Star Ocean: The Divine Force Review - IGN

Star Ocean: The Divine Force Review – IGN

Six years after Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness disappointed fans of the sci-fi JRPG series like me, Star Ocean: The Divine Force feels like a long-awaited return to form in many ways. Its revamped combat is a lot of fun and breathes new life into a system that really benefits from a little evolution over time. Other areas unfortunately stagnate, such as its lackluster graphics and terrible user interface. But a respectable story full of likable characters makes this a sequel I’m still very happy to have sailed through the stars on.

The Divine Force tells a standalone story that isn’t directly connected to any other Star Ocean games, but it does contain quite a few references to past events and characters that were rewarding to capture as a series veteran. This particular story follows a reasonable young space trader with a really bad haircut named Ray, who crash-lands on the underdeveloped, medieval-like planet Aster IV. There he meets Laeticia, the foremost and true princess of the Kingdom of Aucerius, and agrees to help her fend off a nearby empire in exchange for help finding her missing crewmates. I enjoyed that the story begins on a smaller scale than you’d expect from a spacefaring adventure, but things only grow impressively from there, as the conflicts on this backwater planet have astronomical consequences that go beyond the stars.

A cool twist is that you actually get to choose between following Ray or Laeticia as your main character, with a handful of instances where they split and you only see what happens to the side you chose. You’ll be able to follow the overall story either way, but there are some minor moments that don’t make much sense without knowing what happened to the other party. For example, I chose Ray’s path, and at one point there was talk of an arranged marriage between two nations that I had absolutely no context for. But had I chosen Laeticia instead, I would have understood that conversation but potentially missed something else. It’s an interesting storytelling mechanic that encourages you to go back for a second playthrough of the roughly 30-40 hour campaign, though it’s not enough to make up for the lack of a New Game Plus option. I would love to see the story events that I missed with Laeticia, but not being able to carry over the levels, skills and equipment of my party is a real turn off.

Star-studded party

The characters of The Divine Forces are a lively bunch made up of both Aster IV locals and people from other planets. The dynamic between your main party is particularly fascinating since half of them come from a civilization that hasn’t even discovered the concept of gravity yet, while the other half are casually familiar with warp drive engines that allow spaceships to travel light years. It results in plenty of amusing and unexpected moments, such as when the party tries to find a cure for a disease that is wiping out Aster IV’s population. Ray’s robotic but surprisingly caring first-in-command, Elena, is able to create an antidote based on some bird-dropping samples, but that also means teaching Laeticia and her comrades about the concept of germs.

You can also learn more about each character through Private Actions, which are cute cutscenes that you trigger by talking to your party members while they’re scattered around the world’s various cities. Private Actions showcase a lot of a character’s personality and quirks, giving them opportunities to talk about more than just the events of the main story. In particular, I really enjoyed learning about Laeticia’s knight guardian, Albaird Bergholm, and his penchant for sweets – he loves them but keeps it a secret because he thinks it’s unbecoming of a knight.

The problem with Private Actions though is that they are very annoying to find. As in previous games, private actions are pretty well hidden and you have to go out of your way to sniff them out, with no icons or indications to tell you when a new one has appeared. I hated wasting so much time fast traveling to other cities, running around them and talking to all my party members hoping to trigger a private action. The conversations were generally worth having when I found them, but I wish this feature was more streamlined.

It’s also disappointing that character animations and faces don’t live up to the otherwise lovely environments you find them in. Characters have this doll-like porcelain look to their expressions that always end up a little unintentionally creepy. This is in stark contrast to the gorgeous 2D character art from Akira Yasuda that appears primarily in promotional materials and box art. Pretty much none of that is in the game itself, which is frankly baffling – the clean lines and crisp, realistic detail of the eyes and lips are just so aesthetically pleasing that I wondered how the 3D models could end up looking so bad in comparison.

The fight developed

Star Ocean’s previous combat system has received an almost complete overhaul in The Divine Force, and it’s one that has worked for the better. Here, it plays very much like the action combat of a JRPG like 2009’s Tales of Graces, which was ahead of its time with the vast array of flashy skills at your disposal. The Divine Force allows you to assign up to three combat skills to each face button in sequential order, and pressing a button three times during a fight will perform all three of those moves in the order you listed them. This new system feels much more flexible and nimble, especially compared to previous games – previously you could only set a few skills due to the old ability point system and would end up spamming the same two-to-four skills in battle as a result . But now this problem is completely gone, and the large selection of different combat abilities you can equip prevents the battles from ever feeling stale. (It’s also helped by the excellent soundtrack, with the electric guitars in Ray’s battle theme making fights even more exciting.)

But the real game changer here is the DUMA system, named after the party’s robotic companion. With DUMA, the party member you control will be able to rush down an enemy and close the gap between them at high speed. You can even change direction while dashing, and turning away from your target’s line of sight will activate a Blindside – a recurring feature introduced in Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Blindsides are as powerful as they are fun, temporarily paralyzing enemies and leaving your entire party wailing on them. And while DUMA adds plenty of adrenaline and momentum to the battle, it can also be used defensively. For example, you can trade your rush ability to instead allow DUMA to reduce the amount of damage your party takes. Being able to switch between modes on the fly like this makes the battles more dynamic and exciting.

Not only is DUMA invaluable during fights, but it also plays a role outside of combat. You can use the DUMA as a sort of jetpack to help you scale buildings in town or up mountains in nature. You might find hidden purple gems while doing so, which are fun collectibles to look for that help level up DUMA’s various abilities. This semi-open world exploration feels natural when flying around with DUMA, but the landscapes are also somewhat empty and lacking in personality. The sprawling environments have lots of wide-open fields, but they seem big just for the sake of being big. There are no major changes in elevation, and the fields are mostly just flat with no discernible landmarks. At least the environments and skyboxes can look pretty, but the layouts for each area aren’t on par with what a game like the impressive Xenoblade Chronicles 3 showed off on the Switch earlier this year.

The sprawling environments are big just to be big.

Menus are also not appealing to look at. On the party member screen you are greeted by dull and dreary black boxes. To make matters worse, when you hover over a character, their mediocre 3D model is displayed instead of the beautiful 2D portraits. For all the faults of Integrity and Faithlessness, one aspect it did well was its menu, which displayed giant 2D artwork of the party members around each other, very similar to what Tales of Arise’s menu had. It’s a shame The Divine Force didn’t try to replicate that style.

Perhaps surprisingly, the worst offender when it comes to menus is actually font size. It’s honestly the smallest font I’ve had to read in a game in recent memory, and I literally had to squint to legibly read subtitles, tutorial information, and skill descriptions. Most games these days come with an option to increase the font size, but The Divine Force doesn’t. I really hope Square Enix addresses this issue in a post-launch patch because it’s genuinely distracting, and not having even the most basic accommodations for accessibility is unacceptable.

That said, the UI issues aren’t so bad that I can’t wait to optimize my party’s gear for the post-credits content that the Star Ocean games are known for. Each character has a specific Item Creation talent, such as Ray’s natural affinity with Smithery for creating weapons and Laeticia’s Compounding skills for making medicine. The process is simple and easy to understand – for example, combining two blueberries makes a blueberry drink – which prevents development from feeling like a chore. It’s not critical to get the most out of this crafting during the regular campaign, but I know I need to spend time mastering the system if I want to be properly prepared for the toughest battles The Divine Force has to offer.

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