Speaking of annoying, I quickly found that Star Ocean's combat wasn't quite at the same level as many other 16-bit role-playing games. The combat is simple; you control one person while the computer controls all of the other people in your party (up to three other people). As that one person you rush into a real-time battle mashing buttons to clobber the bad guys until they die. If you need to heal you can pause the action and pull up your items menu. The magic/special abilities is mapped to your two shoulder buttons, so each character is limited to only a couple of big attacks. For the first half of the game I didn't even have to think about using items or magic, I could just rush in and power my way through the various bad guys. You aren't forced to play as any one character, either. You can switch between the characters at any time; however you'll quickly realize that the computer isn't as good at controlling their actions as you are. I longed for a turn-based system that allowed me to control everybody, or at least point the people in the right direction. Too often the computer-controlled characters go off and do their own thing and waste magic when they shouldn't.
Outside of fighting random battles and backtracking there isn't much else to do. You won't have a lot of side missions to accomplish, so your only real option is to keep plugging away at the main storyline. But that storyline is just too boring and frustrating, especially when you're constantly having to
backtrack for no good reason. To make matters worse, when you backtrack you're forced to fight random battles with enemies that are pushovers given how powerful you are now. In fact, that's probably the biggest problem with the game - it's just far too easy. Outside of a few battles, chances are you won't run into much difficulty as you make your way to that mythical vaccine. Couple the easy difficulty with the boring story and tedious gameplay and you have a role-playing game that doesn't have much going for it.
On a bright note, the game does look a bit better than it did on the Super Famicom. Mind you, this doesn't look significantly better, but you can easily tell where Tri-Ace went in and updated it. You still play a simple 2D sprite, but for the most part that isn't that big of a deal. The game's backgrounds aren't bad, but they are a bit inconsistent. Oddly enough, the game likes to switch graphic styles a lot. For instance, there are times when you are an enormous sprite walking over the game's world map. Yet at other times you are a small sprite walking through pre-rendered set pieces (a la Final Fantasy VII). And then there's also a weird in between style that is used when crossing bridges and going through the mountains. Changing from one to another is rather jarring, and outside of aesthetics I see no reason for them to keep shifting the styles.
Thankfully the game's cinemas and music is here to save the day. The all too brief anime-influenced cinemas are a real wonder, and I had a great time looking at each and every one of them. I also loved the music, which takes classic Star Ocean music and remixes it. There is voice acting, too, but that isn't nearly as entertaining as the music and cut scenes. It's not that the voice acting is bad, per se. They just don't have a whole lot to work with. The dialog borders on the inane and is often mind-numbingly melodramatic. Worse yet, there are a lot of times where you actually have to wait for the people to talk, slowing the already sluggish story down even more.
I really want to like Star Ocean: Fire Departure, but I found the story just too boring to stay interested. I also didn't care much for the main characters, hated the button mashing combat and couldn't understand why I kept getting lost in such a small world. I'm sure there are Star Ocean fans out there that consider this to be one of the greatest role-playing games of all time, but I'm not seeing it. I can only hope that things pick up a little more with the sequels, specifically Star Ocean: Second Evolution, which is due out in January of 2009. If you're looking for a new PSP adventure game based on a Super Famicom game that never came to the U.S., then Star Ocean is the game for you. Just remember to pack a lot of energy drinks, because the lame story and backtracking is enough to put you to sleep.
This original Star Ocean never came out in the U.S., and judging by this PSP remake I'm starting to understand why. With a weak story, repetitive gameplay and a little too much backtracking, it's easy to become indifferent to Square Enix's newest portable role-playing game. That's not to say that the story doesn't pick up towards the end, but most people will have tuned out long before anything truly interesting happens in this game!
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