Star Ocean: A Trek Through Future Wars and Peace

Logo of game Star Ocean First Departure R

One of the all-time great RPGs on the market over the past twenty-five years of gaming, Star Ocean delivers when it comes to sci-fi ideas, philosophy, and fun. Inspired by Star Trek (maybe you could tell from the title) the franchise has been a science-fantasy mainstay that has landed on several lists of the all time bests, and sometimes also best-selling.

It’s hard to know where to get started, though, in a series that has spin-offs, remakes, and ports along with the regular main titles. Especially when it’s in a universe that seems unfamiliar to ours! So let’s take a look at the history and development of Star Ocean, and how it became the RPG giant it is today.

#1 – Star Ocean – Super Famicom

Released in Japan in 1996, Star Ocean is an action RPG developed by tri-Ace and published by Enix (before it merged and became Square Enix) for the Super Famicom (Super Nintendo).

The team at tri-Ace consisted mostly of staff who had left Wolf Team (bought by Namco, which then merged into Bandai Namco Entertainment) after becoming unhappy with the progress of Tales of Phantasia in 1995.

The story follows a group of three friends (Roddick, Millie, and Dorne) who are searching for the cure to a new disease on their planet, Roak. They hear of a plant on a nearby mountain that can cure any illness, so they go to collect some of it.

On the summit of the mountain, though, they meet members of a space traveling federation (Earth Federation, also called Terran Alliance in the PSP remake) that is at war with another major galactic power. The friends have to use advanced technologies and even time travel to uncover the true cause of the war and stop it while also finding a cure for their planet.

The first Star Ocean was technically only ever released in Japan. Enix had closed its American office just before the game was finished, and Nintendo was focusing more on its upcoming Nintendo 64 instead of promoting games for the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo.

All that being said, if they didn’t mind stealing the game, the truly dedicated gamer might have found the unofficial English translation made by fans online and played it through an emulator.

Star Ocean: First Departure – PSP

Although the original version was never officially released outside of Japan, Tose later remade Star Ocean for the PlayStation Portable and called it Star Ocean: First Departure. It was released in 2007 in Japan and 2008 in North America, Europe, and Australia.

Tose said that they wanted fans to feel like they were playing a completely new game with First Departure, and made it advance leaps and bounds technologically. It included pre-rendered backgrounds, 3D battlefields, new character animations and cutscenes, new playable characters, and tons of new voice acted dialogue even for non-playable characters.

Critics noted that, with an old story, the plot was rather dull and the gameplay didn’t stretch the limits of the system like Star Ocean did with the Super Famicom. But they also acknowledged that fans of old games would still enjoy it, and it earned Weekly Fanmitsu’s Silver Award.

Star Ocean First Departure

Star Ocean: First Departure R – Switch and PlayStation 4

In December 2019, the game was ported yet again, this time to the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, and called Star Ocean: First Departure R.

Although not nearly as much changed between the First Departure PSP version and First Departure R Switch and PS4 version, the overall game was remastered. The difficulty level was rebalanced, world map movement speed increased, and players got the option to choose between character designs from First Departure or redrawn versions of Star Ocean ones.

#2 – Star Ocean: The Second Story – PlayStation

The second game in the Star Ocean series and the first to be released outside of Japan, Star Ocean: The Second Story was first released in 1998 for the Sony PlayStation. It was a huge commercial success, selling over a million copies worldwide, and spawning manga and anime adaptations.

The storyline for The Second Story takes place twenty years after the events of Star Ocean. At the outset of the game, the player is asked to choose between the point of view of a human, Claude C. Kenny, or a Nedian (pointy-eared humanoid), Rena Lanford. Ultimately, the choice doesn’t change a ton in the gameplay, but it ups the replay value.

The thrust of the plot centers around Claude, a newly appointed ensign for the Earth Federation, who accidentally finds himself in the technologically medieval-level planet Expel with no way to get home. There he meets Rena and everyone else in the town she lives in, and learns about nearby monsters, natural disasters, and the prophecy of a ‘Hero of Light.’

He also learns about an evil organization called the Ten Wise Men who want to destroy the universe and are also right there on Expel.

Claude must join the people of Expel as they fight against the Ten Wise Men and stop their evil plot while also searching for a way to, eventually, get back home.

Star Ocean: Second Evolution – PSP

Similarly to the first game, The Second Story had an enhanced remaster for the PSP designed to be a sequel to First Departure called Star Ocean: Second Evolution. It was produced by Tose again, and released in 2008.

Like First Departure, Second Evolution features a ton of new content. That includes extensive new and additional voice acting, artwork, and animated cutscenes. But, more than its predecessor, Second Evolution also features thirteen new possible endings, bringing its total up to one hundred.

In 2015, Second Evolution was ported to the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita. There’s also a Download Version with enhanced graphics and a new theme song. However, Square Enix currently has no plans to release any of these outside of Japan.

Star Ocean Second Evolution

Star Ocean: Blue Sphere – Game Boy Color

A spin-off entry to the Star Ocean universe, Star Ocean: Blue Sphere was released for the Game Boy Color in 2001 as a direct sequel to Star Ocean: The Second Story. Not originally part of the Star Ocean plan, Blue Sphere was created to help bridge the five-year gap between the releases of The Second Story and Till the End of Time.

Blue Sphere is the only game in the entire Star Ocean franchise to never be released outside of Japan in any form. After it came out, Enix decided to focus their energy more on games for the upcoming Game Boy Advance instead of localizing this elsewhere.

Blue Sphere centers on the supporting cast from Planet Excel from The Second Story. Claude and Rena are elsewhere, but, having now discovered space travel, all of the other characters are traveling when a mysterious force makes them crash land on Planet Edifice.

They decide to stick together and explore their surroundings, hoping that Claude and Rena in an advanced Federation ship will be able to find and rescue them. Meanwhile, they also have to find whatever force took them down, and see if they can neutralize it so they can get home.

Blue Sphere was developed over only one year, and the work environment was harsh, making the development process very difficult on the design team. Programmers were even known to collapse from exhaustion on at least one occasion, which caused work to come to a temporary halt.

Screenshot from game Star Ocean: Blue Sphere for Game Boy Color

#3 – Star Ocean: Till the End of Time – PlayStation 2

Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is the third main entry in the Star Ocean series, developed for the PlayStation 2. It was released in two versions. The first came out only in Japan in 2003. However, just a year later, the two-disc Director’s Cut came out in Japan, along with North America, Europe, and Australia.

The Director’s Cut also featured bonus dungeons, new playable characters, and a versus mode.

Set 400 years after Blue Sphere, Till the End of Time focuses on a young man named Fayt Leingod, the son of a famous scientist who studies Symbology.

Symbology – considered being magic in other Star Ocean games but treated as legitimate scientific study in Till the End of Time – is the study of tattooing crests and runes onto a person’s skin to draw out latent powers and abilities.

While his family and one of his childhood friends are all traveling on vacation, their ship gets attacked, and Fayt crash-lands on a nearby, technologically underdeveloped planet where he is separated from his parents.

Over the course of the game, he has to learn not just about local politics and how to maneuver in new worlds, but also who attacked him, why they still seem to be after him, and how to stop them and save his friends… and potentially also the universe.

When the first version was released in Japan, it got a negative reaction as parts of the game came out ‘buggy’ and neither Sony nor Enix could figure out why. They both blamed each other. That’s part of the reason the Director’s Cut was released, to calm consumer’s fears about buying a defective game.

By the time it was released in North America, though, the issues seemed to be resolved, and it had a solid critical reception in the US. It ended up selling almost 1.4 million unitsunits and ranked as #58 on IGN’s Top 100 PlayStation 2 Games list.

This would also be Enix’s penultimate release before merging with Square to become Square Enix.

#4 – Star Ocean: The Last Hope – Xbox 360

The fourth mainline game in the series, Star Ocean: The Last Hope was released in 2009 for the Xbox 360. Although at first game producer Yoshinori Yamagishi said that they have no plans to release it for the PlayStation 3, that changed about a year later.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope International came out in 2010 for the PlayStation 3. It came out in a single Blu-ray disc, containing content not in the Xbox 360 version, like multiple new soundtracks, original illustrated portraits for character dialogue, and both Japanese and English voice acting.

In 2017, another remastered download-only version of The Last Hope was released for the PS4 and PCs with 4k support.

The Last Hope is the first prequel in the Star Ocean universe. In fact, technically, although it’s never shown anywhere in the game itself, due to a plot twist at the end of Till the End of Time, Yamagishi has said that The Last Hope actually takes place in a parallel universe to the previous games in the series.

Set at the tail end of the 21st century, shortly after World War III, The Last Hope is about a young man named Edge Maverick, a member of the Space Reconnaissance Force (SRF) who is helping in the search for other hospitable worlds which could be a new home for humanity. Earth, as it is, is careening towards being uninhabitable due to nuclear fallout.

As he explores, though, he finds himself on several worlds that are populated but not nearly as technologically advanced. He has to weigh the needs of humanity with the needs of the indigenous populations, learn what the consequences are of introducing advanced technology to a society too soon, and find a way to help his own people survive.

Easily the best reviewed of Square Enix’s early seventh-generation games, The Last Hope was also an incredible commercial success. It would go on to become Japan’s best-selling Xbox 360 game in Japan by the end of 2009.

#5 – Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness – PlayStation 4

Yamagishi said that he was done with the Star Ocean franchise after The Last Hope, and that had led many to believe that it was done. However, Square Enix producer Shuichi Kobayashi still believed in it, and worked on the proposal for a new Star Ocean game in secret with the series creator, Yoshiharu Gotanda.

Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness was developed for the PlayStation 3, with the PlayStation 4 version as a port, although the PS4 version was the only one ever released outside of Japan.

When asked why they were creating the game for an older console, Kobayashi said that they were designing it with their aging fanbase in mind. They wanted to create the game for a console they would already have. In that same vein, they also aged up their lead character, making him twenty-three in the game instead of a teenager to be more relatable.

The story takes place in the time between The Second Story and Till the End of Time, and centers on Fidel Camuze who lives on a technologically undeveloped planet called Faykreed, 6,000 light years away from Earth.

Faykreed is thrown into chaos when they make first contact with a more advanced, space-traveling race. Fidel and his friends have to defend their home as best as they can and learn how to deal with a universe that is much bigger than they thought, with all kinds of other races in it.

Integrity and Faithlessness received decidedly meh review. Critics liked the score and the cast of characters, but pointed out that the quality of the graphics varies wildly throughout the game, and that often in the (unskippable) cutscenes, the player is unable to see the characters’ faces. Ultimately, it received an aggregate score of 58/100 from Metacritic.

Star Ocean: Anamnesis

Developed for Star Ocean’s twentieth anniversary, Star Ocean: Anamnesis came out for Android and iOS in 2016 in Japan. It’s a free-to-play game that features characters from all of the previous games in the series and features real-time battles against enemies that support up to four players.

The player controls the Pangalactic Federation starship GFSS-3214F, which, following the events of Integrity and Faithlessness two years earlier, is exploring deep space. Due to an attack from space pirates, though, and a malfunction in the ship’s warp drive, the ship and its crew finds itself in a distant region of space, far beyond the Federation’s borders.

Out there, they find a mysterious woman who is a user of Symbology. They take her onto the ship and set a course for the very, very distant Earth, encountering enemies along the way.

The game was known for having tons of crossover events with many other very popular franchises like Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, Persona, Valkyrie Profile, and Attack on Titan, among others.

Anamnesis was translated into English and released in July 2018. Not nearly as popular, though, it was discontinued in all regions except Japan in November 2019.

#6 – Star Ocean: ??? – Future of the Series

Between the low critical reception to Integrity and Faithlessness and how quickly Anamnesis was discontinued outside of Japan, it’s hard to say if or when there will be a sixth main entry into the Star Ocean franchise.

Kobayashi, still at Square Enix, has said that the future of the series is not clear, and that a potential next game “will require patience.”

However, we got two Star Ocean games in 2016 and there have been longer gaps between games before. Although there technically isn’t any evidence saying it will happen, they haven’t officially ruled it out either, so fingers are crossed that new Star Ocean material will be coming our way in the next few years.

A franchise that is still popular almost twenty-five years later is always impressive. Particularly when it comes to games as forward thinking and just plain fun as Star Ocean is! Innovative, philosophical, and enjoyable, Star Ocean is an evergreen example of just how great RPGs can be, and how much staying power they have so many years later.

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