Release Date: December 5, 2019
Rating: T (Teen)
Platforms: Nintendo Switch/Playstation 4
What's It All About?
Star Ocean: First Departure R is a Switch/PS4 remake of a PSP remake of a Super Famicom game. The story follows a small group of medieval people with tails, humans, a kitty cat woman, an angel, and two members of a Star Trek-type galactic military called the Pangalactic Federation. Depending on how many party members you recruit, your band of protagonists may differ greatly from another player's. Unless you're new to the franchise, you won't find much new here: the story is mostly concerned with an underdeveloped planet, which means there's more fantasy than sci-fi in this JRPG. If you love Star Trek, then you'll love this. It's basically a bottle episode where the Enterprise crew spends most of the runtime on a humanoid planet and helps them solve their problems.
Along the way, players experience typical sci-fi tropes like spaceship battles, time travel, and ancient advanced technology buried deep within the earth. The stakes are pretty high: an Archfiend is trying to destroy the planet Roak and our heroes must stop him 500 years in the past. If they succeed, then maybe they can save the Roak of the present. If that sounds confusing, then don't worry. The plot of Star Ocean: First Departure R mostly makes sense. You might just have to play it to fully understand it.
Roak is an interesting planet and setting. There are three species who inhabit the planet: Fellpool (cat people), Highlanders (tiger people), and Featherfolk (angels). The planet has a heavy medieval setting, so if you're wanting a planet-skipping epic like the Xenosaga games or some of the later Star Oceans, you may be disappointed. But if you like fantasy settings (like I do), then Roak will feel both familiar and comfortable to you.
Boasting a ton of recruitable characters (most of whom are optional and missable) and over 80 (80!!) endings, the replay value of First Departure R is pretty high. Along the way, there are some interesting dungeons and some fantastic character interactions. This newest version also has some nifty new character art that looks immensely better than the old ones.
If you like interacting with characters to increase relationships and comradely, then you'll enjoy the AP system, which are optional cutscenes. A word of advice: don't skip them! Some of them give you important items and even characters! The bunny whistle, in particular, is pretty useful since it lets you ride a giant rabbit and avoid random encounters.
You also have a vast skill system at your disposable, which means lots of customization. Putting skill points in certain places can mean making new weapons, creating cool items through alchemy, or even just appraising an item to find out what the heck it is.
All of this is to say that First Depart R gives you an experience that will likely be unique each time you play it. Experiment. Meet new characters. Make new weapons. Ride a giant bunny across the planet and avoid random enemy encounters. In this game, the possibilities are almost endless.
While there are a lot of quality of life improvements (like the new artwork), First Departure R still feels like a game from the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo era. You'll die…a lot. You'll save your game…but not nearly as often as you should. You'll grind levels…and hopefully have fun doing it. The story is fairly original, although as a fellow Enix property it often feels like it's imitating Dragon Quest, although it's not as fun as Enix's hottest IP.
I also have a small nitpick with the animated movies, which show off the old designs for the characters (which, admittedly, don't look great). If they took the time to draw new character designs, why not do more and animate the movies? I'm sure it all comes down to cost, but it was still striking since quite of the few of the old designs look VERY different from the new ones.
More than anything, my biggest annoyance came with backtracking. This game has A LOT, even for one of its time. Roak feels fairly small for a planet, and there are only a handful of locations to explore. Having so many optional characters and endings makes for high replay value, but if you're a completionist like me you'll probably be turned off by this daunting task and instead feel letdown that you've missed out on something. Is that the game's fault? Not at all. Still, it's a major complaint I had with it.
I've wrestled with my thoughts on First Departure R for a while now. There were times I really enjoyed myself, and there were times I was genuinely frustrated and thought about calling it quits. Objectively, though, it's a good game and a solid first entry in a JRPG series that has spanned almost three decades. More than anything, I hope this means we get other (and better) Star Ocean games on Switch.