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Star Ocean: First Departure
Score: 81%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG/ Action/ Strategy

Graphics & Sound:
Fans of classic gaming don't have any great need for slick graphics. In fact, we almost have the opposite reaction, thinking that slick graphics and surround sound receive far too much focus in place of story, character development, and gameplay depth. Star Ocean: First Departure was probably a great gig for the graphic designers, voice actors, and musicians involved. "Icing on the cake" or "gilding the lily" as the old expressions go, right? Take classic material and make it better, without changing the fundamentals that made Star Ocean great in the first place, and you've obviously got a winner. Time has dulled the impact of some elements of this game, but the updates that were made in the graphics and voice acting are brilliant. Star Ocean: First Departure satisfies both meanings of the word departure; the updates show us an interpretation of "departure" as either a variation or fork in the road, while playing the game that spawned its own legacy and influenced many others speaks to "departure" as the beginning of a journey.

The smooth textures of familiar locations really blow away screen shots of the original, and well they should. The redesign allows for great looking towns, enemies that pop off the screen, and character models that are more distinct during battles and exploration. Without a historical reference point, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a recent creation that merely nods to older games. In fact the chassis and frame are original issue, but the lustre of new paint isn't giving anything away. Voice acting falls into the same category; improved and increased in every way. New characters are included but even traditional characters are given a retouching in Star Ocean: First Departure. The balance of the dialogue is great, with lots of attitude and emotion conveyed by the characters. Gamers not expecting an epic RPG may be surprised at how often spoken dialogue pops up and and how much storytelling is conveyed through voice acting. Since the role-playing experience lives or dies based on the strength of its story, First Departure scores well for having not only a great story, but delivering it in such a slick fashion.

Comparing Star Ocean: First Departure to more recent RPGs is like comparing Final Fight to Super Smash Bros. Brawl. So many classic devices are contained here that it's easy to play through thinking you've seen it all before. The truth is that you have seen much of this before, but probably post-Star Ocean. There are unique elements introduced in the game's plot, which seemed reminiscent of the juxtaposition that Square Enix made in games like Final Fantasy between technology and magic. Instead of coexisting as they did in Final Fantasy, technology and magic are strange bedfellows in Star Ocean: First Departure. Two cultures meet unexpectedly with a common purpose and set out on an adventure together that will prove to be incredibly important on both sides. The story begins without a lot of fanfare, and no sense of the epic journey to come...

As the game begins, we meet a boy in a small village that is destined for greater things. Sound familiar? Influenced by Star Wars perhaps? The boy-to-man theme is a pretty common one, but our hero Roddick isn't as central to the game's story as he is the center of a group of characters that become players in the unfolding drama. Think about something like Suikoden, released about the same time, that involved a large cast of characters you would use in battle and during travels around the game's world. First Departure doesn't feature such a huge number of characters, but none of the party is a throw-away. Each one has a part to play in the saga that will end with either the redemption of a number of people infected with a strange illness in Roddick's world, or the annihilation of the way of life that Roddick and his friends have always taken for granted. The moral of not underestimating the important role you can play in the lives of others touches some emotional themes as well, as characters become romantic or try to overcome interpersonal difficulties. There is really good storytelling here, and a lot of it.

The style of play here is most definitely Action/RPG, according to the slash designation that helps distinguish one game from another in the widening role-playing universe. Battles run with you in full control of one character and the ability to script the actions of other characters so they follow a specific strategy. Button-mashing isn't a completely foreign concept here, which may not be your thing, compared to the more studied and strategic play of something like Final Fantasy Tactics or Jeanne D'Arc. There is a huge amount of depth within the overall game, but the battles are fast-paced and highly tactical. Not doing the right thing at the right time in this game will result in your untimely demise. There are huge amounts of depth here around the creation of items, and spellcasting that follows a customizable track per character. Along the way, you'll have chances to choose the areas in which your character will be strong, shaping his or her direction for the remainder of the game. Each character has a set of special attacks, and several characters can team up to launch even stronger attacks. Upgrading abilities will earn you special powers in combat, and the option to create items or food using only magic to create combinations. Delving into these features will take you a lot of time, and that doesn't even touch elemental considerations. This is a game that has some serious depth, but is relatively easy to pick up and play without a lot of study time.

The action component of Star Ocean: First Departure means that you'll have to prepare yourself for some fast work on the buttons. Not mastering special abilities and strategically assigning party members to their best function will send you to the "Load" screen quickly. Monsters are very strong in some areas, often unexpectedly. Game design has come a ways since this, and it shows in the unevenness of challenge between areas that are only separated by a door. The developers obviously want to make you plan, buy items, and use special abilities when attacked by superior numbers. The reality is that you are being hit by larger and strong attackers and don't know which way is up... Once you capture some recommendations and details on the ability feature, you'll have better luck maxing out your character's stats. A nice touch is to make it possible to switch characters, and play or battle as someone other than the Roddick character. You'll still have responsibility in these instances for preserving your team and yourself. Being caught or taken out immediately stops the game and forces a reload. Save points are scattered through the game, so for players trying to keep the level of challenge down a notch, our advice is to save often. Otherwise, you skips a save spot, you takes your chances... Among many good things that Star Ocean: First Departure offers, the formula for advancing levels is tedious with too little variety among the ranks of enemies you have to face. What the game counts on is the type of player ready to commit time to building up a character and a party through some very detailed and in-depth mechanics. The problem is that not all of us have the lifestyle that allows us to log 100 hours on any game, and also that games have advanced to the point that mandatory 30-50 hour campaigns are the exception. There are plenty of games around now containing this much play-time, but it's accomplished through side missions and special challenges rather than core gameplay.

Game Mechanics:
Several unique elements are part of Star Ocean: First Departure. The first is how you succeed in battle and the second is the preparation you'll make before battle begins. Like most RPGs, Star Ocean was built on a leveling system that raises your characters' core stats after the party gains sufficient experience from battles. Along with an increase in the basic stats, you'll see special skill points rise. These points can be traded in against skills that further enhance your characters in battle or otherwise. Each skill is distinct, but not exclusive. Buying skills in towns is quite expensive, but there's good bang for your buck as you can then develop characters along an entirely new line. Some skills will increase a specific stat while others will grant abilities. Each character comes prepped with "talents." Paying close attention to each character's list of talents will help you assign skills, since some talents fit well with a skill. It isn't like a skill is inaccessible to any character, but some characters are just better at gaining a skill. Compare this to the RPG convention of characters with higher intelligence being better spellcasters ... The spells are a separate matter, as each character will learn new spells upon reaching higher levels. Assigning spells and abilities and even items is handled through the menus outside of battles, usually in towns or the world map. Matching spells with the force you'll be opposing is smart; even smarter is taking into account elemental affinities. Taking less damage from water enemies isn't of much use when you're heading into an area with fire-based monsters. The number of save points is relatively generous, so you can experiment with all these features to your heart's content before entering a dungeon, while in the dungeon, and before facing off against a boss.

During battle, you will rely on the planning and progress your party has made in its choice of equipped items, spells, and abilities. Control defaults to Roddick, but you can change the lead character on-the-fly during battle. You can also reprogram each of the supporting characters to perform a certain way, such as fighters on attack from the front-line while magic users stay back and lob offensive or defensive spells. Enemies are also completely unconstrained by a timeline for their attacks, and will advance on your line giving it all they've got. Compared to more action-oriented role-playing games, Star Ocean: First Departure appears a bit simple. The planning and depth of preparation before battle is what makes this game special. After the story and epic nature of the game is taken into consideration, you have a great set of customizations for characters and parties that kept players busy for many, many hours. Especially if you've been a fan of a later game in the series, or if you're just nostalgic for a classic age of RPG gaming, Star Ocean: First Departure will be a beautiful adrenaline shot in the arm. If you're just trying to pick out an RPG and aren't particularly passionate about classic/retro gaming, there are plenty of great titles available for PSP that hit shelves within the last year or two. Nostalgia is a great emotion, but Star Ocean: First Departure comes at a time when there is plenty of competition in this category. The final word from us is that if you're interested in the roots of the modern RPG games, you could do a lot worse than picking up the first departure in this classic series.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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