Star Ocean: The Divine Force Review (PS4, 2022)

For me 2022 has been far from a good year for videogames and Star Ocean VI continued this general trend. Even worse, it managed to remind me of why I used to be very reluctant about games going high definition and remain critical of many modern trends up to the present day. But I'll leave those thoughts for another post. Let's focus on The Divine Force for this one.

All in all it's not a terrible game, but it's very obviously too ambitious for its own good. Most dialogue scenes feature cinematic camera angles, but the character models and their animations lack the high amount of detail required to work well in that context. It's still got that cheap, uncanny feel to it that's been haunting the series ever since it went HD with Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Quite a few character designs translated very poorly from their 2D concepts to the 3D models used by the game.

Marielle here looks comparatively goofy in many in-game animations

While the game has quite a few stunning sceneries, taking a close look at terrain textures always reveals a blurry mess. This is especially noticeable in towns. Normally I don't mind blemishes like this, but getting to see these textures close up happens a lot in Star Ocean VI due its platforming gimmick that has the player character getting soft-stuck in environments all the time. It really shows that this game was built on a budget.

Regarding the platforming and flying mechanics I have to say that while I understand that developers always want to change things up in sequels, I thought that these mechanics only served to distract from the JRPG experience. Being able to fly across towns and spending most time there jumping around on roofs felt very disingenuous towards immersion. Not being able to talk to townsfolk certainly doesn't help. This game does towns the way the FF VII Remake does: the player only gets to pick up pieces of dialogues around town while they walk past NPCs. This movie game experience has the opposite effect on me, making towns feel less lively rather than more lively when compared to the classic formula.

Combat is a step up from Star Ocean V in the sense that it encourages performing combos over mindlessly spaming the same moves over and over. In theory that is because the game is designed around a system that lets the player perform combos by mindlessly spaming the same button over and over. The Divine Force feels incredibly hack & slashy in combat. With the camera stuck close to the player character, it usually feels more like a character action RPG than one where the entire party matters (which has been a problem with the genre for quite a few years now). Enemies still go down quickly on higher difficulty levels, but their damage scales up harshly and the player is expected to dodge attacks while blindsiding. JRPG combat always had a good strategy element to it, but Star Ocean VI is taking inspiration from character action games such as Bayonetta and Sekirou. I suppose it's not a bad change of direction, but it's not what you would expect from the genre. Personally I found the combat rather chaotic and hectic and didn't have the patience to stick to the higher difficulty levels where dodging becomes crucial.

Star Ocean: The Divine Force sticks out with giving the player a choice between framerate and visual quality. Naively I expected this to be a setting to toggle between a stable 30 or 60 FPS. I went with the "visual quality over framerate" option since I prefer RPGs and atmospheric games running at 30 FPS because it's easier for me to get immersed that way, but choosing this option unfortunatly just leads to a choppy framerate. Maybe the issue lies with me having played the game on PS4 and not on a PS5, but choosing visuals over framerate results in anything but a smooth experience. Even the menues lagged for me! Not to mention, sometimes they would freeze. I was worried the game had hung up on me more than just once. An absolute no-go that shouldn't be a thing regardless of one's choice regarding the framerate.
Also, navigating the menues is somewhat slow and confusing in general. There are a lot of nested sub menues and switching categories requires use of the controller's trigger buttons. If this game has taught me anything it's that these buttons should never be used for anything that isn't a combat action, as having to press a trigger button just to open the map screen also feels incredibly off. There's always this slight delay that shouldn't be there when switchting menu categories and toggling the map screen.

Back to the game itself. The Divine Force comes with the admirable feature of presenting the player with a choice of protagonist. There's a male protagonist as well as a female protagonist. The game's campaign has some differences depending on that initial choice whenever those two characters are not both present in the same party. Actually a neat feature if the developer had the budget for it, but Star Ocean VI could have profited from a more focused campaign. The overall story is not bad. There are some really good ideas, and some moments with surprisingly on-point sci-fi writing. The villains however don't quite get the screen time they deserved. For example there's this one-dimensional megalomaniac that only shows up for his boss fight, and the player gets to learn very little about the main antagonist until close to the game's end. However the party's cast has a decent chemistry that I really enjoyed in those Private Action skits scattered about the game. But the main plot, despite its good ideas, has its issues with keeping everything tied together in a satisfactorily manner.

Interestingly there's even a minigame inspired by those card games you could play against townsfolk in Final Fantasy VIII and IX. Unfortunately these tabletop matches take a bit to complete so it's not a feature for players with little time on their hands. Fortunately playing it is at no point required to progress the story, so it's entirely optional.

Despite my barrage of complaints about it, I actually enjoyed the game decently enough. The action combat usually flows quite smoothly, the plot structure, for the most part, knows to keep the player engaged, the main cast works well enough and there's good ideas with the story. Players that had fun with Star Ocean 4 and 5 are likely to have a good time with this entry as well. But for everyone else I find myself hard pressed recommending The Divine Force. The best I can say is that it feels more like a traditional JRPG than the remake of Final Fantasy VII did, despite sharing some of its modern traits.