Star Ocean: The Second Story is the sequel to Star Ocean, a Super Famicom RPG that was never released in the US. Judging from the quality of the sequel, it's quite a shame that the original never made it. Star Ocean: The Second Story is a solid game, and one of the better-playing RPGs released so far for the Playstation.
Star Ocean: The Second Story (hereafter referred to as "SO2") revolves around two main characters: a young man named Claude Kenni who is an ensign in the Earth Federation's space fleet, and a mysterious girl named Rena Lanford who lives in the village of Arlia on the planet Expel. At the beginning of the game, you get to choose which of the two you want to play as; from then on, the game plays out from the viewpoint of the character you chose.
Although Claude's and Rena's storylines are played from differing viewpoints, the same basic events happen in each of them. As the story begins, Claude is unwittingly transported to Expel, a rather primitive planet in terms of scientific knowledge. With no clue as to where he is, he sees a girl (who turns out to be Rena) being attacked by a monster. Drawing out his blaster, Claude proceeds to defeat the monster and save Rena.
After some initial shyness, the appreciative Rena introduces herself and takes Claude back to Arlia village, where she lives with her mother Westa. Wandering around the village, Claude learns from the townspeople that a mysterious object has recently fallen from the sky onto the distant continent of El. This object has been dubbed "the Sorcery Globe" by the Expellians, and they believe that it is responsible for the recent increase in monsters all over the planet.
The mayor of Arlia, with a knack for recognizing the obvious, realizes that Claude isn't from Arlia, but from somewhere far away. Fortunately, his hospitality is more advanced than his astuteness, and he offers for Claude to stay at his place in Arlia. Claude is focused on getting home above all else, and he feels that the Sorcery Globe perhaps holds the key to his return. So Claude decides to stay over at the mayor's for one night and leave Arlia first thing the next morning to search for the Sorcery Globe.
That night, Claude also learns from the mayor that Westa isn't in fact Rena's biological mother. Rena was actually discovered abandoned at a very young age in the forest just south of Arlia, and Westa was the one who chose to raise her. Unbeknownst to both the mayor and Westa, Rena is aware of this fact, and that night she tells Claude that she knows about her history. Rena believes that Claude's quest for the Sorcery Globe may help her find out who she really is, so she decides to tag along. Early the next morning, the intrepid pair leaves Arlia, and their epic quest begins in earnest.
SO2's strongest individual facet is its gameplay, and it is one of the deepest and most complex console RPGs ever in this area. Some of its elements are tried-and-true, such as the randomly encountered battles and familiar world layout that are so prevalent in other RPGs. However, SO2 also offers a plethora of innovations.
Unlike the majority of traditional RPGs out there, SO2's battle system is very action-oriented, perhaps to the point where I'm almost tempted to call it an action RPG. The battles are all carried out in real time, and you can manually move whatever character you're controlling all over the battlefield for optimum positioning. Spells and items can be used in combat, and your characters can also learn special moves that can be immensely helpful.
Although I overall liked SO2's battle system, there were some things about it that I found annoying. You can only control one character in your party at a time in combat, and the AI of the other characters, while not bad, isn't spectacular, particularly for the spell-casting characters. I realize that the amount of action in the battles makes the thought of control over your entire party unrealistic, but I would have gladly traded some of the action for more control.
In addition, you can't cancel your commands in combat, though getting hit by enemies will cancel any command in mid-execution. Sometimes enemies that you choose to attack are faster than you, and start running around after you've commanded your character to attack them. Your character will then hopelessly chase this faster enemy around, and can only stop when the enemy stops, the character gets hit by an enemy, or if someone else in your party somehow manages to kill that particular enemy. This is irritating because it is both excessively time-consuming and can make the battles needlessly difficult.
Outside of battle, SO2's most noteworthy gameplay aspect is its elaborate skill system. Skills can be learned in guilds scattered throughout the towns in the game. Every time your characters level up, they gain a certain amount of skill points which can be used to level up whatever skills they have. The skills in the game cover a broad range of activities from whistling to battle skills, and they allow your characters to perform a variety of activities, such as creating armor, weapons, or accessories and shopping while in a dungeon (via a carrier pigeon). The skill system does sometimes get bogged down in its complexity, but for the most part, it's executed very well.
SO2 is also noteworthy because it's the first US-released console RPG (as far as I know, at least) that contains any semblance of dating simulator elements. SO2's dating sim elements are carried out through Private Actions. Whenever you reach a town in SO2, you can choose to have your party explore it as a party, or you can have everyone explore it separately. If you choose the latter, you explore the town as either Rena or Claude (depending on whom you picked at the start of the game), and you can talk to your other party members if you run into them.
Some of the Private Actions in the game are encountered only once; during these, you often have a choice of responses to the character you are talking to. Your choice of responses helps determine how well your main character and the other characters get along. At the end of the game, characters are paired up depending on how well they get along, so you actually have a hand in determining certain aspects of the ending of the game.
Being someone who enjoys attempting to control my own destiny with respect to interpersonal relationships, I greatly appreciated the Private Actions in SO2. If I had it my way, all future RPGs would have some form of the player determining the nature of the relationships between the characters in the game. My only gripe about the whole system in SO2, from a gameplay standpoint, is that there aren't enough of the one-time Private Actions mentioned above. As a result, you only have a few opportunities to try to get in good with each character that you might want to.
The final major element that sets SO2 apart from most other RPGs is that it contains a certain degree of non-linearity. Although most of the main characters are met during mandatory events, choosing to undertake certain missions will allow you to meet a few playable characters that you won't see during mandatory events. In addition, having certain characters in your party can preclude you from having others, so freedom of choice is also present in this aspect of SO2's gameplay. It's also worth mentioning that unlike Square's SaGa Frontier (the last US RPG to feature non-linear gameplay), the non-linearity of SO2's gameplay is carried out quite well; you're never stuck wandering around and wondering what to do next.
With so much action in SO2's gameplay, control is undoubtedly an important component of the game. Fortunately, SO2 is strong in its control. Outside of battle, you can move in 8 directions, and a dash button allows your slow-walking characters to move at a decent pace. The control is quite responsive in the area maps, but on the world map, it's not quite as nice. You can manually rotate the camera on the world map, though. In battles, the control is also a little bit less responsive than in the area maps, but it's still pretty solid.
It's a little bit difficult to find your way around the menus, though. Considering the complexity of the game, the menus are reasonably well organized, but RPG fans who don't generally like reading instruction manuals are encouraged to do so for this particular game.
SO2 is also quite impressive visually. Its graphics are strongest in the area maps, where well-drawn super deformed sprites travel on detailed prerendered backgrounds. The animation of characters in the area maps is quite fluid as well. In the battles, SO2 takes a bit of a step down. The battle backgrounds are polygonal, and get really pixilated up close. The enemies don't tend to look that good either, and the animation of both backgrounds and enemies is a tad choppy. Fortunately, the spell effects are moderately impressive, though they won't blow you away unless you've never played a 32-bit RPG.
Unfortunately, the graphics really take a nosedive in the world map. The polygonal backgrounds here are poorly drawn, very pixilated, and severely lacking in colors. In addition, the scrolling is very choppy. The drop-off in graphical quality between the world map and the area maps is surprisingly large and very disappointing.
SO2 also contains some CG movies, all of which are impressive in spite of some graininess. The ending CG during the credits roll is particularly spectacular; it's perhaps the closest thing I've seen to photo-real CG in a Playstation game yet. In addition, the credits roll CG avoids the graininess of the earlier CG movies in the game.
The character designs and art in SO2 are, in my opinion, in the top echelon of RPGs. Visually, the characters, in particular the female ones, are very appealing, and most of them are designed with a relatively unique appearance.
Storyline is where SO2 is at its unfortunate weakest. Although there are a few exciting plot twists along the way, the majority of the storyline is rather uninteresting as well as extremely slow-paced. Character development is very weak, and, outside of the Private Actions, character interaction (other than that between the two main characters) is almost nonexistent. Story-wise, the Private Actions are disappointing because they don't develop the characters anywhere near as well as they could have.
The worst part of SO2's storyline, however, is the dialogue. SO2's translation is atrocious; in my opinion, it's the worst I've seen since Final Fantasy Tactics. Though the text fortunately seems to have been spell-checked (only a few spelling errors jumped out at me), grammatical errors are all over the place in this one. In addition, even when the grammar's all right, the dialogue flow is horrendous. I can't recall a single game where characters talk so stiffly, and they also have an incredibly irritating habit of repeating in the form of a question everything that is said to them.
SO2 is also relatively weak in the sound department, though the sound fares a bit better than the storyline. The sound effects are quite solid; there really isn't anything left to be desired there. However, the voice acting, which occurs during battles, is a complete calamity. The spoken dialogue content is tepid, and the actual acting is ludicrous. In addition, the sound quality of the voices is at a low standard; the voices are tinny and sometimes get muffled (considering the quality of the voices, this is probably a good thing).
The soundtrack is better than the voice acting, but proves to be a bit disappointing as well. Although the Motoi Sakuraba-composed score is mostly pleasant to listen to, the majority of the melodies aren't particularly memorable. There are exceptions, such as the intense rock-based boss themes, but most of the tunes really didn't do it for me at all.
In addition, many of the tracks from the score, in particular the majority of the town themes, are overtly grandiose in both their arrangement and their composition. This gives SO2 the uncommon problem of having a soundtrack that often doesn't fit its setting well.
Although Star Ocean: The Second Story contains some major flaws, its gameplay makes it a solid title. This one's definitely worth at least a rental.
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