1999 was a huge year for RPGs, games like FFVIII, Grandia, Suikoden 2 and Lunar, all were released in that year. So it is forgivable that most of you missed a great RPG, (an argument can be made by some that the game was the best RPG of that year) by the name of Star Ocean: The Second Story.
While unquestionably a great game, however, Star Ocean: The Second Story is not for everyone. This game is for the hardcore RPG crowd, casual RPG players who only play games in the genre that end in Fantasy followed by a number will find this game too hard and unforgivable. However, for the hardcore like me, there is plenty to like in here.
Graphically, Star Ocean 2 is nothing special, especially when judged by today standards. The sprites are simplistic, and the pre-rendered backgrounds lack the polish of the ones seen in the PS1 Final Fantasies. The World Map while fully polygonal, (ala FFVII-IX) is rough and pixelated. Yet, somehow Star Ocean 2 is a good-looking game all the same.
It must be the artwork then, it’s obvious that the game doesn’t have the graphical flair of titles with greater budgets, but the developers did the best they could with what they had. Tri-Ace crafted two believable worlds in Expel and Nede.
Each world has its own gigantic world map which like I stated before is rendered in full polygonal glory. There are many pre-rendered towns that have a sweet anime look to them thanks to small details, for example in Arlia village; there is a small river in which you can see the reflection of your character on the water. Simple details like that give the game’s atmosphere life.
The character sprites while not on the level of Grandia’s or Xenogears’s, manage to get the job done because their design is good, and again, it is a case of substance over style.
The battles are fought in flat backgrounds with the characters and the enemy sprites on it. Nothing fancy in that department either. The spell animations themselves are simplistic, but like the rest of the graphical package; they get the job done.
There are a few FMVs, some of these cutscenes like the ones at the ending of disc 1 and at the game’s ending are impressive, but overall, they are a level below FFVIII’s.
The game (Except the Characters because they are sprites and not 3-D models) follows the same graphical style of the PS1 FFs, its just that the quality its a notch below that of the legendary series’ visuals.
It’s own personality
In the Audio department the game shows that it is in the Elite RPG class. The music while not as varied, or as mind-boggling as the music found in other games on the genre, it is still very good. The compositions by Motoi Sakuraba are beautiful, even of they are not played by a high budget orchestra, you ears will still be able to recognize that the compositions are indeed of very high quality. I loved the tracks that played when I was traversing the world maps.
The sound however takes a nosedive in the game’s character voices and sound effects. The sound effects are simple at best, I am pretty sure the SNES could have done most of them without no problem. However, they are more than bearable.
What is not bearable however, is annoying character voicework. I hated it all. Fortunately, the voices only appear during battles, but because of that I wonder if the voicework was really necessary at all. The game could have done better without the voiceovers.
A Solid Epic Tale
Every great RPG has a great story, and Star Ocean: The Second Story is (barely) not the exception. I used the word barely because the translation almost ruined the whole thing. The game is really two stories in one; you can play as either Claude Kenni or Rena Langford.
Each character has the same story; it’s just that depending on whom you chose to play as, you will see story events from different points of view. However, its “two sides to the story” system isn’t nearly as deep as the three way system in Suikoden 3. This that once you played the game as one of the characters, you pretty much played the game as the other. So, unless you truly love the game there is no reason to play it twice. The story is complicated and unpredictable to a degree; it’s mainly Sci-fi with some fantasy in it. What makes the storyline unique is the large cast at your disposal and the fact that the game has more than 80 endings.
Now, 80 is a huge number of endings in a game, so to cast away any doubts, there is only one ending to the story, in other words, no matter what you do in the game you will always see the same FMV in the end.
However, during the game, just before you enter a town, you will be given the option of choosing “Private Actions”. In “Private Actions” your party splits, and each character goes its own way through the town. Whether you are Rena or Claude, you must go around town, and if you wish, you can talk to certain characters or to every one. In the end these “Private Actions” among other things (like the different side quests) will influence the way the game ends in terms of the characters relationship to one another. But the whole concept and its execution is simplistic, because the developers probably realized that no one in their right mind will play the game from beginning to end 80 times.
All said, major props should go to Enix for going the extra mile to provide us with good character development. The effort put into every one of the characters’ script helped the story to lift itself above the Legaias and Dragoons of the world, but unfortunately, it is still somewhere below the FFs and Grandias.
The translation is to blame for the problems in the tale. While the main conflicts in the game are pretty easy to understand, the characters themselves are not. All the characters read in the same way. It’s pretty hard to tell the characters apart from each other by just reading their lines. For example, in FFVII if I had to guess which character is who by just reading one of their lines, I am sure I would be able to tell who is who because none of the characters speak the same way. With Star Ocean: The Second Story that task basically impossible, because the translators didn’t give each character’s line personality.
I am sure that the Japanese version didn’t have these problems, because there are many clues that point to SCEA as the culprit in this translations mess.
The first one being the huge number of grammatical and spelling errors present in the dialog text, and the second one is that some things the characters say make little to no sense. It seems like SCEA directly translated Japanese text to English. They did this without paying attention to the fact that sentences when translated directly word by word from language to language lose some, and sometimes all of their original meaning. Perhaps, SCEA should take notes from Ubisoft and Working Designs on how to properly translate a Japanese RPG.
A Hardcore Game
At the beginning of the review I stated that this was a game for hardcore RPG players only, and here is why. In Most RPGs, success depends on how often, and how much you level up before a boss battle. In Star Ocean: The Second Story the same rule applies, yet items play as important, if not a more important part on success than leveling up alone does.
You can level up all that you want, but if you don’t have the right equipment the last bosses will eat you alive. The problem is that to get that equipment, and items you need to learn certain skills first.
Cooking, Metalwork, Composing, Singing, Publishing, heck every job skill imaginable can be attained in the game. You better learn these skills because you are going to have to create Armor and items to help you out the when bosses get tough. To learn skills you must use skill points, which you will get by leveling up. Some skills when mastered open new skills, and if many members of your party master the same skill, you will be able to use Super Specialty skills.
If it sounds confusing, its because it is. The best advice I can give you is to experiment. All the skills that you learn are designed to create items and armor, while some will get you money, others will improve your actual performance during battles. The skill system in this beast its one of the most complex things that I have seen in any RPG.
Leveling up is easy depending on where you fight battles at, there are some specific places during the game that will help you to level up quickly. I believe the maximum level you can attain is 255, I finished the game at level 95 in 48 hours. However, like I said before, you need the right equipment to be able to defeat some of those last bosses.
However, the most impressive aspect of the game is by far is its battle system. Unlike any other game in the genre, Star Ocean: The Second Story, for better or for worse, lets you decide between: Standard, which is the normal turn based system. Semi Active in which you are allowed some movement on the field but you are still playing by the turn-based rules and lastly, Full Active. Full Active is as close to Zelda as you can get in a traditional Turn based battle system. You can move a across the battle map, but now you have the freedom to attack the enemy at anytime that you wish, the downside is that the enemy won’t wait for you either.
Still, even with all of this freedom, by opening the attack menu you can pause the fight to think your next move. I played the entire game in Full Active and trust me, it takes a lot of strategy to win some of the latter fights even with all of the freedom of movement.
Star Ocean’s Battle system is the second best in the business behind Grandia’s.
The game is full of side quests, the Cave of trials being the mother of all side quests. The Cave of trials can last even longer than the main game and to beat it I have heard that you must be at your absolute best. You will probably have to (at some point in the cave) reach level 255. All I can say is that it took me about 48 hours to finish it with four of my characters on the 90s range and that last boss battle was still tough. I thought it was never going to end.
It wasn’t the hardest battle ever, but considering the time that I had taken to level up, it was one of the toughest battles that I have ever had to fight. However, not all of the side quests in this game are good. Some are annoying, cheap and time consuming. Like the bunny racing game.
In the bunny racing game the goal is really to win the bunny shoes (The most useful equipment in the game). I spent three hours trying to win them and I didn’t win. Winning them its almost as hard as winning the lotto. So I recommend you save yourself the time and go to the cave of trials since a boss there has a pair bunny shoes, the odds of getting them that way are much more promising.
A must own for the RPG aficionado
In the end, I loved this game to the point that I will now try to beat the Cave of trials, I recommend this game to true RPG fans. Casual players won’t make it to credits. Patience is the key to it. Star Ocean: The Second Story is one of the better RPGs out there, even if the translation and difficulty hold it back from being truly phenomenal.
Could have scored higher had the game been easier.
Those character sprites are bad, and the rest of the visuals are just solid. But the Artwork is stellar.
Beautiful compositions, horrible voices.
Solid story, weak translation.
Plenty of side quests, plus you can play it a second time with a second character.
A great game, could have been a 95 had it been a little bit easier.