Star Ocean acts as something akin to the “b-tier” for Square Enix. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are, of course, the big guns, but this series is not insignificant. It’s been around for 25 years now, and The Divine Force is the sixth of the main series entries. I’ll tell you right away, sitting here writing this before the embargo has lifted and the media have started publishing their reviews: it’s going to be polarising, and probably weighted towards people that don’t enjoy it. But, if you’re part of a small audience for which it clicks, it is going to click really hard.
It clicked with me. This is one of the rare games where I settled in for an extended play session, and the next thing I know it was 3am and I was both very tired and yet still want to play more. Games haven’t really done that to me in many years. I’ve played a lot of stuff that I absolutely loved, but even the likes of the mighty Elden Ring haven’t put me in a state where, as I did as a teenager, I would curl up on a lounge and just play, and play, and play. With a page-turner of a plot that flows beautifully, and incredible, vividly exotic spaces to explore, I just lost myself in The Divine Force.
What sets the Star Ocean series apart is that it’s a juxtaposition of classic fantasy and Star Trek-like spacefaring epic. It’s not the first series to meld science fiction and fantasy elements – Final Fantasy itself does that – but Star Ocean does it differently. Where Final Fantasy and every other similar JRPG aims to meld sci-fi and lo-fi fantasy together to create a cohesive whole, Star Ocean explicitly contrasts them. A town or city will be either something straight out of Tolkien or drenched in neon. A character will either be wearing a traditional suit of armour or moving around in a contraption so illogical it must have come from the future.
There are moments where the two things do bleed together just a little, but for the most part, there’s a very conscious effort to create this contrast between the people that are spacefaring around, and the people on the early development planets that they end up making friends with. Yes, this is a complete rejection of the prime directive from Star Trek (and if you ever want to go down a fascinating rabbit hole, check out the debates around whether the prime directive is the right way to go about things). However, most Star Ocean games aren’t overly interested in grappling with that discussion. This series isn’t densely philosophical. It doesn’t ignore it completely, but for the most part, it plays it pretty straight when beings from space just land in the middle of armies of medieval knights.
The eclectic blend of low and high technology is played to its absolute maximum in The Divine Force, with the game taking every opportunity to throw space wizards and magic hurling trees at characters that are wielding robots and able to over through the air. Most of the characters are eccentric in their own way, and the two main protagonists are both working together but have completely different motivations, allowing the narrative to shift easily between lo-fi fantasy and hi-fi science fiction plotlines at a moment’s notice. The game is structured to be very moreish, with a plot that is largely delivered through short and punchy cut scenes that keep you moving on to the next key moment. That’s how I ended up playing on until 3am and losing track of time. There was always the next town or dungeon that I was being directed towards and I was never given a moment to actually check my watch.
In fact, the general storytelling vibe of The Divine Force is quite retro in approach. The narrative does progress quickly, and you’ll move from town to town, generally helping to solve a major problem at that town, before being directed to the next location. Those towns all have the standard facilities for classical JRPGs, and then you’ll pick up a handful of standard genre sidequests at each location too. Character costuming and design is also right out of the yesteryear of the genre, which is going to rub some people the wrong way completely, but it adds to the charm of the game for the rest of us. The characters do bounce off one another well, and can be quite chatty on the road. There are even intimate chats that characters can have at key moments and locations (not unlike the heart-to-hearts of Xenoblade Chronicles), and in those, you’ll realise that even the most bubble characters (Nina I love you) have a bit more nuance to them.
What is very different to, say, Star Ocean 3 (forever my favourite in the series), is the world and combat system. The area to explore is absolutely mammoth (in fact, the first time I pulled up the global map I assumed that this Star Ocean was going to be grounded and on one planet for the entire run-time), and while you do move pretty quickly between locations, the overworld does have plenty of little secrets to discover along the way. For tools, you have the ability to jet yourself along the landscape in any direction, and this opens up all kinds of opportunities to hide treasure chests up mountains and down ravines. The art direction that went into the environments is utterly breathtaking, too. This is a game where discovering every new location is a reward in itself.
It is a little hard to shake the feeling that the developers could have done more to infuse landscapes with a sense of geographical history and ecology, however. In a post-Xenoblade Chronicles world, where grand spaces leave the impression that every rock has a written history behind it, Star Ocean’s “corridors and enemies” approach is dated. As pretty as it is, and as large in scale, Star Ocean’s environments are funnels rather than active participants in the story and drama. They’re restrictive by design to keep you focused, but that comes at the expense of the landscape writing its own story as you make your way across it.
I mention combat last in this review because it’s the piece I enjoyed the least. It’s still enjoyable, but I’m glad I was so invested in everything else about the game. It’s fast. Very, very fast. Each character has their own utility on the battlefield, and a full skill tree that you can use accumulated action points for. As you unlock skills, you can assign them to three different combo systems. Once in combat you’re going to feel the need to button-mash those combos because everything does happen so quickly. Over time you’ll calm down and fit into a rhythm, but the swirl of chaos can be hard to keep up with, especially once you start running into enemies that are casting spells off-screen, and losing track of what your allies are concentrating their AI-driven energies on. There is a mid-battle pause button, but that’s mostly for using healing items when they’re needed.
Because of the speed it’s difficult to enjoy some of the enemy designs at times, and that’s a pity because the bestiary is vibrant and interesting. The action is too much of a blur, to the point of being distracting, and while it’s inherently enjoyable, it’s not Bayonetta and the developers should have eased that back a little. It also has the side effect of making support characters very uninteresting to play. Nina, for example, might be my favourite character (she is), but her role is largely that of the bard – granting buffs and heals to allies. You can control her in battle, but the speed of it all makes it a mess and you’re better off focusing on one of the melee characters, who themselves can focus on individual enemies.
I don’t want to take anything away from this game, though. I have enjoyed Star Ocean: The Divine Force more than any game in the series since the third one. The developers have calibrated just about everything about this game perfectly, from the classically entertaining JRPG plot and characters, to the incredible aesthetics and superb pacing. The Divine Force is by no means a short game, but it has a way of making the hours fly past so that it never feels like it’s dragging on your time. Yes, the combat is a little unrefined and too pacey for its own good, but it’s still very playable, and totally worth dealing with to enjoy the most exotic JRPG of 2022.
Great to hear, I’m very excited for this!
It appears to me that *most* of Square Enix’s “B-tier” titles are polarizing these days. There seem to be a lot of people online really eager to hate on Square Enix if they are given the smallest opportunity … moreso than any other company (other than Sony), at least in the online circles I frequent. Could be any number of reasons: boredom with modern-style JRPGs, distaste at some of SE’s recent corporate directions and messages from the president, people with anti-Playstation bias, people who only want FF and nothing else …
I really like most of these SE games, so happy with their game output on the whole over the last 5-6 years since Nier Automata. But I have wide-ranging genre interests and a high tolerance for idiosyncracies (and even jank) in a game. I have no doubt that SO6 will have its supporters such as yourself (and probably me), and a ton of vocal detractors throwing shade upon SE and wishing bankruptcy upon Tri-Ace.
I just think these B-tier games are trying different things, and when you dare to be different, you annoy some people. Square Enix’s biggest properties are basically made for everyone, so they take relatively few creative risks. The audience for opera-themed God of War (Valkyrie Elysium) or space opera-crossed-traditional fantasy (Star Ocean) is relatively small, and people outside of that audience are never going to *get it*.
I’m loving the variety of (Japanese) games from Square Enix this year and reminds me of the heyday of PS2 and PSP, where there was a variety of remasters, niche B-tier games, and the heavy hitters from Japanese publishers. I somehow managed to platinum each of Square Enix’s recent JRPGs before the release of the next (The Diofield Chronicle, Valkyrie Elysium, now on Star Ocean.)
I also find The Divine Force has good forward momentum with its pacing and it has its grip on me. I like that the combat is mostly breezy (on Universe difficulty), but there are some challenging battles that reward party management and a measured approach to tactics. For example, Nina is able to generate max AP with group buffs and Rush Attacks that heal (handy when facing enemies that are tough to blindside and/or reloading from a save when Max AP is low.) Since her spells are AOE around her and use AP like other characters, I find piloting her more enjoyable than traditional JRPG healers due to active positioning. The pause feature can be useful to get a lay of the land and for precise target swapping when there’s a lot of battle participants.