Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness gets off to a bad start. Text-based tutorials greet you from the off, and you're quickly shuttled from one place to another with very little reasoning or context. Early on you'll realise that this game wants things to move quickly, and this only becomes clearer as you progress through the game.
Initially, it's a little strange. You could be forgiven for expecting a slower and more dialogue-driven experience that the series – nay, the genre – has become famous for, and it's hard to get used to the speed by which everything happens in the world. It's not just the battle system or dialogue sections that pass at a quick pace, either - it's just about every aspect of the game.
Opening chests, fishing, harvesting or smithing are no longer animated; instead, a little menu pops up on the screen with your findings as you continue to move onward to your next location. Similarly, and perhaps for the better in this regard, battles are also far faster. Tutorials can be grasped in five minutes rather than an hour, and with all combat taking place in the field there's no dislocation of the action from the rest of the adventure. It all happens seamlessly within your current environment, your whole party following in tow.
As mentioned, dialogue is far more brief, which, in turn, means that it also lacks the depth of similar titles. Meanwhile, cutscenes have been almost entirely eradicated from proceedings, with dialogue instead taking place during play. While the developer might argue that this is another way to keep the title's flow on track, it's also been strangely optimised.
Much of these sections allow you to walk around while everyone is speaking, but you can't walk far as a red circle appears which limits your movement. This means that it's impossible to skip dialogue sections - not that this is recommended anyway - but it also removes the cinematic aspect of the storytelling. The developer probably intended to make the game more involved by doing this, but in practice, it has the opposite effect. It's a strange change to make, for sure, and not really a positive one.
Without cutscenes, it's also hard to know who's speaking at any given time – exacerbated by the fact that some of the English voice actors sound very alike. Turning on subtitles doesn't help either since names aren't provided with the script, and as you can imagine, this is an even bigger problem if you choose to play with the Japanese voice-overs.
In terms of narrative, it's also a little thin. For the first three or more hours, you won't really know what you're doing or why – just that you need to move from one place to the next. It uses this to eventually introduce you to a young girl with special abilities who is fleeing from her captors, and you stumble across her, deciding to help her out. The intrigue of her power is intended to keep you interested, but it's a fairly weak hook attached to a somewhat boring character, and ultimately it's hard to care about her past or her powers.
Other characters are a little hit-or-miss, too, with the chemistry between the uncharismatic lead Fidel and his childhood friend Miki severely lacking. Miki's nickname of "Fiddly" for the main protagonist is meant to show how close and cute they are, but instead it's just irritating and smacks of lazy writing; a shortcut that's in place so that their relationship doesn't need to be built up by contextual means.
Fortunately, upon the mysterious girl's introduction, the gameplay starts to come into its own, but it's just a shame that it takes so long to get there. Japanese role-playing games are infamous for their slow openings, but this one takes the Miki (ahem) and doesn't even give you the full flavour of battle in the early sections to tide you over. Indeed, the full battle system only opens up once the aforementioned young lass joins your party, which makes the initial three to five hours of the game feel a little redundant. Again, it's fortunate that it picks up from here.
Now taking place in the field, battles are both fun and rewarding, although perhaps a little more button-bashy than in prior entries. Combat consists of mastering a rock-paper-scissors paradigm, where using the correct counter move to the enemy provides points to a battle meter that builds on the right side of the screen.
Outside of skills and signs (spells), you can utilise both strong and light attacks as well as guarding. Strong attacks break the enemy's guard, light attacks break strong attacks, and guarding defends against light attacks and allows for a counter move. Doing the right thing at the right time grants different bonuses such as experience, skill points, or money, which are multiplied at the end of the battle based on the accumulated meter.
You can also use up sections of the battle meter to unleash powerful "rush" attacks on particularly tough enemies. Doing so may mean fewer bonuses at the end, but it can also be a useful - sometimes essential - means of emerging victorious. You also need to be careful, since failing to abide by the battle paradigm can make you vulnerable, and leaves your battle meter open to destruction.
Meanwhile, it's now far easier to level up your party, as all characters take part in the action. You can also set different roles for your allies, which determine how they act in certain circumstances. New roles can be learned by acquiring the correct book and purchasing the role with skill points gathered from battle – the same currency used to level up and acquire new skills, signs, and specialist abilities such as harvesting, fishing, and more.
Series staples – such as side quests and battle trophies for hardened completionists – return, as well as private actions which develop the relationships between characters. While these scenes are never mandatory, they're encouraged since they're the best way to get to know your comrades, which has an impact on the different endings that you might get upon completing the game. Needless to say, there's plenty here to keep you going should you decide to see it all through.
Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness perhaps fails to forward the series or genre in any meaningful way, but outside of some obvious issues there are plenty of positives here. Character designs are excellent, even if the personalities within them are not always the best, and Motoi Sakuraba's soaring Japanese-infused prog-rock soundtrack is superb - though many tracks are reused from previous entries.
Integrity and Faithlessness is a much faster game than previous Star Ocean entries, but it sacrifices narrative and contextual depth for it. There are a few interesting but unsuccessful design choices here which let the game down, but it mostly makes up for its shortcomings with a frenetic battle system, excellent character design, and a standout soundtrack. It's a little bit vague, and it's a little bit shallow, but there's still plenty of fun to be had in tri-Ace's latest, and for newcomers, it's by far the most approachable entry in the series.