Star Ocean (スターオーシャン Sutā Ōshan) is a franchise of action role-playing video games developed by the Japanese company tri-Ace and published and owned by Square Enix (originally Enix).
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Creation and influence
As fans of science fiction and space travel, the developers at tri-Ace created the Star Ocean series with a sci-fi setting in mind and have cited Star Trek as one of their main influences for the visuals of the games as well as being an underlying, but noticeable, influence to the series as a whole. While the first Star Ocean game included more fantasy elements to appeal to a broad audience, subsequent installments naturally moved towards a more sci-fi oriented feel, with Star Ocean: Till the End of Time described by its producer Yoshinori Yamagishi as tri-Ace’s “ultimate vision” of the “whole Star Ocean world”. The large gap of time between Star Ocean: The Second Story and Till the End of Time, in terms of in-universe chronology, can be explained by the series’ choice to emphasize the setting of its fictional world rather than focus on its characters.
Star Ocean games are known for their real-time battle engines, and, for being one of the first of its kind to come to the consoles. Battles take place on a separate screen, but all characters (rather than waiting in one spot and taking damage) are fully mobile in three dimensions, can dodge and chase foes, and must cast their spells and deploy attacks despite enemy harassment. In the earlier games, magicians had spells, whereas fighters had special physical attacks called “Killer Moves”; both are learned after passing certain level requirements (or through specific items and sidequests) and cost HP or MP to use. In Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, all the characters are able to use spells and battle skills (i.e. killer moves).
The series is also known for being some of the earliest action RPGs to allow players to alter the storyline’s outcome through the player’s actions and dialogue choices, mainly through a social relationship system referred to as “private actions”. The original Star Ocean, published by Enix in 1996, introduced a “private actions” social system, where the protagonist’s relationship points with the other characters are affected by the player’s choices, which in turn affects the storyline, leading to branching paths and multiple different endings. This was expanded in its 1999 sequel, Star Ocean: The Second Story, which boasted as many as 86 different endings, with each of the possible permutations to these endings numbering in the hundreds, setting a benchmark for the number of outcomes possible for a video game. Using a relationship system inspired by dating sims, each of the characters had friendship points and relationship points with each of the other characters, allowing the player to pair together, or ship, any couples (both romantic heterosexual relationships as well as friendships) of their choice, allowing a form of fan fiction to exist within the game itself. However, the relationship system in Star Ocean not only affected the storyline, but also the gameplay, affecting the way the characters behave towards each other in battle.
Star Ocean games also take an all-encompassing approach to items. Party members can create new objects or improve existing ones through crafts like metalworking, alchemy, writing, painting and cooking. The strongest items and equipment are usually only available via Item Creation, and many others can be sold for a profit or provide other benefits (books can be used to transfer skills and abilities; cooked foods can be used to circumvent the 20-of-each-item inventory limit), placing great importance on Item Creation.
The characters of the series were designed to be “action-figure-like”. A feature adjusting the characters’ appearance when changing their equipment was considered for the series but ultimately was scrapped because of the large number of characters to design. However, in the later installment of Star Ocean: The Last Hope the appearance of the characters did in fact change to reflect the type of weapon they were using.
Finally, both the second and third games were somewhat notorious for renaming characters whose names contained religious references, which some fans found unusual given the recent association with Square and other RPGs (most famously Xenogears) that do not omit such references.
Star Ocean gameplay is often compared to the Tales series of video games by Namco, which is not a coincidence: after the release of Tales of Phantasia, practically its entire design department left and founded tri-Ace. As a result, many regard the original Star Ocean as a ‘spiritual sequel’ of Tales of Phantasia; a comment that may be traditionally found at fan-sites describing the first title in the series.