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Star Ocean Beginner’s Guide — Where to Get Started

by Ron Duwell | June 21, 2015June 21, 2015 10:00 am PDT

Another classic JRPG franchise has crawled back into the public mindset thanks to Square Enix formally confirming at E3 2015 that Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, the fifth game in its animé inspired science fiction JRPG series, would be coming to the States on the PlayStation 4. That can only mean your buddy Ron is here to school you about the history and highs and lows of this evasive franchise.

Unlike some of the other guides I have done, like for Shin Megami Tensei and Suikoden, I’m not exactly a huge fan of Star Ocean though. The series has never quite stuck the way other culty franchises have in the past, but the series does have plenty of fans, meaning there is value to be found here.

Who knows? Maybe if I go back and explore them, I might learn something. A brief history first.

Star Ocean is developed by an RPG company called tri-Ace, which itself has some intriguing roots. The founding members of this studio once worked for a beloved and obscure JRPG studio called Wolf Team, which was owned by the new defunct company Nihon Telenet.

While at Wolf Team, the members helped to forge the Tales series with the first game being released in 1995 as Tales of Phantasia, published by Namco. Shortly after that though, a rift seemed to have occurred causing several key members to break away and form tri-Ace. These founding members quickly put to use Tales’ same style of RPG action in 1996’s Star Ocean, published by Enix.

Wolf Team would continue until being bought out by Namco in 2003 when it was renamed Namco Tales Studio.

This crisscrossing history explains why the Star Ocean and Tales franchises have so much in common. That is, other than the frequency of their releases. Tales is home to 15 core titles with the recent release of Tales of Zesteria in Japan, putting it ahead of Final Fantasy.

Star Ocean, as you might have guessed by the recent announcement of the fifth game, only has four and only one per generation. Allow me to break them down for you.

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Star Ocean — The Holy Grail of the Super Famicom

For many years, Star Ocean was one of those mythical RPG gems that had only ever been released in Japan. Murmurs of its existence had been heard in the States, but barely anybody had the opportunity to play it at all, let alone play it in English.

When Star Ocean: The Second Story launched for the PlayStation in the States in 1999, many wondered … “What about the first story?” Final Fantasy’s little naming secret was already out of the bag though, so Enix probably didn’t want to have to suffer through the same confusion.

The truth is that Star Ocean was way ahead of its time in Japan, using ridiculous graphics that the Super Nintendo could not handle on its own, and it required special modification chips that Nintendo of America was very strict on controlling. That right there is probably the main reason the game never made it to the States.

The other is that Enix had closed shop in America during those years as well.

At about the same time, emulators and the fan translation scene had taken off, and fans of the genre were finally able to appreciate so many lost classics for the first time. Live a Live, the real sequel to Secret of Mana, the Romancing SaGa games, Bahamut Lagoon, Treasures of Rudras. So many Super Famicom games made their ways to the States in English thanks to dedicated fans who did the work of the publishers for them…

… except for Star Ocean. Even after emulators hit the scene, it continued to be a hidden gem of an import title because early emulator programmers were finding it nearly impossible to replicate its advanced chip. Ask anyone who tried to play Star Ocean on their PCs in the late 90s, and they’ll tell you how much of a beast it was to get up and running.

Square Enix finally got around to publishing it in the States for the PSP in 2008 as Star Ocean: First Departure, but it was already discovered by then, the mystical allure evaporated. Too much time had passed to have it feel like the revelation here that it really was in Japan. By the time we legitimately played it, Tales was already huge in the States, and Star Ocean’s two sequels took its unique battle system and ideas to new heights.

The PSP remake is a solid port if you want to play it, but the fan-translation is still the best way to go. Square Enix retooled the remake a little too much, and it more closely resembles its sequel than the original release. Square Enix has not gotten around to a digital release yet through the PlayStation Store, meaning a run-through on this Vita is out. You’ll have to uncover your PSP to play it.

Again though, it’s a game that we sadly had a hard time buying into in the States because getting it up and running was a pain, and we had already witnessed its far superior sequel.

Star Ocean: The Second Story — When the Gateway Drug is Too Strong

Of all the Star Ocean games, it’s safe to say that the second one is my favorite. Star Ocean: The Second Story launched in America in 1999 for the original PlayStation, and it was an eye-opener for many JRPG fans, especially those of us who were primarily Final Fantasy fanboys.

Star Ocean 2 opened up the random battlefield and allowed characters to move away from their starting positions! A decade and a half of seeing our characters stand in a line and fight in turn back and forth had come to a crashing halt with this release. Star Ocean 2’s battle system finds a happy medium between choosing your attack from a menu like in Final Fantasy and having direct control or your character like in The Legend of Zelda.

This was also the first tri-Ace game released in the States, giving us a first glimpse into some of their more quirky traits as well. For example, the game features two CDs, and each provides a quest with a different protagonist. tri-Ace loves to double down on the content to the point of being a little excessive. Both adventures have a nearly limitless supply of endings depending on which characters your hero recruits and which characters your hero interacts with the most during special events.

Speaking of which, this game stars a lovely cast of characters like the goldilocks space cadet Claude, who finds himself stranded on an underdeveloped planet, and his lady friend Rena, a girl with mysterious magical powers. Call that original, huh?

Together, they encounter a master martial artist and master chemist named Bowman, a triple-eyed bounty huntress named Opera, the robot girl Precis, and the game’s best character, the lovable black wizard Ashton, the most unlucky man in the universe. He is cursed with two dragons which have attached themselves to his back, and he struggles to keep them calm while looking for a way to remove them.

Star Ocean 2 has 12 characters, but you won’t be able to see them all in a single playthrough. It might take two or three at the least, one issue many have with this game. Each of them repeatedly calls out their abilities in goofy sound bits before performing them in battle, and they can get old unless you are nostalgically in love with this game like me.

tri-Ace even has a soundboard which lets you collect them!

Another issue is the pacing. Star Ocean 2 takes forever to get up and running, another common trait in tri-Ace games. You won’t be slashing away at a consistent pace until about two or three hours in, so I hope you like a lot of dialogue featuring people being overly polite with one another.

I remember that annoyed me in my youth. Why is everyone being so nice in this game? I didn’t know much about Japan at the time.

After that hurdle though, the world opens up to a beautiful science fiction story with plenty of memorable moments. It’s a wonderful game that is best enjoyed with its original PlayStation release. I’m not a big fan of the remixed art and animé cutscenes in the PSP remake, especially when the simple sprites did such a good job of telling the story originally. At least the PSP remake resembles the original game, unlike the first one.

Definitely the highlight of the series here, and it was the only one popular enough to spawn a spinoff. Star Ocean: Blue Sphere was released in 2001 for the Game Boy Color, only in Japan, but it’s not really worth seeking out. It’s a card battle game with ugly graphics.

Star Ocean: Till The End Of Time — That’s How Long This Game Takes

Sticking to it’s one game a generation pattern, tri-Ace teamed up with the recently established Square Enix to release Star Ocean: Till the End of Time in 2003 in Japan, 2004 in the States.

Like most games at the time, this newest Star Ocean was hyped for making the successful leap into 3D with the superior powers of the PlayStation 2. Doing it a generation after the original PlayStation gave tri-Ace plenty of time to let other companies figure out how to transition first, making it smoother for them.

It’s one reason tri-Ace still exists today after so many died out during that period.

I also remember Square Enix piling hype on the idea that multiplayer was going to be huge in this latest iteration of Star Ocean’s battle system. I think one of the first big turnoffs was me inviting friends over to play it together but realizing that multiplayer could only be unlocked a decent way into the game.

As you might guess, I am not a huge fan of this game. Multiplayer aside, this was released at a time when I was feeling really burned out on JRPGs. The original PlayStation was bursting with the genre in experimental ways, but the PlayStation 2 kicked it into overgear with a constant onslaught of huge games that took forever to beat. It was just too much to keep up with, and that enthusiasm from Japan eventually devolved into cliché and generic.

I really need to go back and dig out the solid gems from under all that rubble because there are a few.

I do remember Star Ocean: Till The End of Time had an Achilles heel that I couldn’t shake either. Without question, the most fun to be had in The Second Story was tossing out your special abilities, seeing how they flash in battle and how they evolve overtime. Till The End of Time featured this crippling system where special attacks drained from the character’s life rather than a magic meter, meaning that relying on them too much, or even using them just for fun, would kill your character.

Not my idea of fun in an RPG.

It might be one of those gems I need to go back and check out, but Fayt Leingod, yes that is the protagonist’s name, and his adventure were a bit too forgettable for the dozen or so hours I put into it back in the day. Maybe some day I can make amends, but this is where the series lost me.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope — True, But Only Until Recently

Star Ocean: The Last Hope shocked the JRPG community when Square Enix announced that it would be released exclusively for the Xbox 360. I mean, who was buying an Xbox 360 for JRPGs?

Then you go back and realize how many exclusive titles for the Xbox 360 there really were! The Last Remnant, Lost Odyssey, Infinite Undiscovery. Star Ocean: The Last Hope kept up that charade for a year before it tanked and realized it needed the home PlayStation crowd.

Square Enix released an “International Version” for the PlayStation 3 the following year.

I never got around to playing this one. Star Ocean: Till The End of Time was fresh in my memory, and the AAA Western market’s push was still churning out decent titles at this point. The likes of Valkyria Chronicles and Demon’s Souls pulled me back into Japanese games, but I wasn’t ready to gamble on Star Ocean at the time.

The thing I remember most about the lead up to this game was a frightening pre-rendered CG scene which revealed that the protagonist had freakishly blonde hair and clashing green eyes, and I was immediately turned off by this character. His design pushed me away from ever wanting to control him, and I still haven’t to this day.

Again, that could change though leading up into the coming release of Star Ocean 5. For now, it can rest easy that it no longer has to live up to its title as “the last hope” for this floundering franchise. The game does has a mediocre reputation among the franchise’s fan base, just enough to make it an intriguing retro discovery.

How is it that the Xbox 360 is now retro?

Miscellaneous tri-Ace

Star Ocean is the closest that tri-Ace can claim to having a long standing series, but it has broken off from its safety net to produce a decent portfolio of excellent games.

Without question, the game most fans hold in the highest regard is Valkyrie Profile. This excellent RPG tasks a Valkyrie knight named Lenneth with recruiting soldiers for the upcoming Armageddon, but she can only do so by claiming their souls after their death. Her travels take players to every corner of Norse mythology, and they experience some truly heartbreaking tales behind these warriors.

It’s a far better use of North mythology than Too Human, am I right?

A sequel, or prequel rather, was released for the PlayStation 2 called Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, but many regard its battle system as a bit too complex, a tendency of tri-Ace when it breaks away from Star Ocean’s simplicity.

Another culty hit for tri-Ace was Radiata Stories, an open-world fairy tale like game with 176 different characters for the hero Jack to recruit to his cause. Take that, Suikoden and your puny 108 Stars of Destiny! The game was released to solid praise, but Square Enix and tri-Ace never followed up on it in any way.

The Xbox 360 played host to tri-Ace’s first game of the previous generation, and most regard it as the biggest dud of its library. Infinite Undiscovery proved that tri-Ace was capable of biting off a little bit more than it could chew with its lush open worlds and slick monster designs sputtering under the weight of bugs and performance issues. The character designs in this game were absolutely intolerable, even more so than the silly title.

Luckily, tri-Ace rebounded with its next game, Resonance of Fate. Well, the game still tanked, but it has a very strong fan base which will praise its ridiculous battle system as the greatest of all time. It’s complexity puts Valkyrie Profile 2’s to shame. Check this one out if you want to see some truly incredible RPG battle system moments.

Resonance of Fate was released quite closely to Final Fantasy XIII, so maybe that’s why you’ve probably never heard of it.

Speaking of which, tri-Ace has been doing mostly contract work these days, and it aided Square Enix in the development of both Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Maybe Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is Square Enix’s way of saying “Thank you for saving our butts.”

tri-Ace’s future was in question for a little while before the announcement of Star Ocean because it was bought out by a mobile company called Nepro Japan. The company was interested in tri-Ace’s mobile branch, which only has a presence in Japan, but it has promised that the company’s console expertise will be allowed to continue doing what it does best.

Hopefully, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is a sign that they will make due on that promise.

Where to begin…

I don’t think I need to spend too much time here. Star Ocean: The Second Story is clearly the place to enter into the series as that is the place most American fans jumped aboard. Seek out the original PlayStation version too.

The only problem is that you might set the bar a little too high if you intend on playing the others. Star Ocean: The Second Story is the only one of the bunch which transcends into a level of “great game,” whereas the others range from “meh” to “solid.” Star Ocean does have the benefit of none of its games being “awful.”

If you are more interested in tri-Ace as a whole, then by all means seek out a copy of Valkyrie Profile. The game is impossible to find on the secondhand market, much harder than Star Ocean 2, and even if you do find it, chances of it working are not that high.

The CD is reportedly really sensitive, and the secondhand copy I bought didn’t work despite not a scratch being on it. Go ahead and check out the PSP version of that one. A digital release would be lovely, Square Enix.

The company clearly peaked during the PlayStation days at any rate, and you should find your introduction there.

Or, if you like, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness looks stunning, and maybe jumping in blind is not such a bad idea. Those who want to do that can wait until 2016 to do so on the PlayStation 4.


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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