Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness Review
Sony PlayStation 4
Star Ocean is a game that comes by once a generation. Quite literally, unlike its sibling Final Fantasy, developers Tri-Ace seem to release one Star Ocean per new console generation. Seven years ago saw the release of Star Ocean 4: The Last Hope to a majority of good reviews. Despite that the future of the series was left up in the air when producer Yoshinori Yamagishi left, saying he was done with the franchise. Coupled with the modern trend of eschewing lesser selling titles in favour of mobile tie-ins with more popular titles (Square Enix released seven Final Fantasy titles on mobile in 2015 alone) it was more than surprising when Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness was announced.
Set chronologically between Star Ocean 2 and 3, Integrity and Faithlessness sees the return of many familiar themes; this time seen from the other side. In older games you played as a character from a technologically advanced world trying, and failing, to avoid breaking Star Trek's prime directive of interfering with whatever backwater planet they have managed to end up on. This time, however you play as Fidel, a citizen of a planet in the middle of a war where one side that had been using swords, are suddenly using plasma rifles, as if Stormtroopers had been dropped into the middle of the battle of Hastings. Fidel is dispatched to beseech the king for military aid when the enemy is spotted near his town, only for a large craft to crash out of the sky virtually on top of Fidel's party.
Until this point, despite the almost futuristic brightly coloured armor, you have been walking through a world reminiscent of medieval times, complete with knights in armour wandering around. Fidel's party, however, seems to take the sudden arrival of things like camouflaged spacecraft, guns, aliens, and teleportation with only mild confusion, and hardly any time is spent dwelling on it before moving on to the task that would take up the rest of the story; reunite a young girl with her parents. To contrast this behaviour, in Til The end Of Time a man who crash landed on a planet of similar development was hailed as a God. It shows either incredible dedication to the mission or dangerous levels of disassociation. This isn't the story's only downfall, it also feels incredibly lazy. For the majority of the game you'll spend your time bouncing between the same 7 or 8 maps and between only a few townships, saving the little girl from kidnap again, and again, and again. It's almost Princess Peach levels of negligence, the default reaction to anyone dangerous showing up is for the party yell at them for a moment, then throw the girl they are supposed to be protecting at them; then to go rescue the girl as soon as they are done moping about it.
When you finally do manage to get to space properly, the main selling point of the series, it feels like you're there for the grand total of one main dungeon before returning back to your own planet. There's no traveling to other worlds like there was in older games, no exploring new and strange worldscapes. Not only are there fewer locations, but fewer party members. In comparison to The Last Hope’s nine playable characters, ranging from human to an energetic cat girl, an angelic winged shut-in, and a scientist who turned himself into a cyborg so he could think faster, Integrity and Faithlessness has only seven. Of these seven all are humanoid and only six can really take part in combat or be controlled. Every one of them seems to have been designed to look a little bit more realistic than their over the top anime counterparts in older titles, this however, throws them so deep into the uncanny valley that watching them speak in the game's few cutscenes is a genuinely uncomfortable experience.
Speaking of cutscenes, most of them have been removed from this entry in the series, instead preferring to replace them with interactive events that aim to not disrupt the flow of the game. Occasionally your character will slow to a walk, you’ll still be able to control him, signalling one of these events is about to take place. Fidel's party members will talk amongst themselves and you get to decide if you want to hang around and pay attention to the characters’ gestures or keep walking until you hit the red wall the game employs to keep you from going anywhere. It is an ingenious system to try and help immersion, the issue is it doesn't work. Cutscenes serve a very specific purpose in games, they allow you to see the characters up close as they react to the events that triggered the scene, they show everything that the game wants you to see at that point, and while they may break the immersion into the game world they serve to make you more emotionally invested in what's going on. Imagine that one certain cutscene in Final Fantasy VII, now imagine Cloud could keep walking until the unfolding events were happening off screen, or behind his back. Imagine missing the anguish on Cloud's face because the camera couldn't get close enough to see it, or that you missed one of the greatest tragedies in gaming history because you didn't turn your camera quickly enough. This is an extreme example, the game does still have cutscenes for events that are pivotal, but all other scenes are just like this. It is a clever system, just overused. Perfect opportunities to use it crop up when your friend is contacted by a messenger, or another character points out an interesting landmark, but there are many scenes that would have been better served by being fully animated.
These scenes aren’t the only example of a new system that sounds good on paper, but that fail to live up to expectations. Gone are the preprogrammed character AIs, now you can set up your characters’ AI by assigning them with roles, similar to the B.E.A.T system from The Last Hope you assign up to four roles to dictate how they behaved in battle. These, in turn, level and unlock more variants; healing roles could unlock speed healing or ailment curing, while attack roles could unlock ranged attacking or focused heavy hitting. It sounds in principle like Final Fantasy XII’s gambit system, except for one important difference. It doesn't work. The roles work on an order of importance system, where the top role gets the most priority in battle. This leads to issues such as your healer not leaving the melee and getting caught in every area attack. You can tell your healer to stay out of the fray, but that is a separate role and if it is not on the top then chances are they will ignore it. As a result, most of your boss fights may be spent switching with the D-pad to the healer to raise dead characters, when you might rather be getting stuck into the fight as an attacking class. It doesn't make the game unplayable, it just leaves you with teammates you cannot count on.
Playing very much like Bandai's Tales Of series, combat consists of you controlling one character to run around a battlefield, attacking in real time. You can assign skills to one of two buttons, light and heavy, that activate when the button is held down and change based on the distance to the enemy. Attacking itself runs on a rock-paper-scissors cancel system, where a heavy blow can cancel a special, but a light attack can interrupt a heavy. Bonuses are awarded for each successful cancel you manage, but it's far easier just to continually tap circle then square, alternating between a light and heavy blow, over and over. For every attack landed a gauge on the side of the screen fills which, depending on what attack was used to fill it, grants you more rewards at the end of the battle. This gauge can be traded in during battle for a super move based on the character using it; Pink-haired Miki uses a healing wave, while Fidel blasts his targeted enemy with a laser.
Battles now take place on the world map; touching an enemy no longer teleports you into a battleground, but instead creates a force field around where the enemy was when you started combat. This is something RPGs have needed for a very long time, easing up the tedious nature of encounters. There is even an option to have the battle music pick up from where it ended during your last fight, meaning you won't be hearing the same few bars over and over in densely populated areas. The only flaw with the new way of doing things is that if you are in a narrow corridor, or dungeon with a lot of doors, then the camera tends to get stuck frequently. Sometimes battles may occur where all you see is a flickering wall while the camera desperately tries to catch up with the character being controlled. Indeed the camera as a whole acts like an over-energetic puppy for most of the game, even if you set its sensitivity on the lowest setting it still bounds around after you with a terrain bob effect that, on two maps at least, will leave most people quite motion sick. As more paths to get to the same places open up it becomes less of an issue, but on the rare occasions you have to retake one of these paths, it behooves the player to stare intently at the mini map and blindly ignore the avatar bouncing up and down as the camera tries to navigate the rocky terrain.
Crafting has always been a staple of the Star Ocean games, and this time round they really seem to have nailed it. You learn the crafting abilities, or specialities, by doing quests when the requisite character joins your party. Recipes are no longer found, but gained as you level by spending the SP points you earn in battle. That isn't to say the old method of throwing materials into a pot and seeing what comes out is gone, that ability is also unlocked via a quest, though it is mainly used for the creation of materials and not the finished product. As always the master of crafting is Welch Vineyard, a character that has been in every game, including remakes, since Till The End Of Time. She is not the only returning element to the game, however. Cameos aren’t uncommon, such as Captain Kenny, descendant of the fourth game’s Stephen D Kenny, and a familiar fluffy critter you'll find in most towns and cities. The music also hits the nostalgia button hard, with around half of the OST using older tracks. It’s when you realise that these tracks weren’t remastered or remixed, but complete rips from old games that you finally realise the issue with the game as a whole.
On its own Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is an acceptable game, a mediocre JRPG that manages to scratch that itch while we await other big budget RPGs to be released, but it suffers from the issue of trying to live solely off its namesake and nostalgia. It’s ten hours of story stretched out to fill twenty, with a heaping of generic side quests to pad it out. It feels like the DLC campaign to another game that mistakes repeating the same plot element for suitable storytelling. After the third or even fourth kidnapping of the child you are supposed to protect you have to wonder why the party keeps going. The lack of cutscenes make it difficult to see any real cohesion between the character's goal and any camaraderie feels forced and fake. Optional conversations return to allow you to fill out each supporting character’s backstory, but this feels less like an added bonus and more like the only plot element these characters have. They are more like tools, there to serve the purpose laid out for them in the narrative, and if you want anything like depth added to them it's down to you the player to find it. It feels like those who want to know more about their companions are punished, when some of the topics raised in the talks could easily have been used to extend or improve the story, but nothing ever comes of it. The whole game feels like it was wrung out or released unfinished, like Square Enix set a release date and rolled the game out regardless of the consequences, and with no DLC in the pipeline there's no chance any of what seems to be missing will ever be replaced. Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness had big shoes to fill and, sadly, it failed. The worst part was all the building blocks were there: if only they had spent some more time on it, it could have more than lived up to its inspiration Till The End Of Time, it could have surpassed it.