Star Ocean: The Divine Force: In fact, my current residence is a mere 15-minute drive from my childhood home. When I was in college, my parents relocated, and with them went the tangible manifestation of every childhood memory. I can only now revisit those places in my dreams. The few times I’ve returned to that neighbourhood, memories flood back, but they don’t quite mesh with the yards that seem smaller and the houses that don’t look nearly as freshly painted and kept up. Similarly, the experience of playing Star Ocean: The Divine Force can be disorienting, like visiting a crumbling monument of your former life’s conveniences that yet has the power to surprise and amaze every once in a while.
There was a time when Star Ocean was a reliable JRPG series that gave players a meaty option besides Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. You can run a campaign similar to Dungeons & Dragons, but set in a Star Trek-inspired world. Frenetic combat, intricate crafting systems, and a plethora of optional content helped it stand out from the crowd. It all depended on who you wanted to recruit along the way, as different paths led to different roster tradeoffs. The PS1 version of Star Ocean: Second Story was a solid RPG. The following PS2 game was even more impressive. Since then, things have only gotten worse. Ignoring the past and focusing on the present.
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Star Ocean: The Divine Force is a significant upgrade over its predecessor, and the first game in the series to be released on PlayStation 5 and Xbox One X/S. Unremarkable, unfinished, and with a nauseating third-person perspective, 2016’s Integrity and Faithlessness failed to impress. Despite the low bar, Divine Force manages to do more than simply improve upon its predecessor. It features the most aesthetically pleasing settings in the series’ history, as well as a combat system redesign that is both fiddly and engaging. Even though it isn’t the best-looking JRPG on the PS5, I’ve been playing on graphics mode and the game’s beautiful landscapes, intricate buildings, and vivid cosmic skies have brought a welcome splash of colour to the otherwise drab quest lines and repetitive backtracking.
What does this signify for the game’s quality? No. I’ve spent approximately six hours with it so far, and there’s nothing that I’ve seen that makes me want to recommend it to anyone who isn’t already among the fast dwindling community of devoted Star Ocean fans. Despite its updates and current sensibilities, the game is not quite as tight, polished, or sophisticated as Xenoblade Chronicles 3 or even Tales of Arise from a year ago. Despite its unexpected benefits, Divine Force can’t compete with the best.
The English dubbing is serviceable and occasionally appealing in its weirdness, but it generally just looks awkward thanks in part to a storyline that feels imprisoned, for better or worse, in a sort of PS2-era JRPG mad libs. A merchant ship captain named Raymond crashes on a planet from the Middle Ages and meets a princess named Laeticia who is fighting off an assault from a rival realm. Much of the early game is getting tangled up in ordinary local concerns while Raymond tries to reunite with his crewmates and mutters things like, “Who the heck are the folks on this rock with horns growin’ outta their heads?” That information is pretty dull.
In the pauses between these forced plot beats and tedious fetch tasks, the game really starts to shine. Having conversations with NPCs is usually a waste of time, although doing so can lead to optional quests that award useful materials for the game’s crafting systems. Even though almost none of this is marked, the game’s esoteric content is accessible to those who are prepared to explore beyond the main paths and try to decipher the game’s hidden messages.
The D.U.M.A. is a mechanical sidekick that aids in both exploration and battle by allowing the player to fly for short distances or dash into adversaries, stunning them. The frequency and speed with which you can unleash combos in battle is limited by your stamina. You can also roll-dodge an oncoming assault and immediately counter with a devastating counterattack. Combat feels more natural and responsive than in previous games, despite the fact that targeting can be a problem and it’s sometimes impossible to know if you’re about to be hit by something off screen.
The smooth shift between exploration and fighting also keeps Divine Force moving, so any unpleasant experiences don’t linger for too long. However, despite their visual appeal, the areas you explore are mostly devoid of anything but for a few treasure chests and crystal bread crumbs that can be used to level up the D.U.M.A. Whether this is your first time to a given area or fifth, enemies will always cluster together in the same places. Even though there are now brief periods of flight and the ability to glide, the platforming is still too sloppy for me to risk trying to reach the more inaccessible treasures.
Why, then, do I continue waste my time with Divine Force? Because I was one of the early Star Ocean lovers who spent hours poring over strategy manuals to figure out who to enlist and how to avoid being left out of the fun. It’s been said before, but I won’t be the last to say that the newest game plays like an HD homage to Second Story and Till the End of Time. All of the aural effects are the same. Even though blueberries help you recover, you can only hold about 20 at a time. And at least in the beginning of the game, you’ll spend a lot of time doing odd jobs for kings and mages in a convoluted storyline that’s built upon another. It was fun to reminisce, but nothing was quite as enjoyable as I remembered.
Fans are anxious that Divine Force is the series’ last chance to prove it still deserves to exist, as developer Tri-Ace is in a deep financial hole. In an effort to maintain hope, some are even purchasing numerous versions of the game. However, early sales figures aren’t promising. As of now, the game’s release in Japan is on track to be the second worst in the series’ whole lifetime. It’s hard to blame anyone, what with the game’s problems, the formula’s restrictions and limited appeal, and the abundance of other JRPGs out there. As expected, Divine Force fails to deliver the heralded return promised to eager followers. I’m just relieved that it’s not bad and that I get to see it again before it’s destroyed.