character models, they just felt fresh, sure Lymle looked ugly as hell but i think everyone's appearance was highly detailed, even if some of them were a bit too scantly clad to tell.
The battle system is easily the strongest in the series to date, Unlike Star Ocean The Second Story, stun locking was no longer an issue. Whereas Star Ocean Till The End Of Time tried to fix it with the fury system (and ultimately failed), Star Ocean The Last Hope implemented the rush gauge which made your character immune to stagger effects and ultimately more powerful. This affected the bosses too making the game a lot more challenging. Alongside that, the game added a dodging system that didn't flat out suck and a blindsiding ability which allowed players to dodge enemies attacks at the right time to sneak up behind them and perform a critical hit, essentially the counter to the rush gauge but required more skill to pull off, especially against enemies who could counter blindsides (which were featured later on).
Character management was also expanded, whereas Item Creation was a shadow of it's former self, the actual character management was actually quite good, you could send them down different paths either specializing in the rush gauge or blindsiding... or none at all. The rush gauge kinda felt like Overlimit from the tales games but instead of performing a mystic arte, you performed some kind of unison attack (similar to Tales Of Symphonia) where you can do 4 attacks without interruption, allowing you to pile on the damage at the cost of your entire rush gauge. This did allow the player to break the game a little as the rush gauge charged up by holding down the B/O button (the dodge button) so you can unleash your attacks on bosses without risk of interruption.
Nevertheless the combat system and gameplay was really fun. There were so many things to do in Star Ocean 4 such as salvaging items, private actions and doing side quests etc. Star Ocean 4 has so much content in it that if you intend on 100% completing it, you're taking on a huge task. I never completed the final optional dungeon as it was just way too long (think Nifelheim from Tales Of Symphonia).
On the other hand, the game's signature features were dumbed down a lot. Pretty much every single character was available from the get go and private action endings stacked so you could get them all in one playthrough meaning there was no individuality of getting a particular ending. Item creation was pretty much copy/pasted from Infinite Undiscovery but with the invention system... yes the invention system returns, is it as bad? No. Why not? Because you spent SP to learn recipies instead of FOL and it's the same SP cost each time. Not only does this make things easier but it makes sense, as you level up, you get more SP for inventions rather than stockpiling money.
Another issue with the game is the pacing of the private actions, unlike previous games, you don't do private actions in towns, instead you do it whilst travelling between planets. It's a bit like the persona series where you spend half an hour reading dialogue then another half an hour dungeon crawling, there's no mixture in the pot, it's all just detached and i hate it when games detach story/narrative elements with it's gameplay, something which the latest game in the series intends to fix with it's new event system.
And finally, the most noticeable problem being the story and characters. This is the cause for all the infamy surrounding this game. Whilst not all of the cast were that bad, they weren't really as fleshed out as they could be but that's not the biggest issue. The biggest issue comes down to Lymle, Meracle and Sarah. Lymle is a completely emotionless doll with an annoying character arc and an annoying catchphrase which i will not mention to spare you your sanity, then there's Meracle who finds plenty of ways to annoy me, completely pointless character adding nothing remotely interesting to the game whatsoever.
Then there's Sarah, my got i could write a whole article about this character. I fittingly named her Earbleed simply because her voice is just plain awful, need i say more. I also can't stand how she tries to act smart all the time and just comes across as stupid and makes me think "why the hell did you just say that"!? Every time this bitch opens her mouth my ears turn red in pain. Then again. Star Ocean Till The End Of Time was no better (Farleen anyone?). When you make F-Zero GX's voice acting seem sophisticated, you should seriously consider firing people.
Combine this wish a half baked story line and you have a really embarrassingly bad narrative with a rather enjoyable battle system. Think of it as you will but i personally enjoyed it for the battle system alone. I really hope Star Ocean 5 can top it though.
So that's pretty much all there is to say really, the series has had it's fair share of ups and downs but i still can't help but love it, i don't know why but there's just something great about this series. Obviously the Valkyrie Profile series is way better but it probably wouldn't exist without the three aces who created the Star Ocean series. I'm guessing that Valkyrie Profile is an inside joke mocking Namco's Valkyrie games and i'm probably right. Isn't it ironic how two development teams hate each others guts yet the games they make are so very similar? Now you know why. Tales Of Phantasia was made by both tri-Ace and Namco but tri-Ace left the company to become what it is today. They chose to rebel against the publisher and look at what they have given us as a result. The legendary Valkyrie Profile 2 would not have existed if it wasn't for tri-Ace, for that i am glad they split up from Namco.
As for my views on Star Ocean 5, i really hope is destroys Tales Of Zesteria in sales, it probably won't but i can always hope. After all the backlash Zesteria have gotten recently, it could be possible that Star Ocean 5 trumps it. Perhaps then we may see a Valkyrie Profile 3, then my life will be finally complete. I really look forward to seeing how they handle cinematic battles and the visuals look stunning too, looking forward to that as well. All i'm going to say is that i'm pre-ordering that game day one.