You've always been able to tell when Square Enix has decided not to give one of its upcoming RPGs a suitable budget, but the Star Ocean series feels like an IP devoted entirely to the lower echelons of its monetary commitments. Not since the PS2 generation has the franchise had a quality instalment, and The Divine Force looks set to continue that unwanted hot streak. Its visuals are awful. Its combat is rubbish. This space epic must go back to the drawing board.
The story may sink its hooks into you, giving you some semblance of a reason to keep playing, but the combat is by far the game's biggest issue. It's a free-form system where you can engage and run away from fights as and when you please, all controlled by an AP Gauge. Our demo featured two different areas of the RPG and neither allowed us to chain more than maybe three or four hits together before we were forced to take a break.
In order to attack, you need a pip in your AP Gauge present. With the bar full, you can get a couple of blows in and perhaps wipe out an enemy's entire health bar. However, the AP Gauge depletes so quickly that it's impossible to get into any sort of rhythm. You'll have to retreat over and over again, simply running around the battlefield and avoiding damage while the meter refills. It's a rubbish system that leaves an awful first impression. The bar will likely grow as you push further into the game, but we can only judge what's put in front of us. The early hours of The Divine Force appear to be a chore in simply attacking and running away. That's not the sort of impression you want to give players when they're starting out.
A second combat bar, named the VA Gauge, is at least a little bit cooler. Once it's full, your character can take to the skies and crash land on top of enemies to deal massive damage across a wider area. It fills up fairly quickly, and we suppose the idea is to switch between the two meters when one's run out. There's just not enough variety to build an entire combat system around those two mechanics, though.
Our roughly half an hour session with the RPG was, unfortunately, just a bit naff because the systems of engagement put in front of us simply don't make a whole lot of sense in practice. You spend just as much time not attacking as you do slicing and dicing. Of course, these mechanics will surely become more complex as your playtime reaches double digits, but managing your AP Gauge appears to be a core component of the combat system. This notion of attacking and then waiting appears baked into the experience.
Outside of combat, two areas were explorable: one was a linear, story-focused mission and the other an open landscape with a town to visit. The latter brightened our opinion of The Divine Force somewhat; the freedom to go where we liked was a welcome distraction and the vistas in the background were fairly eye-catching.
It was inside the town where the title highlighted it doesn't have the budgetary chops to bring its world to life, though. With very little to do besides reading text boxes, going to sleep at the inn, and wandering about the place, the main objective is the only thing to the settlement. Some scenes are voiced, and others aren't. Having said that, voiced dialogue isn't exactly commendable when the main protagonist pronounces the name Laeticia two different ways within minutes of one another.
And then many of the characters littered about the village look comfortably last-gen — some could even claim to be from the PS3 generation. It really does look that bad sometimes. While some of the scenes off in the distance paint a pretty picture of the environment you're exploring, textures don't look anywhere near as hot up close and personal.
Could Star Ocean: The Divine Force still turn out just fine? Absolutely: we don't want to write the RPG off entirely at this stage. However, we can't ignore just how unenjoyable its combat system proves to be in the early stages. How it makes you approach fights appears baked into the gameplay loop no matter your level or stats, so we're concerned these issues won't be rectified by simply getting better at the game. We would take these systems back to the drawing board if the game were in our hands. The problem is Square Enix plans to put Star Ocean: The Divine Force on store shelves in just over a month.
Do you still hold out hope Star Ocean: The Divine Force will be any good? Reignite everyone's excitement in the comments below.