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Star Ocean: The Divine Force relies too heavily on PS2-era nostalgia

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Anticipating a new Star Ocean game means balancing trepidation with excitement. The franchise’s quality sloped downward after the PlayStation 2 era, when it seemed as if developer tri-Ace and Square Enix had little idea what to do with the sci-fi RPG, and the quality of its next two entries suffered for it.

So, I approached Star Ocean: The Divine Force with a significant amount of uncertainty. A few hours later, I found clarity after the journey to save the kingdom of Aucerius came to an abrupt halt following an unexpected development. A robot with encyclopedic knowledge of viral disease needed the princess of Aucerius to collect samples from birds who had spent the last day excreting pestilence over a port town, all so a group of magical doctors could fashion a cure. This was Star Ocean as I remembered it: a weird, slightly janky amalgamation of sci-fi and fantasy, with recognizable elements from other RPGs that have been morphed and combined to somehow feel fresh. But while adhering so closely to its past is one of The Divine Force’s strengths, it’s also a crucial flaw — and it keeps it from reaching the heights it seems to be aiming for.

Star Ocean: The Divine Force begins with a choice: You can follow Ray, the brash interstellar merchant, or Laeticia, a reserved princess from a backwoods planet. Most of the marketing centered on Ray, so I chose Laeticia in the hope of getting a unique perspective from the old-fashioned kingdom. It was hard not to sympathize with the duty-driven princess and her willingness to help a new friend in need, even in light of her desperate mission to find allies and aid her kingdom’s cause in the impending war — despite spending a dozen hours or more engaged in minor quests with seemingly no connection to that cause, from repairing robots to fetching items for merchants.

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Laeticia, Ray, and Albaird examine a hologram in the sci-fi JRPG Star Ocean: The Divine Force

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Image: tri-Ace/Square Enix via Polygon

With few questions asked and the shadow of ulterior motivations hanging over both parties, Ray, Laeticia, and her stalwart retainer Albaird set off on a series of quests that take them away from their main objective, rather than toward it. Instead of unfolding in a coherent narrative with major milestones, The Divine Force is a series of seemingly random events that gradually intersect — the intergalactic merchants, mysterious warriors, and even the bird poo sickness coalesce in a conclusion that’s exciting, satisfying, and altogether clean.

The Divine Force’s localization and voice acting play a significant role in elevating what can otherwise be described as trite plotting. There’s an eloquence to the dialogue and depth in the portrayals that give The Divine Force a distinct sense of gravitas and quality — a feat even more impressive considering that the team sometimes has very little to work with in the script.

The Divine Force moves quickly and spends little time reflecting on its characters or expanding on its themes, except during Private Actions — optional conversations between party members — assuming you take the time to hunt them down: Despite providing essential context for your allies’ background and motivations, The Divine Force provides no indication of which characters you can have a Private Action with, or where to find them.

The result is a narrative that, despite ending on a satisfying note and reaching some gripping heights, feels like it lacks the confidence to go deeper; it expects you to feel invested in events you can’t see, lore it never explains, and relationships it chooses to ignore. Like with Helgar’s Disease early in the game, The Divine Force is largely disinterested in exploring any of it beyond the role it plays in briefly advancing the main story.

Laeticia and Ray stand back to back against enemy guards in Star Ocean: The Divine Force

Image: tri-Ace/Square Enix via Polygon

Over the past decade, JRPGs have dabbled in narrative innovation with some success, even while keeping some established tropes. Tales of Arise transformed the “two worlds collide” conceit from the series’ own past into a story of rebellion and liberation. Dragon Quest 11 upended its initially safe story with a mid-game twist that lent unexpected emotional weight. Ni no Kuni 2 even added city building and light tactical combat elements in side modes. Star Ocean, on the other hand, still tells the same kind of perfunctory story in largely the same way the series did on PlayStation 2.

The cursory approach spills over into the overall world-building. Nearly every town is full of barren homes and silent NPCs, save for a handful of quest-givers just waiting for you to engage them. The overworld is vast but empty, save for a few treasure chests, not unlike Bandai Namco’s Tales of Zestiria. You hear a great deal about the effects of disease or the diplomatic strife between Aucerius and the Vey’l Empire, but see no signs of any relationship between villages in Aucerius, let alone between nations on the continent.

During a few quests when Laeticia and Ray split, it feels as if tri-Ace prioritized Ray’s story and treated Laeticia’s as an afterthought. In one early instance, Laeticia wants to gather information from settlements across Aucerius to see what people think about a space pod that landed while Ray helps restore Elena, his AI companion, to full functionality. The justification for Laeticia’s mission is flimsy enough, but she decides speaking to approximately two people is enough to satisfy her curiosity and form a plan of action. Yet nothing consequential happens in the end, and it all ends up feeling like a way to kill time — as if The Divine Force was spinning its wheels while it figures out where to go next.

The moments connecting substantial plot points may not stand up to much scrutiny, but they’re a good excuse to pick fights with the local wildlife and indulge in The Divine Force’s superb action combat. tri-Ace borrowed The Divine Force’s primary battle feature from Bandai Namco’s Tales of Xillia and its action meter. Each character has a selection of attacks that cost anywhere from one to three bars of the action meter. You start a fight with five bars and need to plan your combos wisely to avoid getting stuck with no recourse against a hoard of monsters.

Laeticia spins in combat in a field in Star Ocean: The Divine Force’s overworld

Image: tri-Ace/Square Enix via Polygon

Where The Divine Force differs from Xillia is how you expand the combo meter. Ray crashes on Aucerius with DUMA, a piece of advanced alien tech that, quite literally, attaches itself to you and augments your combat potential. DUMA acts as a shield at times, and lets you rush enemies. You can also enact a “blindside” attack if you change direction at the last moment. (Such attacks will also expand your combat meter.) Previous Star Ocean games struggled to differentiate themselves from other action-RPGs, particularly Bandai’s Tales series. Adding DUMA gives combat in The Divine Force a distinct sense of rhythm, even though you’re only ever working with three combo chains per character.

Ray and Laeticia fill standard knight and fencer roles, but in just the first few hours, you recruit a healer whose buffs can restore your action points, a robot with an electric whip, and a cynical spell-slinger capable of whipping up mountains and hurricanes to crush your foes. Each role has unique DUMA abilities as well, so more than most RPGs, it actually feels rewarding to change your playable party member in The Divine Force and keeps battle feeling fresh until the end.

Some of the boss fights rely a bit too heavily on using DUMA attacks, but the combo customization and strategic balancing act make The Divine Force’s battle system one of the most enjoyable in recent memory. An unnecessary set of skill trees is the only blemish, a sprawling plain of unlockable nodes where the majority only unlock minor stat enhancements that could be granted through equipment or leveling up in the first place.

Rather than aiming for evolution similar to Bandai’s Tales of Arise, tri-Ace and Square Enix went back in time for Star Ocean: The Divine Force. The result is solid, but The Divine Force had the potential to reach even greater heights and establish an identity for the series as a thoughtful reflection on technology and philosophy. If nothing else, at least it proves Star Ocean is still brimming with possibility and deserves another chance, one that will hopefully be more forward-thinking and give the series a chance to shine at last.

Star Ocean: The Divine Force was released on Oct. 27 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Square Enix. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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