By Leah McDonald / November 17th, 2022
|Title||Star Ocean: The Divine Force|
|Developer||tri-Ace, Square Enix|
|Release Date||Oct 27, 2022|
|Platform||PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC|
Star Ocean has been a pretty important part of my gaming life for more than 20 years now. Growing up, the Nintendo and Sega belonged to my older brother, and we played the games he bought. When he went off to college, my parents got my sister and I our own PlayStation, and the first game I ever bought was Star Ocean: The Second Story. I’d rented it endlessly from Blockbuster, and owning it meant I could play at my leisure, could do all the Private Actions, could play through the game multiple times. I went out of my way to make the final boss harder by grinding for hours to buy an early game item that removed his inhibitor. No Star Ocean has ever quite lived up to that moment, though not for want of trying. I enjoyed Till the End of Time quite a bit, The Last Hope slightly less so, and I couldn’t bother finishing Integrity and Faithlessness. So I approached The Divine Force with a mix of hope and trepidation. Would it be good? Would I even be able to finish it? Could it recapture the love that SO2 had sparked decades ago? The free demo left a very good impression, but would the full game stick the landing? Well dear reader, let’s find out together.
The most important thing to note is that SO6 returns to Second Story’s dual protagonist setup. You can play as either Raymond Lawrence, a space-faring merchant and captain of the Ydas; or Princess Laeticia Aucerius, who is on a mission to save her kingdom from the brink of war. Depending on who you choose, you’ll get to see different aspects of the main story, and build unique friendships with the cast. For this review, I played through the game as Laeticia, and so the story revolved pretty significantly around the war between her home and the neighboring Vey’l Empire. Eventually, I’ll play through Raymond’s version of events as well. Regardless of who you choose, the game begins the same way: the Ydas is attacked by the Federation ship, Astoria, and Ray is separated from his crew during the evacuation. He crash lands on Aster IV, where he meets up with Laeticia and her knight, Albaird Bergholm. The three of them travel to some nearby ruins after watching an Ydas escape pod land there, only to find the cargo Ray had been hauling shoved inside the vessel. This cargo is called D.U.M.A., an advanced AI robot that can help in the field and in battle. With D.U.M.A. in tow, the group head back out into the world to find a semiomancer named Midas Felgreed whom Laeticia has been looking for. Along the way, they befriend a young latrimancer named Nina Deforges, whose father was close friends with Midas, and even find Ray’s first mate, Elena, who crash landed near Midas’ village. An old friend of Midas, Malkya Trathen, joins the ranks in order to protect her home from imperial invasion, and Marielle Kenny, a crew member of the Astoria and descendant in a long line of Kennys, throws her lot in with Laeticia and Ray. Together, they tackle the brewing war and unrest within the kingdom while also contending with threats from beyond the stars.
I would not call The Divine Force’s story particularly novel. Like its predecessors, it blends fantasy and science-fiction together to create intricate, interesting worlds, and uses the genre’s tropes to its advantage, but it also doesn’t really go beyond them, either. SO6 has quite a bit to say about empire, self-governance, and the strengths and weaknesses of individualism versus collectivism, and for the most part, I think it does a good job of creating parallels and analogs for both Ray’s and Laeticia’s conflicts. I just don’t think it says anything particularly new, either. I did like the way it handled the concepts of humanity and consciousness, but that gets into spoiler territory so I’ll just leave it there. I did have several issues with cutscene direction and pacing, however. There were often jarring cuts between pure gameplay and story sequences, as well as confusing editing choices that made following the flow of some story beats difficult. Some of it I’m willing to chalk up to accommodating two narrative perspectives, but there were too many of them, too often, to give them a free pass.
What the game does excel at, more than its overarching story, are the characters. This cast is the best of any Star Ocean I’ve played, filled with lovable, interesting characters I had no trouble spending 80-plus hours with. Laeticia is an earnest, inquisitive, and kind princess who lacks confidence in herself, but not her subjects; Raymond is an affable, cocky, good-hearted free spirit who takes his responsibilities very seriously; Albaird is a prickly, overly serious, and overprotective knight who cares deeply for Laeticia and his duty; Nina is cheerful, energetic and intelligent, and driven to save others; Midas is a recluse with a grudge, who can’t turn his back on learning more about the unknown; Elena is calm, polite and a voice of reason when Ray gets too agitated; Malkya is a font of wisdom, but also enjoys teasing Laeticia and Midas at every opportunity; and Marielle struggles with the weight of her family name while striving to always do what’s right. They are a phenomenal cast who play off each other naturally, expertly wielding genre tropes to give players a shorthand understanding of their base characteristics, so the game can focus on what makes each of them unique. The voice cast here does amazing work bringing everyone to life, with particular kudos going to Natsuki Hanae and Rie Takahashi for their roles as Albaird and Nina, respectively. I love them all so much, especially Albaird, who by the end of the game had cemented himself as my second favorite character in the entire series, unseating Ashton and Albel from their vaunted positions.
Private Actions return here, and they were a joy. This is my favorite series staple, and I thought the team used them excellently to flesh out the cast. I can’t remember how many of them had me bursting out laughing or getting the warm fuzzies from how wholesome they were. Laeticia is absolutely precious, and I adored how she interacted with everyone. Her innocent naivete and curiosity were in full force. Another series staple to make an appearance is the ever-precocious Welch Vineyard, through whom you unlock your various Item Creation abilities. Her sidestory was charming if repetitive, but worth it to gain access to Compounding, Crafting, Smithing, Alchemy, Authoring and Synthesis. Unfortunately, her sidestory is one of the only ones worth doing, as the vast majority are relegated to boring fetch quests.
The only other major sidequest of note is the one that unlocks Es’owa, SO6‘s robust mini-game, and it is exceptional. You play on grids of various sizes (4×4, 8×8, etc.), placing an assortment of pawns on the intersections of each square, not unlike Go or Othello. Pawns are split into eight roles: Soldier, Wizard, Elite, Assassin, Gunner, Commander, Berserker and Hero, with each having its own special ability. For instance, if you place three Soldiers, you get to place an extra pawn in your round; Wizards increase the attack power of your adjacent pawns; Assassins will remove a random adjacent enemy pawn from the board. Placing a pawn on the board allows you to attack your opponent, dealing equivalent damage to your pawn’s attack power. The more pawns on the board, the more damage you’ll do. Surrounding pawns will send them to the Graveyard and remove them from play, and you cannot place a pawn in a surrounded spot. There are also special moves you can execute using MP. The rules are honestly pretty simple, but there’s a lot of depth to the game, especially against stronger opponents. Finding a balance between using your pawn’s abilities and crowding out the board is integral to winning, and I had a ton of fun working out strategies while playing. Almost every NPC in the game plays Es’owa, which gets a bit tedious when you’re trying to find sidequests, but you will definitely not want for opponents.
As for Aster IV, tri-Ace and the team really put their all into making expansive fields that are satisfying to explore. The maps are big and spacious, but not so much that they overstay their welcome, and each area has two or three distinct environments. There are forests and rocky outcrops, lush fields and hilly passes. Enemies populate the area in decent numbers, and combat is in real time. You can have up to four active characters at a time between whom you can freely rotate, and you can rotate out reserve characters through the pause menu. You can assign character skills to combos on specific buttons, and you can set a maximum of 12 skills – three each per combo and a fourth that triggers by holding its corresponding button. Each attack requires a set amount of AP, but it replenishes when you stop attacking, so you need to be a bit strategic in how you use it. You can unlock more skills using SP to expand your kit, mixing and matching offensive and defensive skills, buffs, and status ailments, as well as passive abilities such as auto-healing. Each skill can be leveled up to 10, which is integral to beating some fights. Unlocking skills and leveling them up pulls from the same SP pool for each character, though, so you need to be careful how you allocate. Every character has a nice feel to them, with Laeticia being light on her feet and Ray wielding slower, heavier attacks. I played the game almost exclusively as Albaird because I enjoyed the way he combined throwing weapons and semiomancy. Midas is a glass cannon, who you need to play as a turret in order to give him enough time to cast. Malkya is acrobatic with both physical attacks and semiomancy. Elena can swap between multiple weapon styles on the fly, and Marielle is a dedicated long-distance gun wielder. Nina stands out because she cannot target enemies. As the dedicated healer, she focuses solely on your team, though she does have some defensive moves to push enemies away. She was probably the trickiest character to play manually, but thankfully, the AI isn’t completely atrocious in this game, so letting her do her own thing wasn’t a problem for the majority of my playthrough.
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