Star Ocean 5 Review (PS4, 2016)

By now it seems like this little game has already been forgotten. Released in the US and europe in late june / early july, there's been talk about the game for roughly 2 or 3 weeks until people apparently grew tired of repeating the same few arguments and watching webms of one of the game's character's ass. The yet uninitiated may perform an internet image search for "Star Ocean 5 Fiore" to see what I'm talking about, but I doubt that's a lot of people. Now regrettably it seems that Fiore's body & outfit was the only element of SO5 that drew people new to the Series in, although the developers had intended to reach for a wider audience with this iteration of the series. However with multiple early reviews shunning the game with scores below 6.0 this isn't very surprising.

The view isn't so bad in this game.

Now I went into this game with next to no expectations. There's been a few negative receptions from japanese players regarding the length of the game, but there were similar complaints about Dark Souls III which lasted me a lot longer than people claimed it would. So after the disaster that was Star Ocean 4 I didn't think Star Ocean 5 could possibly disappoint me. And it really didn't. However it also didn't do anything that made me feel I was playing a particularly good game. The characters are bland to say the least, and the story about as engaging as watching clouds drift across the sky. But I'll leave those issues aside for now because I'm talking about a game here, and for a game it's most important how it plays. In that regard, Star Ocean 5 works, somehow - for some reason.
Admitting defeat with the series' previous game, the developer, Tri-Ace, has looked back at the relatively successful Star Ocean 3 to make sure their newest work wouldn't fall flat on its face like SO4 did. This inspiration is mostly observed in the game's combat. Following series tradition Star Ocean 5 sports an action battle system in which multiple characters fight a varying number of monsters in battles that are engaged by touching enemies on field maps. As the player you control only one character of your choice while an AI handles the remaining cast's actions in battle. Up to 4 roles can be assigned to each character at any time in the menu or during battle to not only change their stats in certain ways, but also to change their behavior when controlled by the AI. Given the right role setups the computer does a nice job at controlling the party. AI characters are not nearly as smart as the player can be, but they're not an obstacle and you can usually count on your healers to keep your party alive as long as they're not impaired by certain negative status effects which can render them unable to use their spells.
The only time I cursed the AI was when I was fighting an optional mini boss and my party's main healer wouldn't do her job - until I realized that I had her set to manual control by accident!
I don't want to praise the AI too much, as its unable to avoid incoming attacks. But sadly this is a good thing, because aoe attacks are the only real threat that can kill your characters. A huge issue with the combat is that you spend most battles just spamming the same 1 or 2 special moves over and over until you've won (assuming that you play as a melee character). The tutorial introduces a triangle system that dictates a rock-paper-scissors inspired set of rules to the combat. According to these rules weak attacks cancel strong attacks, strong attacks break guards, and guards reduce the damage of incoming weak attacks with the potential to perform a counter attack. But this pretty much never matters because certain strong attacks come with hyper armor that makes them unstoppable anyways. This leads to most fights boiling down to simply spamming the same attacks over and over because your NPC healers are fairly competent and enemies usually don't deal enough damage to be a real threat. Weak attacks are nearly useless because enemies unleash their strong attacks too fast to allow for reactionary attacks, and strong aoe attacks that can wipe your character give you enough wind-up time to dodge them entirely.
Star Ocean 3 played very similarly, to the point that Fidel shares the same animations and many skills with that game's protagonist. However in SO3 enemies were an actual threat and you really had to make sure to avoid damage by doding and guarding as much as possible. Sadly they threw that bit of strategy right out the window this time.
The best thing I can say about the combat of SO5 is that isn't as clunky as it was its direct predecessor, and that it's actually usually fun despite its mindnumbing simplicity. It's also nice that your whole party of up to 7 characters engages in combat all at once, and that there are no loading screens because enemies are engaged directly on the field map with your characters drawing and sheathing their weapons when battles begin and end. But this comes with drawbacks depending on which character you choose to play in combat, because if your battle character is not Fidel combat will start with the camera shifting from Fidel to the character you chose to control. This means you can't control the initial action and position of your character, and you may end up being forced to ecapse right away when your player character is too far away from Fidel and stands outside of the combat area at the start of a battle. And yeah, you can't change the character you control on the field. It's a weird issue I almost missed because I barely played any of the other characters, and I can only assume that it's in the game due to time and budget constraints as its a serious annoyance.

If you're not playing this game only to get it over with you'll want to work through the dozens (over 200) of quests Star Ocean 5 has to offer. Unfortunately these are all fetch quests obtained by interacting with billboards in various towns that make you run around the same areas over and over.

Look at all these time wasters!

This means there is no exploration, no hidden bosses, items or anything to discover. Each area comes with a map that is automatically unlocked - just press the options button when you enter a new area and you can view the area's entire map layout right away. Just like this:

Unfortunately, no need to explore any of this...

If you're diligently doing quests you can even unlock skills that place marks on your minimap to show the locations of chests and enemies. There is nothing of interest to discover. There's an optional dungeon, the Lost Cathedral, which has entrances in various areas. But it's really just a battle arena you can challenge over and over to see if you're at a stage of the game that has new enemies and rewards unlocked for it.
When the game started to throw dozens of new quests at me at once I stopped bothering to read quest descriptions because up until that point they've never contained any interesting information about the world or characters, and I doubt that ever changes in the later stages of the game. At least the rewards make up for all the loops and hoops you have to go through to clear the quest catalog. Many quests simply reward you with equipment, consumables or materials, but a good number of them unlock the party skills necessary to employ the game's crafting system. Crafting in SO5 is a bit of a mixed bag. It's fun because you can use it to customize and power-up your characters with a relative amount of freedom, to the point where you can get some OP stuff if you put your mind to it. The problem is that the game doesn't really encourage to make use of it, because it's too easy on the normal difficulty and higher difficulties are locked until you've beaten the game at least once. Then the item crafting menu just throws a list of question marks for item names at you and displays the necessary materials for each item. Personally I didn't make much use of item crafting until I was at the end of the game because I was always worried I'd waste my precious materials on crap, when they could always be necessary to clear a quest in the future. Same goes for the equipment synthesis which lets you add new stats and effects to equipment and creative synthesis which allows you to choose your ingredients freely. In the end developing your characters by synthesizing the best gear possible is a lot of fun though, so it's not like the system is entirely pointless. It only more or less encourages heavy use of guides if you're too worried of wasting your precious materials on potential crap.
Before I come to the conclusion there's a little feature I have to mention. In Star Ocean 5, there are very few cutscenes. Instead, most story sequences are dialog scenes where the player gets to control Fidel to a certain extend. If unlocked you can make him do funny poses, turn the camera around or make Fidel walk around in a specific area all the while the characters are having talks. I don't mind this. It's like dialog scenes in classic 2D RPGs only you get to control your main character to a certain extend. However a lot of people seem to dislike these and wish the game had more cutscenes. Considering the cutscenes in SO4 were all unwatchable garbage and that the few actual cutscenes in SO5 are barely any better, this is a complaint I can barely comprehend. Especially when characters are just talking I don't see why there'd be a need for cutscenes with fancy camera movements. Personally I wish they'd even cut all the unnecessary voice acting so dialog scenes could be played through faster. Maybe the writers of SO5 could have even revised the script if they hadn't already recorded or paid for the recordings of numerous lines of script. But I digress.

My personal verdict is that SO5 is a videogame. It's not good, but not bad either despite having a sizeable number of flaws. The characters are boring and bland, but because of that neither annoying nor offensive. The story gives the actors reasons to move from one place to another and do battles which is the meat of an action RPG. The combat is mindless but still kind of fun, especially paired with the synthesis when the player is willing to spend some time doing research on it. In order to solve quests and watch private actions (those bonus scenes with your party members) you spend a great deal just walking around but at least the quests pay off with lots of rewards and the private actions can be ignored unless you're dying to view a character's special ending. Quests and battles yield skill points next to the usual exp and gold which let you level up roles and party skills. The game gives you a continuous sense of gratification - especially if you're willing to deal with the quests. Thepost-game dungeon is where it's at because it lets you focus on the fun parts of the game. Sadly even that part feels half-assed because there's only 15 bosses, of which only 3 really count as bonus bosses and they make you play the dungeon over and over to unlock stronger versions of those 3 bosses. I feel like, if Tri-Ace had focused all the resources they had to develop this game on a dungeon crawler with the same (but polished!) battlesystem - they could have made a GREAT game. But as it stands Star Ocean 5 unfortunately has nothing but its post-game dungeon to stand out from the crowd of JRPGs. At least the game looks good if you don't mind the art style they used on the models and the OST was composed by Sakuraba so it sounds like a SO OST composed by Sakuraba - which means it's good. It's a mix of new tracks and tracks reused from older games. The new compositions all sound good (although none of them represent him at his peak) and I'm glad they used some of my favorite pieces from SO3. The only bummer here is that they didn't find a use for SO4's battle theme, which I really liked. Paired with a new function that lets the battle music continue in subsequent battles instead of restarting, said theme would have been a perfect fit because battles in SO4 were usually over in a matter of seconds while the battle theme lasted about 6 minutes in total.

Another nice view.

Now, if I didn't have better things to do I'd have started a new game on a higher difficulty. Take that for whatever it's worth.

Oh, by the way

They forgot to add collision detection.