Star Ocean: The Divine Force Review – Evolution Denotation

    Title: Star Ocean: The Divine Force
    Developer: Square Enix, tri-Ace
    Release Date: October 27, 2022
    Reviewed On: PS5
    Publisher: Square Enix
    Genre: Action JRPG

The Star Ocean franchise has become vastly more niche in today’s JRPG climate compared to its initial releases. Still, I’m a massive fan since several titles in the series meld the concepts of sci-fi and fantasy into standout experiences. However, the negative reception to the fifth mainline game, Integrity and Faithlessness, and the gacha title’s shutdown really put this series’ future into question.

So, the announcement of a brand new entry was shocking and relieving at the same time. I don’t believe anyone quite expected a fully-fledged new console release. As a result, I possessed understandable trepidations about Star Ocean The Divine Force missing the mark, but I’m thankful that, aside from technical hiccups, it mostly sticks the landing.

Star Ocean: The Divine Force opens with the main character Raymond Lawrence and the crew of his merchant space vessel, the Ydas, being shot down by a Pangalactic Federation ship, the Astoria, for unknown reasons. Then, after fleeing via an escape pod, Raymond crash lands onto an underdeveloped planet known as Aster IV, quickly meeting the princess of the Aucerian Kingdom, Laeticia Aucerius, and her dedicated knight, Albaird Bergholm. Raymond, yearning to find members of his crew who also crash-landed onto Aster IV, and Laeticia, resolved to bring peace and prosperity to her kingdom, agree to help each other out.

Star Ocean The Divine Force has players choose between Raymond and Laeticia as the protagonist. Both stories happen in parallel, but the two protagonists split up during crucial story moments, dividing the party and enabling sufficient reason for replayability, alongside dishing out greater context for certain developments. You can pick whoever you like, but if you’re a Star Ocean newcomer, I recommend choosing Laeticia simply because she is ignorant of the worlds beyond her planet. Her gradual learning of Raymond’s life would likely aid in immersive efficacy.

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Narrative-wise, The Divine Force, is gradual with its reveals, opting to take its time with fleshing out the core cast and the planet they inhabit. The earlier parts of the story heavily revolve around the political climate and strife of Aucerius alongside Raymond’s search for his friends. The sci-fi elements the series is known for neatly intertwine with specific plot beats on this underdeveloped planet, eventually coalescing toward grander threats down the horizon.

While some may be disappointed by a decent chunk of the game taking place in a singular world, I found this implementation up to the mark since there’s clear focus and depth in an area players will become attached to, amplified by clever sci-fi integration. One will genuinely get to know and understand Aster IV, though the appeal of it all truly depends on whether one is even compelled by the plights it faces.

While I found myself entertained and intrigued by various factors, I can easily see some players finding the story’s first half dryly delivered, primarily due to its subject matter. Although, the second half drastically picks up in engagement and tension, elevating it to what I’d argue is near the franchise’s heights. Also, fans of Star Oceans 1, 2, 4, and 5 will spot a couple of neat references and direct callbacks to characters and events from those titles, creating appreciative connective tissue that made me crack smiles.

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Further, it’s worth noting that the cast is undeniably stellar. Each party member offers unique contributions to everyone’s relationships, and they’re mostly likable. A few select party members’ motivations can seem lightly questionable in the late game, yet their overall dynamics make up for this offset.

Moreover, one of the series’ returning mechanics, Private Actions, returns, allowing the protagonist to initiate special scenes with party members in towns. These can be roughly seen as akin to skits from the Tales of franchise, where banter occurs between the characters, ranging from daily trivialities to ongoing plot matters. Unfortunately, the scenes aren’t detectable on the map and require consistent perusing around towns. Still, this helps make their eventual viewable acquisition all the more rewarding.

The English voice cast heightens those aforementioned scenes as well as the main story, too. The major characters’ deliveries are all genuinely excellent, except for Laeticia, who isn’t poor per se; she has a very particular way she delivers her lines that can take getting used to. Oddly, some townspeople’s throwaway dialogue isn’t mixed well with the VGM, so here’s hoping that’s fixed. Regardless, the voice quality inestimably mitigates what will be one of this title’s greatest negatives, the presentation. It’s clear that The Divine Force was not given an exceptionally high budget, as the environments, cutscene animations, and textures lack an evident degree of polish.

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The other major fault with this entry is its performance, at least on PlayStation 5. The framerate is usually pretty smooth; aside from slight hiccups, there are specific towns where it chugs terribly. The Seaport of Rytha is where this issue is the most prominent. What makes this all strange is how the fields and larger towns possess relatively smooth framerates.

Gameplay-wise, there’s a lot going on here. Firstly, let’s dive into exploration. Near the beginning, players will obtain a device called D.U.M.A., which provides countless benefits, such as allowing for soaring across the sky for a set distance. This functionality is the basis of movement, and man, it’s way too damn fun. Despite the sheer simplicity of flight, it was always immensely satisfying to use, especially since every significant area is explicitly designed to complement its freedom.

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Every civilization, part of the world map, and dungeons have spaced-out platforms and sometimes even puzzles to solve that are only possible via D.U.M.A. utilization. Though perhaps most shockingly, are the D.U.M.A crystals you can collect through this navigation used to empower the device’s various faculties. I doubt anyone expected Star Ocean to implement a collectathon sort of aspect, but it’s here, and it’s surprisingly addictive. The acceleration that D.U.M.A.’s gliding grants is also significant because it’s so thrilling.

Vast expanses that would ordinarily take several minutes to traverse are cathartically lessened in ways that still make the trips feel impactful. For instance, despite fast travel available during most points in the game, I often found myself soaring through previously explored maps for the sheer fun of it. And as if that wasn’t enough, you’ll eventually unlock the ability to perform an additional flight in the air, further amplifying the sense of freedom. Those factors ultimately made The Divine Force’s exploration one of my favorites in any JRPG.

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Moving on, combat feels entirely different from any other entry in the franchise. While the older games were more sedate in their movement, that is far from the case here. Instead, speed is the focus, primarily thanks to D.U.M.A’s instilled ability to zip across the battlefield directly to enemies’ vicinities. It’s also the key for the revived Blindside mechanic from Star Ocean The Last Hope, which encourages players to catch foes off guard by suddenly vanishing from their lines of sight. Thankfully, D.U.M.A. can’t be spammed, as the VA gauge, filled by attacking enemies normally, is required for the tool’s functionalities even to be used. Summatively, there’s a consistent reward system regarding D.U.M.A. that helps makes its in-battle usages feel adequately earned.

The combo system is notable, too, as every playable character has three sets of combat chains comprising three techniques each, letting them be used consecutively if enough Action Points (AP) are present. AP is restored by refraining from combative action for an incredibly brief period, preventing incessant spamming. Still, any of the three face buttons can be held down to perform a singularly mapped action immediately, so the chain system isn’t the sole methodology here.

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Active Skills, which are essentially buffs and debuffs, help diversify the applications brought about by the chain system even further, alongside the fact that items can be inputted. Typically, those two factors are best customized for usage via the held-down face buttons due to the linked nature of the consecutive attacks. The amount of experimentation here, bolstered by manual character-switching mid-combat, is genuinely compelling. Since everyone boasts distinct pros, cons, and general playstyles, there are always other ways to approach battles to keep elements fresh. Sadly, the party AI isn’t exactly the smartest regarding hazardous terrain and avoiding certain enemy attacks, but they tend to be alright otherwise.

Character gameplay growth has always been part of Star Ocean’s central identity, and it’s fittingly abundantly depicted in The Divine Force. Battles will grant characters SP, used for unlocking nodes in everyone’s unique Skill Trees, comprising raw stat boosts, higher resistances, and combat skills. Additionally, SP is utilized to upgrade said combat skills and related fields. There’s plenty of character customization to note, and it never fails to be fulfilling.

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Fighting in this game is exceptionally smooth, with fast-acting melee animations that make this combat system one of, if not my favorite, in the franchise. It’s a clear shakeup but a welcome one with how polished and swift it is. However, the first 15%-20% of the game doesn’t correctly depict how intricately well-crafted the combat truly is. Many tools are not yet available or not as honed, so players must exercise patience. I should note that, even on console, you can remap controls, which I’m sure many will value.

Two combat mechanics unlocked in the later parts of the title are Vatting and Estery Cage. The former is the party members’ ultimate skills, so to speak, able to shift the tides of battle in varying ways. On the other hand, Estery Cage detaches D.U.M.A. from the party, enhancing collective defenses at the cost of ridding the device’s other functions until it’s manually switched back to its default mode. The freedom in combat approach is worth reiterating because there are plenty of avenues to achieve victory. Offhandedly, I do wish there were more boss battles, but that’s a relatively minor point.

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I recommend playing the game on its ‘Universe’ difficulty since the lower modes make progression too painless for a little over the first third or so of the game. Humorously, my most challenging battle was the boss tutorial teaching the Vatting mechanic for reasons primarily stemming from its stark difference in perspective. Still, aside from that specific bout, advancement was steady.

As is usually the case with Star Ocean, players have plenty of side content to sink their time into. Townspeople, denoted by unique yellow icons on the map, will grant sidequests easily tracked via a dedicated menu. Completing them will allow immediate travel to the quest giver’s location from said menu, boasting convenience. Fortunately, the quests don’t solely comprise monster slaying and mindless item gathering since some quests require players to interact with a system I haven’t yet mentioned; Item Crafting. This general mechanic should be familiar to fans of the franchise as the ever-familiar Welch provides it.

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For those unaware, Welch can be seen as Star Ocean’s Cid from Final Fantasy, with different versions of her found throughout the titles. Located in the town of Delryk, listening to her wacky monologues and completing the tasks she imparts will unlock Item Crafting alongside its many iterations. For a few examples, players can perform Compounding by mixing materials to create items, Crafting to develop accessories and armor, and Synthesis to enhance weapon properties. Regrettably, many new players tend to ignore these systems, so I encourage them not to do so and try to engage with them since notable concoctions aiding fights can be made.

Admittedly, a part of me wishes these Item Creation processes had more going on rather than solely comprising material selection. Still, due to their sheer number, I understand why they’re as simple as they are. Similar to the combat, players will need to exhibit patience before diving into the intricacies of Item Creation because the early hours don’t paint a reliable picture of its varied utilizations.

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One final gameplay element I should bring up is the minigame Es’owa, which I spent too much time on. After finding a deck in the opening hours, the protagonist can challenge innumerable townspeople of differing skill levels. The rules are quite simple; players place their pawns on a board to reduce their opponent’s health to zero. In addition, each pawn embodies an attack type, directing matches in their distinct ways. Further, depending on board placement, opposing pawns can be sent to the graveyard, which is the crux of devising strategies.

Aside from this minigame being surprisingly hooking, it serves practical gameplay benefits. The pawn pieces themselves are equippable in-battle accessories that increase stats and grant additional factors dependent on rarity. So, it’s always worth seeking out Es’owa adversaries, of which there is no shortage. Though, bizarrely, unless I’ve overlooked it, there doesn’t seem to be a way to check which exact Es’owa players you’ve defeated. You can re-challenge these NPCs, so identifying who you haven’t yet played against can become cumbersome. Hopefully, a patch or the like implements a way to sort through defeated opponents.

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Star Ocean has usually identified in tandem with its songs thanks to the continued involvement of legendary composer Motoi Sakuraba, and The Divine Force does not disappoint. While not my favorite soundtrack in the franchise, it still feels like quintessential Star Ocean, and some bold instrumental risks are taken for distinction and identity. Admittedly, the general battle theme can grow repetitious to listen to on repeat, but that’s my sole complaint.

I’ll be entirely blunt here; I expect Star Ocean The Divine Force to receive exceptionally low review scores. I have no idea how many other critics will have beaten the game as I have, nor do I possess the foresight to assess how veteran fans will feel about this new entry. Still, and I know this is hypocritical, I urge you to give this game a shot if you’ve been interested and not treat the critic scoring as the sole basis for picking it up or not.

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Star Ocean The Divine Force is a strongly crafted action JRPG that returns the franchise to form, boasting involved upgrading and customization systems alongside a well-thought-out narrative that may not satisfy or intrigue everyone but will compel those entranced by its cutting edges of notion. Moreover, its excellent English voice cast intensifies the emotional weight of several story-heavy scenes and character-bonding moments. Unfortunately, performance and graphical presentation faults. as well as more minor issues, damage the overall experience. Although, if you can look past those stumbles, Star Ocean The Divine Force is a must-play entry for all fans of the genre, whether they already are fans of the franchise or not.

Score:
8/10
A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Orpheus Joshua

Random gamer equally confused by the mainstream and the unusual. Fan of JRPGs, Action, Platformers, Rhythm, and Adventure titles.