Title: Star Ocean: The Second Story
Developer: Tri-Ace/Enix
Publisher: Enix (Japan), Sony Computer Entertainment America (US/Canada)
Date Published: June 30, 1998 (Japan), May 31, 1999 (North America)
Platforms:Sony PlayStation
Format: 2 CD-ROMs
ESRB Rating: E (Everyone), Animated Violence, Mild Language

Introduction

Star Ocean: The Second Story was a traditional console RPG released on the Playstation. It is notable for being the first Enix game that was released in North America since the heyday of the SNES, when their American subsidiary shut down. It is an epic game, and difficult for an RPG released in 1999. The title no doubt confused most North American gamers, as SO:TSS is the sequel to a relatively obscure SNES game, Star Ocean, which was never released outside Japan. And although it still makes sense without playing the original Star Ocean, SO:TSS is a true sequel in the sense that one of the main characters of SO:TSS is the son of one of the main characters of Star Ocean. When starting the game, you can choose from two different main characters, Claude Kenni and Rena Lanford, whose different perspectives change the game in many subtle ways.

Plot (no spoilers)

Claude Kenni is the son of famous hero Ronixis Kenni, and is an ensign on his father's Earth Federation starship. On a routine exploration mission he accidentally steps into a teleporter which transports him to the Shingo Forest on the planet Expel.

Rena Lanford is a young woman living in the village of Arlia on the planet Expel, at the edge of the Shingo Forest. One day, she decides to take a walk in the forest, where she loves to go. While she is there, she is accosted by a monster. Claude appears and fights off the monster with his pulse gun. Rena takes him back to Arlia, and they are soon both swept up in an epic story involving Rena's mysterious pendant, Claude's quest for identity, and the end of the world.

Gameplay

Star Ocean: The Second Story's gameplay has several unique, or at least original elements. The most notable of these is the battle system, which eschews the traditional RPG style of Active Time or turn based combat for a real-time, action RPG-like system. The player controls one of the four active characters, moving them around the battlefield in real time, and switching between characters when necessary. Warrior characters have three attacks available to them, a regular attack done with the X button, and two 'killer moves' assigned to the L1 and R1 buttons. Magician characters have the X button attack but instead of killer moves have spells that can be cast. The system is not too action-oriented, though, because when an attack button is pressed an enemy can be selected, either through a conventional system of direct selection or by automatically selecting the nearest enemy. The character then moves over to that enemy, chasing if necessary, before performing their attack. The three characters not controlled by the player are controlled with a very good AI, one of the best player character AIs I've seen in an RPG.

Outside of battle, the game has the usual panoply of towns and dungeons connected with a 3D-rendered world map. One interesting feature of this component of the game is the 'Private Action', where the party splits up upon entering a town. You then control your main character and interact with both the NPCs in the town and the other members of the party. The game tracks the results of the interaction between characters and establishes relationships and rivalries based on these interactions. The connections between the characters then affect what happens in the game's ending. This gives the player many options; you can set up your characters with other characters of the opposite sex, or you can create internecine strife to make your life difficult, for example. The many possible combinations give over 80 different endings.

The skill system in SO:TSS is deep and involving. In addition to killer moves and magic spells, gained by levelling up, there are a number of skills which are acquired through the game and improve by adding 'skill points' to them. These skills do various things, from adding combat moves to improving stats to even decreasing the experience point requirements for levelling. These skills group to provide 'Specialties', which each depend on one to three skills. When the skills level up, the specialty levels up with them. Many of the specialties are item creation abilities (see below), but others affect battles or other specialties, and some (the Oracle specialty) are completely frivolous. These specialties are affected by intrinsic 'Talents'. Having a talent related to a specialty (such as Sense of Taste for Cooking) increases the chance of success when using that specialty. Talents can also be 'discovered' through the use of related specialites. If this wasn't enough, specialties on different characters group together to form 'Super Specialties' that the whole party is involved in. These super specialties have larger effects than the regular specialties, and they usually involve the whole party.

Many of the specialties and super specialties are item creation abilities. These abilities allow the character or party to take raw materials and make items out of them. Depending on the skill level and talent of the character, the creation ability may fail resulting in a useless item, or it may produce a particularly useful or powerful item. Some of these skills have rather intuitive effects, such as Cooking and Metalwork, while others, such as Art, have more mysterious effects. One specialty that is classed as item creation is the Identify skill, which makes usable items out of unknown items. Mastery of the item creation system has many advantages throughout the game.

There are twelve characters available to join your party, but only eight can join your party, and recruiting some characters prevents you from recruiting others. Like Chrono Trigger, you can switch characters in and out of the active party any time you're not in combat. This is very useful because this game is difficult and requires a lot of levelling up. Often some of your characters will die in a foray into a dungeon, and if you have more than four characters in your party you can switch out the dead characters for live ones and escape to revive them.

Graphics and Sound

The graphics in SO:TSS are mostly done in the Final Fantasy VII vein, with detailed prerendered backgrounds the order of the day. Unlike FF7's gritty, realistic-looking backgrounds, though, the backgrounds in SO:TSS are often very polished and 'hyperreal'. Also unlike FF7 and most other games following this style, cel-animated sprites are used for characters rather than polygonal models. The world map and battle screen are both real-time 3D. The visual style works well, although much of the world seems overly shiny, and the character sprites are a bit too small.

Motoi Sakuraba's music is quite good, although it can be overly bombastic at times. The synthesis is well-done, far better than Square's surprisingly weak work for both Final Fantasy VII and VIII. Like all game music synthesisers, it has quirks that affect all of the music, in particular the fantastically realistic flute samples. Again, the only real flaw is that the some music (such as the inn fanfare) are incredibly overblown.

The most flawed element of the presentation is the sound effects. The non-music, non-voice sound effects are fairly generic and do not enhance or detract from the gaming experience, but it is the voice acting that really causes problems. There is little in-game narration of dialog or plot events, only the occasional badly produced snippet, but that is not the true problem. The true problem is the 'battle voices'. These poorly-produced, poorly-acted, and poor-quality clips play often in battles. Many of them are basic grunts and groans, but there are many nonsensical phrases and attack announcements to be heard. It is possible to do battle voices well, as in Lunar: Eternal Blue, but SO:TSS really botches it.

Other Considerations

As if the game wasn't difficult enough, there are two higher difficulty levels that can be unlocked after playing through the game. These are titled 'Galaxy' and 'Universe', with the regular difficulty having no name. These difficulty levels could more accurately have been called 'hard', 'very hard', and 'insane'. As such, they do not help replay value as much as they could have.

In addition to messing up the battle voices, the localisation team also did a rather uninspired translation of the script. Translation of a script this large is not a simple matter, and there have been worse translation botches in the RPG genre (witness Final Fantasy Tactics), but that does not quite excuse the rather bland nature of SO:TSS's translated script.

One minor niggle is the interaction between attack spells and the vibration feature of the Dual Shock controller. Few games vibrate the controller for as long and as hard as this game does during attack spell animations.

Conclusions

Star Ocean: The Second Story, is a good RPG, if not a great one. With its relentlessly old-school difficulty, fun battle system, and innovative but complicated skill system, it is certainly worth playing. But there are enough things that are mildly annoying or less than they could be that it fails to achieve true classic status. Recommended to any RPG fan, especially those who think current RPGs are too easy.

A port to the Playstation Portable was released in 2009, retitled Star Ocean: Second Evolution.


This write-up complies with the E2 FAQ: Video Games standards.
Sources are the game and its packaging, and GameFAQs for the little details I keep forgetting.
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This writeup is copyright 2003, 2009 by me and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.5/ .

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