Video game writing and criticism has gone through some clear phases over the years, phases that have been apparent if you’ve stayed on top of the hobby. We’ve recently come out of the “are video games art” phase, for instance, and right now everyone’s big on tying games into larger social themes. Around the same time as the art thing, there was a period in which the cool thing to do was to dump all over Japanese RPGs. For awhile there it was like the genre itself came with a built-in penalty to review scores. Fans remember these dark times and I’m sure we were all pleased when the popular discussion turned to how Culturally Important Certain Games Are and JRPGs were able to slink past the critical eye once again.
I mention this because every so often, we see a new JRPG come out that justifies that period. Sometimes a game comes around that does have a boring, generic excuse for a plot. Sometimes the combat does feel tacked-on and useless. Sometimes the characters really don’t have any redeeming value. Sometimes, yes, a game shows up that makes me feel like it’s time for this genre to pack it in because it’s just done. For 2016, that game is Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness. We’ll call it I&F during this review, and I’m afraid can’t recommend it.
I&F takes place on the planet Faykreed IV and follows the adventures of Fidel, a blue-haired RPG hero. That’s…that’s who he is. He’s an RPG hero. He doesn’t have any real defining features outside of that. He tells the female lead to stay home because it’s too dangerous, he angsts about his dad and the family legacy, he does typically heroic things for typically heroic reasons and at no point does he display much more character than a soggy piece of cardboard.
The rest of the cast is much the same; you’ve got said spunky and boisterous female lead (“When did SHE turn 18?” asks a character in all seriousness in the first ten minutes of the game), an honorable knight who says and does honorable things, a mousy little girl and a skimpily-dressed witch. The most interesting characters are the pair of space travelers who join the team. That’s because they offer tantalizing glimpses into what could have been a much more interesting setting; even Faykreed IV itself is a typical medieval planet with magic and sword-swinging. The sci-fi flavor that helps the Star Ocean series stand out is limited to mere tastes every now and again for much of the plot.
Before we get into what’s wrong with the story, let’s talk about combat. I&F’s big change to the series’ battle system is the removal of a party limit. Every member of your party participates in every fight. 13-year-old me, the kid who loved Final Fantasy and Star Ocean: The Second Story, would have been giddy at the thought of having all of my team members fighting at once. No longer will I have to worry about leveling up my least favorite characters! Gone are the days of having reserve members stand around if my heavy hitters die, leading to a game over! Welcome to 2016, enjoy your stay!
Well, yeah, all of those things are true, but really the game just teaches us that party limits are there for a reason – and that reason isn’t just because older systems couldn’t display that many characters fighting at once. Early on, when you’ve only got three or four characters, combat is pretty enjoyable. You’ll balance light attacks, heavy attacks, special moves, dodges and guards at appropriate times to counter your enemies’ moves. Doing well builds up a super meter that provides experience and cash bonuses and can be cashed in for powerful attacks. When there’s not too much going on, it’s a pretty workable system. I’d have enjoyed a game with this combat system and a four-character limit.
That lasts for all of five hours or so before you end up with a full party and the game spirals out of control. You’ll eventually end up with seven party members fighting at once, each of whom are throwing around flashy special moves, magic and particle effects, and you’ll only be directly controlling one character. It’s practically impossible to see what’s going on, and with seven people to keep track of, at no point did I feel like I was using my party’s abilities to their fullest once everyone joined. It’s also difficult to effectively manage seven characters’ HP and MP, so relying on group-healing abilities is pretty much mandatory and you’ll spend a lot of time reviving stragglers who die from attacks you didn’t see.
I&F tries its best to help with the Role system, a sort of AI customization option that also offers stat boosts, but it’s just not enough. Battles degenerate into mindless slugfests. Your wins will come from prevailing numerically rather than strategically.
Fortunately, I suppose, this mess doesn’t stick around for very long. I&F is shockingly brief for a JRPG at only around 25 hours. The closest I got to feeling like I was understanding the combat system turned out to be right around when the game was going to end. Contrast this with the exceptional Star Ocean: Til the End of Time or the…uh, less-than-exceptional Star Ocean: The Last Hope, both of which were at least 40 hours long.
Even here, I&F stumbles. The plot, short as it is, is about as generic as JRPG plots come, and I’m saying this after having played the cringeworthy Last Hope. Understand that I’ll defend this genre to the ends of the Earth and I still can’t say that Star Ocean 5 is worth playing for the story. There’s a girl with magic powers. There are bad guys who want to misuse her magic powers. You’d better stop them. That’s it, that’s the plot. Hell, that’s not even a bad place to start from – it’s also the plot of Bioshock Infinite, for instance, and that game’s generally agreed to be worth checking out.
Infinite takes its concept and runs with it, though, going in interesting directions and presenting its plot as lovingly as possible. I&F, meanwhile, makes you handle camera control and character positioning during all its cutscenes, none of which you can skip. You’re trapped into FPS-style slow-walking with invisible barriers keeping you in the Designated Story Zone until everyone’s done talking. Behold as any dramatic scenes are ruined by the fact that you’re trying to wrangle Fidel into position so he looks like he’s speaking to the rest of the party! Marvel as you sweep the camera around trying to keep key characters in the frame! Groan in irritation as you die to an escort-quest style boss for the fifth time and are forced to watch one of these things yet again before you can retry it! Pray to all that’s holy that you saved – especially because during my playthrough I had scripted fights break, causing a Game Over and costing me at least an hour of play time.
Look, I’m not really sure what went on behind the scenes during development here. It’s pretty clear that some wires got crossed somewhere, because I&F just doesn’t work. There are hints of interesting gameplay here; the sci-fi sections are neat, there’s a crafting system that could probably have gone somewhere if the game wasn’t so short, being able to chat with your party members in town would be great if they were worth chatting with, and the combat and Role systems might have been a hit with some more time to bake.
None of this comes together, however, and in the end Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is easily one of 2016’s more disappointing titles. And when you consider this is the same 2016 that’s already loaded with the likes of Street Fighter V, Umbrella Corps and Mighty No. 9, that’s saying something. It’s hard to see what Square Enix was trying to do with this one…but, well, no matter what that was they didn’t do it.