Star Ocean fans deserved far better than the 2016 release Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness. As an attempt to revive the long-dormant JRPG series, it did very little to reward fans or entice newcomers. Now in 2022, Star Ocean: The Divine Force certainly isn’t a perfect game either, but it’s also clear that Tri-Ace understood how to bring forward the best qualities of the old games while applying exciting new ideas that result in a flawed but enjoyable return to this galaxy-spanning series.
Star Ocean games are mostly standalone stories, and The Divine Force is no different – the narrative twist setting this entry apart from most other games in the series is that you have two different protagonists to choose from. At the onset, you can choose to either play as space-freighter captain and mullet-rocking cool guy Raymond Lawrence, or Princess Laeticia, the dutiful heiress to a medieval fantasy kingdom who now finds herself on the run.
This choice doesn’t deliver two totally unique campaigns – both characters team up by the end of their opening cutscenes and you can swap the character you play as at any time – but it does give you the chance to frame the story through differing perspectives. Raymond hails from galaxies beyond and has advanced scientific knowledge, but knows nothing of the undeveloped planet of Aster IV that he and his crew have crash-landed on. Princess Laeticia, on the other hand, knows the sights and sounds and politics of her world like the back of her hand, but can barely comprehend concepts like gravity or cell phones.
In general your chosen protagonist will lead to minor changes in cutscenes and dialogue that place priority on what their skills are or what events they may or may not have context for, but several points in the story do lead to your dual protagonists splitting up and tackling separate issues. Playing as Raymond might lead you to a labyrinth-like dungeon while Laeticia tackles some brewing political turmoil – when your characters reunite, very little recap is given on what the other protagonist has been up to. It’s a fun bit of natural missing-context that makes the events of the story feel a bit more dynamic, but it also often feels like a cheap excuse to goad you into replaying the 40+ hour game as the other protagonist. That’s an offer that is harder to swallow when the game lacks any kind of New Game+ option.
Thankfully, there’s still plenty to get out of just one playthrough of Star Ocean: The Divine Force. It’s engaging to see the roots of the story start small with Raymond tracking down his ships crew members while Laeticia scrambles to develop a network of supporters in the wake of her escape from the kingdom. As the game progresses, more characters enter the fold, and the problems they face span the galaxy. The meat of these moments come from the characters themselves. Much like the leap from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to Xenoblade Chronicles 3 in terms of tone and character writing, Star Ocean: The Divine Force abandons all of the embarrassing, anime-adjascent cliches of prior games – characters in this entry are mature and layered and bounce off of each other in so many fun and unexpected ways, all without relying on naked bath scenes or pervy old men.
While the writing and dialogue of the game is potent, the aesthetic has plenty of cracks in its veneer. Star Ocean: The Divine Force has jaw-droppingly beautiful cover art and illustrated character designs by legendary artist Akira Yasuda, but this art is absent from the game entirely. The menus show boring black boxes instead of enticing character portraits, while the 3D character models fail to embody the rich linework and beautifully dynamic faces and silhouettes of each character. In-game, they rock identical, porcelain-doll faces devoid of detail or style. Raymond looks like a buff, boulder-sized space warrior on the illustrated cover, but in-game he has the build and facial structure of a high school football player who hasn’t had a haircut in half a decade.
Environments in Star Ocean: The Divine Force look gorgeous and varied, at least. Beautiful rays of light bounce off of trees and crystals and abandoned castles, and some of the locales I traversed made me wish the game had a photo mode for me to capture them with.
The other big highlight of Star Ocean: The Divine Force is easily the combat, which is arguably the best it’s been in the entire franchise. Each of the four characters in your active party can equip three different combo chains, and you can jump between each combo chain by pressing your attack buttons in different orders. This adds layers of variety to the real-time combat, but it’s massively expanded upon by the DUMA.
The DUMA is an AI companion that lets your player-controlled character boost across the battlefield at high speeds to flank enemies and Blindside them, stunning them momentarily while you and your companions home in to finish them off. The DUMA can even act defensively, letting you hover in place and mitigate incoming damage for your party. The mix of movement abilities, real time Action Point management, and multi-character control makes battles feel fresh and fast-paced every time. My biggest complaint in the area of combat is simply that leveling up feels pretty hollow – nothing much is gained by the base act of levelling up, you’re just given SP points each time that have to be spent on ability upgrades and skill-trees that, frankly, feel a bit more tedious than they ought to.
Even with issues like these, Star Ocean: The Divine Force is a welcome revival of this JRPG franchise. You can tell that it’s doing its best to embrace the high points of prior entries, while also bringing a lot of fun new ideas and mechanics to the table. It certainly isn’t a flawless masterpiece of a JRPG, but not many Star Ocean entries are. This is a series that rides on a balance of charming mediocrity and genuinely beautiful storytelling and unexpected mixes of sci-fi and medieval fantasy. Star Ocean: The Divine Force hits those high points hard, and it’s guaranteed to please any die-hard fan of the franchise.