STAR OCEAN-THE DIVINE FORCE (2022)REVIEW

The utopian promise of infinite instant access to shared knowledge will inevitably create exponentially more data, the existential flood beyond availability exuded from those given linkage to a million new worlds cannot help but outpace what’d previously defined them. Knowledge transforms not only the mind but the identity of the user and, naturally, this output will end up compressing away the comparative sparsity of personal historicity, for better or worse depending on your perspective. A loss of culture-bound identity, what some would consider a necessity of universal understanding, will inevitably be met with corruption for the sake of power games. We see it today within our satellite bound world, that human beings are now entirely reduced to commodity beneath the wealthiest and their tech-upper hand per the unexpectedly addictive nature of social media’s instant gratification and faux validation. The fearsome monopoly we all live under out of “privileged” necessity appears echoed in the ideology of the greedy, power-stricken fantasies of the main antagonist forces which eventually reveal themselves over the course of Star Ocean: The Divine Force (スターオーシャン6 ザディヴァインフォース, Sutā Ōshan Shikkusu Za Divain Fōsu), the sixth entry in the long-running sci-fi/fantasy RPG series.

Thanks for not putting the Borg killswitch on everyone, combat toaster.

For as long as the series has been suggested as an “anime Star Trek movie” in terms of plot devices, tropes, and thoughtful humanist parables summing each main entry the major takeaway from most every game in the franchise actively fears the bigger picture of technology and how it can change, potentially destroy or enlighten, entire civilizations as the race for power presents itself. The Divine Force is no different, embracing a bit of new tech itself within this new story set less than fifty years beyond Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness (2016), seemingly still afraid to push too far into the unknown, leaning back into predictable tropes that’ll leave most any player over the age of thirteen feeling like they’re playing with especially stupid dolls as the story deliberately spells every moment (and every noisy feeling) out for them. The singular personality of the series still charms between world building and another essential soundtrack, the nostalgia was well-served here in my 36+ hour long playthrough. It all plays out like a well-polished mid-90’s OVA film made for a considerably younger audience than tri-ACE realize they’ve built since the late 90’s, that feeling of being a bit left behind in the times doesn’t suit Divine Force per its storytelling so much. Nonetheless the ancient company have yet proven they are fine architects of modest yet highly entertaining action RPG combat systems and this, paired with a satisfying system of traversal, makes for a fun video game for the JRPG inclined in 2022.

Why did it have to be a cyborg samurai?

From underrated gem soundtracks for Sol-Deace, Shining Force III, and Golden Sun to his celebrated work in the Valkyrie Profile alongside the beloved Dark Souls series we could already consider Motoi Sakuraba a legendary composer for video games with his strong grasp of symphonic progressive rock and dramatic orchestral arrangements but his work in the Star Ocean series is perhaps his most underrated feat wherein these two realms meet with the most gravitas. One of my favorite games of the PSX era Star Ocean: Second Story (1998) would actually kickstart my own video game OST collection back in the day as I’d paid a ridiculous amount of money for both the Arranged version and the two-disc OST having been such a fan of the way the game not only merged a high fantasy setting with science fiction but how the soundtrack reflected this over the journey. The nearly four hour (cut down from the 6.5 you’ll find streaming) 4 CD set for Star Ocean: The Divine Force was an immediate pre-order on my part. The only gripe I’ve got in terms of the soundtrack is that the overly sentimental town music in earlier locales doesn’t live up to the mood he’d put into last year’s Tales of Arise OST, these feel cloying and generic as the towns themselves and were pumped at very high volume per my surround sound setup by default. Sakuraba‘s work has only improved over time generally exceeding expectations with each entry whereas the game itself ends up feeling like a struggle to keep up with the technology available.

The sound design for this game is otherwise obnoxious as you’d expect from a legacy JRPG series beyond the early 2000’s wherein the voiceovers collide in cacophonic ways during battles yet the character banter during exploration is a new type of annoyance to add a to the layers. The acting itself is uniformly atrocious in English, yet the fittingly cartoonish Japanese voiceovers are only variously reasonable this time around. The characterizations are nowhere near as offensive as the need to narrate outside of cutscenes in the field, wherein all player controls are locked out while characters suggest what to do next and how they feel about it. This combined with a field scanning mechanic which likewise yanks control/movement away from the player made The Divine Force feel awful to play to start. As the game pushes its largely idiotic yet well-meaning cast down the descending flight of stairs the story represents at some point you’re either captivated by the vapid anime tropes in ear or simply putting up with it. I’d had a bit more fun with the even more orthodox JRPG-ness of Integrity and Faithlessness simply because the characters had shut up more often. The sound design of the game is otherwise generally nostalgic with menu sounds and cues that’d been introduced back on Star Ocean and Tales of Phantasia back in 1996.

Oops, spoilers here is the last boss. It was easy.

Again, if you went into the long-awaited sixth Star Ocean game expecting anything less than what I’ve written thus far you’re likely new tri-ACE‘s generally average delivery upon lofty ambitions per this franchise. That’ll be all the ragging I’ve got to do ’til it becomes pertinent to cut through the story a bit more, since I’ve walked away from the generally charming finale of The Divine Force feeling alright about it in general. The major points of praise for the experience in reflection come with admiration for the most key fun to be had in every series entry: Combat, talent customization and traversal. The entirety of the game centers around the Scorpium-built combat enabled model D.U.M.A., serial number 004213, a learning machine gifted with autonomous capabilities severed from the Borg-like (by way of generally peaceful, opt-in transcendence) Scorpium collective which has been purposed with determining the eligibility of the Verguldian free peoples. Uh, well, it is a sometimes talkative orb thing which allows the main character Ray (or Laeticia) to dash, float, perform multiple air dashes for traversal by literally grabbing onto their backs for traversal. This also factors into combat heavily wherein the game is coy to outright say “Hey, spam this button and press random directions so you can surprise attack enemies“, and it also acts as a shield along with other capabilities which can be upgraded per certain crystals you collect while exploring the semi-open world construction of Aster IV.

Since I played as Ray the story set me crash landing into an unknown, underdeveloped planet (as in, one incapable of warp speed space travel) in an escape pod quickly meeting the the monotone eloquence of Princess Laeticia and her bodyguard, agreeing to set out to help them if they’ll help me find my crew… and the story goes from there just as Star Ocean (1996), Star Ocean: Second Story and Star Ocean: The Last Hope (2009) did wherein about eighty percent of the actual game is spent pushing through a high fantasy world with a bit of useful tech in hand. This world (Aster IV) is further along than some of those previous entries I’d mentioned thanks to some advanced magical abilities and ancient technologies available to different races. This portion of the experience is both the “magic” of any Star Ocean game and the potential downfall of it depending on how well-matched the “away mission” part of the game is to its inevitable rocket back into the stars, which has tended to feel like an afterthought in most past entries, excepting the epic Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (2003). This story, per its Second Story-like split between the choice of two protagonists, is in no rush to jet to another world right away and the patient JRPG lover will do well to enjoy slowly chipping away at all of the exploration, challenges, side-quests and the character specific Private Actions which become available at various times within each town as the plot and your side-questing progresses. You won’t have much fun ripping through this game since you’ll have fewer interesting combat options. You won’t have much fun doing every side-quest since they’re all inconvenient fetch quests and grinding out collections. I figure most folks will have the most fun in combat, in the menus leveling up their skill trees and talents, and playing the board game, Es’owa, while they push through the main storyline. Do not hesitate to start learning the strategic board game when you reach the Seaport of Rythal, it becomes incredibly fun as the difficulty increases.

The game has some visually striking moments, but it ain’t great overall.

Rather than going into detail with the combat system this time around I’ll generally suggest that this is one of the easiest, least micro-management heavy combat implementation in the series since The Last Hope wherein blindsiding enemies and surprise attacks are just as important for creating weak points. If you’ve no reference for what this means, think of Final Fantasy XV without the bumbling momentum of the physics and more customization for the combination strings you can create between tactical arts. I’d complain about the healer character, the iatrimancer Nina, and her AI not using resurrection and healing spells often enough despite it being the only thing she can do in combat but this has apparently been included in the patch notes for the next update of the game, so, it won’t factor into new experiences as much. Needless to say you can just pause the game and use a limited number of healing items which ease the sting of stupid AI quickly and there are talents you can level up that allow for much faster item usage. Combat otherwise feels fast, responsive, and almost unfair for the enemies you’ll face once getting D.U.M.A., it’d taken me a few hours to realize just how much of an upper hand I had over nearly everything. D.U.M.A. eventually gains the ability to phase into a protective mode where you take far less damage and heal far more but can’t jet around the enemy, this is generally useless outside of the final boss and some of the hidden/challenge bosses post-game.

Alright, so the story is typical with some dodgy acting and the game provides strong enough combat. What did I do for 36 hours, then? Explore. Yep, if you’ve ever read a review I’ve written for a video game you know I kept playing because the sensation of exploration was fulfilling to some degree and this is mostly true for The Divine Force. The main thing is that you can quickly level D.U.M.A. to not only dash absurdly high in the air but do it twice before slowly floating down (per your own fall control) in order to reach occasionally explorable heights which the designers don’t seem to have fully accounted for in terms of creating verticality. The world of Aster IV is truly bland for the most part but it is yet big enough to explore with such traversal in hand. In a very simple way this makes D.U.M.A. an appropriately big deal, big tech in a quaint under-developed land. It was a joy to poke around the world, fight all of the enemies a few times, look for loot, and zip through enormous (and sometimes a bit empty) areas without ever feeling like I was pressed for time or being funneled through the main story.

Hitting harder/getting hit less hard is key with Strike Gain/Reduce Assault but Extend Stun Lock is most key.

The writing for Star Ocean games has always presented a juxtaposition of simple iron and magick crystal touched steampunk age quaintness with the razzle dazzle ‘tude of hi-tech space travelers with long flowing blonde hair (in this case, Ray) and in this case we get a bit of Claude Kenny in his character up front, and a completely dead-eyed doll in Laeticia. They interact like amicable children in the initial plot development and later on when things get tough they resemble folks who’ve really got to pee at a long line for the bathroom. You can’t help but appreciate that there is zero chaotic good, zero neutral good, and absolutely no real points of conflict introduced into the well fleshed out cast. They’re completely agreeable, steadfast and slow to even quip at each other to the point of an collective band of boring desperation. When Marielle Kenny, who is, yes, a descendent of Claude from Second Story and grand-daughter to Emmerson from Integrity and Faithlessness, shows up and catches shit from Ray for being a Federation goon, despite proving she’d tried to prevent his ship from being shot down and grounding him on Aster IV the game has a brief moment of the series’ old charm sparking up but that’d generally been it.

Still wondering who this pantheon triptych represents.

With such wooden interactions The Divine Force mercifully keeps it brisk in direction until it becomes time to slow down for two key plot interactions which precede departures from main hubs. The first is a yet incurable bacterial plague (apparently found in seagull poop) which has been killing off both rich and poor across the content for years, this might seem like a direct allusion to the global COVID-19 pandemic but to be fair JRPGs have been doing this for quite some time, using illness’ cure as prime motivation for characters per their own ailment, or loved ones. In this case it comes with a microbiology lesson, some very sound reasoning for why one would wear a protective mask in order to respect others and do more than *nothing* to protect themselves, and more importantly the first point where The Divine Force tackles the issue most science fiction fans would consider the prime directive (per Star Trek) which in this case is following the Underdeveloped Planet Preservation Pact. Since they could easily cure this epidemic with a vaccine, they do, but weigh the consequences with some surprisingly lucid consideration while doing so. This was a good example of where a Star Ocean story should go and more often, even if we could reduce this sort of moment to a common storytelling trope it nonetheless speaks to what could come of a more serious examination of interactions between advanced civilizations and more primitive ones. They’ve barely scratched the surface here and I’d hoped for more.

The worst point of extremely slow storytelling also echoes the profound laziness of the side-quest system and variety. At one point usurpation of Laeticia‘s kingdom is underway, their power subverted by a rival kingdom and unknown interlopers from another galaxy, and the response is to have the royal children of each kingdom marry to bring peace to the continent. In the process of preparing to interrupt the wedding and find a way around this distraction the game tasks the player with this series of events over the course of a perceived week of narrative time: An extended amount of dialogue starting in the castle throne room before running to the Consortium, there an extended cut-scene and further dialogue which sends the player running back to the throne room. There you notify one person of a plan within a couple of sentences before… heading back to the consortium where, of course, you’re going to have to go back to the throne room before proceeding with your plans. I know, I’m playing a JRPG and there’ll be no way around trivial tasking per certain traditions but this sort of checklist game design needs some manner of cleverness, high stakes rewards, or anything to make it worth pecking through necessary monotony. Tales of Arise wasn’t all that different on paper per its side-questing but it’d attached meaning, due reward or consequence for your actions which’d always proven worthy of retreading areas ad infinitum yet with The Divine Force it felt like the sort of quests a Playstation 2 era game would include with a bit of cryptic text for the sake of encouraging the purchase of a printed strategy guide.

Star Ocean: The Divine Force is as good as the series has ever been, really, and that’ll either be exactly what the longtime fan would expect or a nagging list of nagging issues for folks simply looking for a modern, streamlined JRPG experience. I personally grew up playing every type of role-playing game I could get my impoverished hands on and always found an extreme amount of good-natured charm and wonder in the well contained and personality rich worlds of Japanese RPGs, so, none of the complaints hold as much weight as it might seem as I pick through the guts of this game. The point is that this series simply needed to catch up with its well-matured fanbase to stay alive beyond this entry. No, not for the sake of “grit” or a too-serious tone but rather taking a cue from the Tales series and its writing in trusting the emotional and philosophical intelligence of the 18-35 age group to be inspired by more than doe-eyed optimism and formalist attitudes. That said, the glimpses of critical thinking in action woven into the minor events of the greater plot still hold it all together and the nostalgia of the experience binds some fealty and appreciation for the experience. We can rightfully assume that Valkyrie Elysium has killed that franchise outright at this point but here’s hoping that The Divine Force isn’t such a commercial failure that the magic of this series receives its tragic final inhale with this brutally average, still pretty fun experience. A moderate recommendation.

Moderate recommendation. (65/100)

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.
Info:
DEVELOPER:tri-ACE
PUBLISHER:Square Enix
CATEGORY:Japanese Role-Playing Game,
Action Role-Playing Game,
Single-Player
RELEASE DATE:October 27th, 2022

https://starocean.square-enix-games.com/en-us/


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