Star Ocean: First Departure is an enhanced remake of Star Ocean, the original Super Famicom classic and progenitor of Tri-Ace's most renowned franchise. The game has received several graphical improvements for its Western debut, highlighted by impressive anime cutscenes courtesy of the popular anime-house, Production I.G. It retains the hallmarks of the series, including a fast-paced, real-time battle system and a highly robust crafting element. But it soon deteriorates into empty button-mashing combat and a ton of tedious backtracking vaguely related to a narrow, mediocre plot. Pretty cutscenes and crafting simply cannot mask its overall shallowness.
The game opens on the primitive planet Roak, where a disease is turning people to stone. Roddick, a simple country guard, is searching for a cure but so far has come up short. Soon, however, he is joined by two Earthlings who transport him into the past with the hope of obtaining a vaccine. The overall plot is quite bland, with almost no side quests, but it is accentuated by brief character dialogues called "private action scenes" intended to add depth and intrigue. Unfortunately, this leads to roaming cities in search of new scenes, which may occasionally help you unlock party members, but are rarely informative or useful.
The bulk of the gameplay occurs on an almost barren 3D world map, where you use an improved onscreen minimap with a convenient zoom feature to locate castles and villages. Battles are random and utilize a very quick, real-time battle system in which you control the party leader while the competent AI manages your teammates. The system allows for precise strategic control by enabling you to set party tactics either across the board or individually, and as is customary with the series, you're free to switch between party members even midfight for more direct intervention. You can now roam the battlefield to dodge attacks or switch targets, which is a great improvement that more closely links the game to the rest of the series.
Though the battle system has finally joined the 21st century, it quickly grows wearisome because of the game's barebones three-hit combos, lack of enemy variety, and limited skill slots that restrict your melee leader to two special attacks. Little to no strategy is involved even for boss fights, and while some enemies exhibit elemental weaknesses, they rarely impact skill or spell usage. This results in a lot of monotonous button mashing. You may also find it difficult to outmaneuver or block attacks, which is especially irritating when you're being pummeled from all sides and the targeting reticle is locked bouncing between foes.
When you're tired of battling enemies, you may enjoy exploring the comprehensive skill system and crafting options, which provide nearly all of the game's depth. Skill points, which are acquired by leveling, can be spent on skills to learn special abilities once you've mastered them in the right combination. For example, in order to master art, you need to distribute skill points into both aesthetics and sketching. There are numerous abilities for you to unlock, including item appraisal, crafting, and cooking. These should please item collectors, but unlocking them is largely an unnecessary, time-consuming venture given the ease with which you require money and items. You'll probably find it more useful to spend skill points to directly modify character stats for greater character customization or to enhance combat by unlocking special battle abilities that ignore enemy defense, decrease casting time, and the like. A final set of skills exists for additional tweaking, called specialties and super specialties, which activate unique skills that adjust experience or skill points earned in battle.