Game Review: Star Ocean - The Divine Force

Reviewed on PlayStation 5

I'm a JRPG/RPG/MMORPG kinda guy.  I like running around large expansive worlds grinding out kills on random enemies while hunting for hidden chests, crafting materials, secret bosses, and all that jive. I've been known to spend dozens, perhaps maybe even hundreds, of hours grinding up character levels and/or money so that my party will be at max level and super OP when I get to that mid-game boss that expects me to be at like level 30 with medium level gear. I'm an explorer. I'm a fighter. I'm a crafter. I'm a grinder. All the things that RPGs were built to do and encourage.

I've played other games in the Star Ocean series before. It has always been a decent RPG to me but nothing that got me super excited when a new game was announced. It has been one of those games that I would pick up when there was a lull between other major releases I wanted to play or if I found it on sale and didn't want to pass up a bargain. That's not to say that they aren't good games, they just were never my "go to" games like Final Fantasy, Xenoblade, or The Elder Scrolls series (Morrowind, Skyrim, etc.).

I casually followed this game's announcement through to its recent release. It was a name that was familiar to me and a series that I knew so I kept an eye on it. I didn't pre-order a copy of it. I didn't rush out to buy it on launch day. I didn't even bother to see what platforms it was available on. One day I got bored so I stopped at my local GameStop and looked to see what was there. I found the PS4 copy of this game and snagged it because it said there was a PS5 upgrade included, meaning that if I put the PS4 disc in my PS5 that I could download the PS5 version from the online store for free.

Thanks to my country Internet speeds, it took several hours for me to get the PS5 version downloaded (60+ GB of data) and installed but by the next day I was off adventuring. And so far I've not gotten too deep into the game but I've put enough hours into it to start drawing some conclusions and forming some opinions about my experience.

Firstly, the game looks beautiful on my PS5. Everything looks smooth with vibrant colors and interesting designs. However, animation specifically around the mouths of the models when they speak during cut scenes is not great. It really looks like it was modeled after a sock puppet that just flaps its jaw up and down with no real expression or contour. During most of the game this isn't an issue as you don't look at your characters' mouths during combat or anything but if you pay attention to the cut scenes it is a bit distracting and something of a disappointment. Otherwise, the animation, character models, fluidity of motion, and everything else seems top notch up to this point.

Combat is a bit of a hit and miss in this game for me. It is an active, real-time combat system. This means that I can run around within the 3-D environment and attack various targets at will without having to wait until it is my turn. Everything happens at speed, which is the modern RPG approach. Where it gets tricky for me is the requirement and expenditure of Action Points (or AP) in order to execute attacks. AP automatically rebuilds so you are never without AP and it rebuilds somewhat quickly but the main character has 3 different attack options, each with its own AP requirement. You can burn through your AP super fast and then not have anything left in the tank all of the sudden.

This use and restore approach I think was designed to help control the flow and speed of combat to keep the game from becoming nothing but a hack-and-slash but at the same time it reduces my enjoyment of the combat. It is hard to explain. Its like I'd rather have a turn-based combat system where I can see and plan for the next turn to better utilize my AP whereas in this real-time combat, I'm just expending my AP as fast as I can to defeat the horde of enemies that surround me. The developers didn't want the game to be a hack-and-slash but it almost ends up feeling like one at the same time.

Who knows, maybe as I progress deeper into the game the combat system will start to make more sense and feel more like an RPG battle system.

Beyond that, the game has all of the trademarks of a typical RPG. You adventure across an expansive area as you travel from town to town. Each new town you visit seemingly coincides with the ability to buy new gear and items that might be considered upgrades to what you purchased in the previous town. There is an overarching main storyline that drives the game but along the way you can take on a variety of side quests to earn additional rewards or special items. Each party member has unique equipment and skills that you can manage and upgrade as they level up through acquiring experience points (XP) by killing monsters or completing quests. There's even a mini-game inside the game that allows you to challenge NPCs to play against to earn other rewards, think Gwent from the Witcher 3.

There isn't anything about the game that I've seen so far that is groundbreaking or innovative. It looks like a typical RPG. It plays like a typical RPG. The story has all of the hallmarks of a typical RPG. It is just an RPG.

If you like playing RPGs and aren't looking for anything particular, pick this up and play it. You probably won't be blown away by anything in it but as a fan of the genre it is likely to at least meet your minimum expectations.

I have read some other reviews that dogged the game for it's lack of innovation and it's seeming reliance on "old-school RPG tropes". To a degree, I agree with some of those assessments but at the same time the developer never promised anything else. The game was pitched as a traditional RPG and it hits that note so anyone upset with the game for not being more than that are somewhat unjustified because of their own expectations versus any expectations set by the developers...

I will say that there is a lot of depth to the character development to explore via the game menus but the game doesn't drive you to those areas. Instead, the game waits for you to explore a menu on your own before it gives you any information. There is no real introduction or player guide that leads the player into character development.

This lack of player education did create something of a frustration point for me. In the first boss fight of the game I found myself outmatched. No matter what tactics I tried, I could not kill the boss. That is until I started exploring the menus and found where I could upgrade my skills, improve my stats, and unlock new skills. Only when I went searching for those options did the game explain my options. I had leveled up several times prior to reaching that boss fight but the game did not prompt me or inform me that such features were available. Part of me just thought that those features were temporarily locked until I reached a certain point in the story, as is common in many games, but apparently that was not the case.

In a nutshell, there is a lot to like from this game if you are a fan of old-school JRPG games but at the same time there is plenty to groan about. I don't think this title will win Game of the Year or even be a contender for that award but I do think that it is a decent enough game that if you are looking for a JRPG to play until the next big game you're waiting on releases then this might make for a suitable "filler" game. There's enough to explore and do to encourage you to spend a lot of hours grinding, fighting, searching, exploring, and all that you want to do in an RPG but it isn't a game that has that "WOW!" factor that will make you addicted to playing it.

Honestly, I see a lot of people who buy this game never finishing it because something better releases and their attention is drawn to that new game. Star Ocean - The Divine Force is an alright game but it lacks that special sensation that motivates you to play it, even when other games are calling out to you. This is what I would call a background game at best. Something you play when you need a break from your "main" games or something to fill the days between when you beat your last game and the release of your next game. It's playable but not memorable.


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