Playing the Star Ocean
Among my favorite video games are the Star Ocean series for the Sony Playstation consoles. I'm on my third time playing through the series. This is my fan page for the Star Ocean universe. (I also love Valkyrie Profile, Final Fantasy VIII and X, Gurumin, Trails in the Sky and Xenosaga.)
I'm an elder gamer in my sixties and retired. Creating this page is one of the things I do to keep busy and placate my inner graphic artist; I don't expect it to be of much use to anyone but myself.
<— Rena from Second Evolution. Art and photos on this page are my own. More art at the bottom of the page.
This page is both a record of my collection and a repository for my thoughts about the games. For purely factual information, check out the Star Ocean Wiki and the Square Enix page.
I'm not a collector, per se; I play the games, listen to the music, watch the anime, read the manga and enjoy the figures. I want as much of the Star Ocean fantasy world as possible.
Latest update: January 2017. (As I replay games, I add to and revise this page.)
Star Ocean is a mix of science fiction and fantasy, with an under story that doesn't become apparent until Till the End of Time. Though action on planets usually involves a mix of medieval society and magic (heraldry or symbology), make no mistake, these games are space opera on a grand scale.
These are complex games. Characters level up, but there is also a skill system that allows tailoring individual capabilities. There are shops, which are useful at low levels and later for buying raw materials. Item creation is an important part of the game, especially for Till the End of Time and The Last Hope. There are "private actions" that influence the story and the endings. There are side-quests and optional (pre-ending) dungeons. There are bonus dungeons post-ending. There are odds and ends you unlock, and battle trophies in TLH.
My playing times the second time through the games, once I understood how things work, were about: 50, 75, 100 and 125 hours. (First time through TAF was 65 hours, but I did not finish all the quests, did no synthesis and very little item creation, only augmentation.) One can spend much more time than that if one becomes obsessive about item creation. (If you're not into item creation and want to just depend on the shops and a lot of fighting, you can make it through that way, too.) The third time through TET took only about 80 hours, as I knew exactly what I wanted to do and not do, but the fourth time I played for over 115 hours on universe level and tried to do everything. (Times are for the story part of the games only, not post-ending content.)
As is not unusual with RPGs, all is not fun and games with the story line. Bad stuff happens, not infrequently to good people (though no player characters die). Till the End of Time uncovers something rather unsettling about our universe, and The Last Hope, which occurs in Earth time before the other games in the series, is downright grim in places, beginning with an accidental but thoroughly devasting World War III on Earth and ending with something unpleasant for the entire universe. (The science fiction aspect means that, except perhaps in the first game, one is never completely certain what happened once a game is over. But then one can say that about Final Fantasy VIII, which I also adore.)
First Departure – FD (PSP)
Original release in 1996; takes place in 346 SD. Original Super Famicom game was never released outside Japan; 2007 remake for the PSP released in North America in 2008. I also have the one volume "anthology" Japanese manga, the Brady strategy guide, the Japanese language 'final' guide and the original sound track with DVD.
Contains spoilers. Synopsis: A good, solid game with a large cast of sometimes mutually exclusive characters that increases the replay value.
Takes place essentially on one planet, though in two different times. Introduces the series staples of a mix of star-faring and medieval civilizations with magic (symbology), time/dimension travel, skill system, item creation system and battle system.Small world map, but different monsters in different terrain. Large cities and dungeons. Bunnies . . . and Welch Vineyard.
As with most of the games, the initial party is separated for one reason or another close to the beginning and does not come together again until later in the game. Evil but unknown forces are afoot, causing chaos and monsters everywhere.
There are a total of thirteen possible player characters, some of whom you can have on a temporary basis until you make final decisions. The maximum party size is 8, with 4 used in combat at any one time. The AI is very good at physical combat; not quite so good with symbology, and rather wasteful of MP in all-out attack mode.
There are several major story branches depending on character choices. It is not possible to visit all areas, encounter all bosses and see all events on a single play-through. Another aspect of Star Ocean games is the so-called private actions. These mostly affect the large number of endings, but occasionally lead to being able to recruit what might otherwise be an NPC.
Second Story/Evolution – SE (PS, PSP)
Released in 1998 as Second Story; takes place in 366 SD. Playstation game released in 1999 in North America; 2008 remake for the PSP released in NA in 2009 as Second Evolution. I have both the PS and PSP NA versions, and the Japanese 2008 PSP version. I also have three volumes of the Second Story Japanese manga, the NA release of the Star Ocean EX anime, the Prima Second Story strategy guide, the Japanese 'official complete' guide for Second Evolution, the original sound track with DVD and the "arrange" CD.
Contains spoilers. Synopsis: One chooses to play either as Claude or as Rena, with the initial story and list of possible characters being different depending on that choice. I love this feature! PSP game play is almost identical to the PSP First Departure because they use the same engine.
Claude is the son of a playable character in First Departure; Rena is . . . not what she initially believes she is. Takes place on two separate 'planets' and perhaps different times. In this game it first becomes clear that the universe is not the simple thing that humans and others believe it to be, and once the game is over you're not totally certain what has happened.
The PSP version uses the same game engine as the PSP version of First Departure. The graphics, cut-scenes and voice acting was completely redone. Gameplay was rebalanced, and Welch was added as a hidden PC, again making a total of 13 possible player characters, though not all are available on either the Claude or the Rena tracks.
The NA Playstation version runs fine on a PS2 but is a bit buggy on a PS3. I think this version is really cute, with its pixelated graphics. The story is identical to the 2008 remake. There's no voice acting except for exclamations in battle. The music is pretty much the same in both versions.
Blue Sphere – BS (GBC)
Released in 1998; takes place in 368 SD and is a continuation of Second Departure, with all 12 player characters. Game Boy Color game cartridge, never released outside of Japan. There was a later remake for mobile phones in Japan. I also have five volumes of the Japanese manga and the combined "arrange" / sound track CD set.
I finally own a used but mint condition copy of the game, and a used GameBoy Advance SP on which to play it. Reading kanji on a GameBoy display is a challenge, though, so I don't yet have much to say about the game other than that the look and feel is not dissimilar to the Playstation version of Second Departure. (The manual, which is © 2001, is pretty comprehensive and has furigana, so that's a big help!)
I have picked up a used Hyperkin Retron 5 console on which Blue Sphere runs. This should make it significantly easier for me to play.
Till the End of Time – TET (PS2)
Released in 2003 for Playstation 2; takes place in 772 SD. Director's cut international version released in 2004. I also have the Brady strategy guide, the Japanese 'official complete' guide, the original sound track, the director's cut sound track, the voice mix CD and the Motoi Sakuraba Live Concert: Star Ocean & Valkyrie Profile DVD. (And the Valkyrie Profile Playstation, PSP and Playstation 2 games, but I digress.)
Contains spoilers. Synopsis: I began with a love/hate relationship with this game. The mechanics are very different from FD/SE. The first time I played TET, I gave up half-way through and bought a strategy guide because the item creation scheme is essentially impossible to use without help. However, the story and the characters are probably the best of all the games, though there are only a few choices with characters, and half of them enter the game annoyingly late, at annoyingly low levels. There aren't as many private actions. Four levels of difficulty, though two must be unlocked through the accumulation of battle trophies.
The battle system is essentially the same as FD/SE, but the size of a combat party has been reduced to three, making it impossible to have both an offensive and defensive symbologist along with a team of fighters, which is very frustrating. Item creation becomes a whole complex sub-game in which one must hire and manage inventors, find a complex set of supplies, spend large sums of money, and essentially gamble during the invention process. Making it through the game without mastering item creation is difficult, so this makes the learning curve very steep the first time through. Having player characters enter/re-enter the game half-way through with their stats at level one, forcing you to spend hours leveling them up, makes no sense to me.
So first time I gave up half-way and bought a strategy guide for item creation, then played through, figuring everything out. By the next time I played through, when I fully understood everything, I really liked the game. Now, after several full play-throughs, TET is vying for first place among Star Ocean games for me. (But Rena will always be my favorite character.) However, this is probably not the game to begin with!
For my latest play-through, I went all the way through the EX dungeons, something that I rarely do with any game. And now it's been announced that an HD version is coming out in Japan!
The Last Hope – TLH (PS3)
Released in 2009 on Xbox; takes place in 1 SD. Playstation 3 game released worldwide in 2010. It was officially stated that this was the last game in the series, but fortunately that has proven to not be true. I have both the European and North American PS3 releases, the Brady strategy guide, the Japanese language 'official complete' guide, the original sound track with DVD, the "arrange" CD, and the Edge and Reimi figures.
Contains spoilers. Synopsis: The graphics are great and the game play problems of TET have been fixed, but the character development and story are weak in places. I love that the Japanese voice track is included! (And subtitles and text in multiple languages.)
The graphics are stunning. This is one of those games where you just want to walk around the world and the towns and look at the scenery and the people. Cut-scenes are many and sometimes quite lengthy; always well done. (Those comments were written while playing the game on a small LCD Bravia display; on a larger LED display, I've really had to tweak the settings to achieve an acceptable image that isn't full of jaggies and sparkles.)
The battle party is back to four people, and you can swap out people while a battle is in progress, which makes the entire party so much more useful! Damage and healing can also affect the entire party, which is realistic. The AI is possibly too smart for its own good, as tactics options reflect each character's personality. (For example, you can tell Lymle to stay out of trouble, but she won't really do so.) The AI is very good at using skills and symbology if characters are correctly set up. Annoyingly, though you can select the battle leader, this does not change the character used on the world map.
Item creation is sensible and easy to understand, driven by available recipes and materials, not directly by money. Harvesting and mining become explicit character abilities that primarily support item creation but also yield experience and party-wide skill points. Reimi can do harvesting from the beginning, but you need Bacchus to mine. So even though you encounter mining points in the first part of the game, they cannot be used, and by the time you can use them, they may be useless. (Similarly, some chests and areas need specific rings to access, some of which are not acquired until very late in the game or even post-story.)
A few item creation recipes are found or given to the party, but most are developed by groups of up to three characters, depending on their skills and skill levels. Item synthesis, which also can be used with armor and accessories, not just weapons (yea!) is not possible until you have Sarah, the final character to join the party.
New characters join the party at reasonable levels, but there is no choice at all in playable characters, and no true story branches. Perhaps encouraged by the better graphics, this game contains some irrelevant and what seems to me to be out-of-character anime-style fan service and jokes. Many NPCs make what may have been intended to be humorous comments, but for me just tend to ruin the suspension of disbelief. (This could be a localization problem.) For whatever reason it seems like this game doesn't always take itself seriously, which I really do not like.*
Many of the private actions feel incidental, obviously added to allow fan service and jokes. Too few of them offer insight into the characters or have any effect on the game pre-ending. This is mainly in contrast to TET, which took itself dead serioulsy throughout. Perhaps it's because the graphics are so realistic that I expect the characters to behave realistically, too. The occasional silliness in the PSP games doesn't bother me near so much (and a lot of it is centered around Welch). **
Did they run out of money before development was finished? The towns and scenery are rendered in extensive, loving detail, even where little if anything ever happens. After a certain point you know nothing new is going to happen with the PCs or NPCs, though you still have to spend hours and hours completing side quests and opening chests you cannot open until just before or even after the ending. This does not appeal to me, especially when my characters are essentially trapped in hell, surrounded by the dead and dying.
But for all my criticism, let me be perfectly clear: I love this game and am enormously grateful that the developers worked so hard on it. Thank you! I purchased a PS3 specifically to play TLH. It was totally worth it!
* I think it's fine that Welch is in all the games and knows more than an NPC should know; one can easily posit a reason for that: she's a playable character for one or more 4D players, and there are hints to support this hypothesis.
** It's possible that because TLH takes place before TET on the Eternal Sphere timeline, that the behavior of some NPCs and a few odd things that are salted here and there in the game are done explicitly to support the big revelation in TET.
Integrity and Faithlessness – IAF (PS3 and PS4)
Square Enix and tri-Ace released the fifth Star Ocean game for the PS3 and PS4 in Japan in March 2016. It was released in June in North America on PS4 only. Official Japanese site. (Yes, this will be the sixth game, but Blue Sphere was never released outside of Japan and is really a side story to Second Departure.) I have the Day One Edition with various useful DLC included, the Prima Strategy Guide, the Japanese 'galaxy' guide and 'official complete' guides and the Star Ocean 20th Anniversary Memorial Book: Eternal Sphere no Kiseki.
First play-through 18 November through 9 December 2016. CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Save at save points and heal at inns or occasional heal points. Pause anywhere using the Options (map) or PS button. Opening the battle menu pauses a battle. Status ailments clear with end of battle or soon after. As with TLH, there are four levels: Earth, Galaxy, Universe and Chaos. I chose Galaxy, the normal level, for my first play-through. The Prima strategy guide annoyingly does not include most of the information given in the in-game tutorials, or the complete synthesis tables.
There are seven main player characters. Fidel is always in the party, but everyone else goes in and out according to game events. The battle party is the entire current party of two to seven characters, though Relia never directly fights and is never controllable in battle. At times there are NPCs fighting on your side. There are no story branches under player control, though there are multiple endings determined by private actions, as usual.
The camera is horrible; the worst of any game I have ever played. Outside of battle the camera must be adjusted constantly, which is beyond annoying, it is painful for my hands. Even with sensitivity turned all the way down, the erratic motion in a narrow field of view gave me a headache the first few days, until I moved closer to the screen and adjusted the lighting in my game room. I'm also now very tired of watching Fidel's back as he runs around.
Clearly the concept behind the game design was to make playing IAF as seamless an experience as possible. Battles do not take place on a separate stage. There are very few traditional animated cutscenes, instead there are scripted dialogue scenes that play out while the party is restricted to a small area. Private actions also are treated this way. So-called random private actions can trigger while running around and be lost in an immediately ensuing battle.
While I like the battles done this way, I feel that the concept does not work nearly as well as animated cutscenes in conveying character personalities, and it requires me to continually move Fidel and fiddle with the camera so I can see the characters who are talking, which I strongly dislike, as it removes an opportunity for me to rest my aching hands. Outside of battle, you're forced to always control Fidel, with all the other current characters tagging along. Whenever Fidel moves, even a little, the other characters jerk around, which looks very weird, especially in towns. Because of the bizarre camera, you rarely can see most of the party unless you stop and pan around. If you stop suddenly, half the party overshoots Fidel. In towns Fidel sometimes bumps into people or cats, and apologizes, other times he walks right through people as if they were holograms. The doll faces of the main characters show little emotion (much less than the TET characters, which have not dissimilar designs), so it takes a few chapters, a few animated cutscenes (which increase in use as the game proceeds) and many private actions, to build up any idea of the character's personalities beyond the obvious stereotypes.
The battle mechanic is very different; all party members (up to seven) participate in battle, and you choose the one you are controlling at the moment. For this to work the AI has to be very good, and there has to be a way to tell the AI what to do with each character. IAF's approach to this is a large number of roles (unlocked in various ways as the game proceeds) that can be distributed to party members, each of whom can equip four roles. It's not as fine-tuned as Final Fantasy XIII or in some ways even as TLH (the AI will never use items), but with larger battle parties, it's effective. Aside from the different mechanic, battle setup and skills seems to me to be most similar to TET.
In some battles a particular character must be protected, or it's game over, because that character (always Anne) is doing something critical that the enemies want to stop. This doesn't happen for the first time until chapter five, by which time I was easily able to deal with the situation through use of skills, roles and equipment. Normally, unless you're trying to "beat the game" as quickly as possible while ignoring quests and item creation, it's not very easy for an entire party of six or seven with two healers to be wiped out. (Star Ocean is a game made for people who like to do side quests and item creation. I can't imagine surviving it or having much fun otherwise. Unlike previous games, the monsters in the various areas do level up to keep pace with the characters, so running around the various areas and towns to complete quests and private actions feels much more worthwhile.)
Item creation continues to play a major role. In addition to synthesis, which now creates new things (with a degree of randomness), there are three augmentation specialties (whetting, fortification and ornamentation) for improving and adding factors to weapons, armor and accessories. Alchemy, compounding, cooking, crafting and smithery are pretty much as usual. Authoring creates skill manuals for learning and leveling up battle skills. Engineering creates bombs and skill manuals for Anne and Emerson's battle skills. Unlike in TLH and TET, item creation, synthesis and augmentation can be done anywhere, any time, outside of battle and scripted cutscenes. Item creation and augmentation always succeed. As in TLH, there is harvesting and mining, and now also fishing.
Characters have mostly unique battle skills, as usual, but they level up through experience and the use of skill manuals. Battle roles, unlocked in various ways and leveled up through experience and using SP, are available to be assigned to anyone. A character's four equipped battle roles affect stats, and are the way one influences how the AI plays the character. There is also a set of specialties that must be unlocked and leveled up using SP which apply to the group as a whole, including the item creation skills, harvesting, et cetera. Including over one hundred quests and many private actions, there is a lot to do in this game!
The world map is fairly large, and there are times when you have the freedom to run around, at least to areas you've already visited. But whenever you're in the 'mission' portion of a chapter, you'll find exits and entrances blocked and red lines in the sand that fellow characters berate you for wanting to cross. During animated dialogue sections, Fidel can move, but only so far, and save points usually turn red to mark them as unusable. It seems like there is a lot of handholding, but perhaps this is because unlike a game full of conventional animated cutscenes, one rarely completely looses control of Fidel.
NPC dialogue constantly changes throughout the game to keep up with events, which is very nice. The graphics are very good, if sometimes difficult to appreciate because of the whacko camera. The music is of course good, with some reuse from TLH and TET. Optional DLC allows use of the battle tunes from the Valkyrie Profile games. (These games have always been intertwingled in subtle ways.) Both Japanese and English voice acting.
There is the traditional after-game extra dungeon, but also a Cathedral of Oblivion dungeon that is optionally accessible in parallel with the main game. Being able to survive the current boss in the Cathedral of Oblivion is a good indication that the party will be able to survive bosses in the main game and is leveling up and using skills, roles and equipment in the way the game designers expect.
Welch is still around, again as an NPC and is even more of an airhead that usual. Though the official line, according to Shuichi Kobayashi, is that "every Welch is a different, unrelated girl who just happens to have the same name and mannerisms," I remain convinced that Welch is a 4D player's persona. (Quote from an interview covered by Anime News Network.) The Square Enix page advertising the game stated: "At this point [537 SD] in history, between the second and third games in the series, the Pangalactic Federation is nearing the fulfilment [sic] of its mission to bring peace and order to the galaxy. However, the embers of conflict begin to stir once again six thousand light years from Earth, on the planet of Faykreed, as a new story begins in the cosmic sea." As The Last Hope is back-dated to 1 SD, Integrity and Faithlessness is the penultimate game in the timeline.
The learning curve on IAF was very steep for me, even more so than for TET. But it was worth it, and I do intend to replay the game if I am able.
Thoughts about the overall series
Contains spoilers. Synopsis: I love this series of games (and Valkyrie Profile)!
Looking at the series from beginning to end, it's very difficult to escape the conclusion that as more effort was put into graphics, less effort went into characters and story. The later games have fewer characters, fewer character/story branches, often less character and story depth. I've noticed this with all the series I play that span several generations of consoles. I'm not alone among RPG gamers in preferring older games because of this.
I think a serious attempt was made to turn this around with Integrity and Faithlessness. For me, the experiment of scripted dialogue scenes instead of animated cutscenes was a failure. The few true animated cutscenes made me starkly aware of how much characterization was lost through this technique.
I know there's a drive to be new and different and next gen and hooo-haaa, but for me I see RPGs as playable stories. I'd gladly buy another game just for a story or a continuation of a story with the exact same gaming engine and mechanics. Personally, I'd way rather have PS2-quality graphics with good characters and story than PS4-quality graphics with lame characters and a weak story.
Suspension of disbelief is a difficult art. Maybe it's because of my age and the fact that I grew up with books and story-telling, but I find the almost photo-realistic graphics of current generation games to actually be a turn-off. I have a really good imagination, and I'd like to be allowed to use it as I please. (For example, I prefer the somewhat retro animation-style graphics of Tales of Graces f on the PS3 to the more realistic graphics in Star Ocean: The Last Hope. I prefer the animation style in Xenosaga I to the style used in II and III. I loved the graphics in Ni no Kuni.)
With both the PSP and the Playstation 2 out of production, I would love to see those games released as PSN downloads. Technically, that would be easy for the PSP games, and the PS4 is certainly powerful enough to run a game like TET using a software emulator. But, it is still possible to purchase a PSP new, and certainly used, if one wants to play those games. And I suspect it's not accidental that there are so many similarities between IAF and TET.
Grumbling aside, I thank everyone involved in the creation and production of the Star Ocean games for their effort and hard work! Thank you, thank you, thank you! ありがとうございます。 本当にありがとう!
Welch Vineyard, FD
Peppita Rossetti, TEOT
Sarah Jerand, TLH
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