The ‘90s Enix RPG debuts Switch with a Tales-inspired battle system and a nice-enough remade sheen.
With Square Enix porting a slew of their RPGs to Switch, we’re starting to get to some deeper cuts. Chief among them is Star Ocean: First Departure R, an HD remaster of a 2008 PSP remake of a 1996 Super Famicom game. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, which I mostly am, this is the first entry in the series and has close ties to the developers of the very first Tales game. As such, it follows a traditional JRPG structure but is buoyed by a snappy and enjoyable action RPG combat system in addition to a wealth of interesting mechanics that boost customization and story variety.
The story takes the forefront, as the adventure kicks off with a lovely animated opening and features a variety of narrative-heavy chunks throughout. Solid voice-acting, a good localization, and a sense of wonder help keep the whole adventure engaging. The hero is Roddick, a budding warrior in a small village who lives a trope-heavy and typical JRPG fantasy-inspired life. Early events lead Roddick and his friends Millie and Dorne to come into contact with Ronyx and Ilia, two space travelers trying to help prevent catastrophe. While the game manages to stay grounded with a more typical and traditional fantasy setting, the flavoring of sci-fi elements makes it more distinctive. Still, the basic plot is a little predictable, but ultimately what drew me in was the finer details (and also the great soundtrack from Motoi Sakuraba).
Chief among those details is the affection system. Around towns, you can enter them just as Roddick, which kicks off Private Actions where you can interact with other party members and help or harm an invisible stat that measures how much you get along with them. This also extends to other decisions and choices throughout the adventure, and depending on who you befriend or don’t, a lot of the periphery details of your quest are tweaked. Additionally, the character recruitment brings even more player choice. You can have a total of eight party members but only four of them are 100% necessary. The other four spots can be filled by a combination of six other characters, some which require some insight to bring aboard.
However, all of those options can be a bit baffling as you go along; I had to poke around guides and FAQs to really have any insight into the specifics. Even in remade form, Star Ocean hides too much from the player. That’s not to say it’d be better with affection and character recruitment being completely transparent, but some sort of in-game clarification would go a long way. This is especially true considering the skill points that help customize every character and allow them to improve in battle and even learn abilities that allow for everything from cooking and crafting to tweaking enemy encounter rates and using animals to buy items while in a dungeon. Some explanation of these deeper concepts is present, but it’s rarely straightforward.
The combat, fortunately, is relatively straightforward. Clearly inspired by the team’s previous game, Tales of Phantasia, Star Ocean’s battle system is real-time action. Enemies are encountered on the overworld and dungeons randomly, and then it cuts to a specific battle screen where you control one character and the computer controls up to three others. Commands are simple: one button attacks and two shoulder buttons trigger limited use special moves. The first few hours are on the easy side as you can get by with just spamming the attack button, but as your party gets larger, more strategy comes into play. Being able to switch between which party member you control and set specific tactics for the ones you aren’t handling gives you an overall control of the battle that makes boss battles tense and rewarding.
While I don’t have experience with the Super Famicom original or PSP remake to compare, First Departure R runs well on Switch and displays very nicely with its mixture of sprites, 3D areas, and pre-rendered backgrounds. This specific iteration adds the ability to use either of the two previous Japanese voiceovers in addition to the English PSP one and some new character artwork. The biggest addition might be the ability to run faster in towns and the overworld, which quickens the pace, likely trimming a few minutes off the relatively brisk 20-ish-hour playtime. If I had any knock against this release, it’s that it does very little to make this 2008 remake a 2019 game other than plop it on a new platform. At the end of the day, that’s not a huge issue, but it certainly compares less favorably to some of the smarter remasters and remakes in recent memory.
Regardless, Star Ocean: First Departure R is an overall port of a good game. It stands out in a few ways from its contemporaries, mostly in its Tales-esque battle system and character recruitment and affection minutiae. My best recommendation for First Departure R might be that it’s a story-heavy RPG that spins a yarn compelling enough to keep you engaged while also delivering a battle system that is breezy and not as technical. Star Ocean has a lot of complexities underneath the hood, but taking it at face value can leave you with an approachable and enjoyable adventure.