Released initially as simply Star Ocean for the Super Famicom back in July of 1996, and released again as an enhanced remake on PlayStation Portable in 2008; Star Ocean First Departure R is a grand adventure of galactic proportions that is filled with drama, mystery, action, comedy and romance. Following the story of a townsguard named Roddick; he and his close friends are faced with an epidemic that is turning everyone they know and love to stone. Determined to stop it and save his people from this terrible plague, Roddick joins the space-faring Earth Federation and begins his grand quest for a cure that will lead him on an adventure unlike anything he’s ever seen.
I had never managed to play any of the Star Ocean titles over the years, but being a fan of space-adventure stories, the series would repeatedly catch my attention when a trailer would pop up or a new game would release. So when I finally sat myself down and played First Departure R, I had no idea what was waiting for me beyond just a simple JRPG in space.
Star Ocean First Departure R captured my full attention almost immediately after starting the game. The very idea of playing a protagonist from a purely fantasy-esque setting and watching as they are tossed into the realm of science-fiction piqued my interest and kept me glued to the screen. This game combines my two personal loves of fantasy and sci-fi, and pairs it with is an interesting and layered story that got me emotionally invested right from the get-go. And, like icing on the cake, it’s all wrapped up in a neat little nostalgic JRPG experience that reminded me of my childhood days with Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy 7.
The artstyle, the story, the characters; everything works together seamlessly to offer a unique single-player experience that simultaneously leaves players plenty of opportunities to explore new areas, engage in conversations with party members, craft your own items, and customize your party’s skills and abilities. The level of depth and attention to detail this game has surprised me; I had grown up on Super Nintendo games being rather simplistic in their designs and expected this one to be no different, but First Departure R has a complex system that compares to that of games released today, making me wonder just how mind-blowing this title was back in the 90s.
The leveling system was one of the first things that impressed me; it’s surprisingly large and allows for plenty of party customization. By obtaining Special Points throughout your adventures (via leveling up or by other means, like tapping on strange statues), you can apply them to Skills — such as cooking, mining, writing, combat ability improvements and much, much more.
Each Skill comes with its own special bonuses that can improve different aspects of the game, like increasing the sell price on your items, raising your Attack Power or overall hit-points, and even improving the potency of healing items, making Skills definitely worth investing in as soon as they become available. And boy are there a lot of Skills you can learn, so much so that it got to the point of being a bit overwhelming for me. I wasn’t sure which Skills to give to my party because of how many there were! Thankfully, there is a sort’ve “guide” in the Status menu that showcases which Skills characters are more talented in, which can act like a base guide if you’re like me and can’t decide what Skills should go where. (Having a bird do all my shopping is super cool, for sure!)
Unlocking certain Skills will also grant you the option to craft your own items, such as healing items and even weapons that cannot be obtained in stores. And by increasing the amount of points in a certain Skill Set, it becomes easier to craft items in that category. So for instance, increasing the Technology Skill will increase your ability to perform Alchemy-related crafts and how well they succeed. I hadn’t expected First Departure R to have such a complex and impressively large leveling system, let alone the ability to craft. So when these options were made available, I was delighted, surprised and left in awe by the sheer size of this former Super Famicom game.
The story itself is extremely charming and fun despite how dark and serious it is under all it’s witty banter and colorful scenery. The jokes had me laughing out loud, the interactions between party members were amazing to watch, and the dramatic and sad parts left me a little misty eyed. The overall writing in this game is extremely good, it kept me gripped and interested the more I progressed. The dialogue, too, is excellent, and I felt that the addition of voice acting really helped increase the story’s quality and really drove some of the more intense scenes home.
Aside from the story, one of my absolute favorite things in this game is the Private Actions ability. Standing outside a city or town that has met certain plot triggers will bring up the button prompt, and selecting it will allow you and your party to “rest” for a while. Your companions will no longer be listed in your party window while under the Private Actions prompt, instead, they be out and about idling in the city, allowing you to personally talk to them during the lull between major plot points. This serves as another method of character development, and will allow you to see character interactions, learn about your companions and their pasts, and even increase their affection with you. You can even uncover important plot devices!
The Private Actions prompt adds more depth to the characters that join you on your adventure (You can recruit a lot of different people, but party space is limited!), and I deeply appreciate RPGs that take the time to not only establish their characters, but give them quirks and small interactions with you and other party members. It makes the world itself feel more alive and realistic, and provides a better immersion experience overall. Plus, it’s just really fun to watch some of your party members argue or pine for their crushes.
Gameplay-wise, First Departure R has a rather solid and active combat system similar to most RPGs released today. In other words, you run around on the world map until a random encounter is found, and when combat begins, you’re allowed to run freely around the battlefield and attack monsters with in a gameplay style not unlike Square Enix’s other title, Secret of Mana. You have the option to pause the battle as well, giving you the chance to switch between different party members or use items and spells, which was incredibly helpful for me personally during certain boss fights and strong monster encounters. Having the option to pause, switch to another character, have that character use a spell, then switching back is extremely useful when fights start to get hectic.
While I do enjoy the combat system in this game, the random battle encounters themselves left me a tiny bit exhausted at times. I have no issue of running into monsters, but it feels like in First Departure R that you run into encounters a lot. Like a whole lot. To the point where I was running into battles every 2 to 6 seconds, which isn’t a very long time between battles when running on a map as large as Roak. Even with a Skill active to avoid battles when back-tracking — which this game has you doing quite a bit — I was still running into fights every few steps.
Furthermore, it’s hard to gauge battle difficulty. Sometimes fights are relatively simple and perfect for your level, other times they are absurdly hard out of seemingly nowhere. I would find this to be challenging if it weren’t for the fact that some of the fights seem too difficult to the point of mild frustration, especially in dungeons where you can’t save and could lose an hour or more of progress. It’s one thing to face difficult monsters and barely scrape by, and another to be entirely slaughtered in a couple of hits with very few chances to retaliate or recover because the level the monsters increased significantly without much warning.
It is also extremely easy to get lost in this game. The maps, overworld and dungeon alike, are not designed very well, and it’s difficult to tell which areas are traversable and which aren’t. With battles happening every few steps with no real way to cross fields or dungeon halls quickly aside from the use of the sprint button, the overall journey can get very, very tiresome and take a great deal of time. (Learn from my mistakes. Save frequently and take notes.)
As for the graphics, First Departure R is a rather beautiful sprite-centric JRPG that utilizes 3D backgrounds, beautiful artwork and, on occasion, animated cutscenes to help progress the story. I thought the game looked fantastic and had a nostalgic charm to it that made it quite pretty to look at. My only small gripe would be that the new updated character artworks — which are absolutely stunning — do not match their sprites or the art in the animated cutscenes, which can be a little confusing at first since it’s difficult to tell who-is-who when using the new artwork. I would have liked to have seen the cutscenes and sprites updated alongside the new artwork, though I can understand the want to preserve the novelty of the PlayStation Portable version and the cost behind updating the art beyond their profile images.
I didn’t think I’d enjoy Star Ocean First Departure R as much as I did, even with all the mild frustrations and occasional setbacks I had. Quite frankly I’m surprised it took me so long to get into this series, everything about it is just incredible, magical and whimsical and it kept pulling me back for more. I couldn’t get enough of it! It’s impressive to see just how much this game achieved for itself in the 90s and how well it has held up over the years — with it’s added tweaks of course. So If you’re looking for a fascinating and nostalgic JRPG experience that mixes fantasy and science-fiction into a perfect and neat little ball of fun and drama, then this game is definitely for you.
Star Ocean First Departure R is available now on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch for $20.99.
Disclaimer: A review copy of Star Ocean First Departure R (PS4) was provided to Nova Crystallis by Square Enix, the publisher.