The Star Ocean series has always held a great deal of appeal for me, in principle if not always in practice. It's typical of any tri-Ace-developed fare, really: Brilliant premise, inventive combat, and a willful lack of polish to tie it all together.
The first two chapters of the series remain some of the most interesting and surprising Japanese role-playing games ever, deftly mixing your typical RPG magical fantasy setting with a background that borrows not-at-all subtly from Star Trek. The idea of throwing aside the veil of swords and sorcery to reveal the ruins of a long-forgotten high-tech civilization has entrenched itself as one of the hoariest RPG clichés in the book, but Star Ocean actually did something interesting and fresh with it. Rather than making the sci-fi elements some sort of background element, some lost secret behind the heroes' spell-slinging lives, the games put the spacefaring and laser weapons front and center in tandem with the fantasy elements. The series' flavor has more in common with pulpy science fiction of the '70s — Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels, that sort of thing — than with Dungeons & Dragons.
Typical of a tri-Ace series, the Star Ocean games matched their unconventional premise with equally unusual play mechanics. The only precedent for the original game was Tales of Phantasia, which the studio's founders had worked on as part of legendary developer Wolfteam before heading out to establish tri-Ace. The two series featured a similar action-driven battle system, though Star Ocean went several steps beyond Tales in terms of complexity, difficulty, and openness. The franchise took its purest form in 1998's Star Ocean: The Second Story, which featured a sprawling cast of characters, a ridiculous number of alternate endings, and a secret technique for turning the final boss into a hellish nightmare — a fun challenge if done deliberately, a show-stopper if done by mistake.
As with many console RPG franchises, though, the move to high-definition systems proved to be an unbearable hardship for Star Ocean. 2009's Star Ocean: The Last Hope made a determined effort to uphold the series' standards, but many of Star Ocean's conventions proved awkward when translated to modern hardware. On top of that, the controversial plot twist in the series' third chapter, Till the End of Time, made such a mess of the overall timeline that The Last Hope had to be set in an alternate universe. Between these factors and some fatalistic remarks from the developers, The Last Hope was assumed to be the finale to the Star Ocean series — which meant the announcement at E3 2015 of a fifth chapter, Integrity and Faithlessness, made for a pleasant surprise.
Now that I've played a demo of the game, there's more to say about it than, "Wow, that sure is a cumbersome subtitle." And honestly, the subtitle's not even that bad, considering. It's sure no Kingdom Hearts II.8: Final Chapter Prologue, that's for sure. The past few Star Oceans have had mundane subtitles, but that's just meant they've focused the brunt of tri-Ace's propensity for ridiculous names on each game's poor protagonist. Thankfully, there are no Fate Linegods or Edge Mavericks here; the new hero's name is the comparatively sensible Fidel Camuze. Of course, his appellation is still linked to the game's overwrought subtitle: That's "Fidel," as in "fidelity," as in "faith" — get it? But it should be far less distracting in the context of the game itself, which means the fifth Star Ocean is already off to a good start.
That said, the game doesn't necessarily make the best first impression from a visual standpoint. As with many Japanese-developed games, publisher Square Enix is hedging its best with Integrity and Faithlessness, releasing it for both PlayStation 3 (the version that will sell better in Japan) and PlayStation 4 (the safe bet for Western success). As such, tri-Ace has clearly worked with the PS3 hardware as their target, which means the PS4 version seems a bit sparse and underwhelming.
Once you adjust to the slightly dull environments, though, Integrity and Faithlessness feels a far smoother affair than The Last Hope did. Gone are the stilted cutscenes and awkward, puppet-like animation, replaced by more seamless in-engine sequences. What the game sacrifices in visual chops it more than makes up for with its visual fluidity. The stop-start feel of the past few chapters, which always felt so clumsy when presented in an English dub, has become far less noticeable now. This game fortunately doesn't comes off as some stilted anime machinima production, yet it hasn't abandoned the series' fundamental aesthetics, either; it's friendlier to international players, yet doesn't pander to them with some misguided idea of what Japanese developers think Americans want from their games.
In terms of combat, the latest Star Ocean feels somewhat simpler and more direct than previous chapters. The Tokyo Game Show demo featured a party of half a dozen characters, but of that impressive host — all of whom chip in together during battles! — only three could be controlled directly by the player, with the active party member determined with the press of a button. The demo's playable trio didn't exactly offer up particularly cutting-edge character roles (strong protagonist, nuanced support guy, delicate lady with a healing spell), but the system comes together well enough that, for the purposes of a demonstration, there's no cause for complaint.
Integrity and Faithlessness finally does away with separate battle screens, with the enemies you're about to fight visible in the course of exploration (and in many cases free to be avoided altogether). Combat transitions may happen seamlessly, but battles nevertheless have a discrete structure to them, as opposed to being more free-form as in Xenoblade Chronicles. Once an engagement begins, you're locked in and obligated to finish it up; it's reminiscent of Chrono Trigger's battle scheme. The fixed battle scenes allow for dramatic camera pans, which look impressive but can be a bit counter-productive — it becomes difficult to keep track of all participants in the heat of an encounter. I took more than a few cheap shots in the demo from enemies who wound up and launched attacks at me from outside the camera viewpoint.
Outside of battle, the action pauses from time to time for brief narrative sequences in which characters interact as they explore without cutting away entirely to a scripted cinematic sequence. I don't know if these moments are meant to replace the series' "private actions" system or simply serve the purpose that cut scenes did in the older Star Oceans without being as disruptive, but the seamless style definitely feels more in keeping with current game design standards.
The demo, at least, feels structured more like a traditional console RPG than an open-world game, with environments that offer a small amount of branching but ultimately funnel the player in a single direction. That may not be the case for the full game, however; supposedly, the demo included an impossible super-boss to battle by backtracking after the fight with the standard boss, suggesting a certain amount of freedom to explore. I wasn't able to trigger this bonus battle, however; what appeared to be the obvious path forward wouldn't open for me. Still, the simple possibility of such a thing being present in the demo speaks well of the game's connection to its predecessors. Producer Shuichi Kobayashi is a huge fan of the classic Star Ocean games and made the jump from the marketing side of the company to development in order to head up this revival of the dusty franchise. By no means does this guarantee a great game, but it certainly means the team's heart is in the right place — and that should be a welcome sign for fans of the series.
Between Integrity and Faithlessness and the Valkyrie Profile sequel-in-all-but-name (in the form of the Spike Chunsoft collaboration Exist Archive), tri-Ace appears to have weathered its acquisition by mobile publisher Nepro Japan in fine fettle. If anything, the studio seems to be more on-point now than at any time in recent memory, taking a prominent role in projects that reflect their core strengths rather than doing the grunt work behind the scenes for projects like Lightning Returns. For long-time fans of the developer, this is one of those rare occasions where we've ended up in something that actually resembles the best possible future.