We’ve seen some pretty bizarre franchise comebacks over the years. Who’d have thought Devil May Cry would have survived its incredibly questionable second entry, for instance, or that we’d be playing not just Bayonetta 2, but Bayonetta 3 besides? Indeed, now there’s a new Star Ocean game! A sixth one!
After the absolute nightmare that was the fifth game, Integrity and Faithlessness, Square Enix, by way of developer tri-Ace, saw fit to make a new one. Star Ocean: The Divine Force still can’t manage to reach the series’ greatest heights, but it’s a playable video game and that’s what matters.
After a surprise attack from the Pangalactic Federation shoots down his ship and scatters his crew, space captain Raymond Lawrence finds himself stranded on the medieval planet Aster IV. Fortunately, he rapidly meets up with the Asterian princess Laeticia and her knight companion Albaird. Together, they’ll work to recover Raymond’s crew, save Laeticia’s kingdom from a marauding empire and discover more about a mysterious foe threatening the universe. They’ll also search for answers about their mysterious robot pal D.U.M.A., a sort of defensive drone that offers aerial mobility, shield capabilities and no answers about its origins.
While you can choose to play as Raymond or Laeticia, you can be sure that this is a story in true Star Ocean fashion. That means you’re going to spend the majority of your time doing fantasy RPG things and battling fantasy RPG enemies with a little smidgen of sci-fi here and there. The balance shifts a little bit as you go on, but don’t be fooled into thinking you’re going to be gallivanting around the galaxy for most of your playthrough. Think of the game’s sci-fi elements as the wasabi on your RPG sushi and make sure to play as Raymond if that’s what you’re interested in; the two characters also experience slightly different plot beats and can recruit different party members, so if you end up being a fan of Divine Force it might be worthwhile to play through the game twice.
Whether or not you’ll be willing to do that probably comes down to the game’s combat. It’s something of a mixed bag, though that’s still better than the crushingly painful experience that was the gameplay in the previous Star Ocean. Characters move and attack in real time using customizable combos but are limited by a regenerating AP bar. Your maximum AP is initially fairly low, but you can increase it by using D.U.M.A.’s aerial dash capabilities to slip around and Blindside enemies. This offers boosted AP, increased damage and the ability to avoid taking damaging blows, so it’s vital to success.
Dynamic action moves like this are a great idea for keeping an action-RPG feeling fresh! However, the speedy and erratic nature of Divine Force’s combat means that you’ll often find yourself fighting with the camera just as much as the monsters. That’s kind of emblematic of the combat experience as a whole, really – you rarely feel like you’re in as much control as you want to be.
Star Ocean: The Divine Force could have benefited greatly from a more tight, regimented battle system, the kind we see in the similar Tales series. Even little quibbles like the enormous amount of knockback on many attack abilities, leading to your characters “escaping” from fights by virtue of slamming the enemies too far away for the fight to continue.
The ambling feel of Divine Force’s combat applies to many of its other systems as well. Take world exploration, for instance, which is all about clambering around Breath of the Wild style using D.U.M.A.’s dash and looking for goodies. That’s a great idea, but much of the time you’re not exactly rewarded for your efforts in a noticeable manner. In particular, the developers absolutely love strewing chests full of cash all over the place…and those chests tend to give you about half as much cash as the average battle. Disappointment, thy name is money chests.
There’s also a fairly detailed and interesting crafting system as we’ve come to expect from these games. You can make items, armor, weapons and more! It’s a great idea! However, the entire system consists of piecemeal unlocks spaced way too far apart to feel valuable until you’re edging up on the endgame. Between that and a lack of interesting results early in the game, you’ll mostly just end up with auto-sold junk.
It’s a bizarre point in the favor of Es’owa, a sort of cross between Go and collectible card games that would be a throwaway distraction in most games but is easily the most interesting side content here.
One aspect of Divine Force that’s hard to complain about is its presentation. Sure, fights tend to devolve into chaotic free-for-alls, but they’re nice-looking free-for-alls! If you’re not put off by the anime aesthetic you’re bound to appreciate the character models, particularly compared to Integrity and Faithlessness’ emotionless dolls, and environment designs all tend to look fantastic. Divine Force also brings back actual cutscenes for key plot beats, making them feel a lot more impactful.
As a franchise, Star Ocean has felt a little lost since the superlative third entry Til The End of Time nearly 20 years ago. Star Ocean: The Divine Force doesn’t really help dig Star Ocean out of that hole, though it’s a far more playable game than many of its siblings. It’s hard to recommend The Divine Force on its lonesome, but if you’ve churned through the majority of the many solid JRPGs out there, it’s a passable use of your role-playing time.