For being such a typically conservative genre, Japanese RPGs have really learned to pick up the pace lately.
That's more than evident in tri-Ace's Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, which eschews the typically overlong JRPG intro for something that knows how to get right to the point. After starting a new game, you're introduced to the main threat in five minutes, and kicked out to the world map by minute ten. And this speedier ethos applies to more than just Star Ocean's intro: Throughout the course of the experience, it rarely locks you down for the sake of absorbing exposition, and even when it does, you're allowed to wander within a confined space while your party delivers their dialogue. Granted, you're not given a crowbar to swat at things in the middle of serious conversations a la Half-Life 2, but Star Ocean's attempts to blur the line between "play time" and "watch time" are still appreciated.
The more things change, though, the more the stay the same. Even if Star Ocean came into being as an innovator 20 years ago with its countless endings and action-based battle system, it now exists as RPG comfort food—much like its sorta-sister series, Tales of. Rather than risk potential failure with bold, new systems and mechanics—like the great Resonance of Fate—developer tri-Ace instead decided to create an unambitious game that nevertheless does its unambitious thing very well. And whether or not you enjoy Star Ocean is entirely reliant on what kind of an RPG you'd like to play: If one where the entire course of the game is pretty much laid out by hour three, Integrity and Faithlessness might not be what you're looking for.
Mash of the Titans
In typical tri-Ace fashion, Star Ocean puts most of its resources behind the battle system. And if you've played any recent JRPG that features action-based battles, what's present in Star Ocean should strike you as pretty familiar. When you clash with enemies on the map, the battle UI immediately pops up—without the need to load another scene—and you're tasked with using strong attacks, weak attacks, and special moves to kill the foe or foes currently in your way. Star Ocean's battles also attempt a paper-scissors-rock style of strengths and weaknesses in the manner of Fire Emblem, but thankfully, learning this system isn't super important: For the most part, you're never given enough feedback amid the visual chaos to successfully counter an enemy's attack with one of your own moves. But even if you're not doing much more than mashing buttons, the quick speed of battles makes grinding strangely fun, especially when more characters enter your party, giving you the chance to play with a new selection of attacks and abilities.
Star Ocean also has a job system of sorts in the form of "Roles." Characters can specialize in up to four at a time, which definitely comes recommended since these roles level up so slowly. Ultimately, they're much more specific than what you'd find in any other RPG: Some roles give you increased strength against particular types of enemies, some raise particular stats, and these Roles also affect how characters move and act in battle when you aren't controlling them. Unfortunately, tinkering with your characters never leads to immediate results; you should master as many roles to make them as strong as possible, of course, but few of the choices you make when building a character rarely turn the tide in battle.
"Specialities," which you can buy with the same currency that unlocks Roles, thankfully make more of a difference by giving you passive perks like the ability to grab more resources from gather points, and the chance to reveal more about the world around you via the mini-map. Most of the time, I opted to level up these Specialities since their effects are mostly more noticeable than investing in Roles.
Even though Star Ocean tries to innovate in terms of how it tells its story, the story itself shouldn't strike any RPG fan as particularly original. As soon as the mysterious girl with amnesia and an equally mysterious piece of jewelry shows up, it's clear Star Ocean would rather borrow from The Big Book of JRPG cliches than roll with a story that hasn't been done to death over the past two decades. But Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness isn't completely stuck in the past, as it embraces some downright icky trends of recent JRPGs. One female character dresses in what I would tastefully call a "booby quilt," which is frankly distracting with its desperate, flailing attempts to titillate someone. In fact, it's so extreme that a friend of mine on Twitter said he wouldn't be buying Star Ocean since he felt uncomfortable playing it "in mixed company:" A major issue most seem to people overlook when it comes to arguments about censorship.
Outside of pushing you through new environments and dungeons via the whims of its story, Star Ocean also includes a handful of time-killing quests that would feel right at home in any MMORPG. Keeping with the spirit of modern Star Ocean, these quests aren't particularly ambitious, but they aren't particularly taxing, either—I found I had the items needed ahead of time for the few I bothered taking on. Private Actions—a Star Ocean mainstay—also make a return, and exist to give you a reason to revisit towns by providing a chance to see slightly more personal scenes between particular characters. It's a nice addition, but these stock character types aren't particularly worth much of your time in the first place. Even with Star Ocean's speedier pace, I found myself growing impatient quickly whenever I wasn't fighting or exploring.
The Search for More Money
While I don't know the specifics, Star Ocean doesn't feel like a particularly high-budget RPG, even if that's what it desperately wants to be. It's not necessarily a bad looking game, but it's not that visually interesting, either. For the most part, Star Ocean has you wandering through nondescript towns connected by nondescript tracts of land, and even when some sci-fi twists bring the prospect of interesting new environments, most areas can't help but feel like large, empty boxes. And on another budget-related note, Star Ocean has a habit of bouncing you back and forth between places you've already been for the sake of padding out the experience. tri-Ace didn't build a particularly large world for Integrity and Faithlessness, but instead of making a more concise RPG, they've instead chosen to reuse areas as much as possible for the sake of meeting some arbitrary content threshold.
It seems the main issue with the prospect of a modern Star Ocean lies in the fact that the inventive, interesting things the series once did are now pretty commonplace in RPGs. A large portion of games from the genre have an action-based battle system (rather than a turn-based one), and concepts like crafting don't quite have the spark they once did. I remember spending countless hours with Star Ocean 2's crafting system in the late '90s, simply because I'd never seen anything like it before. These days, crafting is such an ambiguous video game thing that its representation in this newest Star Ocean barely registered a blip on my radar.
Frankly, with the current state of tri-Ace, it's a miracle that Integrity and Faithlessness even exists. So it's more than a little sad to see what could be the final installment of this series take the form of such a middle-of-the-road experience. tri-Ace doesn't always make great games, but even if some of their efforts turn me off, I can at least appreciate the strange and/or innovative ideas they so often use. With Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, the typical tri-Ace charms are absent, making for an RPG that barely stands out from the crowd. I think tri-Ace still has the power to innovate—even if it's with IP they don't own—but if part five indicates the current trajectory of the series, it might be time to ground Star Ocean for good.
Star Ocean's effective UI definitely helps make the visual chaos of the battles easier to read.
Seeing as Star Ocean is an RPG, there's a lot of game here. But your time would definitely be better spent on something else.
Even if Star Ocean disappoints, series composer Motoi Sakuraba once again brings his A-game.
Characters look nice, but the sparse, plain environments around them don't make for a particularly visually interesting experience.
While Star Ocean started as an innovative series full of fun, bold ideas, its current form amounts to the most middle-of-the-road RPG experience you could possibly have. It's not particularly awful, but in a reality full of RPGs, so many better options exist.