During interviews, developers often shield their true feelings—sometimes at the insistence of the PR person hovering nearby. But, when speaking with Star Ocean producer Shuichi Kobayashi yesterday, I witnessed an emotion that rarely pops up in this sort of situation: relief.
After sitting down with Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness for two hours, telling Kobayashi it reminded me of the first three games in the series made him visibly transform from guarded and pensive to calm and reassured. And with good reason: For Kobayashi, Star Ocean V exists as a true labor of love. He spearheaded the project within Square-Enix when it looked the 2008 installment would be the last, and even went so far as to change roles within the company for the sake of a single game—so it's not hard to see why he'd be so personally invested in my reaction.
It's strange to think Tri-Ace managed to hang in there for long—especially as a console JRPG developer in an age when those experiences have almost completely moved to handheld devices—but they've struck a good balance between batting cleanup for Square (with Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns) and working on their own projects. And Kobayashi is more than candid about the shrinking audience for JRPGs on consoles; as I asked a question about this topic, he laughed wearily as soon as the word "mobile" slipped out of my mouth. Based on our brief chat, Kobayashi understands the type of games Tri-Ace makes appeals to a very specific audience, and he's doing his best to make them happy.
That's not to say Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is stuck in the past, though. While Japanese RPGs seemingly make for one of the more conservative genres out there, Tri-Ace tends to break the mold with systems and mechanics you've never seen before. Star Ocean V might not be as weird and wild as, say, Resonance of Fate, but its first few hours do an excellent job of showing how the series can modernize itself without losing what makes Star Ocean Star Ocean.
During our talk, Kobayashi emphasized Star Ocean V's focus on never letting the player let go of the controller, and that's apparent from the outset. After opening with an extremely brief (and optional) battle tutorial, you're on your way and hitting the world map within 15 minutes. While some of these changes have been a long time coming for JRPGs, the economy of Star Ocean V feels refreshing regardless. Instead of forcing you to scrub through dialogue boxes, Star Ocean V's party members talk while you're moving from Point A to Point B, and NPCs simply produce a dialogue bubble when you're near. Sometimes you'll be locked down in one place for more important conversations, but these get to the point and rarely linger on for more than a few minutes.
Star Ocean V's most standout element, though, comes in the form of its battle system, which features the same focus on immediacy found in the rest of the game. Battles don't happen on a separate screen; instead, encountering enemies brings up the appropriate UI, and when the fighting's over, you're free to explore again without a single loading screen. And if you've played a Tales of game recently, the combat in Star Ocean V shouldn't feel too surprising: it features a rock-paper-scissors system between light attacks, strong attacks, and guarding, with an emphasis on building up combos. These battles play out a bit like a mix between Devil May Cry and a musou (Hyrule Warriors, Dragon Quest Heroes): lots of chaos and button-mashing, but just a little more to be mindful about.
Later in my demo session, I loaded a different save and got the chance to experience the full depth of the battle system with a six-character party, and found it to be pretty intense. Keeping with Star Ocean tradition, you can switch to any party member on the fly and finely tune the AI and abilities of characters you're not using, so customization can go as deep as you want it to.
Star Ocean V may look a little last-gen, but there's a good reason for that: The game also released on the PlayStation 3 in Japan (which won't be happening here). It's a bit disappointing that Tri-Ace hasn't been able to fully make the leap to our current generation yet, but with Star Ocean being such a risky project, I understand why they decided to play it safe. And, to be fair, Star Ocean V doesn't look bad; it's just a little sparse if you're used to games developed for newer hardware. That said, the prog-rocky soundtrack of longtime Tri-Ace composer Motoi Sakuraba more than makes up for Star Ocean V's visuals—he might not be as subtle as your Nubuo Uematsus or Yasunori Mitsudas, but there's no denying how much energy Sakuraba's soundtrack can bring to a game.
To be honest, I walked into my Star Ocean appointment with low expectations—I trust Tri-Ace, of course, but 2008's Star Ocean: The Last Hope poisoned the well for this long-running RPG series (which may be why Kobayashi didn't talk much about this last entry during our interview). Even if the anime storyline might wash over players who've seen similar narratives before, the thought put into making Star Ocean into a more modern interpretation of the JRPG definitely inspires confidence. In any case, it's nice to see Tri-Ace doing what they do best, even after being swallowed up by a mobile developer. Their experiments don't always work, but they nevertheless manage to bring something new to the table with every game. I can't say anything definitive about the entirety of Star Ocean V after playing just two hours, but it looks like it's shaping up to be one of the unexpectedly great RPGs of 2016.