This game felt like a fucking miracle when it got announced. Not only had tri-Ace been bought out by a filthy mobile game company, but they hadn't really made a game of their own for the past 7 years since Star Ocean 4. All they did since that time was help out other studios in co-developing a bunch of horse shit that nobody cares about like Final Fantasy XIII sequels. Star Ocean is without question one of the greatest series of all time, and for all intents and purposes it seemed to be dead, so when this game got announced I was so happy I was practically flipping tables. The only other announcements that could make me as happy as this would be the return of Trauma Center (on console, NOT handheld) or the true return of Devil May Cry. Sadly the former is completely impossible due to the death of the Wii(u) and motion controls, and the latter may as well be impossible due to Crapcon being an unmitigated shitshow filled with nothing but hacks, frauds and douchebags who wouldn't know quality if it jizzed in their mouths.
But at least we still got Star Ocean. Even though Star Ocean 4 was a good game, it was still somewhat of a disappointment for assorted reasons and couldn't measure up to the pinnacle of the series that was SO3. Star Ocean 5 seemed like a good opportunity for the series to return to form, especially because the devs said that they wanted the game to feel more like SO3. Sadly, as I'm going to go over soon, they have failed in this endeavor once again. SO5 ends up being more or less about as good as SO4 (which is still pretty good, but a failure compared to what's expected of this series), but oddly not in the same areas. SO5 fixes some of the bad things about SO4, but then also has other things that it does worse.
Let's start from the top though. Originally I had thought that SO5 looked graphically identical to SO4 (which to me was a perfectly good thing), but it actually looks much better than I was giving it credit for, and that didn't become apparent until I was actually playing it. Maybe the reason is because even though the graphics are technically better they still kept the looks and style of the characters and world completely true to Star Ocean. This is a great thing. For anyone who has been pining for Star Ocean since 4, everything about how this game looks, the art, the towns and places, feels like coming home.
As expected, the music in this game is fucking amazing. The legendary Motoi Sakuraba is back where he works best: tri-Ace games. They've also brought back a TON of great songs from previous games. This isn't anything unexpected, but always cool to see. They've brought back a lot from SO4 (which is great because SO4 had amazing music) but also from others. I couldn't believe that they brought back The Divine Spirit of Language! That song is one of my all-time favorites and needs to be used MUCH more than it has. Another of my favorites that they brought back is Confidence in the Domination. But the best thing they did? They finally, finally, FINALLY brought back Mission to the Deep Space as the post-game dungeon song! Specifically, the SO3 version. They didn't even remix it or anything this time. It's just literally ripped straight off SO3. That was the best version of it so I'm cool with that. But oh man. This made me so happy. It has been so long I thought it would never come back. It had been, what, FIVE fucking games since they stopped using that song? It was inexplicable. How COULD they break the sacred, time-honored tri-Ace tradition of Mission to the Deep Space in such a brazen, callous, and cruel manner?! I was willing to begrudgingly let it slide in other games, but when they didn't use it in SO4 that was the last fucking straw. That was the point where I thought "Maybe...maybe that's really it. It's never coming back." but thank fuck that they've finally seen the light again on this front. That moment when I'm going into the Maze of Tribulations for the first time in this game, closing my eyes and hoping against all hope that I hear those eminently familiar notes starting up. And then, against all odds, the payoff. That feeling? Justice.
That's one of the problems this game fixes from SO4. The other one is the characters. The characters in SO4 were god awful, but the ones in SO5 are thankfully better. The protagonist in this looks the coolest out of all the games, although I instantly felt like he had a pretty faggy voice, which I suppose is in keeping with SO tradition. It grated on me at first but I got used to it after a while. Also in keeping with SO tradition, the main childhood friend girl is an annoying shitty character that you constantly want to get rid of but can't because the plot won't let you. Plus in classic SO fashion the game tries to force her down your throat all throughout the game. Ugh. That's one SO tradition I sure wish they would break. Plus her voice sucks, but I suppose that means the VA did a good job because it fits her shitty ass perfectly. Aside from that the rest are decent and better than what SO4 gave us. Strangely, this is the first Star Ocean in 20 years to not have the token badass party member (Dias/Albel/Arumat), which is a shame because that was always one of my favorite character archetypes. They have the great Crispin Freeman voicing a party member (!) but I feel like they wasted him on a character that is too upright and straightforward for his talents. He always does best with characters that are badass/mysterious/insane like Albel, Albedo and Alucard (give him anyone that starts with Al and it'll be great, apparently).
Another of the things that I hated the most about SO4 was how they inexplicably removed pair endings from the game even though by that point it was KNOWN that that was an integral part of the series. Welp, we can thank Buddha that they have seen the light once again. Pair endings are fucking back, baby. Not to the extent of SO2 that you can pair every single party member with anyone else, but to the extent of SO3 that you can pair the protagonist, which is the one that matters, so that's good enough. Start brewing your stock of Love Potion #256, 'cause Star Ocean endings are back to how they're supposed to be.
It bears mentioning that I'm also happy that Welch is back. That was another one of my hopes for this game, and they haven't disappointed until now. Sadly she's no longer the cheerleader for item creation the way she was in SO4. Boooooo! I miss Welch saying dumb bullshit every time you're creating something. I want Laura Bailey cheerleading me every time I do anything in my life.
As is probably becoming very apparent, Star Ocean is at its best when it stays traditional and brings back all the classics from previous entries. Sadly, the places where Star Ocean 5 departed from tradition and "innovated", I feel are almost all mistakes. Making cutscenes seamlessly transition from gameplay and letting you still walk around and move the camera while people are talking is a terrible idea. It's a huge hit to the presentation quality of the cutscenes because it's harder to look at character animations and facial expressions and it does away with cool dramatic camera angles and shit like that. The point of cutscenes is to let the game control the camera so that the player's attention is focused on the important parts of a scene. With how much freedom they give you to dick around in this you can completely miss stuff that's happening and it just feels terrible besides. I cannot believe that someone literally saw this and went "Yeah, this is a good change". I just can't. Traditional cutscenes are still in the game, but they are now very rare.
Making battle transitions completely seamless is also worse for many reasons. The CORRECT way to handle random encounters is to make it so that when you touch an enemy you are transported to an abstract generic battlefield where the actual battle will take place, the way it's been done by EVERY RPG with some SENSE for DECADES. But now in SO5 for some retard reason, they've made it so that you seamlessly transition from field mode to battle mode and fight with enemies right there wherever you are. First of all, doing this removed victory fanfare and character victory animations with dramatic closeups and spinning camera angles and all that good shit. WHY would you do that! That was an important part of the game you FUCKS. Now when you win a battle everybody just unceremoniously puts their weapons away and you're immediately on your way. A small window pops up on the side of the screen telling you how much exp and money and what items you won, and disappears so quickly that you have to be on point lest you miss what you got. It also removed the cool character level up animations! Well, that's a bit of a lie, they're still there, but it's just so much less cool now that the camera won't individually zoom in on every individual level up and tell you how much stats went up and whatnot. Now you just get a sad little ding and it doesn't even tell you what level you are, what stats went up, nothing. SO4 handled this MUCH better. They changed it, now it sucks. Leveling doesn't feel good enough in this game anymore.
Furthermore, not having enemy encounters transport you to a generic battlefield makes it so that you can't get into encounters just anywhere. Obviously you can't fight in tight spaces or corridors, which makes them have to accomodate the geography of areas to this new style of encounters. Now places are like... corridor > open encounter room > corridor > open encounter room > etc. It hurts the dungeon design in a huge way. I'm actually not certain if this shitty dungeon design is entirely a product of the way encounters work now, or if it's laziness, or if the game was rushed. I will say that the game does feel rushed in many aspects. This is just one of them. Dungeons are now shorter, simpler, and more boring than before. As I said it's mostly just linear paths with battle areas in between. There are no puzzles or places that require you to interact with objects to advance. Nothing. If you compare the final dungeon in SO4 with the one in SO5 it's a pretty stark difference. The SO4 one feels really epic in both size, complexity and variety, starting from the outside planet with the different levels of terrain, the jumps, the goop ball elevators, going into the big temple with the swinging pendulums and the doors that warp you to different asteroids. The SO5 one is pretty much just a straight line and you get through it in a few minutes. It's fucking depressing.
Another reason I say the game feels rushed is because there is only one post-game dungeon. What the fuck? SO3 had three post-game dungeons! Even SO4 at least had two. The fuck is this shit? And the one that you do have here isn't even as good as in previous games. It's extremely dumbed down with a very bland and simplified design, with the same corridor > battle > corridor > battle architecture as all the other dungeons, everywhere looks exactly the fucking same, and to make matters worse there are no longer any cool fourth wall breaking cutscenes or dialogue or storytelling in the post-game dungeon. I remember in SO3 when you went into the maze of tribulations you got a public address telling you that the things happening there were just for fun, and then you got a bunch of scenes like with Lenneth and Puffy, and the characters commented on what was going on, and what they were fighting, and the bosses talked too and said stuff before the fight. But in SO5 there's none of that. It's all very dry, nobody ever says anything, no comments, no scenes, fights just start immediately with nobody saying anything... it just feels rushed. Then add to that the fact that during development the game was delayed nearing the original release date specifically because they said they felt that they needed more time to add more content to the game... pretty damning evidence if you ask me. Apparently even that extra time was still not enough. Instead of giving you a completely new post-game dungeon after you complete the one in the game, they give you fake content by simply having you go through the same one multiple times just to fight stronger versions of the bosses. Pathetic.
More evidence pointing to the game being rushed is that there really aren't very many areas in the game. Now, I'm not gonna sit here and tell you that a game needs a lot of areas in order to be good. That's absolutely not true. Some of the best games I've ever played have taken place in a single building. A game can even take place in a single room or a single train and be great. It's not about the quantity of places, and definitely not about the size either. It's about the creativity and the heart that goes into the game. If enough creativity and heart goes into that single room it'll be better than an infinite amount of planets. That's the truth. But in the context of Star Ocean, we have to compare it to the previous games. Star Ocean 5 has both less content, and what we do have is more simplified and blandly designed. In this context, it doesn't seem like a deliberate design choice with good intentions. It's just another piece of mounting evidence telling me the game was probably rushed.
Another of the things I'm most disappointed about is the lack of colosseum and bunny races. I mean what the fuck? That's a classic part of Star Ocean! How could they forget about it?! Did they forget about it... or did they not have time to put it in? Is this yet more evidence or just regular garden variety idiocy? The world may never know.
The battle system is up to the same standards as you'd expect from Star Ocean, so on that front this game delivers. I'm not too big of a fan of them increasing the size of your party to 7 people. It gets a little overcrowded with that many people fighting at the same time. I felt like 4 was a perfect amount. 3 and 5 is also acceptable. But 7? You know what they say. Four's company, seven's a crowd. You get used to it, so it's not a huge issue I guess. Not compared to some of the gigantic issues I went through previously. It does make it more difficult to obsessively micromanage everybody, but it's not too bad since you can pause and take as much time as you want cycling between the characters and thinking about what to do with each one. Plus, this game is improved there in that now you're able to queue up actions for characters. So you don't have the issue that kept happening in SO4 where you had to wait until a character was completely done with the animation of whatever action they were currently doing before you could cast a spell or use an item with them. Also, one of the characters is special in that you cannot directly control them, so in reality you're only micromanaging 6 people.
Anyway, despite the fact that leveling itself doesn't feel as good anymore, SO5 still has good progression aspects in other areas. Aside from gaining exp and money from battles, you also gain SP, which is used to level up specialties that you unlock throughout the game such as mining, fishing, all the various item creation specialties, specialties that improve drop rates on enemies, etc. This isn't new to Star Ocean, but I'm just sayin' it's a fun aspect of the game that's still here. The other usage of SP is to level up roles, which you can equip on each character to grant all kinds of bonuses like higher attack damage or defense, better healing, magic, regen, or special properties on actions or whatever. There's hundreds of roles with all kinds of different effects. As you level up a role it gets more powerful and may even unlock other roles (though there are other ways to unlock some roles too). You can level them up either by using them or as I said, by spending SP. It's a fun system to be strengthening your roles as well as unlocking new ones throughout the game. This, along with specialties and the fact that your battle skills also level up and become stronger by using them, makes the game still have fun progression even though they dropped the ball on making character level ups themselves feel good.
As usual, item creation is a huge part of Star Ocean and it's just as great in this game. It has aspects from all the previous games, though weirdly duplication seems to be gone, which means you'll have to do a lot more farming for ingredients than you otherwise would. You have the normal item creation where you get a list of recipes with the materials that you need, and that list gets bigger as you level up each item creation specialty. You also have the ability to transfer properties to weapons, armor and accessories by combining a piece of equipment with some other item to give it the effects such as atk +3% or etc, and you can have up to 4 factors on each piece of equipment. Then there's synthesis in which you combine up to 6 items of any kind together to make something random, and you don't know what it'll be until you get it. For obvious reasons this is the most difficult one to work with, and probably close to impossible to use to its full potential without a guide, but whatevs, that's nothing new. Point is, with all of these different aspects the item creation system is very involved and fun.
Probably the most impressive thing about this game is how much work they put into Private Actions. For those that don't know (noobs), Private Actions are basically just little scenes or events that you can trigger throughout the game where the characters talk and interact with each other or with you. This has always been a cool part of Star Ocean, but in this one they have really gone above and beyond. The amount of Private Actions in the game is absolutely insane. They worked really hard on this and they do a good job of developing the characters' personalities through them. It's easily in the hundreds of PAs, and they are ALL voice acted. There are SO MANY, in every single town, and even in dungeons, and there are CONSTANTLY more and more new ones popping up in the old places you've already been every time you make the slightest progress in the storyline or anything happens. It's amazing and a lot of fun, but it also means that you'll progress through the game at a glacial pace if you want to get all the PAs, because you'll be constantly backtracking to all of the old towns and places you've been every time you make a little bit of progress in the game. It also means that the game requires a lot of patience, because even though there are a ton of PAs and they're fun to see, you will have to be backtracking with a fine-toothed comb through every area in the game countless times if you don't want to miss anything. And it's the same deal with all NPC dialogue. There's a huge amount of NPCs, and ALL of their dialogue keeps changing every time you make any sort of progress. A lot of them have their own personal little storylines that develop each time their dialogue changes, which is pretty cool. There are even many enemies that you will simply miss forever if you don't go back to old places at various random points in the storyline. And there's no way to know when new stuff has popped up in old places (hint: it's almost always), so you just have to do it EVERY single time. As you'd expect, this bloats the game's playtime (if you choose to do it) by a lot, making SO5 about the same length as the rest of the series, even though in reality it is smaller and has less things than previous games (hence my theory that it was rushed). In fact, I would go as far as saying that probably about 70% of the game is spent backtracking for PAs, quests, NPC dialogue, enemies and treasure. If you don't do any of this and just beeline through the story you can probably finish this game in around 30 hours, which is very short.
Even though this game fixes many of the biggest issues I didn't like about SO4, it equally fucks up in many other different areas, including things that I felt SO4 did WELL, and which I can now look back and appreciate about it. This makes it end up more or less equal with SO4 in my eyes. Just like the previous one, this game is marred by a bunch of bad design choices as well as a general rushed feel. They're still good and fun games, but not what they could've been. What they SHOULD have been.
Final Verdict: B
Final Playtime: 105 hours