Star Ocean 2 stands out as one of my favorite games of all time. The sheer amount of things you could do in the game, the massive amount of side-quests that could be performed at staggered points all through the story, and the cool invention system really provided a draw that kept me coming back for more. In many ways, I find the sequel, Star Ocean 3 (SO3), to be something of an evolution of the series. The staples that made me enjoy the second game so much are in place here and mostly improved upon or made even more in-depth–sometimes going too far! All said and done, however, SO3 has become a new favorite of mine by expanding and refining the elements from SO2 that I love so much.
The heart of any good RPG is in its battle system. True, an RPG can be spectacular without every single element coming together, but if you are planning on getting into 1000+ battles over the course of 65 hours of gameplay, you had better put together a system that keeps things interesting. Luckily, with only a few rather annoying qualities, SO3 keeps things fresh, original and fast paced. First off, battles in SO3 are not random. You can see the critters wandering around on the maps and, for the most part, almost every fight can be avoided. Once a fight has been triggered, things turn into a sort of a half action-RPG experience. You can move around on the battlefield at your own whim, press different buttons for strong or weak attacks, hold them down for special attacks, select spells from the menu, etc.
Things are kept interesting by providing a “Fury” gauge. Basically, you cannot perform an attack if you do not have any fury, and every attack drains a respective amount of fury. Recovering fury means standing still (it recovers quickly, thankfully) but that can leave you open for attack. Building upon this concept is the shield maneuver; if you have 100% fury, weak attacks will not harm you and can potentially stun anything that tries to hit you. Shields can be broken with strong attacks, though, so it is not as though you can sit around an entire match and be safe. Naturally, enemy shielding works rather the same and you have to make sure that you are not firing a weak attack at a shielded foe, lest you find yourself stunned and at the enemy’s mercy.
There are a few rather niggling issues involved with the system, however. First off, the collision detection is a little bit off. I have seen monsters land right on top of characters and sort of bounce there for a while before they could get up or until my characters could finish them off. I have also hit monsters flat on, only to have my sword strike pass right through the target in question. Secondly, certain attacks knock enemies down. Now, I know that if I am in a fight and I knock someone down, it may not be the best of fighting manners, but I can hit the fellow while he is down if I so wish. Not so in SO3. This will lead you to frequently lose fury and miss attacks while you wait for your opponent to s-l-o-w-l-y get up. And last, but not least, the AI is somewhat handicapped. I have seen my teammates fire up a move and then stay suspended in that move for the duration of the fight. I have also seen them wander over to a corner, with every intention to heal a heavily wounded character, and then sit there for the duration of the fight. All of the issues provide some serious irritation, but it didn’t detract enough from the game to really annoy me too much.
Providing a proper battle team means plenty of micro-management for the player. Each character can be beefed up in many different aspects. Every level you are awarded will provide you with points to use in setting up which special attacks you can dish out, as well as points to beef up certain stats on the character. This system allows a certain amount of freedom when leveling up your characters. Do you want a magic user that has a high attack stat and huge amounts of HP? You can do that, but be warned that your magic may suffer. Likewise, you can build up a physical fighter so that their MP is up there, should you wish.
A large part of the game revolves around exploring maps and meeting up with characters (this is a VERY plot-heavy game), so thankfully the overworld mechanics are very sound. While there is no true “overworld” map to speak of, each area in the game connects to one another. The whole process feels a lot truer to actually traveling than in most games. For instance, if you want to return to a city that is a fair distance away, prepare to do some walking! Added on to this is the reward system that doles out useful (and expensive) items for fully completing a map. These items are pretty much the number one way to make money early on in the game and provide a true incentive for masochists to really earn their keep!
SO3 provides all of this RPG action and then adds in the classic item creation system from games past, albeit in a much more robust version. As you travel across the world, you will find inventors who you can recruit to do your bidding. The idea is that, in order to create an item, you must first discern what field of expertise is required to create said item, and then make sure you have the proper people doing the job for you. The number of items that can be made is staggering and, quite frankly, there comes a point in the game where you pretty much MUST begin doing at least some item creation or find yourself heavily outmatched by even basic random encounters.
Regardless of how sound your RPG gameplay system is, it can drag on if the plot is not up to par. SO3’s plot is something of an anomaly. It contains a mix of extremely original settings combined with cliché RPG plot points and dashed with generic medieval meanderings. The storyline in SO3 is not something you can look at strictly by its parts alone; you have to look at the big picture. When all is said and done, and the whole script comes together, I find this game to contain one of the most coherent pieces of literature I have seen in an RPG in a while. It is truly fleshed out, and I had a true feeling of closure when the final credits ran.
That being said, there are a few annoying problems with the plot. The game starts out with a super cool bang. Heavy with Sci-Fi scripting, the game comes to a complete 20 hour halt when you find yourself smack dab in a way too familiar medieval plot. The plot during this time is not necessarily bad; it just drags on a little longer than is strictly necessary. It is almost as if the developers realized they had gone too in-depth into the medieval setting and then decided to sort of bail out. Sadly, a few questions I had with strict regard to the medieval setting’s history were never fully fleshed out.
Thankfully, character interaction and NPC dialogue is top notch. With a stellar localization, exceptional voice acting, and characters you will actually care for, each moment in SO3 seems very well done and definitely polished.
Graphically this game is beautiful. When you first load up the game, you are asked if you want to play it in widescreen ratio and with surround sound. Being the owner of a 57″ widescreen HDTV with a 5.1 Dolby system, I was in my glory. The graphics and environments look crystal clear, ooze with color, and are filled to the brim with atmosphere and detail. The character models look pretty good – not too choppy or pixilated – and the super-deformed look is pulled off without seeming too strange. My favorite aspect of the game comes from its beautiful environments. There are a wide range of them and they all simply excrete personality and character.
Part of the reason the environments are so spectacular is due to the wonderful sound in the game. Always fitting, and very haunting and melodic in certain areas, Motoi Sakuraba has provided a very solid, if not perfect soundtrack. While most pieces on the soundtrack are exceptional, it seems that a few simply don’t stand up to the rest. In particular, I enjoyed the battle and boss themes (one of the techno tracks you encounter near the end of the game is particularly cool) which really made the battle that much more frantic and meaningful. On the flip side, I did not enjoy any of the whimsical pieces. Sakuraba really does seem to be more effective when performing slow, brooding pieces than whimsical, lighthearted ones. A few tracks aside, the music in SO3 is stellar, fits the mood, and complements the excellent voice acting to a tee.
SO3 is a very long game. So long, in fact, that I could easily foresee some people playing well into their one hundred and twentieth hour. I spent sixty five hours on it, beat the game (with just one of the multiple endings) and completed a fair number of side-quests. That being said, there are still no less than 3 extra (HUGE!) dungeons I have not gone anywhere near, and who knows how many bonus endings. SO3 is just like that; it exudes an air of polished gameplay that most games try to reach but fall just short of. I think that if you go into SO3 knowing that you will be with it for many, many hours, not all of it will be great, but the big picture comes together really well, and you have to be something of a masochist to truly love it, you will enjoy your time with SO3. If, however, you are seeking a lighthearted game that you can sit down every so often and play away at, you might want to pick up something else.