The history of the Star Ocean series is an interesting one, to say the least. The first entry in the series, released back in 1996 on Nintendo's Super Famicom system in Japan, was the first game developed by tri-Ace as an answer to Namco's Tales of Phantasia, which members of tri-Ace worked on as part of Wolf Team. And in many ways, the original Star Ocean surpassed the first entry in the Tales series by offering a more dynamic story whose final outcome was partially influenced by the choices players made during Private Actions, special optional events that allowed players to learn more about characters and deepen their bonds with protagonist Roddick.

The Star Ocean series' popularity was further consolidated with the second and third entries in the series, Second Story and Till the End of Time, which, unlike the first entry in the series, were released in the West. While the Tales series languished in the West due to Namco not localizing many of the best entries in the series, Star Ocean thrived, and it seemed like there was no stopping the series from becoming one of the most popular JRPG series worldwide.

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Somewhere along the way, however, something broke. HD development, as they call developing PC and console games since the PS3 and Xbox 360 era in Japan, proved to be challenging for many Japanese teams, and tri-Ace struggled more than most. Following the extremely disappointing Infinite Undiscovery, the team released the fourth entry in their iconic series, Star Ocean: The Last Hope, which was not on the same level as the three games that preceded it. While the gameplay was mostly fine, the game left a lot to be desired regarding characters and story, featuring some of the most annoying ever seen in a role-playing game. The series further went down with the release of Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness in 2016, a game with an incredibly small scope that felt like Star Ocean only for recycling gameplay features and visual and audio assets.

At this point, the series seemed at an endpoint, but tri-Ace wasn't yet done with it, releasing a solid mobile RPG called Star Ocean: Anamnesis that proved the team still had what it takes to craft a compelling experience. The mobile game did so well for tri-Ace that they got the chance to make yet another full-fledged entry in the series called Star Ocean: The Divine Force, which, while not on the same level as the first three entries in the series, is pretty close to it, and a far cry from The Last Hope and Integrity and Faithlessness in pretty much every aspect.

Star Ocean: The Divine Force, like Star Ocean: Second Story, features two different main characters. Raymond Lawrence, a young man from the non-federated planet of Verguld who commands the merchant ship Ydas under Lawrence Logistics, his family's company, and Laeticia Aucerius, the princess of the kingdom of Aucerius which dominates vast sways of land on the underdeveloped planet of Aster IV, where the vast majority of the story takes place. While the two characters' storylines aren't that much different, they provide different points of view on the story - Raymond's more sci-fi focused, while Laeticia's more fantasy focused. The two characters split up quite often during the adventure, so to get the full picture, players must play through both campaigns, which take roughly 40 hours each to complete with minimal side content completed.

Even with the different perspectives, the basics of the story are pretty much the same. After crashlanding on Aster IV following the destruction of the Ydas, Raymond meets Laeticia and her sworn shield Albaird, who do not seem particularly fazed by his unusual appearance and the foreign technology he uses. Resolved to find his missing crew members, Raymond embarks on a journey together with Laeticia and Albaird, who are also on a journey to meet one of the kingdom's former Maesters, whose help is needed to keep the kingdom itself together in the face of the coming conflict with a powerful neighbor. During this journey, they will learn of a massive conspiracy that, if not stopped, may change not only Aster IV but the entire universe.

As fans of the series can already tell at this point, Star Ocean: The Divine Force doesn't stray too far from what the franchise has already done in the past, but this doesn't mean that the story is bad. Despite a very slow start, which is a staple of the series by now, it becomes engaging enough down the line as the stakes get higher and the stories of Aster IV and the Pangalactic Federation merge for some interesting revelations in the final segments. While there are plenty of references to past entries in the series, having played other Star Ocean games is not mandatory to fully understand The Divine Force's story, as the in-game codex also provides some information on the series' universe and lore.

Where Star Ocean: The Divine Force decisively sets itself apart from some of the past entries in the series are the characters, who are all quite enjoyable in some way or another, despite some of them being a little tropey. Both main characters are extremely likable as well. Raymond is a strong young man who tries to make the best out of his predicament, showing incredible dedication to his crew members and his new companions, facing adversities head-on but without being overly and unrealistically cocky. Laeticia, on the other hand, is more mild-mannered, but her resolve is just as strong as Raymond's, making her something more than the typical damsel in distress or warrior princess who is ultimately not much of a warrior.

The rest of the cast is just as entertaining as Raymond and Laeticia. To give a few examples, Albaird's may feel a little obnoxious at the start, but his true motivations and the reasons behind his attitude are developed during the course of the story and the many Private Actions available throughout the game, making him more relatable. Nina's life mission to create a cure for the disease that claimed her father's life doesn't prevent her from being cheerful and supportive, an attitude that does not feel as forced as it did in The Last Hope. And while some of the characters get a little sidelined in the main campaign, the aforementioned Private Actions give them a decent level of development.

Star Ocean: The Divine Force feels quite traditional even in gameplay. While it generally feels like a PS3, Xbox 360-era JRPG, tri-Ace updated the formula in some interesting ways to make both exploration and combat more engaging than in previous entries.

Like the vast majority of modern JRPGs, Star Ocean: The Divine Force doesn't feature a traditional world map, so players need to physically move from one location to another, such as villages, towns, cities, temples, caves, and so on by traversing a variety of fields. Aster IV has some pretty diverse biomes ranging from woods to plains, hills, and mountains, which feel much more open than they actually are, thanks to their design which give an amazing sense of scale and feature plenty of optional areas that players can explore to open up treasure chests and gather resources that can be used for Item Creation, one of the series' central mechanics which make a glorious return in the game. The best thing about locations is verticality, which was pretty much required due to the inclusion of D.U.M.A., a mysterious small robot helper that makes not only exploration but also combat shine.

After reaching a certain point in the story, Raymond will recover D.U.M.A., which can be used to briefly fly around any location, allowing the party to reach many locations that are normally not accessible. Flying through fields and towns feels great, speeding up traversal considerably and opening up new exploration possibilities. Some locations, for example, have simple platforming sequences that bring some welcome variety, considering they do feel a little empty. In other cases, reaching some high locations is not a simple matter of aiming D.U.M.A. and flying off, so there are times when finding the right place from where to take off becomes part of the fun. Alongside items and resources for Item Creation, players who explore fully are rewarded with D.U.M.A. points, which can be used to improve D.U.M.A.'s field and combat skills. These combat skills are particularly important, as the small robot also plays a big role in combat.

Among the best features in Star Ocean: The Divine Force is undoubtedly the combat system, which would have felt pretty fun even with the mechanics tied to D.U.M.A. Like in its predecessor, enemies are fought right where they are encountered with a party of four characters, one controlled by the player and three others by AI. Switching between characters is very easy and quick, so players can adjust on the fly if needed. Additionally, the game features a Pause Mode which stops time entirely, allowing players to switch targets, change characters, and use items without worrying about getting overwhelmed by the enemy. The quick character switching and Pause Mode are very reminiscent of the Final Fantasy VII Remake combat system, although switching characters is not as important in Star Ocean: The Divine Force.

Battles in Star Ocean: The Divine Force are real-time action battles where characters can use a variety of Chain or Active Skills assigned to three of the face buttons by spending APs, which naturally refill in a couple of seconds if the controlled character does not attack or run. Chain Skills are attack skills, while Active Skills are special skills that grant a variety of buffs. A total of four skills can be assigned to each button, three to button presses and one to hold, for a maximum of 12 skills which grants tons of flexibility and combo potential.

This system is very reminiscent of the one used in Tales of Berseria, although it is not as freeform. In Tales of Berseria, it is possible to chain together, for example, Arte 1 from Tree 1 and Arte 2 from Tree 3, but in The Divine Force, the sequence is always reset, so pressing the Triangle button after using two Chain Skills assigned to the Square button will unleash the first Chain Skill assigned to the Triangle button, and not the third. It's not a major issue, but doing that would have made the system even more versatile and fun. Another feature that is heavily inspired by the latest Tales titles is the Perfect Dodge mechanics that grant buffs to characters if the player manages to dodge an enemy attack at the very last second.

The combat system basics described above are enhanced by the aforementioned D.U.M.A. mechanics, whose mastery is extremely important to make the best out of combat and survive the most challenging encounters. By holding the right shoulder button, players can activate D.U.M.A and use it to unleash VA or Vanguard Attack, a powerful rushing attack that has different properties between characters. During the rushing portion of the attack, players can press any direction to attempt a Blindside, a maneuver that leaves the enemy stun locked for a few seconds and makes them take double damage. How long enemies are stun locked depends on the amount of VA Gauge available at the time of the Vanguard Assault attack, which is restored by attacking the enemy using Chain Skills. Performing a Blindside will also increase the total amount of AP, essentially becoming a requirement if the player wants to perform longer and more intricate combos using the equipped Chain Skills. Activating D.U.M.A. will also put a shield up that nullifies damage with enough VA and makes the attacking enemy flinch, which is extremely important as some stronger enemies do not by using Chain Skills outside of stun lock. Later on in the game, players are able to use D.U.M.A.'s Estery Cage, which increases the defense of all party members while disabling VA attacks, and Vatting, powerful special synchronized attacks which can be used once the dedicated gauge is full.

While all these elements sound a little complicated on paper, they come together quite well in the game, although their mastery becomes important only at the Universe difficulty level, as the game is pretty easy at the Galaxy and Earth difficulties, where mashing buttons works well most of the time against mobs. Bosses at Universe difficulty can be very challenging, so knowledge of the mechanics and proper character development via the dedicated Skill trees are extremely important to emerge victorious from the most challenging enemy encounters.

Combat in Star Ocean: The Divine Force capitalizes on how the characters feel different from one another because some of them come with very unique mechanics. While Raymond and Laeticia do feel a little by the books, the first being a typical heavy melee fighter, featuring a combination of fast light skills and slower hard-hitting attacks, and the second a faster swordswoman capable of using multi-hitting attacks and a fast launching attack that can be followed up by a Vanguard Assault to start aerial combos, there are a few other characters that feel rather unique. Albaird is a long-range mage hybrid who can fight enemies with ease while keeping away from them; Nina is a very interesting new type of healer who can use AOE skills to heal and buff party members; Elena can use a lot of different weapons, and J.J. is a space samurai with a counter-based playstyle with slightly less mobility compared to the rest of the cast that feels great to use. So, while button mashing could be a viable strategy at certain difficulty settings, the game has enough depth for those who seek it.

As already mentioned, Star Ocean: The Divine Force also brings back some of the series' most defining features - Private Actions and Item Creation. Like in previous entries in the series, Private Actions allow players to deepen the bonds between Raymond and Laeticia and their companions while developing them further. Unlike in other games like The Last Hope, they are all quite grounded, which makes them, in turn, more enjoyable. They are completely optional, so they also often provide a good reason to return to previously visited towns, which is made easier by a very handy fast-traveling option.

Item Creation is another very welcome return that allows players to create and customize all sorts of items. The system feels a lot like that featured in the second entry in the series, with all characters coming with special Talents that make them better at certain things and the potential to learn new ones as they create more items. Item Creation also grants SP, which can be used to customize characters further and improve all their skills, including Item Creation skills, so engaging in some Item Creation every now and then is definitely beneficial in the long run.

Private Actions and Item Creation aren't the only game-spanning side activities players can complete, as Star Ocean: The Divine Force introduces a brand new minigame called Es'owa which can be played with NPCs all over Aster IV. The minigame is quite easy to pick and play, feeling like a unique game of checkers, and the many pawns that can be obtained by defeating opponents, many of them representing characters from the series as well as from other tri-Ace properties such as Valkyrie Profile and Radiata Stories, make it a worthwhile side activity for those who love collecting items.

While Star Ocean: The Divine Force mostly delivers in story and gameplay, despite not moving past the series' boundaries, the same cannot be said of the visuals and the presentation, which should not be a shock to those who know tri-Ace's recent history. To be honest, the visuals aren't particularly bad, as locations around Aster IV and beyond are designed decently and provide a nice sense of scale that, while not quite as significant as in the Xenoblade Chronicles series, does make the world feel bigger and believable. They are also decently detailed, though it is hard not to notice low-quality textures in close-up shots and some other visual glitches with shadows and draw distance. Character models are considerably improved than those seen in the previous entries in the series as well. They still have that weird doll-like appearance, but it is much toned down thanks to greatly improved facial animations that make them look more like actual persons. Sadly, the bad lip-synching ruins immersion not just because it is slightly off with the English dub but also because mouths are animated in 30 frames per second, which creates a very unpleasant feeling when playing in Performance Mode on PlayStation 5, which targets 60 frames per second. Despite the frame rate drops in combat with multiple enemies and in towns with multiple NPCs, Performance Mode is the way to play the game on Sony's current generation console, as Quality Mode feels terribly sluggish and doesn't add much visual polish other than a bump in resolution that doesn't exactly clear the visuals' blurriness. The game's font is also very small and can sometimes be difficult to read, especially with some distance from the screen.

Sadly, voice acting and soundtrack don't fare much better than the visuals. While the English dub is competent for the most part, it is far from the best we have heard recently, with some performances feeling a little flat. On the other hand, the soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba is decisively disappointing, as battle themes, fields, dungeons, and towns music sound like a worse version of what the composer usually creates for the series. There's nothing wrong with them, but there is nothing that truly stands out.

Everything considered, is Star Ocean: The Divine Force the glorious comeback fans have been waiting for years? I would have to say so, despite some issues here and there. A far cry from the fourth and fifth entries in the series regarding story and gameplay, Star Ocean: The Divine Force is a solid effort that shows how tri-Ace still has what it takes to create a compelling space adventure.

PlayStation 5 version tested. Review code provided by the publisher.

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8.0
Wccftech Rating
Star Ocean: The Divine Force
Star Ocean: The Divine Force

Even with some issues here and there, Star Ocean: The Divine Force is undoubtedly a return to form for the series by tri-Ace. The game delivers a solid JRPG experience that both fans of the series and newcomers will enjoy thanks to the best battle system in the series to date, likable characters, and an engaging but a little slow and not particularly surprising story. Some technical issues and by-the-books game design do take something away from the experience, but for those looking for a traditional Japanese role-playing game with plenty of heart, Star Ocean: The Divine Force is the game to get.

Pros
  • Engaging story that uses the series' universe and lore well
  • Likable characters
  • Good level design with plenty of verticality to suit the new exploration mechanics
  • Best action battle system in the series to date
Cons
  • Story takes a while to get going
  • Visually dated
  • Noticeable frame rate drops in combat and towns, even in Performance Mode
  • The whole experience is, sometimes, a little too traditional
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