I've known about Star Ocean: The Second Story for quite some time. Ever since I had seen it in a local Microplay store (a Canadian used game shop franchise that has basically gone defunct), I knew I was beholding something special. Maybe it was the allure of RPGs, a genre I wasn't entirely familiar with. Maybe it was the spooky cosmic packaging. Maybe I just liked oceans at the time. But back then, I was limited to Nintendo consoles. I suppose I could tried to wedge a PlayStation disc into my Nintendo 64, but I doubt that would have ended with the intended effect. It wasn't until 2003 with the purchase of a PlayStation 2 that owning and playing this wondrously mysterious game became a closer reality. Microplay at this point was as alive as Milli Vanilli's recording career, but EB Games was there, and upon its shelves in late 2003, what did I spy? That's right: Mega Man Legends 2! ...oh, and Star Ocean: The Second Story, of course. With a backlog as lengthy as the Great Wall of China, I finally got around to playing it in 2004, and in a nutshell, it's one of the most worthwhile and influential purchases of my entire library.
It has also been one of the few games I strongly regret never writing a review for. Until now.
That may lead a staunch group of readers to quickly assert that I have a strong bias in favour of Star Ocean. I can only assure, therefore, that my views presented here reflect both my opinions back in 2004 when I had no hands-on experience and only the packaging itself to rely on and my subsequent opinions here, in December 2016 (when this review was written), after an exhaustive 12-part livestream extravaganza. With limited previous knowledge of RPGs, having only perhaps played a small handful (most notably Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and Super Mario RPG, two relatively simple and "dumbed-down" titles for mainstreamers), this was essentially my first foray into what RPGs really stood for. It opened a new world, a new way to play, a new direction in my hobbyist career. Beforehand, I was glued to the classic platformers and adventure games — the Marios, the Zeldas, the Mega Mans, the Donkey Kong Countries. But this... this was different. You couldn't just rush through it with enough practiced physical dexterity. You had to grind. And it required some thought, not to mention much more conversation with the locals. RPGs are a more relaxed, calculated way to game, and Star Ocean led me straight into its path. I haven't looked back.
With a subtitle like "The Second Story", it's natural to assume there's a first story. Indeed, that may have be confusing to anyone playing outside of Japan. This is the second game in the series, but the first to be localized outside of its native country. The first game, simply titled "Star Ocean", was released in 1996 for the Super Famicom and was one of the largest games ever for the system, filling a whopping 48-Megabit cartridge, tied only with Tales of Phantasia. The game followed protagonists Roddick Farrence and Millie Chliette of the planet Roak (a planet revisited in Star Ocean: The Last Hope as a prequel) as they battle the scourge of a deadly wide-spreading disease. In their search for a cure, they meet Ronyx J. Kenny and Ilia Silvestri, two members of the Earth Federation and members of the crew of the ship Calnus, who give them news of where the disease came from and why it arrived on Roak.
Why am I telling you the story of some other game? There must be a point! Well... only one character from the first Star Ocean game appears in the sequel, and that's Ronyx Kenny, now officially a captain. He and the crew of the Calnus, alongside new ensign Claude Kenny, the captain's son, are exploring a new planet when Claude notices a strange glow in the vicinity of their travels. Despite the repeated warnings of his father, he approaches and then... POOF! Disappears. Bye. He then arrives on Expel, a planet the Federation knows little about, where he runs into Rena Lanford, a girl living in the small village of Arlia and who possesses interesting heraldic powers no one else has, including the power of healing. Proclaimed as the "Hero of Light", Claude is brought back to the village, where he and Rena are entasked with seeking out the Sorcery Globe, a meteorite that had crashed into the planet and was believed to be causing a massive monster influx. From there, their adventures only begin to unfold, and even when they find the meteorite, even more disaster will befall them and the world. Halfway through is quite the plot twist that shocked me somewhat, as you don't see things like this happen in your average adventure. (But I shan't spoil that.)
In typical RPG fashion, your time will be divided between fighting monsters and learning more about your surroundings. Much time will be spent visiting each town in search of people that can lead you in the right direction. And, of course, there's always time for a little shopping for better weapons and self-preservation items (purchased using "Fol" as a currency — odd as that is, it's not nearly as goofy-sounding as Capcom's oft-employed "zenny"). Towns are usually (not always, but usually) great places to recruit new members of your party as events bring them into your lives.
But Star Ocean takes interaction to a higher level with the introduction of "Private Actions". Choosing to engage in Private Actions when approaching a town, your entire party will split up and go about their own business. By scouring the town and speaking individually with each member, you will affect your relationship with them and the relationships they have amongst each other, positively or negatively. In addition to determining how their fates are sealed in the game's conclusion, having a great relationship can help in battle. Should one of your allies with whom you share a close relationship perish in the heat of battle, your own strength will be briefly increased, likely as a result of rage and vengeance!
Star Ocean is more entertaining and endearing than Frank Ocean and Billy Ocean combined.
While the exploration of towns is charming, filled with a rich cast of characters that boast a wide variety of personalities, much of your time will be spent away from the prying eyes of townsfolk and deep in battle, and that's where the game shines as well, to a degree. Unlike its brethren at the time — Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, to name a few — Star Ocean's battles all play out in real time, with up to four characters simultaneously engaging enemies in one massive melee. You only control one character at a time, but you can switch between them as needed, or you can stick with your favourite and designate everyone else with a tactic that best suits your situation, be it attack with all your might, help friends only, or just stand there like a stoned oaf and let the real heroes take charge. There's never a dull moment in these battles; constant action is the name of the game. Well, actually, it's Star Ocean: The Second Story, but you get the idea.
The system, fun though it may be most of the time, has its flaws. Every time you want to attack an enemy, you have to repeatedly choose the enemy before each strike, making Star Ocean a bit more of a button-masher than it needs to be. Once you make a choice, even if the enemy is all the way across the terrain and you're not even halfway there, you can't reverse your decision until you strike, or attempt to strike, it. This can be hazardous in those moments when you realize, "Awww nuts, while I'm over here fighting this inflated bunny thing, my healer's getting beaten up by a giant mutant ape." Worse yet, if an enemy decides to just run around the scene like a madman, as some are known to do, you are helpless and will simply chase it around until it eventually halts and you get your attack in. It would have been nice to be able to cancel your move, especially considering you could be chasing some wacky beast and wasting a valuable minute of time when you could be slaying. Magic users have a tough time, too. Sure, they just stand in place and cast spells, but they also have a strong tendency to take a hit from the enemy and just run, rather than rustle up some courage and give those slimy foes a quick whack on the noggin with a staff.
Additionally, I find that when you absolutely need healing the most, that's when your healer suddenly gets ambushed by beasts, putting the party at a further disadvantage. Then everyone dies, and that's the end of it. And while I'm thinking about it, why are revival items (called Resurrection Bottles) so expensive?! Regular healing items are dirt cheap, but apparently raising the dead is big business! Is the Resurrection Bottle patent owned by Martin Schkreli?
I also managed to glitch the battle system to the point where a restart — and loss of progress was required. One aspect of battles is that characters, enemies and heroes alike, CAN stand on top of each other. They typically hop off, but during one frustrating boss fight, all three of my fighters managed to form an awkward stacked pyramid where you could see they were trying to move, Without the ability to move about the battlefield freely, everyone was essentially stuck. The boss couldn't hurt me, and I couldn't hurt it. We were at an impasse. Nothing could be done except fail and restart.
As it is an RPG, winning battles means winning experience points, which then means leveling up and strengthening your characters. It must be said that this is NOT one of those RPGs where even non-participating party members earn experience. To strengthen them, you have to use them, and with a party of up to eight members, this could be a lengthy process, unless you choose not to use some of them at all. But by leveling up, you also earn yourself Skill Points, which can then be allocated to a large variety of (naturally) skills. Some, such as "Strong Blow" or "Parry", improve your combative abilities; others will amp up your overall stats; even more will affect your creative skills. Wait... creative skills? What? Called "Specialties", your party can actually create their own items, including medicines, tasty food, and even musical tunes. Is this a requirement to complete the game? No, but it does illustrate another level of depth the game possesses.
If you've been playing the latest RPGs — Final Fantasy XV, also from Square Enix, for one — and then step into the world of Star Ocean: The Second Story, you're in for a slight presentation shock. Some games age well over time, like a fine Bordeaux, while others look crusty and tasteless after a short while, like any wine with a twist-off cap that came in a box. Star Ocean falls a bit more to the latter, though it will hardly blind anyone with mediocrity. It's certainly not ugly — the pre-rendered three-dimensional backgrounds are gorgeous for the eyes. But the sprites, which spend a lot of time being far too zoomed out (giving them the appearance of random belly button lint crossing the screen), or occasionally too zoomed in, where you can tell that maybe we should back away because this sprite is too small to begin with. The real-time rendered overworld isn't that bad, though it's a bit blocky — more a side effect of being on the PlayStation rather than anything else.
Meanwhile, the orchestral soundtrack is phenomenal, and aside from a few tracks that feel very out of place, these songs, composed by Motoi Sakuraba, will either tug at your heartstrings or give you the necessary feeling of empowerment you need to get out of the inn bed and save the world. The audio flourishes here... then falters with the voice acting. Though no dialogue is really voiced, save for an animated cutscene at the end (complete with odd animation and a strange way to draw a nose on a person), there are no shortage of battle cries and grunts during every fight. They may be cute at first, but after the tenth battle or so, hearing the shock of characters spouting lines such as "Behind me?", "When did they—?", and "There's Mr. Enemy!" just doesn't have the same impact. Actually, it's pretty annoying. Actually, it's VERY annoying. And Precis, another character you can recruit, likes to bark like a puppy for no reason whatsoever. That's not even part of her character! "Arf, arf!" Barf, barf.
Is Star Ocean: The Second Story the greatest RPG I've ever played? Probably not. I've been around the RPG block a few times and played many of the greats. But despite its flaws, there really is a solid game underneath. I said earlier that this was a great and influential purchase, and I still hold true to that belief. Star Ocean opened my eyes to the greater universe of this genre, and it actually is a good representation of the genre's embodiment. Others may be more popular or more refined, but Star Ocean: The Second Story's charm and accessibility should not be ignored. Sadly, this one didn't make the cut on the PSN, but you can find a remake on the PSP in the form of Star Ocean: Second Evolution, though I can't verify how loyal the remake is to its source. But if it's a good RPG with class you're looking for, seek this one out. It's not perfect, but it will definitely make you appreciate RPGs a little bit more.