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Star Ocean: The Second Story (PlayStation) artwork

Star Ocean: The Second Story (PlayStation) review

"Here’s a math problem for you. Take one of the most respected RPG development companies in the world, Enix; add two other talented production houses, Tri-Ace and Links. Now factor in two separate storylines, a party of up to eight characters chosen by the player from all parts of an obsessively detailed fantasy world, and a seemingly endless array of skills and special abilities. It would be easy to say this all sums to a great game -- but a more accurate result would simply be to name the produ..."

Here’s a math problem for you. Take one of the most respected RPG development companies in the world, Enix; add two other talented production houses, Tri-Ace and Links. Now factor in two separate storylines, a party of up to eight characters chosen by the player from all parts of an obsessively detailed fantasy world, and a seemingly endless array of skills and special abilities. It would be easy to say this all sums to a great game -- but a more accurate result would simply be to name the product Star Ocean: The Second Story, a title that is sure to captivate even fans with only a tepid interest in RPGs.

The leading duo of Second Story is Claude Kenni, a courageous and strong Earthling, and Rena Lanford, the blue-haired girl next door who possesses magical healing powers. The game’s two storylines allow you to control either of these leads as a twisted, universe-encompassing plot develops, getting a slightly different perspective depending upon whose account you follow. Beginning with a quest to determine the origins of a deadly “Sorcery Globe,” the party eventually faces a threat that literally involved the annihilation of the universe by demonic forces. This game does wonders with a story that is relatively straightforward; the player is kept intrigued through mystery and simple excellent narration, not contrived and outrageous plot twists. Depth comes from the intricate backstories of the characters, not absurd complexities, making the experience at once realistic and attractive. That’s not to say things aren’t complex -- dig deep and you’ll uncover a mind-blowing level of historical detail stretching back hundreds of millions of years -- but it’s the sort of complexity that comes from faithful world-building.

The “party” here is a bit amorphous, since the player will have the chance to recruit members encountered as the story develops. Aside from Claude and Rena, who are always around, you’ll have the chance to nab figures like Celine, a flirtatious sorceress with a wide array of offensive spells, and Precis, a flirtatious teenager who invents her own weapons. The male characters include Bowman, a pharmacist who’s always ready to prescribe a quick death to your enemies, and Dias, a swordsman with abilities that even the powerful Claude envies. Some of these characters will naturally be picked up in the course of the main story, while others require a little questing on the side, but it’s hard to identify anyone who doesn’t make a valuable contribution both in battle and in plot development.

Second Story’s two plotlines don’t do much on the surface to differentiate themselves; this is where the unique “private action” system comes in. When entering a town under private action, the party splits up and the main figure of the storyline (Claude or Rena) can wander about alone, running into and conversing with other party members. Such one-on-one quality time is essential for developing the interpersonal relationships of your party and hugely affects which of dozens of endings you achieve -- that is, who hooks up when all’s said and done. It’s tough to say that mildly different endings add replay value when the rest of this lengthy game remains the same, but the opportunity for different results makes it fun to watch the developing relationship between different characters.

Like other PlayStation RPGs, this title assaults the player with a significant amount of random encounters. Fortunately, an engaging battle system makes this bearable at the worst, and usually a lot of fun. The player controls one of four characters in combat, while the computer operates the other three members of your party -- though one can easily switch from member to member to dictate more authority over the proceedings, in most cases the AI control is quite adequate. An excellent balance between magic and physical attacks keeps all the characters involved: while spellcasters can unleash multiple-target attacks with excellent hit rates, fighters can unleash “Killer Moves” that deal an enormous amount of damage.

By making enemies powerful but mostly low on HP, Second Story allows battles to be exciting without drawing on. Other, more complex touches create great depth in combat. For instance, hitting an enemy with an attack will cancel his pending move, and thus with effective strategy one can often preclude your opponents from unleashing powerful attacks that require time to build up. But this works both ways, meaning that your own characters can often be rendered inoperative if the enemy is allowed to surround and pester them. The elements of timing and quick-thinking present in features like this make Second Story feel much like an action fighter at times –- this is one of the most engaging and frenetic combat systems an RPG has offered.

Graphically, battles are typical of the entire game: 2D sprites appearing in a three-dimensional environment. While perhaps not cutting edge, it’s more than enough to keep one’s eyes on the prize. Touches like water slipping down a mountainside in the background of a rural scene, or ellipsis appearing in a dialogue bubble above a character in an awkward or ridiculous situation, add detail and interest to the visual setting. Tense moments of storytelling are usually presented without a lot of visual action, leaving it to the excellent dialogue to carry thing -- which it does handily.

Battles also present an opportunity to enjoy one of the game’s unique audio features, the Provocation ability that allows your character to taunt the enemy. These insults are a mild step up from the usual voice-acted battle commentary like “We did it!” While the voice-overs in battle can become a bit boring, they are for the most part endearingly nonsensical and over-the-top, and the music in general is excellent. Vibrant action themes contrast well with the solemn orchestration of the game’s more haunting moments: on the second disc, as elements like revenge and grief work into the story’s emotional milieu, these moments become more frequent and evocative.

Much of Second Story’s greatness comes from top-caliber execution of fairly commonplace game elements. Perhaps its most ground-breaking feature is the amazingly deep specialty system. By leveling up, characters acquire Skill Points, which they invest into abilities like Recipe and Musical Instrument, or more immediately useful combat skills. Learning skills will eventually open up individual specialties like Cooking or Alchemy; further development will activate “super specialties” that combine the skills of the whole party. Specialties offer some of the most powerful effects and equipment in the game, thus demanding a close look -- and they also remind us that even a hero like Claude can have a good time in the kitchen. This is just one example of the game’s efforts to go beyond a linear blueprint: with lots of sidequests and unique locations to uncover, along with the aforementioned special characters, there’s enough here to keep you occupied seemingly forever.

Second Story demands inclusion among the best RPGs on the Playstation, a console already blessed in the genre. One can’t point to a single aspect of the game that isn’t brilliantly assembled, and its more innovative features add immensely to the traditional formula. I could pound out another 3000 words lavishing praise on this title, but it’s easier just to say this: for RPG fans this is a must-own, and for those who’ve managed to ignore Final Fantasy’s siren call all these years, this outdoes even the signature RPG series, and is the obvious place to start in the genre. I tip my hat to you, Enix: this is perfection.

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Community review by denouement (July 17, 2004)

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