Sailing the Skies
The Star Ocean series is one that has always intrigued me, but for some reason, I had never gotten around to actually playing. I’ve had a copy of the fourth entry, The Last Hope, sitting on my shelves unplayed for some time now, and I’ve watched a former roommate play through some of the third entry, Till the End of Time, but that’s been my extent of experience with the series up until now.
The main thing that had caught my eye with the series was its origin. As Gamer Escape’s resident Tales fanatic, I’ve played through and beaten nearly every entry in that series, with one of my favorites being the original Tales of Phantasia. Much of the team that created Phantasia left the game’s development company, Wolf Team, after a series of disagreements over the handling of the game by publisher Namco. Shortly thereafter, the former Wolf Team members created the company tri-Ace, with their first new game being the original Star Ocean.
With this origin, the Star Ocean series carries many similarities to the Tales series. As quick examples, the games focus on real-time battles where you directly control one member of your party, with the rest controlled by AI. Star Ocean games also feature the “Private Actions” mechanic which showcase personal interactions between your party members, similar to the Skits of Tales games.
I think perhaps that I hadn’t played any Star Ocean games as I didn’t want to become burned out on the game style after playing so many Tales entries. Luckily, I finally had my chance to dive into this series with the opportunity to play the latest release.
Originally released in North America on June 28th, 2016, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is the fifth entry in the Star Ocean series, and the first since 2009. The game has been released for the PS4.
All For Her
Integrity and Faithlessness follows Fidel Camuze, a swordsman who assists in guarding his village of Sthal, located in the medieval-styled empire of Resulia. Following an attack on the village by highly-skilled and powerful bandits, Fidel and his childhood friend, Miki Sauvester, travel to the capital of Resulia to petition their king for military assistance. Unfortunately no assistance is offered, as the kingdom’s military is busy fighting a war against the neighboring country of Trei’kur…which they are currently losing.
On their return trip home to Sthal, Fidel and Miki accidentally wander into a meeting of bandits. While they are struggling to survive against them, a large hunk of metal falls from the sky…and from it emerges a young girl, followed by two men who demand the girl return to them. When the men proceed to attack with strange light-emitting weapons, the young girl activates some kind of magical power, bringing time to a stop.
Fidel and Miki bring the young girl back to Sthal, where she reveals her name is Relia…and that’s it, because she has amnesia. With this, the real story of Integrity and Faithless begins. Unfortunately, it’s a roaringly mediocre one.
There are two major plot points that drive the story forward: figuring out who the mysterious people wielding strange technology are, and the recovery of Relia’s memories. While the first one is solved early (and is painfully obvious), the amnesia plot runs throughout the game. With Relia herself being a very flat and uninteresting character, I had no drive to figure out what her missing memories were, and with that, little interest in proceeding through the story.
The rest of the main cast doesn’t fare much better, either. Nearly every character’s sole drive throughout the game is assisting Relia, with their own character development falling to the wayside. Fidel is a very generic do-gooder warrior of justice RPG hero, and the rest of the cast just seems to be along for the ride. Attempts to characterize the cast are minimal at best: this one’s a mother figure, that one loves to drink, another is just really smart…I felt next to no attachment to these characters.
Smooth and Silky
The gameplay presentation of Integrity and Faithlessness impressed the hell out of me for the first couple of hours. If there’s one work I can use to describe the game’s various systems, it’s “seamless.”
This game has a traditional JRPG layout with a direct-involvement action battle system. You have your typical cities and towns to explore to gather information and buy items, and a number of overworlds and dungeons to navigate. The greatest selling point of this game is its seamless transitions between exploration and battle. Many JRPGs have been attempting to streamline the transitions between systems lately, and I do have to admit that Integrety and Faithlessness is the best I’ve seen.
During field exploration, all members of your party are on screen at all times, as are various enemies in the field. When you approach a group of enemies, everyone pulls out their weapons and starts fighting. No screen transition, no movement to a battle area, nothing. Just approach and fight. Once the battle is done, you go right back to exploring while the results are displayed for a few moments on screen. I greatly appreciate the efficiency this brings, and it is one of my favorite parts of the game’s systems.
Battles themselves are fairly simple: you can perform light attacks with the X button, heavy attacks with the O button, and perform special skills by holding down either of these buttons. Each button can have a different skill assigned to it, and you can also set different skills to be performed depending on your distance from the enemy; this gives you up to four skills available at a button press at any time. You also have a block and dodge button, but I almost never found myself using it.
The fighting system is easy to learn and quite fluid, but I have a couple of major grievances with the it. First of all, since every member of your party participates in battle, fights against multiple enemies can become hectic and hard to keep track of. This is especially so in battles against human enemies. It’s very easy to lose complete track of where you are, especially since the camera moves itself around in attempts to keep up with the character you’re currently controlling. Add in flashy spell and attack effects activating all over the screen, and it can occasionally devolve into pure chaos.
Secondly, the vast majority of Integrity and Faithlessness is just…really easy. Most of the battles have hardly any challenge to them, and your characters level up so quickly that they can easily overpower just about any challenge thrown at them. The game doesn’t seem to balance for having up to seven active combatants either, as when you have a full party, battles can finish as quickly as they begin. However, the game also has some massive difficulty spikes that show up out of nowhere. There were countless times in my playthrough where I’m slaughtering enemy mobs with ease, only to be quickly party wiped against some story-specific battle…and then, once that fight’s over, everything becomes easy again. There’s no balance. Some character skills can also be massively overpowered – one of the first skills Fidel learns in the game remains one of the best in his repertoire even at the endgame, far surpassing other late-game skills.
The game also features a number of other systems, such as swiching your controlled character live in-battle, a decently extensive item and weapon crafting system, and “roles” that you can assign to AI characters to dictate their actions in battle. The latter works surprisingly well, especially as you level the roles up with the experience you earn in battle, and the ability to give each character four different roles can lead to some interesting and useful combinations. Most of the other features, though, I barely even touched. Much of the game is easy to button-mash your way through, so diving into the customization functions kind of fell to the wayside for me.
Pushing Some Limits
I’ve mentioned in countless other reviews that games that receive cross-generational console releases end up having incredibly disappointing graphical presentation, since they have to set their standards around the weakest console the game is being released on. Integrity and Faithlessness was one of these releases in Japan, receiving a release on the PS3. Luckily, this game doesn’t seem to suffer the same fate.
Throughout the game, I was stunned by how beautiful the graphical presentation was. Amazing landscapes, surprisingly good draw distances, and an impressive amount of character model detail all add up to one of the best-looking games I have played in quite a while. Even more impressive is that the game was developed with a focus on the PS3 version, with the PS4 release being an upgraded port.
Some ugliness does come through in the character animations. Movements and actions during “cutscenes” can be stiff and awkward, and facial animations are nothing to write home about, but the package taken as a whole is surprisingly stunning. I also had some issues with the camera constantly defaulting to a too-close field of view during exploration, and as mentioned before, it can be rather annoying during battles.
Speaking of “cutscenes,” Integrity and Faithlessness does not feature many of them in the traditional sense of the term. Most story scenes take place in-game on the field, with you still in complete control of your character, like in the Half Life games. While this contributes to the seamlessness of the gameplay experience, it also means that the “cutscenes” are entirely unskippable. With long scenes often occurring before the aforementioned random spikes in difficulty, the lack of ability to skip can quickly become painful.
Majestic and Grating
All of the music in the Star Ocean series has been composed by Matoi Sakuraba, and Integrity and Faithlessness is no different. I am quite familiar with Sakuraba’s work, as he is the primary composer for the Tales series as well. In that series, though, I have never been impressed with his work. Soundtracks in Tales games tend to get quickly repetitive without many pieces that stand out…despite being a huge fan of the series, the soundtracks have nearly always disappointed me.
Sakuraba’s work in this game, though, is quite impressive. The soundtrack of Integrity and Faithlessness is fully orchestrated, done in a now-typical Epic JRPG style, but the tracks fit the feel and presentation of the game perfectly. At times driving and bombastic, ethereal and mysterious during others, and with a great balance between instruments, the pieces presented are memorable and help bring the world and (admittedly dull) story to life.
I wish I could say the same about the English voice acting. The game offers both English and Japanese voiceovers, and I chose to play through in English…and I thoroughly regret it. Most of the main cast is serviceable, with special mention to the actresses for Miki and the mage-style character Fiore in highlight performances. The rest of the main cast comes across quite a bit as dull and disinterested (which fits the characterization well!), apt to using the wrong vocal inflections at the worst moments, and those that are not part of the main cast are disappointing to downright awful.
Of particular note is the first primary enemy you meet in the game, the character Pavine. The performance for this character is some of the most stilted, overly-dramatic (in a bad way) acting I’ve heard in a game in quite a while, and the mind-numblingly awful dialogue the character has doesn’t help.
Overall, Integrity and Faithlessness takes its wonderful initial presentation and then beats it constantly with dull characters, an uninteresting story, middling-to-downright-awful voice acting, and a battle system that has no balance. In my first few sessions with the game, I thought I was playing through what would become one of my favorite JRPGs of recent memory…and ended it with a near-complete 180 in opinion.
The game isn’t broken – it’s completely playable from front-to-back. It’s just purely disappointing. It’s disheartening to see so much potential go to waste, especially when it tries to do so many things right. The seamlessness of the experience is legitimately amazing, as is the graphical presentation, even with the fact that it’s a cross-generational release. I just didn’t find myself having fun.
As a full-price release, I cannot recommend Integrity and Faithlessness. Perhaps by next year, when I assume the price will drop quite a bit, it will be worth looking at. The things the game does well are worth an experience, but only at a budget price. Until then, I’d recommend looking elsewhere for your JRPG fix, and spare yourself the disappointment.
~ Final Score: 5/10 ~
Review copy provided by Square Enix for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.