Review: Star Ocean: The Divine Force
The Star Ocean series is a storied one that has been going through somewhat of a rough patch recently. Typically releasing a game once per console generation, the series has gone from unknown (the previously Japanese only Star Ocean for Super Famicom) to cult favorite (Second Story and Til the End of Time) to generally disliked (The Last Hope and Integrity and Faithlessness).
Yet, while the last few entries have disappointed critics and fans, the fanbase behind the series still holds hope that the next release will be a return to form. Though when said newest release, The Divine Force, was initially revealed, many were quick to deem it as yet another failure of the series.
After a fairly well received demo, some people (myself included) had some hope restored. And now, with the final release having landed, it’s time to see what exactly is in store for us with the newest Star Ocean. Is it the next in a string of disappointments? Or will it be seen as a return to form?
…I’d say it’s somewhere in the middle, after my time with it.
Developed by tri-Ace and published by Square Enix, Star Ocean: The Divine Force was released on October 27th, 2022, for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. The PS5 version was played for this review.
Divine Force is a tale of two characters. On one side we have Raymond Lawrence, an interstellar merchant who is forced to abandon ship after an attack. On the other, Laeticia Aucerius, the princess of the Kingdom of Aucerius. After selecting whose perspective you wish to play the game from, the two quickly meet after Raymond’s escape pod lands on Laeticia’s planet, Aster IV.
After fending off a sudden monster attack, Raymond and Laeticia quickly (almost too quickly) become comrades, as both are on similar missions. Raymond, to track down other members of his crew that may have landed on the planet. Laeticia, to seek out someone that may be able to help her kingdom fend off the looming threat of an invading empire.
As is typical of the Star Ocean series, whilst positioned as a sci fi tale, much of Divine Force feels more like a traditional JRPG fantasy story with a bit of sci fi flare. The game is front-loaded with exploration of Aster IV, an underdeveloped planet with knowledge of magic (here known as semiomancy) but with little to no technology. Sure, there’s some space faring and planet hopping later on, but much of your playtime is going to be in the old standard swords and sorcery setting.
What I quite enjoyed about Divine Force‘s writing is how much of the early game’s story takes a back seat to its character development. With the game having been out for about a week at the time of writing, I’ve seen many take issue with how the early game feels like nothing is happening, that you’re playing through a series of fetch quests or just running from point A to point B talking to NPCs.
This, admittedly, is true. But it is also missing the forest for the trees, as the character writing and development is surprisingly strong right from the outside. Putting aside how naively trusting Raymond and Laeticia are of each other at the beginning, the way they (and future characters) play off of each other is constantly endearing and entertaining. It helps that both of our key characters break out from the stereotypes one would expect from them. Spacefaring merchant Ray is surprisingly down to earth and incredibly open with sharing info about the world he comes from with the Aster IV characters. Laeticia isn’t some wilting rose JRPG princess, but rather often takes the lead with strong leadership and a dash of curiosity.
The meeting of underdeveloped vs advanced technologies also creates some interesting story beats that manage to avoid cliché as well. One of the main issues facing Aster IV is something called Helgar’s Disease (colloquially known as “the rot”), an unknown illness springing up and wiping out communities around the Kingdom. Where one would expect a simple resolution like “well Raymond must have the cure to this disease because he’s from an advanced civilization!” we instead get the space farers teaching the Aster IV crew about the existence of bacteria, and the party’s resident healer using that knowledge to help develop a cure with native plants and materials. It’s a simple thing, but it feels like the writers put some thought and heart into these little interactions.
If there’s one thing I praised the previous Star Ocean entry on, it was on how fluid and seamless the transitions to battle were. Divine Force pushes this even further, to the point that I would consider this game more an action RPG than anything else. Run up to an enemy and, after either getting noticed or landing the first strike, start dishing out a beatdown.
Divine Force uses a four person party, with the player in direct control of one character and AI handling the rest. You can program three three-part combo attacks, each one corresponding to a face button, for each character. Then, simply, press that face button repeatedly to unleash your combo. A single skill can also be set to each button to be activated by holding it – useful for items, buff skills, or one-off attacks.
The system feels intuitive in action, if a bit simple. Most of your work goes into figuring out how to build your combos, rather than executing them correctly in battle. I found myself setting combos for different situations to each button (one for a basic attack, one to close ground quickly, and one for aerial enemies was often my loadout), and then just jamming whatever button the situation called for.
Fortunately, the battle system isn’t completely as mindless as that description makes it out to be. For one, you still have to pay attention to your enemies and dodge them when necessary. There’s also an “AP” meter that dictates how many attacks you can do before you have to stop and recharge. Each attack in a combo costs AP, and you can earn more AP by pulling off sneak attacks, perfect dodges, and other special actions in fights. However, playing badly and taking hits has the opposite effect, costing AP.
While this all may sound a bit basic, Divine Force offers up a unique (and incredibly fun) twist: the “DUMA” system. In story, DUMA is a robot companion that was in the cargo Raymond was carrying when his ship was attacked. It starts following whichever character you’re controlling, giving them access to the most enjoyable move in the game: crashing head-first into enemies.
Ok, well, it offers more functions that that. Holding down its activation button makes DUMA create a damage reduction barrier around your character. Aim and let go, and your character charges headlong at your target. If your target has eyes and they’re looking at you, pressing any direction while charging will instantly change your trajectory, creating a “Blindside” attack that deals more damage and can stun enemies.
DUMA is easily the best part of Divine Force, and the thing that made fighting random overworld mobs enjoyable enough that I’d seek out battles rather than skip them. Charging in to start a battle, pulling off a few combos to build DUMA’s meter, then crashing in and obliterating the enemy…it truly never got old.
…unlike actually exploring the overworld.
While battles are where Divine Force shines, the exploration part of the game is often mind-numbingly dull. The overworld is made up of large, empty, interconnected fields, and enemy mobs are often surprisingly sparse. The game tries to encourage exploration by hiding collectable crystals used to power up DUMA around the map, but seeking them out was more tedious than just sprinting to my next destination and picking up whatever crystals I happened to pass by. There’s also a surprising amount of mandatory backtracking, but thankfully the game has a forgiving fast travel system so you can bypass trudging through the same grassy plain for the fifth time.
The other main issue I had came in the ever popular JRPG pastime of menuing. There’s a lot going on in the character screens for each of your party members. Leveling up grants SP to each character, which can be spent on a grid to buff stats and unlock new skills. It can also be spent on leveling up your attack skills. It can also be spent on levelling up your passive skills. It can also be spent on leveling up your special skills. There’s just too many places to spend these points, and I often found myself second guessing which options are the better ones to spend them on.
Then there’s the combo creation screen. I praised it a bit earlier…but that was only for when I was setting up the character I was controlling. I don’t recall it being actually mentioned in game, but Divine Force also requires you to set up the combo screen for each party member. Even ones you have no intent on controlling. If you don’t set a skill in someone’s combo screen, they won’t use it in battle. I learned this the hard way during the first boss, when both of my teammates would do nothing but swing once or twice at the boss before immediately dying.
Lastly, and most frustratingly, is the fact that the accessories you equip to each party member are automatically removed when a character leaves the active party. I can see this being an attempt at a quality of life feature: you don’t have access to a character anymore, but you may still want to use the accessories they had equipped on someone else, right? Unfortunately, the story has characters leaving and returning to the party incredibly often for plot reasons, particularly when visiting various towns. There were points where I was going in and resetting up every character’s equipment after each main story beat, rendering this “quality of life” featuring nothing more than an exercise in frustration.
Lets get it out of the way immediately: the character design is a bit…odd. The Star Ocean series has been trending toward doll-like character design for a bit now, and Divine Force sees it at its most uncanny valley of the dolls yet. Raymond in particular, who is one of the most confusingly designed video games characters I’ve seen in a while.
However, unlike others, I find a weird charm in this design choice. tri-Ace is going in a completely different direction than most other games with anime aesthetics, and despite some obvious misses (Raymond) I quite like seeing the experimentation.
Unfortunately there are some glaringly obvious issues in the visual design aside from this. Lipsynching is often off when playing with English voices, though I don’t take much issue with that. What I do have issue with is the all too common clipping and artifacting of hair and shadows during the game’s numerous cutscenes. Oh, and the occasionally framerate plummet. Playing on a PS5, and setting the game to prefer graphical fidelity, there were times when the game would slow to an absolute crawl for a few moments, always in “busier” scenes.
On the plus side, aside from the lipsynch issue, the English voice actors turn in stellar performances across the board. Really, it’s these performances that help sell the wonderful characters and their development that I mentioned earlier. We even get a performance for the “bubbly overly energetic young girl character” that doesn’t make me want to throw my controller through my TV screen, which is a major selling point for that trope.
At the end of my time with Star Ocean: The Divine Force, I have to say I came out fairly impressed. After being thoroughly disappointed with Integrity and Faithlessness, I’ll admit that went into this new entry with doubts.
And don’t get me wrong, there are still glaring issues with this release as well. The annoying menuing and subpar graphical presentation being right at the top. But while these issues did drag the game down a bit, they didn’t make me want to stop playing. The highs here definitely help to outweigh the pains – the combat system is simply a blast and the character writing and acting is endlessly enjoyable.
I admittedly haven’t played any of the older Star Ocean games from back at the peak of its popularity, so I can’t say for certain whether Divine Force is a return to form. But for fans disappointed with the previous entry, there’s plenty here to make a dive back into the franchise worthwhile. Here’s hoping tri-Ace gets another shot with a bigger budget next time, because I believe they’re on an upswing.
Review copy provided by Square Enix for PlayStation 5. Screenshots taken by reviewer.