Once you get past all of the hype and excitement for upcoming releases like Final Fantasy XV, the Final Fantasy VII remake, and Dragon Quest XI, one can’t forget that Square Enix also has other RPG franchises and projects to be excited about?such as the fifth official release of the Star Ocean series. As a fan of its earlier chapters, I was excited to get a quick hands-on demo with Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness at a recent even?and even more excited to sit down and talk with its producer, Shuichi Kobayashi.
Like my beloved Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, my interview with Kobayashi-san offered up a few unexpected twists?such as him turning the tables to ask me the first question.
Shuichi Kobayashi: If you don?t mind my asking, what did you think of Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness (Star Ocean 5) after trying it for a while?
EGM: I’ve played the first three Star Oceans, and I was a huge fan of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time (Star Ocean 3). I guess, one point about this game I’m a little concerned about?maybe not necessarily concerned, but I don’t know how to feel yet?is the combat. I didn’t enjoy the combat as much as I was hoping to. I’m looking forward to seeing if, as I play the game more, those feelings change. Because, being fair, I only had a short time getting to play it.
Kobayashi: I personally likes Star Ocean 3 the most as well. Its battle system was really different from Star Ocean 5, where there are big attacks, smaller attacks, and then the guard. They all are in a relationship with each other in a rock, paper, scissors type of harmony. The guard itself works differently from Star Ocean 3 to Star Ocean 5, so that would probably make you feel like it’s a completely different game, and a completely different system in itself. At least this time, because battles involve such a large party, we had to figure out how to make that work, how to incorporate that idea.
Also, I think that the battle systems for Star Ocean 3 and Star Ocean 4 had become a little bit too difficult, especially for newcomers. They were really hard to get into. I wanted to lower that kind of difficulty level so that anyone could get into the game. In Star Ocean 5, we wanted to create a title that’s like a reboot of the Star Ocean series, and make combat a little simpler, a little easier than the previous recent chapters. So, I think it makes sense that you might feel that way coming from Star Ocean 3.
EGM: Part of it, too, is that I come in both as an RPG fan and a fighting game fan. I think I felt some of that fighting game mentality in Star Ocean 3, where you could pull off these combos or strings of attacks. I completely understand where you?re coming from, and I think going a different route from that probably makes more sense for the hardcore RPG fanbase. For someone like me, though, who has that fighting game background, I really loved that element. That’s why, when I played today?s demo of Star Ocean 5, I did have that initial reaction of, “Oh. This wasn’t quite what I was hoping it was going to be.”
Kobayashi: Thank you very much for being honest?I really appreciates that. For Star Ocean 3, that kind of battle system was possible because it was a three-character party. Because the director was the same with Star Ocean 3 with Star Ocean 5, we actually talked about trying to do something similar with our new seven-character party, but the hardware just didn’t hold up. We tried a number of different ways of pulling them off, but it just didn’t work out. Still, we tried to figure out a way to keep that kind of essence, while also building a new combat system that?d be fun to play.
We did also consider making a battle system with speed and momentum like Star Ocean 4, actually. However, I wanted to create a game where everything blends together seamlessly, from the battles, to story events, to anything that happens on the map. I didn’t want players to have their experience interrupted while playing. In Star Ocean 4, for instance, you had to stop and put your controller down to watch the cutscenes or the movie scenes, and I didn’t want to do that in Star Ocean 5.
So, I think that this battle system is the best way to achieve all of that. I understand people who like Star Ocean 3? I also think that it was a great battle system?but because the battle system was so good, some of the other parts of the game maybe couldn?t be. With Star Ocean 5, we?ve found a nice balance to the entire game, and I think that?s one of its strong points.
I understands why you feel the way you do right now, but I do feel that the game itself has a balanced of quality, in part because of the changes we?ve made to combat. I think the battle system of Star Ocean 5 will probably click with you once you start to set the roles for the characters. Now, you actually go into the settings and determine what roles every one of the seven main characters fills to your own liking. Also, by switching through your party members during combat, you can link the special attacks of different characters to create big combos. At that moment, I think you might feel that you finally understand the strong points of Star Ocean 5?s battle system.
At first, I think it?s fine to just focus on the sort of ?refreshing? feeling that the new combat system offers you. While you?re getting used to the game?s battles, you can still feel the exhilaration of doing some big attacks with just easy button presses. But, once you do spend more time defining the roles of each character, and trying out the kinds of combos you can do with them, that?s when you?ll start to get a different kind of enjoyment from Star Ocean 5?s battles.
Although, I?m not sure how many people will actually achieve higher-skilled techniques while playing the game. [Laughs] There’s actually not that many of Square Enix?s own staff that can show off that level of skill. So, I?m really excited to see how many players there will be that end up being able to use some of the combat system?s harder-to-perform techniques. If players can?t reach that point, though, I want to know that they can still feel satisfied from Star Ocean 5?s combat as well.
EGM: It?s interesting that you said that last part, because one of the things about this new generation of gaming is that there’s YouTube, there’s Twitch, there’s all these different ways for us to go online and watch players experience games, when the only way to do that before was to be in the same room as them and watch over their shoulder. Once Star Ocean 5 is out everywhere, are you excited to watch players from around the world delve into the game, and maybe see some things done with the combat system that even you didn?t expect?
Kobayashi: In general, event scenes in RPGs are always the same, no matter who is playing. I feel one of the only places players can really bring out their individuality or uniqueness is the battle?but a lot of battles in games are just button mashing, or grinding to get stronger, or taking down a boss. For Star Ocean 5, I also wanted to incorporate dynamic cut scenes, where you could move around, perform emotes?things to do other than just standing in one place as the cutscene unfolds. So, I?m also really excited to see what kinds of things players end up doing during those cutscenes, to find different ways to enjoy the game.
But, I think battles in Star Ocean 5 will also offer that same kind of freedom, as there will be no one real way to accomplish every fight. So, I think players will also be able to do some cool things with showing off their battle styles. I haven?t seen any videos like that yet, but I can?t wait until they start showing up.
EGM: It’s funny, because while I was playing, during those conversation scenes, I kept moving the camera around. At times, I?d constantly reposition it to face the person who was talking at that moment, or just angle it in ways that made for an interesting shot as the scene played out. There was a moment where I thought, “If somebody was watching me do this, they might think I’m crazy, because of how much I’m moving this camera during this cutscene.” It’s interesting that, like you?re saying, once you give players something like that that they often don’t have?even if it?s just a small thing, like me repositioning the camera?it can create a deeper connection to what you?re doing than if you just sat the controller down to watch the latest story scene unfold.
Kobayashi: For typical game cutscenes, you only see them from one angle. You only see that story. We created Star Ocean 5?s dynamic cutscenes in a way that something might be happening on-camera, but at the same time, there might be something else going on in the background. For example, you might not know that there’s someone scheming in the background until you move yourself or you move the camera in a way to see them talking, or move to hear them talking. We created a lot of moments where you’ll be able to make those kinds of discoveries within the dynamic cutscenes, which I think will definitely add to the enjoyment of the game.
Of course, letting players do that during cutscenes does kind of diminish the movie feeling that we had in previous games in the series, or other RPGs, but it also added more ways to look at the emotions of the characters, to feel their emotions. I feel like if we can expand upon the idea of dynamic cutscenes even more maybe in the future, we’ll probably be able to create moments that are more emotionally compelling or appealing for the audience, things we maybe haven?t seen before in RPGs.
To be honest, it would have been easier to just create standard cutscenes, rather than take this dynamic approach. It was tricky, because we?d have to think about the facial expressions of the characters, their bodily movement, and other details we might not otherwise consider usually. Especially if the player is moving around while in those dynamic cutscenes, everything happening has to feel natural in the environment. So, there was an increased difficulty in taking this route, rather than having be the regular cutscenes you?re used to in RPGs, where all we have to do is create what?s happening within that frame.
Though, at the same time, the approach we took in Star Ocean 5 did deteriorate from the more emotional style of normal RPG cutscenes. But, I?m optimistic about the choice we made. Trying the dynamic approach was a good experience for us, and I think we?ve found ways to improve on the idea in the future.
EGM: So, there?s another element to the idea of camera movement that?s become something of a hot topic when it comes to Star Ocean 5, and I have to be honest here?I snuck a peak at Miki?s panties. [Laughs]
Kobayashi: What’s interesting is that, instead of uploading videos of the game, it feels like everyone right now is just uploading screenshots of panties. [Laughs] There?s this element to the game called Emotes, which are something you learn way later in the story when your party skills are high enough. I think, once players reach the end of the game, or are playing through again, and they have those Emotes available to use during the dynamic cutscenes, that?ll be more of what we see. At that point, I?m sure players will see what they can do with the Emotes during those moments, and what funny kinds of situations they can create through them. For now, though, the funniest?and perhaps funnest?thing players have found is taking screenshots of panties. [Laughs] But I do look forward to what people will upload to the internet once they?ve unlocked those Emotes and have more options for expression during cutscenes.
But, just to be clear: Star Ocean 5 is not a game about looking at panties. [Laughs]
EGM: I do have to ask, because this has become, unfortunately, one of the big talking points about the game. You had supposed examples of Japanese people saying how much they hate foreigners now, because the panties have been changed in Star Ocean 5. Personally, I don?t think this all would have been that big of a deal had the game just come out with Miki?s undergarments left alone.
Kobayashi: When creating 3D character models, it looks kind of cheap if the area under a character?s skirt is just blacked out. Miki?s panties are just there because that?s what would be there naturally, and we didn?t see them as a thing to actually look at or focus on. Players are probably just picking up on this whole thing right now because it’s easy to make fun of, and easy to buzz about. I think it’s okay if people get interested in Star Ocean 5 because they?ve come across all of this talk, but I do feel a little bit sad if that’s all people are just focusing on, because that’s not what the game is about. It’s just a part of the game that was just there and unfortunately people picked it up?but it was just there to be there.
EGM: It’s funny to me, because I remember Final Fantasy Type-0. Back when it was …
Kobayashi: Oh, on the PSP?
EGM: Yup. Every female character had different types of panties…
Kobayashi: On the Japanese version, right?
EGM: Yeah. And I remember there was this big fan-created grid of images showing each girl and the type she was wearing. You had something like that that came out, and it was just this silly little aspect of the game, but now with Star Ocean 5, one pair of white panties have become this huge topic.
Kobayashi: It’s just that players are picking that up and having fun with it. I’d rather have players talk about the elements we?ve put so much effort into rather than just the panties that was just there just to be there. Japanese players are saying that we changed Miki so much, but it’s actually not that different. It’s a really small change. People are spreading the story around, and it kind of grows as it gets passed along, which is unfortunate. Star Ocean 5 of course doesn?t offer the variation Type-0 did, as you mentioned, so I?m really surprised it?s become a story.
EGM: I think the bigger topic of discussion?and you might disagree with my opinion on this?is that I feel Star Ocean 4 received a mixed reaction because of its characters, the story, the overall design, or other elements. Playing the small portion of Star Ocean 5 that I did, it definitely feels like it?s gone back to more of a Star Ocean 3 kind of feel in various ways. I’m curious, coming out of Star Ocean 4, what were the team?s thoughts on how the player base reacted to the game? Was any of that reaction cause for any changes of direction in Star Ocean 5, or inspiration for what you wanted to do in this game versus what was done in Star Ocean 4?
Kobayashi: I was actually the marketing producer for Star Ocean 4, so I?m definitely aware of how it was received. When we were making it for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, which were the newest consoles at the time, we were thinking about what direction we wanted to take the visuals in, what would create a beautiful experience on those systems. Plus, Square Enix as a whole was trying to create games that would appeal to and sell well in the Western market. Those were some of the reasons we went in the direction that we did with the game, but that direction was wrong.
Star Ocean 4?s battle system, I think, had a nice fast-paced style, especially when you compare it to the different Star Ocean titles that have been released. So, I do think the game had its good points. But, taking all the feedback we received into consideration when creating Star Ocean 5, I wanted to really re-think what the term ?JRPG? means, and what games in that genre are.
From a graphical point of view, I agree that Star Ocean 5 is more in line with Star Ocean 3. We actually considered giving the game a cell-shaded look, but that was something other companies had already done, and we found it hard to create the kind of depth and sense of epicness in the world and its characters when going that route. So, instead, we went with more of a ?CG? type of approach to the visuals.
Also, I want to say, Star Ocean 4?s battles were a lot of fun, but I think they were too skewed toward the ?core? players. Instead of that, we wanted Star Ocean 5 to be a game that anyone could pick up and play. That?s why we incorporated the seamless change between the world and battles, and why we have a seven-character party involved in combat. At the same time, those more hardcore players can still have fun with the more traditional elements of the game, putting time into the different combat options and trying various plans for how to set the AI for your teammates.
I want players to feel like Star Ocean 5 has a traditional JRPG feel?and I?m okay if they don?t end up thinking it?s ?new? or ?modern.? It?s even okay if they feel like it might be a little out-of-date compared to modern RPGs. What?s important is that I?m satisfied we were able to create something that?s more modern on a deeper level, at the core of the gameplay and in the background, even if it might not appear that way to players. That?s what was really satisfying about working on Star Ocean 5.
EGM: Fair or unfair, when I think of Square Enix, and I think of RPG, what comes to mind are Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. A lot of players, I?ll bet, instantly go to those two names, and see them as the ?big two? brands for the company. These days, I feel like Star Ocean kind of exists in the shadows, having to fight for attention against its more popular siblings. Do you see Star Ocean as a scrappy underdog, or do you think it?s made enough of a name for itself over the years?
Kobayashi: It?s definitely a much smaller fanbase compared to Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. The peak for Star Ocean was during the days of Star Ocean 2 and Star Ocean 3, when we were able to forecast one million units sold for a release. Sales have been shrinking from there, which isn?t a secret. I understand that?s the situation with the series, and that?s part of why I wanted to create something that new players could also enjoy. To accomplish that, I felt like we couldn?t rely on what may have been traditional or ?common sense? to the Star Ocean fanbase, because those things were what helped make the series hardcore-focused.
In a way, I almost see Star Ocean 5 as if it?s a brand-new Star Ocean 1 in relation to the series. I want this to be the kind of game that new fans can come to the series through, especially because, if that happens, it might help make sure that the Star Ocean series can live on. I don?t want players to only become interested in Star Ocean 5, but also future Star Ocean games, looking forward to the new gameplay and challenges we might bring in those titles while still keeping trademark Star Ocean characteristics.
And, I know that the Japanese consumer base is in decline as a whole. There aren?t that many JRPGs anymore. Developers aren?t making as many as they used to, and the user base has been shrinking. But, that doesn?t give us an excuse to not challenge ourselves. The ideal JRPG market I have in my mind might be different from the reality that is the world, but I still want to take up the challenge of making new JRPGs, and pursue my dreams of trying to push the Star Ocean franchise into the future.
EGM: As somebody who’s worked on the game from the development side, and as somebody who is a fan of Star Ocean on the player side, why do you think people like this series? What is it about these games, these worlds that have gained it the fans that it has?
Kobayashi: That?s a question we?ve been asking ourselves. I think that the battle elements of Star Ocean are what brings people to the series, and what makes people enjoy the series. People that are familiar with a particular Star Ocean game, or the whole series, they tend to like more of the technical side of the games, things like the battle systems of Star Ocean 3 and Star Ocean 4.
However, it?s been so long since Star Ocean 4 came out, that I felt like we?d disappoint those fans if we didn?t do something new. I didn?t want the battle system for Star Ocean 5 to feel old or outdated, but modern instead. That?s one of the challenges we had to take with this game. We?ve been working with [Japanese developer] tri-Ace for a long time, and one of the thoughts on their side was that they want Star Ocean 5 to be a point other new JRPGs evolve from. I feel like, if we were able to make a strong base core of a game here, that then moving forward, we could expand upon it to keep trying new things with more future Star Ocean games.
Of course, if Star Ocean 5 were to bring in a lot of new players, then it?s give us the chance to try even more revolutionary things with the next game. If the fanbase doesn?t expand, however, then we?ll still have to create ideas and do new things to not only keep those fans satisfied, but hopefully gain new players over time. We?re at a point where we need to figure out what to do next, what kind of game we can make, what kinds of systems we should integrate next.
After all of that, I?d answer your question by reiterating that I think the battle system is what?s most appealing to fans. [Laughs]
EGM: This isn?t really a question, but I just wanted to say that, in thinking about it, one of the things that grabbed me the most when I first started playing Star Ocean was that it really felt different. At that point, a lot of other RPGs were set in fantasy worlds, like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, or there were more high-tech space settings, like Phantasy Star. With Star Ocean, you started off with this very small, almost quaint view of the world, living in a little village or town or somewhere similar. It seemed like a typical fantasy setting, and then unexpected things started to happen, and suddenly these characters?who might not even know space travel exists?were out in space having completely different adventures.
So, when I think about what the core of Star Ocean is, if you asked me why I became a fan, I think that it’s always been that sense of exploration, of almost being back in the days of early space travel, when there was this excitement of, “We’re going to be going to worlds that we haven’t been to, and we don’t know where we’re going to next.” If I’m saying anything to you in terms of what I think I’d like to still see as the Star Ocean series goes along, I think it’s always been that sense of starting off small in a world that, while not totally like our own, was still grounded enough that we could believe that we could be there. Then, to have those fantastical things happen later that take us to new and exciting places. Especially in Star Ocean 3, and its ending that takes us to places that we never expected we would go. [Laughs]
Kobayashi: I can really tell that you’ve been playing the previous series. [Laughs] And I?m actually very surprised, because you’re one of the first people that have said anything to me about Star Ocean 3?s ending.
The theme of Star Ocean is, like you mentioned, an encounter with something unknown. All of Star Ocean, including Star Ocean 5, the scenarios are written that way. To bring in a little of that science slant, to open up the game?s world, those are themes core to Star Ocean. Even if we do more games in the series going forward, those themes will definitely still be present.
To have things end on a more scientific level, and open up the character?s worlds, that’s actually the theme for Star Ocean. Even if we do create more titles in the future, it’ll definitely be based on that kind of theme. Tri-Ace?s president [Yoshiharu] Gotanda-San, he’s been the scenario writer for all the Star Ocean games except for Star Ocean 4, and he also has all of those elements in his mind when he thinks of the series. I?d love to move forward and try to create something that builds on those ideas even more, and he shares that goal. If we can expand the franchise?s player base again, and if we get good feedback from Star Ocean 5, then we?d definitely like to do something in the future that would expand on that universe.
I?m just really happy that I got to meet someone that liked Star Ocean 3?s ending. [Laughs]
EGM: I?ve had at least a few arguments about the game?s ending, because a lot of the people I?ve met definitely didn?t like it. I thought it was an interesting twist, and that can be hard to do in games where it?s often so easy to predict what?s going to happen. So, it both took me by surprise, and left me wondering about the implications.
Kobayashi: Unfortunately, we actually had to cut a lot of stuff from the end of Star Ocean 3, and that?s part of the reason why it turned out how it did. [Laughs] I?ve seen a lot of players that were angry that it turned out to be sort of like a network game. It?s actually not, it?s just because we had to cut off development. There’s a lot of philosophical elements in there, and a lot of things that you could interpret in many ways. Gotanda-San actually has an idea for a story that goes beyond what we attempted in Star Ocean 3. This is something that he’s been saying to Japanese media as well, but he already has an idea of what he wants to do. So, it?ll be very interesting if we have the chance to move forward with the series, and hopefully have the chance to get some of those ideas out into the world.