Star Ocean: A Retrospective

tri-Ace’s Star Ocean series has a storied history. Appearing on the Super Famicom in 1996, Star Ocean was known for being one of the first action JRPG series where players could alter the story with their choices. It was also distinct by being a science fiction RPG that borrowed ideas and tropes from popular North American series such as Gene Roddenberry’s beloved, Star Trek. Key areas drawing players to the franchise include its casts of adorable and fun characters, the wackiness of its storytelling and worlds, and its constant innovations in action RPG combat. Between its unique Private Action system, where players can make decisions regarding their party members, and the skills systems that allow characters to build abilities that they can use in and outside of combat, there is a lot to enjoy. With each game, there is also a clear evolution of all the systems, world-building, and combat, even if the changes are rarely universally liked.

RPGamer has storied history with the franchise. It’s one of the few to have earned scores all across our review scale, which is a testament to the curious relationship that our staff have had with it. From our original forums being hacked after we reviewed Star Ocean: The Last Hope on Xbox 360 (with the PlayStation 3 version not faring any better), to our gushing about Star Ocean: The Second Story R and our very mixed feelings on Star Ocean: The Divine Force, our staff has always found something to talk about and to ignite our passions since its inception over 27 years ago. If nothing else, the series has always had a passionate fanbase, and if you’ve wanted to get into the series, look no further than this retrospective, where staff shares where in the series is the best place to start. As always, feel free to leave your comments on whether you agree or disagree with our assessments.

By Robert Albright, Michael Baker, Ryan Costa, Ryan McCarthy, Paul Shkreli, Robert Sinclair, and Sam Wachter

Star Ocean: First Departure

Available on: PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch

Japan-only: Super Famicom

In a series with as many entries as Star Ocean, trying to find the perfect entry point could be a bit of an ordeal. First Departure is a remake of the original, so it makes a strong case of being a great starting point on that alone. But is it actually a fun place to start?

It’s not particularly impressive visually, but it’s a well-paced story wrapped around a quick battle system that is engaging right from the get-go. The addition of Specialties and different talents really helps flesh out what would be a pretty run-of-the-mill game otherwise. There’s nothing that happens in the game that relies on having played any other games in the series, so it’s never particularly confusing or obtuse.

The diverse cast and limited space in the party encourage multiple playthroughs. The party actions in each city are almost always entertaining and are different depending on who’s in the party, encouraging multiple runs and giving actual legs to what is in theory just a short journey. While the later games certainly have some of the best combat seen in JRPGs, this is a great way to dip your toes into the series and an easy recommendation as a starter.


Star Ocean: The Second Story

Available on: PlayStation, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, PC

Japan-only: PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita

Those of us growing up in the PlayStation era likely started with Star Ocean: The Second Story. Releasing in 1999 in North America, it was the first in the series to be localized into English, as the previous entry wouldn’t be localized into English until much later. It was also one of the few RPGs of its time that allowed players to choose between two different protagonists, with slightly different story beats and characters depending on who was selected. 

Star Ocean: The Second Story is easily one of the best games in the series, between its loveable cast of characters, crazy story, and fantastic and frantic battle system. It also had a Private Action system, where characters could mingle and have special plot events to boost character relations, adding more depth to an already charming cast. The game boasted over eighty different endings, giving it a surprising amount of replay value. There is a lot of depth in many of the game’s subsystems, including Specialties which allow players to put skill points into a variety of skills that are worth the investment. Want to make the best armor in the game? Boost your skills!

Is Star Ocean: The Second Story the best place to start? Given the recent 2023 remake developed by Gemdrops, the answer is a resounding yes. From an updated localization to tons of quality-of-life improvements regarding the battle system and overall UI, there’s a lot to love in this remake. Those seeking to check out the original PSX version or PSP version have to fork out a pretty penny as neither game is cheap on the collector’s market.


Star Ocean: Blue Sphere

Japan-only: Game Boy Color, Mobile Phones

As the Japan-only Game Boy Color spin-off to a PlayStation title, Blue Sphere isn’t likely at the top of anyone’s list of Star Ocean games to try. Blue Sphere takes what was best about Star Ocean 2 — its colorful cast of characters — and throws them into a new situation in a new world where Ernest and Opera have set up a distress beacon for everyone else to follow. This also gives it the unique situation of having all twelve characters available for play, ten of them from the very beginning, in combinations that simply were not possible in the original.

Strangely enough, Blue Sphere benefited from its hardware limitations, as it feels finely tuned and fitting to the Game Boy Color without succumbing to the whims and fancies of developers. Imagine an overworld similar to Final Fantasy Adventure or Link’s Awakening, coupled with Tales’s Linear Motion Battle System and all sorts of crafting mini-games, and a central plot that somehow manages to remain more narratively coherent than the game it’s spun off of. That is Blue Sphere, and it is a shame that Square Enix never released the cell phone remake with the nicer graphics on a broader platform, much less ever bringing it to foreign markets. There’s a fan translation out there, so it’s definitely worth a look.


Star Ocean: Till the End of Time

Available on: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 4 (via PSN)

After a beloved PS1 entry, this PS2 follow-up had a lot of hype and expectations placed upon it. The result ended up divisive among fans due to differences in mechanics as well as a certain plot twist that became infamous. Star Ocean: Till the End of Time’s battle system introduced MP death where complete MP depletion would result in the incapacitation of party members and enemies alike, which could end up frustrating the player. Another potential source of frustration among fans includes how Private Actions were handled, as while present, they were difficult to come across due to the lack of in-game indication of where they could be found, making them easy to miss. The game’s new invention system also suffered from feeling overly luck-based, potentially resulting in the needless currency loss if not careful.

The game’s plot is also contentious among fans of the series due to the infamous plot twist that controversially recontextualized the events of the previous two games to the point where it is still the last game chronologically. The cast of characters generally being considered a step down from the previous game didn’t help matters as they could come across as comparatively bland compared to the colorful cast of Second Story.

Star Ocean: Till the End of Time is not recommended as someone’s first entry, especially with the recently released excellent remake of Second Story. Secondhand physical copies of the PS2 release can still be found relatively cheap in addition to the digital HD re-release on PS4 that isn’t particularly expensive and goes on sale pretty often. Those interested in Star Ocean: Till the End of Time can get the game cheap and don’t have much to lose.


Star Ocean: The Last Hope

Available on: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox 360

Coming out as the first Star Ocean game on the next-gen consoles in 2009, Star Ocean: The Last Hope was one of many games that Microsoft attempted to woo the JRPG fanbase over to its shiny new console with. The game, much like its predecessor, fell into a very controversial state within its fanbase. Many changes felt refreshing for the series, like the ability to explore multiple stars from very early on, the graphics, and the battle system being some of the most beloved aspects. The game’s story and characters are often commented on as being portions of the game that felt awkward at best.

The game takes place as the first entry in the Star Ocean universe, with many of the references, lingo, and things we see in the later entries all originating here. There are story points in the game where characters reference events that will happen in the future, alluding to SO1. The overarching plot revolves around meteors that force species that come into contact with them to evolve. However, the game also makes time to go into what happens when an advanced civilization deals with a more primitive one. 

While The Last Hope can be enjoyable, it’s hard to go back to due to the weird design choices. If you want an excellent battle system, this is one of the best. It’s also the first one to introduce the Blindside system that came back in later entries of the series. If you want a good starting point lore-wise, this one would be it. But again due to some very questionable design decisions, this is not an entry for everyone.


Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness

Available on: PlayStation 4

Japan-only: PlayStation 3

Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is a polarizing entry in the Star Ocean franchise. Taking place between Star Ocean: The Second Story and Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, players take on the role of Fidel, who is living on an underdeveloped planet that is invaded by a more advanced race of aliens. The kingdom of Resulia is at war with the Trei-kur, and Fidel’s town is caught in the crosshairs. With his best friend Miki at his side, Fidel attempts to seek aid from the Resulian army but is denied. It is upon returning home that they meet the mysterious Relia and the story truly begins.

Unfortunately, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is a hard sell, with a very generic and uninspired cast of characters that the player must follow. There’s also a lack of clarity in terms of the story or why players should care about its characters. While it sports a fantastic battle system that is on par with Star Ocean: The Last Hope, the game suffers from a lot of graphical and sound issues, which is truly a shame.

Often deemed the forgotten entry, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness is just not an entry worth investigating unless you are someone who is truly the curious type. When compared to the best and even worst titles in the franchise, this game sits at mediocre and unmemorable, which is not a point in its favour. There are simply better places to start than this entry.


Star Ocean: The Divine Force

Available on: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S

While others may balk at this suggestion, Star Ocean’s newest entry in the series, Star Ocean: The Divine Force, is actually a great place to start the series. It isn’t burdened by the greater series’ timeline and knowledge of events that might change your perspective on the mythology of the series as a whole — a huge plus. There are plenty of throwbacks to characters and recurring themes from prior games that you may miss out on, sure. However, those who enjoy Divine Force enough to go and play other games will still be able to pick up on these connections.

Star Ocean: The Divine Force is the closest the series gets to reliving the glory of Star Ocean 2, and it seems mirroring the game’s design was an intentional choice. We are given two main characters to choose from: a man from outer space and a woman living on an underdeveloped planet. Regardless of the player’s choice, their two paths collide with some interesting changes in perspective depending on your main character. Moreover, there are characters which are exclusive to specific routes.

It borrows liberally from Star Ocean 2 in other aspects as well, including rather robust skill and item crafting systems that are engaging and rewarding. Perhaps nothing can top Es’owa, the card/board game that is addictive and boasts a snazzy theme. The open zone areas are spacious, with players able to zip and zoom around jungles, snowscapes, and even large towns using the flying apparatus and plot device known as DUMA. 

It isn’t a perfect game — it apes the slow pacing and third-arc villain reveals from Star Ocean 2 — but it is a high mark for the series after a few disappointing entries. It’s hard to believe we even got Star Ocean: The Divine Force, and it serves as a reminder of how good the series used to be — and is again. 


Star Ocean: Anamnesis

Delisted: Android, iOS

Like many RPG franchises from the ’90s, Star Ocean found itself with a gacha mobile game adaption. Star Ocean: Anamnesis took the combat of prior Star Ocean games and simplified it in a manner that left it lacking after a long period of play. The title itself had its bright points with capable voice acting, though many roles did have new actors portraying them. The original story and characters felt cute in a barebones kind of way. It wasn’t a game built to last but still had some amazing music and fun characters to use.

These characters drew from all prior Star Ocean titles as well as amusing crossovers with Persona 5, NieR Automata, and Valkyrie Profile. Due to the unreasonably rare pull rate, it was hard to use these characters in combat without spending money. Combat was always snappy and flashy but on older phones would take a little while to load.

Ultimately, Star Ocean: Anamnesis was pretty forgettable, even if it hit a lot of nostalgic spots for fans of the franchise and had some fun moments. All of these moments have a caveat to them and there weren’t many new fans to Star Ocean that began with Anamnesis. With it being a niche mobile game that doesn’t exist anymore, it is not a great place with the franchise and is just fondly remembered by its die-hard fans these days.  


We hope you enjoyed our retrospective of the Star Ocean series. Which Star Ocean game is your favourite? Join the conversation by dropping a comment below!

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1 Response

  1. UltraKev9 UltraKev9 says:

    Second Story R is likely the best starting point for a Star Ocean newbie.

    The combat is fast and furious and the characters aren’t over-the-top cliche’s. The story gets a bit “Deus Ex Machina” in my opinion as it’s a complex narrative and I think the writers couldn’t square some circles but it’s not unfollowable by any stretch. The choice between main characters doesn’t affect the story but will affect who can join the party. The 80+ endings are all unfortunately mainly pretty lame as they are nothing more than “pairings” between party members that like each other. They take a couple minutes each and most of them are eye-rolling.

    Best thing about Second Story is if a player finds gameplay enjoyable, especially combat and item creation, by the end of the game there’s an entire 13 floor bonus dungeon to really put your thinking skills and combat knowledge to the test. I’ve played Second Story’s original PlayStation release through six times playing both characters and multiple difficulty modes and the bonus dungeon is really where things get intensely fun with combat and end-game skills.

    On the other hand, I also thoroughly enjoyed Integrity and Faithlessness. Motoi Sakaruba does the music for every single major Star Ocean game and the score for “SO5” was exemplary. First Departure, Second Story, Till the End of Time and Last Hope all had great music and some memorable tunes but SO5 had a terrific set of songs through the entire game. The combat was a refined version of Last Hope which in turn was a refined version of Till the End of Time. It reviewed poorly and I was late to playing it and went in with pre-conceived notions of what to expect but I found I liked that the “Private Actions” really weren’t as different as everyone said they were. The access was IN the town, not outside like previous games. As for the characters, Miki utterly adores Fidel. She goes from a “little sister” to more during the story and Fidel is a little oblivious. I found that aspect charming for some reason. Fidel and Miki also mirror the original Star Ocean as Roddick and Mili and Emmerson and Anne mirror the original Star Ocean game’s Ronyx Kenny (Emmerson is a distant great grandson of Ronyx) and Ilia which ties the story arcs together but isn’t necessary for understanding the story as it’s been about 200 years between those titles.

    All this would be lost on a newcomer to the Star Ocean franchise but I think SO5 is a great game on its own.

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