The Star Ocean series has been running since 1996, but it has fallen on hard times following the release of Star Ocean: The Last Hope, an acceptable JRPG but not on the same level as its predecessors, and Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, without a doubt the worst entry in the series. Despite these struggles, publisher Square Enix was willing to give another chance to tri-Ace's most popular series, leading to the development of Star Ocean: The Divine Force, which feels like a return to form, despite a few issues which aren't really that surprising, given the studio's recent history.
The Star Ocean: The Divine Force playable demo allows players to experience a small part of Raymond's story, starting from an attack on his ship, which forced him and his crew to abandon it in all haste. Following his dramatic escape, Raymond ends up on an underdeveloped planet where he meets princess Laeticia and her guard Albaird. Determined to find other crew members who may have crashlanded on this planet, Raymond enters an initially uneasy alliance with the two, not knowing he will get deeply involved in a war between two different kingdoms.
While the story featured in the demo feels a little awkward, we do know that it won't be representative of that of the final game, as it is an abridged version with some cuts. Even like this, however, it is clear that it won't deviate too much from what the franchise has offered so far, as the setup is similar to that of the second and third entries in the series. The demo, unfortunately, doesn't feature Laeticia's story, so we do not know how different the two stories will be.
Gameplay-wise, Star Ocean: The Divine Force feels like a major step forward not only from Integrity and Faithlessness but also from The Last Hope. The series has always been about grand space adventures, but it has almost always failed to deliver a proper sense of scale. This feels like it won't be the case in the fifth entry in the series, mostly thanks to D.U.M.A., a special robot that allows the party to fly and glide around. This ability influenced level design greatly, with locations featuring a good amount of verticality. How exploration will be rewarded outside of special crystals that allow players to improve D.U.M.A.'s abilities remains to be seen, but flying to speed up traversal already feels great at the start of the game.
D.U.M.A's unique abilities also play an important role in the Star Ocean: The Divine Force combat. For the second time in the series, combat occurs exactly where enemies are encountered, but the system is astronomically better than the one featured by its predecessor. Controlling a party of up to four characters, with the ability to switch between characters on the fly, players can unleash skills in quick succession as long as they have AP. The game seems to have gone the way of the most recent entries in the Tales series, doing away with regular attacks like in Tales of Berseria and featuring three different Skill chains or trees tied to three face buttons and rewarding perfectly timed dodges. While the chains of skills are always played in the order they are set, so there's no using, for example, skill 1 in chain 1 and then skill 2 in chain 3, like in the aforementioned Tales of Berseria, setting skills properly can lead to complex combos that feel great to pull off.
The AP system may feel a little limiting at first, but in reality, it really isn't. AP recharges pretty quickly, and the total number of points can be extended by doing well in battle and performing specific actions, like Blindsides, which make a return from Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Blindsides are performed with the help of D.U.M.A., whose actions in battle are regulated by the VA gauge, by holding the dedicated button to lift in the air and releasing it to unleash Vanguard Assault, a rushing attack. If the enemy is facing the controlled character, and the direction of the rushing attack is changed at the very last second, the enemy will be left confused, unable to move, and open to highly-damaging attacks. In my opinion, the new approach to Blindsides is much better than that seen in The Last Hope, as VA is consumed to perform the rushing attack and the potential Blindside maneuver, and the higher the VA value is, the better the Blindside bonuses will be, essentially preventing it from being as spammable as it was the third entry in the series. With VA getting restored only by using skills and AP only by stopping, the system creates a nice balance between full-on offense and defense. As each character's skill tree includes many different abilities, combat will surely get better as the adventure proceeds.
While the game looks dated when it comes to visuals (despite tri-Ace slightly improving their typical doll-like character models and stiff animations), I feel like Star Ocean: The Divine Force will be a very solid entry in the series, thanks to the tweaks made to the series' action combat system and the introduction of D.U.M.A. which can finally make underdeveloped planets feel as massive as they should always have been. Having been a massive fan of the series since Star Ocean: The Second Story, I was left satisfied with the little slice of the game featured in the demo and cannot wait to experience more of The Divine Force next month.
Star Ocean: The Divine Force launches on PC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, and Xbox One on October 27th worldwide.
Demo tested on PlayStation 5.