10 years ago or so, Star Ocean 3 became my favorite game of all time. Despite the arrival of the masterpiece Valkyria Chronicles, it still remains on top. Never an RPG had hooked me like this by its gameplay, its story, its characters, its animation and its overwhelming content. The exclusivity period of Star Ocean The Last Hope for 360 had been a nightmare. Six years after this (quite good) 4th episode, it’s another kind of disenchantment that awaited me…
We can safely say that Star Ocean 5 Integrity and Faithlessness does not have a mind-blowing start. Master of a kenjutsu dojo, Fidel is entrusted with the defense of his village, Staal, threatened by looters. With the help of his childhood friend Miki and joined by Victor, a knight sent in reinforcement from the capital, he intends to get rid of the bandits once for all. During this battle, the party will meet and start protecting a young girl called Lylia. That’s where Tri-Ace’s story goes wrong, because everything will revolve around Lylia, without any justification on how the characters are so deeply attached to her. The succession of events is a lot too fast and doesn’t feel natural, leaving the player skeptic.
The trouble is that by making a local guy the hero of this newest Star Ocean, the developer puts a big emphasis on the ground part of the adventure, rather than on the space opera aspect. It’s really a shame that the space parts are so scarce, because they’re still quite well made : space war and maneuvers still make unforgettable scenes, and the cutscenes here are great. On the top of leaving space a bit aside, Star Ocean 5 Integrity and Faithlessness neglects its characters : the game is so centered on Lylia that it leaves little room for building the relation between the other characters, and it doesn’t give them a background solid enough either. Of the 6 playable characters, Emmerson is the only really charismatic one, lifting the mood of the party. Always talking about pretty girls, he and Anne make a great comical duo, but the man is also a born (unofficial) leader.
SquareEnix’s RPG does have what it calls private actions, which are small scenes featuring the characters chatting with each other, building the group’s cohesion in the process. Nice initiative but it leads us to Tri-Ace’s biggest mistake in this game : most of the story scenes are seen from a unique camera angle centered around Fidel. The player can move it as he likes but… that should be the job of the game director! This ends up showing a lifeless narrative, and of mundane presentation… In short, the direction fails in most of the game.
Funny enough to notice that the enemy characters really stand out, even more than some of your own characters. The “bad guys” of Star Ocean 5 Integrity and Faithlessness indeed get the most attention because they’re part of the best cutscenes and the hottest fights.
In pure visuals, Star Ocean 5 Integrity and Faithlessness gives us a first glimpse of next-gen JRPG. Modeling, but also the extremely refined rendering, set a new record in the genre. Despite its actually common wilderness, progressing with a group of seven characters feels rather cool. Characters and enemies are equally well made, which make combat very impressive, not to mention the colored and gigantic spells. But the beauty prize goes to the cities of this new episode, the architecture of which is rich an detailed like you’ve never seen.
While particularly mighty in its aspect, SquareEnix’s RPG is not as impressive when it comes down to game content. Once the astonishment of the discovery is gone, you quickly realize that the world of Star Ocean 5 Integrity and Faithlessness isn’t large at all. The towns are a typical case : they’re hella good-looking as I said earlier, but they’re also incredibly tiny! The capitals of this PS4 episode are about half as large and have less stuff to be discovered than those of Star Ocean 3 on… PS2! The main story can be cleared in about 30 hours, even taking the time to complete half of the sidequests. Nothing appealing about those, sadly listed on a quest board somewhere in the town. None of those quests are very interesting : it’s about creating or looting items, beating monsters which happen to be just in front of the city gates (how convenient) or defending Fidel’s dojo countless times… What’s more? Two optional dungeons : an arena shaped like a Cathedral popping at random on the world map, and the traditional post-game dungeon where you can listen to Mission to the Deep Space. The latter has no minimap and fighting is super harsh under level 100, so that might get you to play a lot longer if you’re motivated. Additional outfits would have been welcome, but Tri-Ace didn’t have the generosity to include any despite certain characters clearly having them.
Worst of all, item creation was a downright disappointment. The interface is cold, unappealing, and some sad and small artworks have replaced the 3D view of your inventions. As we’re on this subject, let’s stress that even though the weapons look different in the equipment menu, the look in actual fighting will always be the same : lack of time or efforts, something went MIA here. No animations when fishing or digging up resources, whilst even the smallest JRPGs have them nowdays. No inventors to be found either, and even the small icons which were showing the characters’ mood when success or failure are missing… this poor excuse for item creation make me miss the one of Star Ocean 3 even more. In today’s Star Ocean, you just quickly make the goods to drop at the quest board, nothing more… On the other hand, we do appreciate the effort to make it more lively thanks to a better designed and more entertaining Welch. Every time you access a new type of creation, Welch will have you complete a quest to do so. Bossy and selfish, the young girl is a total loose cannon : she calls the party characters her “assistants” and won’t hesitate to work them to the bones. Probably one aspect where this newest episode shines compared to older ones.
As for combat, Star Ocean 5 Integrity and Faithlessness truly benefits from the experience acquired in past games, as well as from technical improvements, although not avoiding some mishaps. New for the genre, you always have all your characters with you. No 1st/2nd line to consider, no hesitating when choosing the attack team, everyone is here, anytime, in every fight. Even with seven members on the battlefield, switching playable character is simple and fast, as well as deciding who will unleash his Reserve Rush (it doesn’t have to be the one you’re playing), ultimate skill that can cause 99’999 damage at high level. For that, you need to totally empty your Reserve gauge, which allows for more experience points and more Fol (the currency in Star Ocean) when actually filled. Appreciable improvement over older titles, the gauge isn’t broken completely at the first mistake. It’s going to empty progressively if you’re KO or if your guard is broken too often. Such added flexibility makes grinding a lot more comfortable and quicker.
Guard, let’s talk about it. Set on square, you can double-press the button to counter a weak attack from the enemy. Same as before, you have to monitor carefully how your opponents move and find out whether they’re up to a weak or strong attack (the latter breaking the guard). You then have to opt for counter or dodging in the blink of an eye. A proved and dynamic battle system which here hits a snag : seven characters are acting simultaneously in a flurry of special effects. Let’s say it straight, you can’t always assess the situation well enough to react effectively. Battles are liable to leave the player confused in many occasions, but boss fights are fine.
As usual by chaining attacks and spells, you can perform a Cancel Bonus repeatedly to boost the damage dealt from 125 to 200%. You’d better be familiar with this feature, because battles of attrition do not tend to turn in your favor. Indeed, the difficulty will rise by (brutal) steps and reach almost unbearable levels during the last stages of the game. There are several defense missions that leaves no room for idling, and some crazy battle marathons of very high tension in which the skill and tactics of the player will be tested. Some bosses have spells of such an insane blast radius that your entire team can be wiped out in seconds, some won’t hesitate to hurt and KO downed characters, etc. it’s beyond horrific at times. As AI is also showing some poor wits, playing as Fiore or Miki really helps because you can concentrate on healing. Clearing Star Ocean 5 Integrity and Faithlessness means a lot of sweating, potentially a broken TV because a dual shock was hurled at it, but it’s so rewarding when the victory trophy pops.
You’d come to think that Star Ocean 5 Integrity and Faithlessness would barely rehash the past, but it has something new which is the role system. A role in this game is actually a title that will give some tactical advantages to the character who equips it. For example, HP Boost boosts your HP (nothing complicated here), Sniper reinforces attacks from afar, Assassin allows the character to be less targeted. You can level up those roles by using skill points, which will unlock even more sophisticated roles. It’s not the only way to get new roles, since some will be given after certain quests or private actions. But the main point is to combine the roles, since each character can have four simultaneously. You can for example boost the power of your magic while keeping the cost in HP low, make healing or guarding more efficient, focusing on a certain category of enemies with the “-killer” roles… There are numerous possibilities and combining them is a definite plus in terms of strategy.
Despite that interesting novelty, there’s no denying that the shadow of Star Ocean 3 looms on this PS4 episode. Tri-Ace had been clear that they would take a similar approach to their PS2 hit, and you do feel it… a lot too much! 90% of the monsters are copy/pasted from before, some bosses are exactly the same, some skills are blatantly identical… The character called Del Sur (pronounce like in Spanish) is obviously a successor to the legendary Albel Nox. Even the storyline is widely inspired by Star Ocean 3, because it also is split between the war on the planet and the space conflict behind the scenes. That said, it can’t even remotely match it, being too short and dull in large part. The game will go as far as playing Star Ocean 3 music during key parts of the narrative! Odd choice, but it takes only the best tracks : Airyglyph Castle, The Desolate Smell of Earth, The Divine Spirit of Language. It still doesn’t fail to contribute to the musical heritage of the series, notably thanks to the fantastic theme of the ship, the Charles de Gaulle (yes, that pleases us French people). You sometimes feel like playing some sort of tribute game to Star Ocean 3 rather than the new Star Ocean. It’s a shame that Star Ocean 5 Integrity and Faithlessness is unwilling to be completely itself and push its own identity.
Star Ocean 5 Integrity and Faithlessness is let’s say, OK. It is a beautiful game, it has quality RPG gameplay and there’s a powerful challenge, but the overall content is way off the mark. A pleasant JRPG, but which could have been a fantastic one with more effort put into the direction and the side content. Did Tri-Ace really get free hands to make it as they wanted? The answer to this question might be eternally lost in the starry sky…