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Star Ocean: The Second Story (PlayStation) artwork

Star Ocean: The Second Story (PlayStation) review

"The first time I played Star Ocean: The Second Story, I was duly impressed by the large number of spaceships (I quite like them) in the title screen cinematic. Intrigued, I started a game. "

The first time I played Star Ocean: The Second Story, I was duly impressed by the large number of spaceships (I quite like them) in the title screen cinematic. Intrigued, I started a game.

Select your character.

What was this? Two heroes? Not only that, but the girl actually had breasts smaller than her head? All right! I picked Rena Lanford to be my protagonist, and I soon found myself in the sleepy (and rather low-tech) village of Arlia, located on the planet Expel.

My first thought was Hey, where did the spaceships go? But as I took a walk around Arlia, my disappointment faded. The village had a clean and vibrant look to it, the smooth pre-rendered backgrounds awash in brilliant reds and blues and greens, the character sprites simple and cute, the houses’ interiors sleek and almost modern. It was idyllic, almost dreamlike, with a beguiling flute melody playing in the background.

Rena wanted to go to the Shingo Forest, so I took her south of Arlia, traveling down a fence-lined path with the village behind her, the mountains, hazy green in the distance, beyond that. Smoke wafted out of a chimney; a waterwheel turned slowly under the power of a small, unhurried creek; flocks of birds drifted overhead. As Rena stepped further down the screen towards the mouth of the forest, mottled shadows started to appear on the path, the lush foliage thickening. Ivy crawled up a stump, and glossy rhododendrons nestled between the roots of an off-screen tree. I strayed into the forest, making my way between the mammoth, moss-covered trees, shafts of light piercing the canopy. Five minutes in, and I was enthralled.

It wasn’t just that the environments were gorgeous: the atmosphere was simply spellbinding. This wasn’t just any fantasy world. While it wasn’t stunningly original, it had been crafted with care, and it felt real.

That’s why I felt personally affronted when a monster attacked Rena. Fortunately for her, the other lead character, Claude Kenni, saved her in the nick of time, reducing it to mere molecules with his phase gun. You see, Claude is an ensign in the Earth Federation who suddenly found himself on Expel after messing with an alien artifact. He has no idea where he is or how to get home, so he leaves Arlia to search for clues with Rena as his local guide. Soon they’re pulled into an investigation of the Sorcery Globe: a meteorite that transforms animals into monsters, and the effect is spreading. Someday even Arlia won’t be safe.

I certainly wasn’t going to stand for that. The plot might be simple, but Star Ocean 2 is so vivid and engaging that I couldn’t help becoming absorbed in it – and as I continued playing, that feeling only became stronger.

I fell in love with the characters immediately. Ashton is the world’s unluckiest swordsman, possessed by two demonic (albeit cute) dragon heads sprouting out of his back and inexplicably obsessed with barrels – but he’s a big softie at heart, and he’s not ashamed to cry when he’s especially moved. Then there’s Precis, the spunky, hyperactive girl genius who loves building robots and chasing Claude. Her fascination with machines makes her weird in the eyes of her town, though, and she never really had friends before meeting the party. There are twelve characters altogether, and almost all of them are quirky and endearing.

Though the cast is large, every character actually gets screen time. Private actions let Rena or Claude venture into town alone while the other party members go off and do their own thing. You can talk to them and even interact with them in scripted events called Private Actions, revealing things about the characters and sometimes altering their relationships. When Ashton’s heart goes out to a dying girl in Herlie, he beseeches Rena to help find the herb that will save her life, and if Rena accepts, the bond between them grows stronger. On the other hand, if she catches Claude and another party member checking out girls in the city of Cross, she likes them less. Depending on how the party’s relationships develop, you can unlock more PAs and even change the character-specific endings.

The actual quest is no less entertaining. Fights are brief and action-packed; you can’t get bored of random battles when they’re over fifteen seconds after they start, particularly not with a battle system as flat-out fun as Star Ocean 2’s. While your spellcasters invoke destruction from afar, your fighters tear across the battlefield in real-time (one under your control, the others with surprisingly competent AI), frantically walloping enemies with their weapons or special MP-consuming attacks. When Claude uses Ripper Blast, half of the field erupts in huge chunks of earth, slamming into even airborne enemies for multiple hits. Ashton’s Dragon Breath causes his dragons to swell up and bombard an enemy with sizzling streams of flame, stunning it long enough for the other characters to run up and join in with their own combos – but you have to be careful that the enemy doesn’t do something similar to you. Battles are won by whoever can maintain unrelenting pressure; let up for even a moment, and your opponents might recover enough to unleash devastating attacks that can turn the tide of battle in an instant.

While you can get away with mashing buttons in random battles, the bosses are another story, requiring setup and quick thinking, and there are legions of tough optional ones. Take the final boss’s limiter off, and he’ll tear around the battlefield, charging spells that will wipe out your entire party unless you can manage to land a hit in the second or two before the spell is unleashed. Another one can also instantly kill your party if you’re not careful, but her most dangerous attack is simpler, a shock blast that hits for so many times so quickly that it’s almost impossible to survive unless you block it. If that weren’t enough, most of her attacks can also turn you to stone.

The game is surprisingly deep on all accounts. The skill system gives you access to a variety of abilities: compose and play songs on different instruments to increase your parameters in battle, summon animals to visit a shop for you in the middle of a dungeon when you’re running low on items, pickpocket rare items from people in towns, or forge powerful weapons and equipment out of raw materials. You can whip up Japanese dishes that restore your HP and MP, or you can dabble in crime and forge documents that give you random items or increase a party member’s level. Write novels and sell them to a publisher for the royalties you receive periodically, or have party members read them instead to change relationship values. Wield your knowledge of items to raise or lower prices in shops.

Even the plot ends up being more than you might expect; the truth behind the Sorcery Globe is a far cry from the half-assed, cliché explanation you were probably expecting. The real conflict extends far beyond the scope of one little planet – something it isn’t afraid to demonstrate – as the game suddenly remembers its science fiction roots in an awesome plot twist that catapults Star Ocean 2 above the ranks of other RPGs of its ilk. While it may be straightforward, it’s capable of surprises.

But at the same time, it’s that straightforwardness that gives it a lot of its charm. It doesn’t overreach; it doesn’t have an intricate, multilayered storyline or convoluted gameplay. It endorses a philosophy that’s fallen by the wayside with today’s Xenosagas and Chrono Crosses: it aims to be fun before it tries to impress. And yet it ends up doing both.

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Community review by viridian_moon (July 21, 2006)

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