With its fussy camera and poor signposting, Star Ocean 5 does little to tempt in new players to the franchise
JRPGs have played host to many a villain over the last thirty years, but none have caused so much anguish as that dastardly presence trailing your every move as you hack and blast your way to victory. Yes, I’m talking about the dreaded third-person camera – and what a devious plot it’s hatched in the latest Star Ocean game.
Now in its fifth instalment, the rather pompously named Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness has really outdone itself when it comes to framing Fidel and co’s journey across the plains of Faykreed.
Instead of simply resting behind its colourful cast of warriors like every other JRPG going, this restless beast bucks up and down with every single change in gradient beneath your feet, twitching this way and that as you hike from one corner of the map to the other. It’s never quite enough to make you feel nauseous, but you know it’s bad when you start craving the flat, marbled stonework of its towns and villages more than the next save point.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the scenery gave you something to look at, as you can mask the camera’s juddery effects by keeping it moving with the right analogue stick. Sadly, Star Ocean’s locales are rather lacking in imagination, and its bland topography rarely inspires the same kind of awe and wonder as the vast, jaw-dropping vistas I’ve seen in games likeXenoblade Chronicles X, The Witcher, and Dark Souls III.
It doesn’t help that the story tends to drag from you from one dead-end of the map to another, either, often forcing you to retrace your steps almost as soon as you’ve arrived somewhere new and received the next bit of story exposition. Shortcuts are few and far between on this linear planet, and even some of its hub sections are plagued by insurmountable walls that prevent you from going all the way across, inflicting a cruel kind of punishment if you happen to take the wrong exit out of town.
All this could be avoided if its navigation system gave you a hint about which direction your next goal lies, but the only way to find your next objective marker is to enter that particular section of the world, such as a city or far-off cave. As a result, you’ll almost certainly spend a good portion of your time backtracking as you try and figure out which way you should be heading, particularly when town exits often lead to completely different sections of the map.
It’s a shame that Integrity and Faithlessness is quite so fussy, as its real time battles bring a welcome change of pace to the world map drudgery. Basic attacks are assigned to X and Circle, and you can hold each one down to initiate a special attack, with long and short-range options giving you four abilities in total. There’s also a basic attack rock-paper-scissors triangle in place where successful attempts to thwart enemy assaults help build your special Reserve Rush meter for screen-hogging special moves, and its scaling line-up of lovingly rendered enemies ensures you’re always kept on your toes.
You don’t necessarily have to play as sword-wielding hero Fidel, either, as you can switch between your large party of six with a touch of the d-pad. This not only lets you experiment with different play styles and character classes, but it also brings a light strategic element to the fray as well, allowing you to reposition your warriors if things start going awry.
Admittedly, it could benefit from a slightly more rigorous and exacting combo chain system, particularly when you switch to long-range characters. With their slow build-up and relatively passive movement patterns, playing as a mage or gunner means you’re often confined to tedious button mashing, making it hard to engage with the rest of the game’s battle mechanics and building up your Reserve Rush meter. As a result, the amount of choice you have is actually rather limited, as it’s only by picking the more active, short-range characters like Fidel that you really get to experience the full breadth of the action.
That said, when you’ve got six characters all piling in at once, there are times when you’ve barely bashed out three attacks before everything’s been crushed under a tidal wave of magic and sword swipes. Larger battles can also become rather chaotic, as you simply can’t see those tell-tale signs to attack, counter or defend beneath the sheer amount of magic being thrown around.
In the end, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness just doesn’t make a big enough wave to tip it over into that hallowed group of A-grade JRPGs. It’s hamstrung by several issues that feel like hangovers from previous console generations, and its messy battle system can’t hold a candle to the dynamic, progressive and forward-looking fights we’ve seen from early demos of Final Fantasy XV. If you’re really desperate for something to fill the void with until Square Enix’s mega hit arrives, then get some Witcher 3 into your veins and leave Star Ocean high and dry.