Enix’s Star Ocean series is one of the few J-RPG franchises that originated in the 16-bit era that remains, to this day, somewhat relevant on home consoles.
While the latest entries have been disappointing as SO: The Last Hope, and Integrity and Faithlessness, have for the most part been fairly average RPGs. One thing that can’t been denied is that the series had a 3 game stretch between the original Star Ocean on the SNES, and Star Ocean 3: Till the End of Time, that is as good as anything that we have seen within the Japanese Role-Playing game genre.
Out of the trilogy, my personal favorite remains the second entry. Star Ocean: The Second Story remains, even today, a daunting and meticulously grand RPG. Games have gotten more complex with the arrival of better hardware, and yet, at least as far as J-RPGs go; very few have been as tough, and as complex as Star Ocean: The Second Story.
1999’s Star Ocean’s PS1 entry got lost in the Final Fantasy VIII shuffle, and it is a shame, as it was in my opinion the far superior game. When I say ‘lost in the shuffle’, I do not want to imply that Star Ocean: The Second Story was a commercial failure, because it wasn’t. With 1.10 million units sold, Star Ocean far out sold its predecessor (by nearly a million units), and remains the second best selling entry in the series (behind Star Ocean 3).
The genre really peaked in the late 90s, early 00s, selling a million units then was impressive, but not uncommon. By contrast, the latest entry in the series only sold about half a million units between the PS3 and PS4 versions.
Still, Final Fantasy VIII scored better reviews and went onto sell 8.6 million units. I understand – the why of – the sales victory for Square’s successful franchise, but not necessarily the somewhat disappointing scores that Star Ocean: The Second Story received by comparison.
Final Fantasy VIII received aggregate scores of 89 (GameRankings) and 90 (Metacritic), while Star Ocean: The Second Story received scores of 79 (GameRankings) and 80 (Metacritic). Graphics can sway even the best of reviewers, but in terms of gameplay I would interchange the scores between games.
Star Ocean: The Second Story was designed with replay value in mind. A level cap of 255, and the cave of trials which was an outstanding optional dungeon that only players with a party in absurdly high levels could ever hope to conquer, were testaments of this approach.
The item creation system was deep, and at least a rudimentary understanding of how it worked was needed in order to succeed at the later stages of the game. I remember having a hellish time in the last stretch of battles before I acquired a pair of bunny shoes. The bunny shoes made a world of difference.
That item, could be crafted by a combination of items, or found in the game world ( I found it in the cave of trials). However, the item creation system provided a way of customization that was nearly unprecedented at the time. My party of characters could all be hovering on the 90s as far as levels went, but a friend’s party could be on equal terms in levels, and yet, be that much more powerful (or weaker) depending on how much time was spent tinkering with the item creation system.
Apart from being one of the most enriching experiences that the genre had to offer, the game also had a decent presentation and a wonderful epic storyline that was only held back by the awful translation.
The story could be played through the eyes of two protagonists Rena and Claude, and it spanned two different fully fledged worlds (yes, each with its own fully rendered 3-D world map).
Different actions and interactions between characters could lead to a wide array of ‘endings’ in terms of character relationships, which added an incentive for consecutive replays provided that you were hardcore enough to play such a complex epic from the start more than twice.
I loved my time with the game and its amazing battle system, as it could be played as a full action RPG (instead of turn based), with full control, and freedom of movement during the battle stages. The game turned into a fan of Tri-Ace (developer), and of the series.
Star Ocean: The Second Story can be found on Amazon.com for a fairly low price (Discs only, no case or manual), and for a fairly large price (as high as $350.000) if you want the case and manual for collectible purposes. I believe that it is a truly a game that every JRPG fan should play at least once.