Playing Time: 229 hours (121 on galaxy, 10 on universe, 98 on chaos)
Time can be a funny thing, sometimes. If I'd written a review of this game (henceforth referred to as SO5) straight away after playing it, I would've given it at least an A-, if not an A. Having had some time to digest it, though, that would've been too generous. It's still good, but the flaws that I was willing to overlook while playing it have grown more offensive to my senses from having since played a few other RPGs (specifically, DDS1, DDS2, Persona 5, and currently being partway through playing SO4).
We'll get to that in due time, though, so let's start with the story. SO games have never had particularly good stories, in my experience. While they're not particularly bad on the whole, they're pretty basic in general and seem to have at least one really awful bit of forced drama. In SO5's case, we've got a bunch of bumpkins on some backwater planet who're busy trying to advance past the 15th century when one country (the asshole warmonger country, naturally) suddenly gets advanced technology from space terrorists, leading to our bumpkins getting conscripted serendipitously into the Federation's military. For the most part, it works well enough to give a reason for things to happen. It's not perfect, especially given how often the PCs stand around like fools instead of popping a blaster shot or whatever into Alma bin Laden's head when he's standing around and gloating at them, but it moves along well enough to not be a distraction. For the most part.
I keep saying "for the most part" because, as SO tradition demands, there are a few parts where things get dramatic for stupid reasons. The most egregious of these is Relia's brief and halfhearted suicidal moment. It comes out of nowhere, requiring a character who had been very considerate and sympathetic up to that point to say something rather callous, and it gets defused without much fuss about a minute later, after which it's never brought up again. As someone who had been suicidal in the past, I can understand that it sometimes doesn't take much more than a friend showing some friendliness to get you to back off from the brink, but even so, the way that it was executed in SO5 was pretty pathetic. Still, as I said before, story was never the main allure of the SO franchise, and SO5 does give you plenty of other content to distract yourself with.
This comes in two main flavors: the characters and the gameplay.
Frankly, aside from Fidel and Miki, I loved the cast of SO5. Fidel is pretty much a more boring version of Fayt from SO3, and Miki is the annoying tsundere childhood friend who seems to be an SO tradition. Beyond them, though, the others are mostly pretty great. Victor is at once Fidel's elder and also a sort of younger brother, especially with how he has such a crush on Fidel's father. He says a lot of things that get misunderstood out of context, mostly in a Mistaken For Gay way, but it's pulled off in a pretty humorous way rather than seeming forced or tacky. Fiore is superficially a typical haughty mature woman, but in reality, she's a delightfully wicked troll who has the tables turned on her trolling attempts often enough to avoid seeming like an insufferable prick who gets away with it. Emmerson is the real team leader (notice how he actually drives the plot more often than Fidel and gets his way on the rare times when he feels the need to throw his weight around), but he's also a rather chill guy who's generally content to sit back and let others do what they want to. Anne is by far my favorite character (hello, my name is Ash Adler, and I'm an Anne-coholic), because she's just so cute and naive despite being a galactic soldier and a genius in her areas of expertise. Whether she's being casual about dealing with stalkers, vehemently defending the honor of cats as the greatest of pets, or struggling to understand how to do laundry, she just has such a lovable innocence to her, but when push comes to shove, she's also a badass who won't hesitate to punch fools who deserve it. And then there's Relia, who's nothing special, but she fits her role well enough outside of that suicidal moment. She's not an actively annoying character like Miki, but she's not really a good character, either. All in all, though, I'd say SO5's cast may well be the best in the series, depending on whether it's fair to consider both Ashton and Opera in SO2 when it's impossible to recruit both in the same playthrough.
Playing into the strength of the characters is the huge amount of Private Actions (optional scenes between 2-4 characters) that this game has. Seriously, it seems like every little plot advancement unlocks another half dozen or so, which can leave certain compulsive completionists backtracking constantly to try to watch all of them. It tends to grind the main plot to a halt, but since the main plot isn't as interesting as the PAs are, that actually works to SO5's advantage.
Speaking of things in this game that are better than the plot, there's the gameplay. It was a pretty ambitious jump to go from having 3 or 4 active characters in previous SO games to having the full 7-person party active in combat in this one, although it's not quite so simple as that. For one thing, Relia can't be controlled directly (similar to Lucia from Lunar 2: Eternal Blue or Umago from Final Fantasy 6), so she doesn't really count. For another thing, Miki and Fiore have very segregated spell lists (more similar to Rena and Celine/Leon from SO2 than the situation with the mages in SO4), and the AI is decent enough to take care of controlling them in most cases (though Miki is best set on manual and micromanaged when it comes to fighting postgame bosses), so as far as characters who you're likely to want to control, there's really just the four fighters, which isn't so different from past SO games after all. Now, the fact that there will tend to be lots of effects going off constantly can be overwhelming, but frankly, even on chaos mode, it's not common to be wiped out as quickly as you could on the highest difficulties in SO2/SO3, so while things can get hectic, opening the battle menu to pause and assess the situation is quite reasonable. Basically, despite having such a large party to control, the amount of micromanagement that the game requires isn't far off from what it was like in the past.
That having been said, the combat system is not without its issues. SO5 somewhat combines elements from SO3 (bonus gauge) and SO4 (rush combo) into its own system called reserve rush. In combat, there's a mini-RPS game between light attacks, strong attacks, and guarding (where light attacks interrupt strong attacks, strong attacks break guarding, and guarding deflects light attacks), and not doing the "wrong" actions builds up a meter called reserve rush (the gains are best for doing the "right" actions, but even just spamming attacks against an enemy will build up some reserve rush), which can either give passive bonuses to after-combat gains or be spent on a big invincible attack for the selected character. It sounds well and good in theory, but in practice, strong attacks for both the player and the enemy tend to be so fast that they're very hard to interrupt, which kind of breaks the whole dynamic. Furthermore, there are plenty of enemies who'll still go through with their strong attacks even if they get hit by light attacks, which again kind of breaks the whole dynamic. Thirdly, there's no penalty to setting your special attacks as strong attacks aside from costing slightly more MP (which is not a big deal given how easy it is to recover MP even before you get accessories to regenerate it passively), yet doing so gives you more damage and makes the special attacks unguardable, so there's little reason not to, especially since it's possible to chain a special attack into itself instead of needing to cycle between attacks like in SO3/SO4 (along with eliminating the CP system in those games which limited how many slots could be set to high-end special attacks). What I'm trying to get at is that the mini-RPS game is completely broken, so the whole thing is mostly just a gimmick instead of being a legitimately interesting bit of gameplay. The only time I bothered with it was against certain postgame boss attacks which had slow start-up despite being classed as light attacks, so it made sense to block them (Ethereal Queen's divine wave being a prime example).
Sadly, that isn't the only element of the gameplay that's lacking. The dungeon design is, in a word, pathetic. It's a corridor simulator, and I don't really understand why the decision was made to go in that direction, seeing as SO3/SO4 had very interesting dungeon designs that still kept random battles avoidable if the player wanted to do so (and personally, I never had a problem with completely random encounters as in SO2, but I know that design choice annoys a lot of people, for whatever reason).
But wait, you say, what about in the postgame, where the laws of willing suspension of disbelief are broken and the fourth wall is rendered a non-entity? SO5 disappoints here as well. It's only got one postgame dungeon, the design of it is basically yet another corridor simulator with the only change of pace being the lack of minimap details (not a real problem since there are only some dozen or so room formats and it's not difficult to memorize their layouts as you go through them), and there's not even any humorous dialogue or the like aside from a few lines from Santa whenever you talk to him. All of the bosses just show up, get their asses kicked, and disappear without a word. It's still fun (even if chaos mode 6-wings Gabriel Celeste and Ethereal Queen take a ridiculous amount of time to kill), but it's so far short of the standard set even by SO2's Cave of Tribulations, let alone the wonderful postgame dungeons that followed in other SO games or even just other tri-Ace games as a whole.
In general, there's also just an overall sense of a lot of content being missing, whether it was cut for schedule reasons or just never completed out of laziness. I want to give tri-Ace the benefit of the doubt with that, especially since SO5 did have a fairly quick turn-around from being announced to being released, but as the video game industry continues to become more of an industry and less of an art, it's hard to say for certain. What can be said is things like the lack of any videos for space ship combat, the dearth of superfluous extra content in the postgame dungeon, or the fact that the game's overall size/length is about half of what it was in previous SO games (and that's probably a generous estimate, in all fairness) all lead to something of a feeling of being incomplete. This is the thing about SO5 that didn't really strike me at first. I mean, I noticed it, but since it was still the best game on PS4 at the time, I was more willing to forgive it, especially since I played it shortly after the miserable pile of shit that was Witcher 3. After having had some reminders of the depth of content in top tier RPGs, though, I can't help but find SO5 even more lacking in this regard than I had at first.
That all having been said, I will say that dropping the number of battle trophies from 100 per character (in SO4) to just 100 in total was a good move. It cut down on a lot of the repetitive chaff, with only a few requiring much dedicated grinding (landing 1 million hits being the worst by far in this regard, yet it's still less painful than some of the ones from SO3 and lacks the randomness factor of things like dealing precise amounts of damage with a particular character in SO4).
The soundtrack was also wonderful, though it's hard to really say that SO5 had its own soundtrack. It was more like it took a lot of the best music from SO3 and SO4 (along with DLC bonuses to use battle music from Valkyrie Profile or Valkyrie Profile 2), which was a great decision since that's most of Motoi Sakuraba's best works (only Stab The Sword Of Justice, We Form In Crystals, and Integral Body And Imperfect Soul were notably absent, among his best songs, and only the first one of those should ever be used outside of SO2), but it's hard to really call it an SO5 soundtrack, in that case. Honestly, I don't think there was even any remixing done. They were just ripped straight from the older games. This might be another sign of cut content/tight schedule, but in this case, the end result is still great, so I can't fault it too much.
All told, SO5 is still a very good game. I wouldn't say it's the best SO by any means (if anything, I think it's worse than SO2 or SO3, and from what I've played so far of SO4, that's probably going to end up better than SO5, too, although most likely rather similar overall), but that's not too far from saying that DDS2 was the worst of the press turn trilogy. I don't regret the time that I sank into it, and considering that I sank over 9 full days worth of time into it, that's no small statement. I'd recommend it, though if you're looking for a traditional RPG experience on PS4, I'd suggest trying Persona 5 over SO5.
Playing Time: 229 hours (121 on galaxy, 10 on universe, 98 on chaos)