1999 — Star Ocean: The Second Story is my entire identity. I argue with anyone on the playground that it is the best game ever made, and my notebooks fill with doodles of the characters. 2009 — Star Ocean: Second Evolution, a re-release for the PlayStation Portable, reignites my love, and I argue with customers at work that it is the best game ever made. 2019 — I replay the game, and the magic is gone; loveable, but the flaws nettle. Is this what it means to become an adult?
2023 — The Star Ocean series spans six mainline entries with various re-releases, but the second title remains a fan favourite. The reveal of Star Ocean: The Second Story R meets with fanfare, and glowing impressions of its demo are abundant. Given the opportunity to review Star Ocean: The Second Story R, I leaped at the chance to, hopefully, restore my adoration for the second Star Ocean title.
Star Ocean: The Second Story R introduces heaps of new content and systems, but it remains the same science fantasy tale at its core. Claude C. Kenny, son of a party member from the first game, messes around with an alien device and is transported to an underdeveloped, medieval fantasy-esque world and meets Rena Lanford, a girl of mysterious origin. The two set off on a journey to investigate the insidious Sorcery Globe and hopefully find a way home for Claude and answers about Rena’s past. Star Ocean: The Second Story R is a true classical RPG journey full of world-shaking twists, but it also excels at the small moments, exemplified by the Private Action (PA) system.
Switching to Private Action mode takes the press of a button (an improvement over the original game, where you had to re-enter towns to switch between regular and PA mode) and allows you to hang out with your party members or NPCs. Through PA events, you can learn more about your allies and make dialogue choices that lose or gain friendship points. The final friendship levels amongst your party determine the ending each of your characters receives, of which there are 99! Thankfully, despite being straightforward in their personalities, the party members are all enjoyable people worth getting to know.
Your first two party members are always Claude and Rena, between whom you get to choose the protagonist. This choice results in several changes during the game. Your party fills out with up to six people you meet of a possible eleven — some of whom are mutually exclusive or depend on which protagonist you choose. If you want the stoic swordsman Dias in your party, Rena must be your protagonist. A few party members (like dragon-possessed Ashton) even send you to side quests and dungeons you may not see otherwise.
Discovering PAs, party members, and other optional events is smoother than ever in this remake, thanks to a fast travel system that is almost too good (sure, I want to travel from the depths of this dungeon into this specific shop in another town). The fast travel and map menus also include markers that indicate where optional events may occur and whether they are time limited.
It is difficult to deny that Star Ocean: The Second Story R’s most overt changes are visual. The original game utilizes 2D sprites over prerendered towns and dungeons alongside a polygonal world map and battle scenes. The remake revamps everything with a gorgeous new style but keeps the 2D character sprites overlaying a 3D world to evoke the feeling of the original game. The result is stunning and is easily one of my favourite visual feasts in modern gaming. Octopath Traveler, eat your heart out. I can easily imagine numerous JRPG classics (Final Fantasy VI? Chrono Trigger? Terranigma?) being well-served with a remake utilizing Star Ocean: The Second Story R’s artistic approach. Artist Yukihiro Kajimoto has also redone the character portraits in a unified style and gave every character a true glow-up, especially compared to Star Ocean: Second Evolution.
To complement the elevated art style, Star Ocean: The Second Story R’s soundtrack has also been rearranged for the remake by its original composer, Motoi Sakuraba. Sakuraba has lent his distinctive style to numerous games by this point, but the second Star Ocean title has always been one of my favourite soundtracks of his, and many of the new arrangements are even better. Of course, the option exists in-game to retain the original soundtrack should you desire.
The changes are not just audiovisual. Star Ocean: The Second Story R’s gameplay has received a plethora of additions. The Star Ocean series is known for experimentation and interlocking systems, and its second outing is no exception. Even before touching on the new, there is much to consider. The most inventive of all the game’s ideas is its complex skill system. Characters gain Skill Points (SP) as they fight battles, complete quests, and level up. You spend SP to level up IC Skills like Determination, Technology, and Penmanship. The remake even introduces the Fishing skill. The fish you catch can be exchanged for unique rewards — as any good Japanese RPG should allow. IC Skills can increase stats on their own, but the system becomes a lot more interesting when a character has the right combination of skills to learn a Specialty. Specialties allow for various forms of crafting but also offer abilities like Scouting, which can increase or decrease the number of monsters you will encounter, or Train, which lowers the corresponding character’s stats to increase the EXP they gain in battle. Above even Specialties are Super Specialties. Super Specialties arise when you have a specific combination of Specialties across your entire party. These Super Specialties include not just more advanced forms of crafting but also unique abilities like Bunny Call, which allows you to call a giant, rideable rabbit that can traverse mountains and rivers to find hidden treasures on the world map.
You can utilize crafting Specialties you have obtained from the menu screen at any time. Want a more powerful gun for Chisato? Level up her Eye for Detail, Smithing, and Aesthetic Design skills to unlock the Specialty Customization. Customization upgrades weapons with various materials. In the remake, your success rate and possible results are displayed on-screen. So, no more wasting your valuable ore. Want to mess with your friendship points? When enough party members have the Writing Specialty, the Publication Super Specialty is unlocked, which can create books that change friendship levels when read by a character. Who wants Opera to end up with that deadbeat Ernest anyway? You can even gain some impressive rewards for accomplishing the new Guild Missions with your Specialties. The skill and crafting systems offer an incredible amount of freedom for players to make their party unstoppable inside and outside of combat.
Combat is action based and decidedly reminiscent of the Tales series (tri-Ace, the original developer of Star Ocean, shares a lineage with the Tales team). You fight battles in a separate arena, where you can run about and attack enemies in real time. In the original game, there wasn’t much more depth than that, but the remake has done a lot to make combat more interesting. For example, as you attack monsters, both their HP and shields decrease. When all shields deplete, the enemy becomes Broken. In a Broken state, enemies cannot act and take more damage. Some abilities focus on breaking shields rather than dealing damage, and using these can turn a crushingly hard fight into an easy one. In the original game, there wasn’t a way to block or dodge enemy attacks, but the remake adds a Perfect Counter mechanic. Press the dodge button at the right time, and not only does the enemy attack miss, but you restore MP, and their shields are decreased by one. However, if you fail to execute a Perfect Counter, you are Broken instantly.
Enemies also drop spheres as you fight them, which fill up your Bonus Gauge. The Bonus Gauge offers, as the name implies, bonuses when filled. These bonuses range from increased attributes to more experience points. Changing party formation between battles allows you to alter the types of bonuses. Unlocking more party formations gives room to experiment throughout the game. Star Ocean: The Second Story R introduces the Assault Formation as well. You can set party members outside the battle party (as well as protagonists from other Star Ocean games) to the Assault Formation. During battles, you can call on characters in the Assault Formation to make devastating attacks that can turn the tide in even the stickiest situation.
In addition to SP, characters earn Battle Points (BP), which allow them to level up their Combat Skills and Special Arts and Spells. Combat Skills are passive abilities like Hasten Speech, which grants increased spellcasting speed. Arts and Spells are abilities used in battles to annihilate your enemies. There are only two shortcut buttons for Arts or Spells, so this does make spellcasters less desirable to play as — any time you want to use a different spell it must be manually selected from the battle menu, which you can do even if you aren’t directly controlling the spellcaster. Sadly, the AI will do a much better job of employing a spellcaster’s spell list than most players will. Further, spellcasters only have a one-hit combo with their regular attacks, while fighters all have a three-hit combo, making them feel more involved and exciting to play. This imbalance results in a sad but true fact: even players who choose Rena as their protagonist (such as me) are unlikely to spend much time playing as her in combat.
The remake replaces the random encounters of the original game with symbol encounters and utilizes them in several compelling ways. Run into an enemy sprite from behind, and you gain an advantage with all enemies starting the battle in a Broken state, but if an enemy runs into you from behind, the reverse happens. Enemy sprites can also link together, causing you to fight multiple battles in succession with increased experience points and money, Fol, as an incentive. One of the Super Specialties, Bodyguard, even causes your party members to charge down enemy sprites, locking them in place or even defeating them instantly, granting you the spoils of battle without the effort.
Replayability made Star Ocean: The Second Story stand out from its peers on the original PlayStation, and the remake retains that advantage. The choices of the protagonist, party members, and endings, not to mention the behemoth of a skill system, all alter the game and make it an easy game to return to a couple of weeks, months, or years down the line for a familiar yet different experience.
For all its triumphs, Star Ocean: The Second Story R is not without flaws. The game has always reveled in letting players do wacky things with its systems, but all the additions to gameplay and quality-of-life improvements make it easier than ever to break the game over your knee. There are now so many simple ways to get early powerful items or high levels that it could hurt some of that sense of experimentation and discovery the original game held. This feeling extends to other facets of the game — while marking private actions and events is useful, does it make those encounters feel less memorable? New mechanics such as Perfect Counter and the Bonus Gauge make the player characters feel far more powerful than in the original title, potentially making battles easier. Thankfully, boss battles are given a well-needed increase in difficulty to compensate, and some more dangerous enemies still require thought to be handled smoothly. In the end, Star Ocean: The Second Story R’s flaws are insignificant in light of the overwhelming accomplishments of this remake.
I feel no hesitation in calling Star Ocean: The Second Story R not only the definitive version of the second Star Ocean title but also one of the best games in the series and one of my favourite games of the year. I can only hope it speaks for the future of the Star Ocean franchise and the developer of this remake, Gemdrops.