Star Ocean (SNES) Review

Click here to view the Star Ocean description page for screenshots, save files, and more information.

Quick Review 

~Review by tankMage (June 2019)

Score: A- (9.0/10)

Here’s a short breakdown of Star Ocean’s strengths and weaknesses, scroll down if you wish to read the full review.

Pros

-Excellent battle engine.

-Crafting system, which was innovative in 1996.

-Large cast with unique abilities.

-A wide variety of special attacks and spells.

-Multiple endings.

-Side quests.

-30 floor bonus dungeon.

-Best VOs on the SNES.

-Good control scheme and UI.

Cons

-Rather short for a 16-RPG at about 25-30 hours.

-Plot elements could have used more elaboration.

-Repetitive sound track.

-Lack of a world map (unless certain conditions are fulfilled) makes backtracking a chore.

-Many sprites and tiles are heavily reused throughout the course of the game.

-Feels more like a standard medieval fantasy RPG despite its sci-fi setting.

-Video lag.

Full Review

A Truly Ambitious RPG

    Usually I say “I wish I could have given this game a higher score!”, but this time around I really wanted to give Star Ocean a slightly lower score than what I think it deserves. This is not because I dislike Star Ocean, nor do I think it is a bad game. If anything, this title was too grand a project for the aging Super Nintendo (technically Super Famicom) and the end result is a technically impressive product that lacks focus. That said, Star Ocean is still fun and is one of the better fan translated RPGs I’ve played to date.

Story 

    Story telling often takes a back seat to gameplay as far as I’m concerned and I have to admit that I’m often very forgiving of narrative inconsistencies. However, Star Ocean’s story is a mess, because they tried to cram way too much into a 30 hour game and the setting feels inconsistent with the way the game is initially presented. Everything starts out in space and most players will probably expect a science fiction setting. Then the focus shifts to the hero, Ratix, and his friends on the primitive planet Roak. Ratix learns that a mysterious disease is turning people into stone and sets out to find a cure. The Roakians soon encounter Ronixis and Iria (two space faring humans) who offer to help. The sci-fi elements fade into the background for the most part after the player visits the spaceship, Calnus, and much of the game is spent on Roak, which is essentially a medieval fantasy world. While the idea is cool, the presentation was muddled as the devs attempted to remind players that the game is indeed a sci-fi title by throwing science fiction references into the plot here and there. The end result is something that will largely disappoint anyone looking for a straight up science fiction RPG.

    The flow of events didn’t do the story any favors either as the devs seemed to have had trouble finding reasons for players to visit towns and dungeons. While certain events are essential to the plot, others were rather arbitrary filler, and some events do not seem to have a resolution. For example, the heroes get separated early on and spend a significant portion of the game simply trying to reunite. There’s no real reason for the party to get separated and it ultimately didn’t do the story any good. Sadly, the devs had unknowingly stumbled upon the solution to their narrative woes by giving certain characters side stories that often lead to dungeons, but they didn’t follow through with this idea by giving everyone a side story, which resulted in a lot of lost potential. Many of the side stories did not go anywhere despite the fact that they were generally tied into the larger plot, which was further disappointing and hurt character development.

    Star Ocean did get some things right. The plot was a bit whacky, but it was also very imaginative and took some unexpected turns. Players could also perform “Private Actions” where Ratix would interact with the other protagonists while visiting towns. These Private Actions can raise or lower the bond between Ratix and the other heroes as well as unlock secrets. Additionally, Private Actions gave many of the protagonists a little bit of desperately needed character development. Cultivating strong friendships with the cast even unlocks different endings, further adding to replay value.

Translation

    DeJap did the translation patch for the SNES version. I’ve seen rumors that they embellished the original dialogue, which is possible, though I cannot confirm this claim. Also, some of the dialogue was a bit difficult to understand thanks to strange wording. The “yes or no” dialogue options as well as the symbols for elemental in the status screen were left untranslated, which can be confusing at first. At least it was easy to guess the meaning of the symbols. Overall, I’d say DeJap did an alright job considering how difficult it must have been to patch this game, but this translation should not be considered definitive.

Graphics 

    Star Ocean is among the most visually impressive SNES RPGs. The cast is beautifully designed and animated. Magic and special skills have a variety of cool looking effects. Even the game world and enemies are detailed. Towns were furnished and bustling with life, which made the game world feel vivacious. I often stopped to marvel at little touches like reflections in water and mysterious engravings in walls. Finally, there were some cool bosses that nearly took up the entire screen, which was impressive. 

    Unfortunately, one can only pack so much into a SNES era cartridge and the devs were forced to do a lot of asset recycling, despite the fact that this is one of the largest SNES games ever made. Consequently, it’s often difficult to distinguish one town from another, though there are differences between the settlements on each continent in general. NPCs tend to look the same no matter what area you are in, which made the towns feel even more generic. The same enemies will pop up throughout the game; in some cases these enemies do not fit the setting at all, because the devs have medieval looking knights and wizards fighting in futuristic locations. A lot of the dungeons are caves that use the same tileset, though there were a few unique dungeons, so they must have been saving the best stuff for last. Finally, all the pretty effects came at a price as this game often suffers from video lag in combat; I usually don’t mention slowdown, because it’s a common problem, but it’s especially pronounced in this game.

One of many cool scenes that appear in Star Ocean.

Music and Sound

    Every playable character has a series of sound clips they use in battle and the sheer variety of these clips is astounding. They are also of impressive quality. Part of the intro is fully voiced over, which is highly impressive if you stop to consider that this is a SNES game. Sadly, the voice acting was merely a novelty that was already becoming common place when Star Ocean was made and I have to say that I took it for granted. tri-Ace had to use special technology to pack in all of the voice clips, which was a baffling decision, since it would have probably been cheaper to make this game for the next generation consoles that were already on the market. With that said, the devs really accomplished something with Star Ocean and it’s great to see what the SNES could do when pushed to its limits.

   Star Ocean’s soundtrack is good, but not quite as well composed as those of other classic RPGs. A few songs distinguished themselves as being particularly catchy, especially the battle theme and one of the plot related tracks. However, sparsity is an issue with the sound track. Players will likely get tired of the music early on as there’s only a few songs that play over and over again. Luckily the sound effects are also really good and add to the game’s anime vibe.

User Interface

    Star Ocean’s user interface is very convenient overall and has one of the best combat systems I’ve seen in an RPG. In combat, players control one character (Ratix by default) in real time and must input commands to attack, activate a skill, and/or use items. Skills can be mapped to the left and right shoulder keys, which allows for fluid combat. Players can switch between the other three party members, but always start in control of Ratix and must manually choose the hero they want to use at the beginning of every battle. Needless to say, this can be bothersome if you prefer to use someone other than Ratix. The rest of the party is controlled by the AI and they generally do a good job, aside from their habit of standing around when there’s only one enemy left.

    Inventory systems can be a major sticking point for older games, but this one is ok. Finding a specific item can be a bit annoying, since there are so many, although it’s possible to move what you want to the top with the sorting system. Producing items in crafting is a little cumbersome, because the game does not allow players to craft batches. Fortunately, the equipment screen is well laid out and it’s possible to auto-equip new gear if it’s better than what you have. Players can also decide what spells or skills their party uses, which is really helpful.

Gameplay

    Star Ocean’s ambitious design didn’t leave a lot of room for content, so we are left with a relatively short game. It took me about 33 hours to complete the main game and I really took my time. Someone just running through this title for the first time could probably finish it in 25 hours if they didn’t tinker around with the crafting system excessively. While the battle engine keeps the gameplay fresh and there are a few interesting things to do, the dungeon design is inconsistent. There aren’t very many bosses either, which puts some of the potential of the battle engine to waste. With that said, Star Ocean is pretty good once it starts to pick up steam after about four hours of filler dungeons and expositional dialogue. 

    Usually I break this section into the particular elements of gameplay, but this time I’m going to talk about the first half of the game vs. the second half. This is because Star Ocean is almost two separate games as I see it. What is roughly the first half of the game is rather boring. You only have a few playable characters, the dungeons seem like they are slapped together (with one exception) and you can’t really do much in the way of crafting items. Things start to pick up in the second portion of the adventure as more heroes join Ratix, bringing a greater variety of abilities with them. Additionally, dungeons are more finely crafted with puzzles and hidden items in the second half. There are also bonus areas to explore and players must make decisions about who they want in their party. Finally, crafting really starts to open up as you acquire more skills (which have to be purchased in town) and tools.

    I’m not really sure why Star Ocean is so lopsided, though time and cartridge space were certainly part of the problem. Maybe the fundamental mechanics of the game were to blame, since it’s unreasonable to throw a bunch of characters and crafting abilities at new players right from the start, but other devs have succeeded in making entertaining content for early portions of their games. This leads me to think that tri-Ace didn’t really know how to balance exposition with early gameplay and had trouble getting Star Ocean off the ground as a result. In a way I prefer the dull beginning over a poor ending, because this game is at least satisfying in the end.

This boss looks like it’s been smokin’ the good stuff.

    As for the crafting system, well… it’s another aspect of this title that wasn’t fully brought to fruition. Many of the best pieces of equipment and items have to be created by the player, but there’s not a lot of stuff that can be made at the end of the day. Characters need to train in skills by spending skill points awarded upon level up in order to learn a craft. Players who do so will eventually be able to do everything from writing skill books, to making weapons, and even duplicating items. The process is generally rewarding, yet tedious, because you will often fail. If you fail at improving a rare weapon, you’ll have to reload a save file, because the weapon will be ruined. This is fine by me, but heroes also need talent to succeed in crafting and what talent any given hero has is randomly assigned. If you do not happen to have anyone with a certain talent, you’ll have to teach it to them through trial and error, which can take an eternity. This adds another layer of tedium to the process that was not necessary. Even worse, some heroes cannot acquire certain talents and players have no way of knowing this unless they use a guide.

    I don’t want this review to run too long, but I should talk about the battle system in general, which is one of the best on the SNES. As I said before, combat takes place in real time and it’s a lot of fun, in fact it puts the battle engines of many other titles to shame. Your heroes will also learn a variety of combat abilities (probably about 8 per character) that are fun to unlock and experiment with. Unfortunately, there’s not much variety in terms of enemies and it won’t take long to figure how to deal with just about any threat in the game. On top of that, players will only encounter a handful of bosses, so even the brilliant combat engine falls just short of its potential.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that there is a secret, 30 floor bonus dungeon that becomes available once the player beats the game. As one would imagine, this dungeon can be a challenge and adds a little extra something to a short adventure.

Final Thoughts

    I waited decades to play Star Ocean, partly due to the fact that it was not available in English until 2003 and because I wanted to play a few of the Super Famicom games that never made it to North America in order to gain some perspective. Ultimately, Star Ocean is better than most of the exclusively Japanese SNES titles I’ve played, but not quite of the same caliber as something like Live A Live. It’s also a game that seems to be a victim of its own mystique as it was quite popular with an earlier wave of players, but has faced more criticism as time has progressed. I do not think this is due Star Ocean’s failings, because it’s a decent and innovative game even with its flaws. Instead, it’s more likely that people approach this game with unrealistic expectations based on all of the hype it has received over the years.

Recommendations 

Fans of the Star Ocean series should play this or the remake if only to see how it all started. It’s also a fine choice for those who enjoy 16-bit RPGs in general.

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