Six years after Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness disappointed fans of the sci-fi JRPG series like me, Star Ocean: The Divine Force feels like a long-awaited return to form in many ways. Its revamped combat is a lot of fun, breathing fresh life into a system that certainly benefits by evolving with the times a bit. Other areas do stagnate, unfortunately, like its lackluster visuals and horrid user interface. But a respectable story full of likable characters makes this a sequel I’m still very happy to have sailed through the stars of.
The Divine Force tells a standalone story that isn’t directly connected to any other Star Ocean games, but it does contain quite a few references to past events and characters that were rewarding to catch as a series veteran. This particular tale follows a reasonable young space merchant with a really bad haircut named Ray, who crashlands on the underdeveloped, medieval-like planet of Aster IV. There he meets Laeticia, the prim and proper princess of the Kingdom of Aucerius, and agrees to assist her in fending off a nearby empire in return for help finding his missing crewmates. I enjoyed that the story kicks off at a smaller scale than you might expect from a spacefaring adventure, but things only grow impressively from there, as the conflicts on this backwater planet end up having astronomical consequences that go beyond the stars.
One cool twist is that you’re actually given the choice between following Ray or Laeticia as your main character, with a handful of instances where they split up and you only see what happens with the side you picked. You’ll be able to follow the overall story just fine either way, but there are some smaller moments that won’t make much sense without knowing what happened to the other party. For example, I picked Ray’s path, and at one point there was talk about an arranged marriage between two nations that I had absolutely no context for. However, had I picked Laeticia instead, I would have understood that conversation but potentially missed something else. It’s an interesting storytelling mechanic that encourages you to go back for a second playthrough of the roughly 30-40 hour campaign, though it’s not enough to make up for the lack of a New Game Plus option. I’d love to see the story events that I missed out on with Laeticia, but not being able to transfer over the levels, skills, and equipment of my party is a real disincentive.
The Divine Force’s cast of characters is a lively bunch that consists of both Aster IV locals and people from off-planet. The dynamic between your main party is especially fascinating because half of them come from a civilization that hasn’t even discovered the concept of gravity yet, while the other half is casually familiar with warp drive engines that allow spaceships to travel light years. That results in plenty of entertaining and unexpected moments, like when the party is trying to find a cure for a disease that is wiping out Aster IV’s population. Ray’s robotic but surprisingly caring first commander, Elena, is able to create an antidote based on a few bird-dropping samples, but that also involves teaching Laeticia and her comrades about the concept of bacteria.
You can also learn more about each character through Private Actions, which are cute cutscene moments that you trigger by talking to your party members while they are scattered around the world’s various towns. Private Actions show off a lot of a character’s personality and quirks, giving them opportunities to talk about more than just the events of the main story. In particular, I really enjoyed learning about Laeticia’s knight guardian, Albaird Bergholm, and his fondness for sweets – he loves them but keeps it a secret because he thinks it’s unbecoming of a knight.
The issue with Private Actions, however, is that they’re very annoying to find. Just like in past games, Private Actions are pretty well hidden and you have to go out of your way to sniff them out, with no icons or indications to tell you when a new one has popped up. I hated wasting so much time fast traveling to other towns, running around them, and talking to all of my party members in the hopes of triggering a Private Action. The conversations were generally worth having once I found them, but I wish this feature was more streamlined.
It’s also disappointing that character animations and faces don’t live up to the otherwise lovely environments you find them in. Characters have this doll-like porcelain look to their expressions that always comes off a little unintentionally creepy. This stands in sharp contrast to the gorgeous 2D character art from Akira Yasuda that primarily appears in promotional materials and box art. Pretty much none of that is in the game itself, which is frankly baffling – the clean lines and sharp, realistic details within the eyes and lips are just so aesthetically pleasing, I was left wondering how the 3D models could end up looking so poor in comparison.
Star Ocean’s previous battle system has received almost a complete overhaul in The Divine Force, and it’s one that’s worked out for the better. Here, it plays very similarly to the action-combat of a JRPG like the 2009’s Tales of Graces, which was ahead of its time with the wide variety of flashy skills at your disposal. The Divine Force lets you assign up to three combat skills to each face button in sequential order, and pressing a button three times during a fight will have you carry out all three of those moves in the order you listed them. This new system feels much more flexible and smooth, especially compared to past games – previously you were only able to set a few skills due to the old Capacity Points system and would end up spamming the same two-to-four skills in battle as a result. But now this problem is completely gone, and the large selection of different combat abilities you can equip keeps battles from ever feeling stale. (That’s also helped by the excellent soundtrack, with the electric guitars of Ray’s battle theme making fights even more exhilarating.)
But the real game changer here is the DUMA system, named after the party’s robot companion. With DUMA, the party member you are controlling will be able to rush an enemy down and close the gap between them at high speed. You can even change directions while rushing, and if you turn away from your target’s eyesight you’ll activate a Blindside – a returning feature introduced in Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Blindsides are as powerful as they are fun, momentarily paralyzing enemies and allowing your entire party to wail on them. And while DUMA adds a ton of adrenaline and momentum to combat, it can also be used defensively. For example, you can exchange your ability to rush to instead allow DUMA to reduce the amount of damage your party takes. Being able to switch between modes on the fly like this makes battles more dynamic and exciting.
Not only is DUMA invaluable during fights, but it also plays a role outside of combat. You can use DUMA as a sort of jetpack to help you scale buildings in town or up mountains in the wild. You might find hidden purple gems while doing so, which are amusing collectibles to hunt down that help level up DUMA’s different abilities. This semi-open world exploration feels natural while flying around with DUMA, but the landscapes are also somewhat empty and lacking in personality. The vast environments have lots of wide open fields, but they seem large only for the sake of being large. There are no massive changes in elevation, and the fields are mostly just flat without any discernible landmarks. The environments and skyboxes can at least look beautiful, but the layouts of each area aren’t on par with what a game like the impressive Xenoblade Chronicles 3 showed off on the Switch earlier this year.
Menus aren’t pleasing to look at either. In the party member screen, you’re greeted with boring and dull black boxes. To make matters worse, whenever you hover over a character, you’re shown their mediocre 3D model instead of those lovely 2D portraits. For all of Integrity and Faithlessness’s faults, one aspect that it did well was its menu, which showed giant 2D artwork of the party members around each other, very similar to what Tales of Arise‘s menu had. It’s a shame that The Divine Force didn’t attempt to replicate that style.
Perhaps surprisingly, the worst offender when it comes to menus is actually the font size. It’s honestly the smallest font that I’ve had to read in a game in recent memory, and I literally had to squint my eyes in order to legibly read subtitles, tutorial info, and skill descriptions. Most games nowadays come with an option to increase the font size, but The Divine Force doesn’t have that. I really hope Square Enix addresses this issue in a post-launch patch because it’s genuinely distracting, and not even having the most basic accommodations for accessibility is unacceptable.
That said, the UI issues aren’t so bad that I can’t wait to optimize my party’s gear for the post-credits content that the Star Ocean games are known for. Each character has a specific Item Creation talent, like Ray’s natural affinity for Smithery to create weapons and Laeticia’s Compounding skills to make medicine. The process is straightforward and easy to understand – for example, combining two blueberries makes a blueberry potion – which prevents progression from feeling like a chore. It’s not crucial to make the most of this crafting during the regular campaign, but I know that I’ll have to spend time mastering the system if I want to be properly prepared for the hardest fights that The Divine Force has to offer.
Source: IGN Video Games All