Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Ben's Gaming Memories: Star Ocean & Star Ocean 5

This year's E3 had a lot of exciting news for the gaming community. Microsoft announced that they were "fixing" the Xbox One and adding backwards compatibility, Sony showed off some nice new games (including The Last Guardian), Square announced the Final Fantasy VII remake, and Nintendo came out with it's new Star Fox. Sure all of this was great news, but one thing that really stood out to me was something many may have overlooked -- the announcement of Star Ocean 5 coming to the West on the PS4.

The Star Ocean series has always been one of my favorite JRPGs, and it's really one of the first that I got into. Now sure, I grew up playing Pokemon on the GB/GBC, but it wasn't until Star Ocean that I started diving into the whole genre. Of course I had played some Final Fantasy games, Kingdom Hearts, Earthbound, and a handful of others, but it wasn't until I picked up the first Star Ocean that I became a full fan of JRPGs.

Originally I started playing Star Ocean because I had heard it was one of the few "must play" JRPGs on the SNES that never made it to the West. It was also one of the few SNES games to use a special chip to push the SNES past its limits, and that interested me as well. So, I decided to play it... Of course I didn't make it far.

I didn't know Japanese, and even with translations I found it too much of a chore to play. I made it to the past (which is where the main game starts), but I couldn't get myself to move on -- or rather, I stopped myself once I researched the game a bit further. It turned out that a PSP remake was coming out, and it featured an enhanced action based battle system, a remastered world, and a full world map (instead of hallways connecting areas). So, upon hearing the news I stopped playing, and got the PSP game as soon as I was able to.

To me, Star Ocean First Depature (the title of the PSP remake) was amazing. It had full voice acting, prerendered backgrounds, nice looking sprites, a real time action combat system, tons of skills to learn, a lot of party members to find, and it also offered many different ways to play. While on the first play through you may side with some specific characters, on the second you may decide to side with another and go on the run -- a choice which greatly changed how the game played out. Now sure, there were key moments that never changed, but the sections leading up to them would, giving you a new experience each time you picked it up. I played the game to death, and due to an unforeseen disaster at my school, we were home each day by noon, giving me almost the whole day to play it. The only down side was that I finished it quickly forcing me to wait to see what came next. The good news was, Star Ocean 2 had been released on PSP as well.

So, the same thing happened. It took a bit of hunting, but I managed to find a new copy of Star Ocean Second Evolution (again, PSP title), and once again I feel in love with the series. I was hooked from start to finish, and I ran through the game multiple times. I can't tell you how many hours I spent on it, but it quickly became one of my favorite games, and once again it left me wanting more -- that's where Star Ocean 3 came in (aka, Till the End of Time).

It wasn't hard to track down the 3rd game, but it wasn't as easy for me to play it. School was getting close to an end, it wasn't on a handheld so I couldn't play it as much/take it with me, and the day I bought it my PS2 controller broke -- forcing me to run to Walmart and get another. I was also running low on memory on my memory card, but I made it work. Sadly though, after all of the extra work to get it up and running, it wasn't a game that pulled me in -- not at first at least. The voice acting in it bugged me, the new battle system took awhile to get used to, and I wasn't really a fan of how they replaced Private Actions (which were extra scenes you could watch by splitting your party up in town) with your standard sub events which activate if you go somewhere at the right moment. It just wasn't as fun for me, and soon I found myself face to face with the worst puzzle in any game -- the mine.

Around the time I got to the mine in SO3, I also went out and bought the newly released Star Ocean 4 (The Last Hope). Instantly I found myself having more fun with it, and really I didn't feel like playing 3. I wasn't even to the annoying sections of the game yet, but something about 4 was just more appealing to me, and since it was a prequel I didn't need to know anything about 3 to play it. So, I played 3 off and on, but my main focus was in fact on 4. There was one problem however... I didn't have an HD TV.

If you've never tried to play a text heavy HD game on a standard TV, then consider yourself lucky -- it is a nightmare. Text in such games tend to become a blurry mess, they will cause massive eye strain, and no matter how big or small your screen is, the game looked terrible. I often found myself running into things I couldn't tell was there, I didn't bother speaking to most NPCs because the text was mush, and the game sort of gave me a head ache. To put it simple, it was a nightmare... The good news was, there was one way for me to play it.

While I didn't have my own HD TV, we had just bought one for the family living room. It was a 38" 1080p LCD, and although it wasn't something I could use to play games in the afternoon, due to my school still letting us out around noon I had access to it for at least a few hours each day. So, after school, once again, that is what I did -- I played Star Ocean every chance I got. Of course I couldn't play it as much for the same reasons I couldn't play SO3 as often (except the fact that I only had the TV for 3 hours a day limited me even more), so I didn't advance very quickly. Actually it wasn't until summer that I was able to play the game more, but that's also partly due to me getting an HD TV of my own as well.

Although I liked Star Ocean 4, it too had it's issues (voice acting again, some annoying characters, annoying disc swapping during post game, etc), and parts of it put me off from completing it right then and there. I actually ended up going back to 3 and finished it up before, but I did go back to 4 shortly after -- thus ending my time with the series. In the matter of less than a year I had finished all of the core games, and was forced to wait for the next entry... That was six years ago.

The announcement of Star Ocean 5 is something I've waited a long time for. Sure there were some hang ups that kept me from advancing in SO3 and SO4, but I still love the series. I love the action, I love the characters (for the most part), I love the universe, and in the early games I really liked how your actions changed the story. Heck Star Ocean 2 on the PSP had 100 endings, yet SO3's ending was decided by who you were the closest to, and SO4's endings were just extended scenes taking place one after the other. They were set in stone, just as the story was (as SO4 only had one extra party member who could replace another in your second playthrough)... But even so, I liked the games. I was okay with the changes, and still had fun with them.

With Star Ocean 5, although we don't know a whole lot about them, things are different. It has already been stated that SO5 will once again give us, the players, the ability to control the way the game progresses, the art style has been redone so that character's don't look like creepy dolls (a major complaint about SO4's character models), we can have up to six party members with us at once, and battles now happen seamlessly on the field rather than loading a battle screen upon touching an enemy. It's also been stated that we'll be able to "travel the stars," and that the game takes place between SO2 and 3 before the major "plot twist" that most fans either love or hate. In short, what we've seen is a massive improvement over the past games, and they seem to have finally gone back to their roots -- back to what made Star Ocean, Star Ocean, and what was sadly lost during the transition to 3D. Of course it's still too early to tell how the game will be, but the short trailers, screen shots, and information out there is more than enough to make the wait for it's release much much longer.

Star Ocean may not be the most popular JRPG series out there, but it's one that is special to me, and I really hope that anyone who hasn't will give it a chance themselves.

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