As I continue to play new releases, a part of me continues to long for what I consider the “golden era” of RPGs. That feeling was more palpable before I decided to get into Star Ocean: First Departure R. I had just finished a couple of newer games that left me wanting…something. It’s hard to describe what that something was. Heart? Depth? Fun? All of the above? Either way, First Departure R has been out for a couple of years and is, for the most part, the same as First Departure on the PSP. Which is to also say that it’s similar to Star Ocean: The Second Story on the PlayStation. This is technically a new title for me, but it’s also a familiar one. And, I’m glad this is the case. That feeling of longing I mentioned earlier? Star Ocean: First Departure R helped.
The game starts on the planet Roak. It’s the type of planet any fan of fantasy would be familiar with. It’s underdeveloped, has mythological teachings, delves in the world of magic (called symbology) and is inhabited by beings with pointy ears and tails called Fellpools. Unfortunately, it’s also where a plague thta causes petrification has begun to spread. In the town of Kratus, the defense force’s troops Roddick Farrence, Millie Chliette, and Dorne Murtough are trying to stop the plague. En route to gather some medicinal herbs, two strangers appear out of nowhere. They are Ronxy J. Kenny and Ilia Silvestri. They say they come from another planet called Earth, and come with good news that they are able to help them stop the plague. Roddick doesn’t realize that the plague is part of a bigger picture that threatens not only Roak, but the entire galaxy. Roddick and his friends need to travel through space and time to stop intergalactic terror.
The title is Star Ocean, but your galaxy travels are limited. The story starts off interesting but quickly devolves into standard RPG stuff with saving kingdoms and finding magical items. At least, that’s how it appears on the surface. The character interactions, especially those between Roddick, Ilia, Millie and Ronyx, keep the ideas of underdeveloped planets, space travel, and computer technology as important themes. The pacing is good throughout the journey up until the end. The final events feel slightly rushed. Just when one villain is toppled, a new one pops up. The lack of starship voyaging might be an issue, but a good way to look at it is to look at the inspiration behind Star Ocean: Star Trek. Think of First Departure as a really long episode of Star Trek. There isn’t much planet hopping, but the planets that you do visit (mainly Roak) get their own time in the spotlight.
It’s a shame that the possible recruits don’t get that treatment. Roddick, Millie, Ronyx and Ilia have plenty to say. The others? Not so much. They tend to keep their mouths shut after their introductions end and they become part of your squad. A lot of it has to do with the narrative, but I would have liked added dialogues for First Departure R. Perhaps their biggest issue is recruiting them. Unless you keep a guide handy, chances are you’re going to miss out on specific characters. It won’t add or subtract anything from the overall narrative but it’s still worth pointing out. Private Actions have returned to shed more light on the team. But, again, activating them requires a guide. And a lot of backtracking. It could turn a 25 hour game into a 45 hour game for the wrong reasons.
Story events are fully voiced and allow for either Japanese or English language options. Both are solid. The music features classic Sakuraba stylization. I’m not sure if there were new tracks added for this version, but what’s there is great. Everything sounds splendid. First Departure R also looks splendid. The HD upgrades for the already stunning sprites and new character portrait options really make the game pop. I played on Switch. Things looks great regardless of being on TV or handheld mode. Unfortunately, those newly added, gorgeous character portraits aren’t featured in the animated scenes. The character art in these is, well, ugly. It’s not a deal breaker; just something that would have helped elevate the R version more. Either way, the gorgeous locations are full of places to explore. Monsters are imaginative, but a bit recycled. The only downside to the graphics is the fickle camera in battle; it can get shaky when things get too chaotic. This leads me to the most important section, actually.
The battles will be familiar to you if you played The Second Story on PlayStation. You can bring four characters into battle at a time. You control one of them while the AI controls the other three. Battles play out in fast-paced, real time style. You can move your characters freely and/or hit the attack button to run to a target for a normal strike. Hitting attack three times will unleash a three-hit combo. You can assign two special moves to the shoulder buttons. The more you use your moves, the more powerful they get. You can also switch your controlled character on the fly. Battles are a blast, even if things can become unbalanced. One moment they’re easy. The next, there’s a difficulty spike. A lot of this has to do with constantly being attacked from behind or getting surrounded. It’s nothing a little micromanaging can’t take care of, but sometimes you just want to take control of a fighter and blast the hell out of the enemies with their best moves and not worry about your squishy magic user being overwhelmed. After battles end, you’re rewarded money, items, and experience points. Leveling up not only increases your team’s powers, but also grants points (Skill Points) you can use to further enhance your characters in combat and for item creation.
Indeed, item creation has still in full swing in First Departure R. In towns, you can buy skill sets. With the right combination of learned skills, you will be able to create items. Item creation options include performing alchemy, customizing weapons, forging armor, mixing herbs, cooking, and so much more. You can also use skills to perform specialties. Specialties include searching and gathering, writing, and playing music. This has always been a series staple. I spent a lot of time messing around with item creation. It made certain parts of the game easier but I didn’t mind. Seeing a shiny and new creation always feels rewarding.
The base game can be finished in about 25 hours. Extra content such as bonus areas, hidden bosses, and full mastery of item creation will add a lot of time to that. There’s also the possibility to replay the game with new characters on your team. For me, getting through the base game was enough. The time I spent messing with item creation and taking care of certain side-content only added a few hours worth of time. Star Ocean: First Departure R helped fill a void that was caused by a lack of “golden era” (and non-indie) titles. Sure, I’ve seen all of this before on the PSP. That didn’t stop it from being fresh or fun. It also got me hyped to (eventually) get into Star Ocean: The Divine Force. But, that’ll be a review for another time. First Departure R is a solid game. I definitely judged the PSP version too harshly. I had more fun with this than expected. Fans and newcomers to the series will enjoy this, but those that remember the magic of a good PlayStation era RPG will appreciate it the most.
Overall, 8/10: What does the “R” stand for in Star Ocean: First Departure R? Roddick? Roak? Ronyx? Regardless, this slightly remastered edition of First Departure is worth checking out.