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As a die-hard roleplaying game fan, there's nothing I like more than having a second chance to play a classic that had never previously made its way out of Japan, and that's what Star Ocean: First Departure for the PSP represents. A complete remake of the original 1996 Tri-Ace developed 16-bit classic, this game arrived on U.S. shores for the first time in October 2008, and I honestly can't think of any games that I had been anticipating more. In fact, I'm such a fan of the Star Ocean games that I once imported a Super Famicom unit and an original copy of the first title in the series from an online retailer, even though I didn't understand a lick of the language. Needless to say, it didn't exactly go well, but that's how desperate I was to experience this game. Now, thanks to Square Enix, I have at long last had that opportunity, and it was everything I had hoped it would be and more.
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The plot in this game feels somewhat like an old Star Trek episode, except told through the perspective of people on the primitive planet that winds up getting involved in celestial affairs. Roddick, Millie and Dorne are three youths from the planet Roak who serve on the town watch in their small village. When a neighboring city is hit by a disease that turns all those afflicted to stone, and Millie's father becomes a victim while trying to help out, the trio sets off to find an herb that will cure the petrified people. In a startling twist, however, they encounter a pair of space travelers named Ronyx and Iria, who inform them that the disease is in fact a biological weapon used by an extraterrestrial race, and the only possible way to find a cure is by accompanying them into outer space. Despite the knowledge that they may never be able to return home, Roddick and his friends decide to help Ronyx and Iria search for a way to save all of the people of Roak.
Obviously, there's far more to the story, and as it progresses, players will experience several different twists along the way. It is a well-written mix of fantasy and sci-fi, and it makes good use of humor as well. It all feels very natural, never forced. Plus, the characters are well developed and their relationships progress in a believable manner, thanks largely to the Private Actions contained in the game. Private Actions are a staple of the Star Ocean series, and they allow your party to split up when entering a town and occasionally experience scenes together that change their feelings towards each other. If I have any gripes against the plot, it would be that some of the material near the end of the game felt a little tacked on, and that the ending could have been improved upon somewhat. Other than those relatively minor gripes, this was an engaging tale from start to finish.
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Of course, it is the gameplay that make Star Ocean games great. Like most console RPGs, you explore various towns and dungeon locations, fight enemies, upgrade weapons and equipment, level up your characters to make them stronger, and traverse a world map trying to complete different game objectives. Two things separate this series from most other roleplaying games, though: the enjoyable action-based battle system and the immense depth. Battles take place in real time, as you control one member of an up to four-person party, with the others being controlled by the AI. You can choose from a number of different formations, change the character you control, and even customize your teammates' tactics from the main menu.
Of course, in between fighting battles and advancing the story, you will also find plenty of diversions, such as the aforementioned Private Actions, several different sidequests, learning and mastering various skills, creating a wealth of different items, and even fighting in arena battles for prizes. This is the kind of RPG that you can just get lost in for hours, enjoying the combat system, making your characters stronger, exploring various areas, tinkering with the item creation system, bonding with your teammates in towns, and completely ignoring the overarching storyline. Perhaps I'm a bit biased since I'm such a fan of the franchise, but for my money, there simply is no other roleplaying series on the market today that is just as much fun to sit down and play as this one.
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Graphics and Sound
As a nice added bonus, not only is this game a blast to play, but it is pretty darn easy on the eyes and ears as well. The game features newly added anime cutscenes, which as solid but not as impressive as the ones in another Square Enix PSP game, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. On the other hand, the old-school style characters and environments, which were crafted using a variation of the Star Ocean: The Second Story engine, look fantastic. Personally, I am blown away by the in-game graphics. Everything has a classic, absolutely stunning hand-drawn look to it. The original game's soundtrack, composed by the absolutely brilliant Motoi Sakuraba, returns in all its glory and is joined by both decent voice acting and an all-new, Japanese-language opening theme song as well. Some may look at the production values and say it looks somewhat dated, but in my eyes, they're "classic" and, with a few exceptions, I couldn't be happier with the way the game looks and sounds.
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This may just be the best handheld roleplaying game I've ever had the honor to play. Star Ocean: The Second Story was one of my favorite PSX games, and the fact that this game has pretty much the same look, the same quality of music, the same level of gameplay depth and the same addictive combat, as well as an all-new story that can be enjoyed on the go make, and it should come as no surprise that First Departure ranks among my all-time favorite titles as well. This game is easy to recommend for fans of other Star Ocean games, Namco's Tales of Phantasia and its many sequels, or anyone looking for a good old-school action RPG on the go. In fact, anyone looking for a good PSP game should give it at least a rental. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, in my opinion, Star Ocean: First Departure might just be the single best RPG ever released on a portable gaming system.