Let's be honest. There really isn’t much in the way of decent, original PSP RPGs. Star Ocean: First Departure is no exception, being a remake of the 1996 classic (Which was never released outside Japan). I’m a big RPG fan and needed something to play on my tiresome 30 hour plane ride around the world. I had heard of the series before and it was in the bargain bin, so I thought ‘why the hell not?’ So, I got onto the plane, really excited about the coming months, switched on my PSP and started a new journey with the teenage, blue haired hero. Five minutes in, I fell to sleep. In actual fact, I spent 90% of the ride trying to sleep, but this wasn’t due to the game. More or less the crappy flight time I booked. It was only when I actually got to my destination that I got into the thick of it. You may be thinking "You're on holiday! Why are you playing your PSP?" While the game was by no means 'amazing' it was however good enough to keep me awake at night playing until the evil was vanquished from the world. In summary, if you can find it cheap and enjoy classic RPGs, it’s worth a shot!
There really isn’t anything strong about this game. All the elements simply blended together well enough to keep me engaged through the 18 hour plot. The story is very short, and I couldn’t help but feel it was just a prelude to something bigger and there were no real twists or points that made me want to rush to find the conclusion. The story revolves around a couple teenage friends from the planet Roak; Roddick and Millie, trying to find a cure for a mysterious disease plaguing their world. They soon encounter a couple of space travellers from Earth and realise that this disease didn’t happen naturally. The four decide to travel back in time together and attempt to resolve the issue. The plot doesn’t develop too much past this and if you’re buying this game for a complex story then you’ll be sadly disappointed. I’ll also mention the amount of backtracking you will have to do. The world map only has four continents, and you will be forced to explore every inch of them, multiple times in order to progress. This can get very tiresome at times.
Just like the plot, the characters are also simple, yet they do the job. While none of the characters grew throughout the story, all of the characters retained their own unique personalities and had their own reasons for joining Roddick and crew. As mentioned above, early in the game a party of four is formed. These are the four essential characters that will travel with you through the entire game. During your journey, you will have the option to recruit up to four of another nine possible characters. Not only are recruiting certain characters a pre-requisite for recruiting other characters, but the story line and endings will slightly change depending on who you recruit. This adds a nice bit of replayability, however there is a problem; turning down characters early in the game to open up spots for later characters to join. If you’re new to the game and a cool looking swordsman asks to join your party, you’re hardly going to tell him to scram. I recruited the first character who asked, and of course then I didn’t even get to meet half of the other recruitable character. It was external sources that informed me of the other characters. I guess that’s where reviews like this come in handy.
Like the rest of the game, the battle system is nothing spectacular. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying it’s far below average. Four characters can fight in each battle, but only one of these can be controlled. The player can attack, use a killer move or spell (depending on their class), use an item, or flee. There is also the option to change which party member you control in battle, but I didn’t really see the need for this. I just used Roddick through the entire game. Essentially, all you need to do to win is hit the X button as many times as possible until the enemy is dead, and perhaps spam you killer moves when a boss pops up. Three fighters, one healer, spam X, battle over. It’s as easy as that. If your characters are at a decent level with reasonable equipment then this game should be a walk in the park. Below is a screenshot of what a typical battle will look like.
While the battle system takes relatively no skill or effort whatsoever, the development of your characters allows for a large level of customisation. Every time a character levels up they will receive some skill points that can be allocated to specific skills (each with 10 levels). The range of skills is quite impressive. Some are battle orientated (eg – randomly boost attack power) while other boost your stats. To make things more complex, others grant your characters specialties which allow them to perform out of battle actions such as cooking, upgrading weapons or even composing music. This is easily the strongest point of the game as it allows for a high level of customisation. To compliment this, there is also a typical equipment system. Each character has their own weapon type, and can equip a certain type of armour, plus two accessories. This is nothing out of the ordinary; in fact it’s slightly flawed. A characters strength is way too dependent on their weapon. You strongest character will change multiple times throughout the game depending on the weapons power, regardless of how you have used their skill points to build them. In the end, a sword wielding character will be your strongest, as swords become way more effective than any other weapon type. I hate it when an easily rectified flaw such as this brings down a decent development system, but I guess you can't ask for everything.
Star Ocean: First Departure is a remake, but how much is different? The graphics have obviously received an upgrade. While still 2D, the backgrounds are nicely pre-rendered and complement the new, more detailed sprites. Each of the main characters also has their own voice actor and I was relieved to find that this was very well done. It’s uncommon to find a JRPG without a character that makes me want to throw them on the floor and rip out their vocal cords. The voiceovers were consistent, and easily one of the games stronger points.
Every good RPG should have decent amount of optional content and/or side quests. Star Ocean is no different, however most are incredibly hard to find. There are a few secret dungeons in the game and I had no idea they existed until reading a walkthrough post game. The exception to this is the final-secret-dungeon which holds the strongest monsters and hardest boss in the game. I give the thumbs up to any game that has an optional boss more difficult to defeat than the final boss. Apart from these secret dungeons, there’s the Arena which offers a nice break from the story. There are 8 ranks to battle through, with a prize awarded upon completion. The prizes are nothing special but it’s nice to be able to say that you’re the best warrior on the planet. Finally, there are several endings to the game which depend on the characters you recruit, and your actions with them through the game.
Star Ocean: First Departure certainly isn’t a standout title but it’s worth a look if you’ve been searching for a PSP RPG. It contains everything that a good RPG should have, but fails to excel in any single area. If you find it cheap and like RPGs, it will give you 15 to 20 hours of enjoyment. It would have been the perfect game for my long plane ride across the world had I not been so tired. Maybe I’ll play it again on the way back.