The retirement of the space-based JRPG franchise, Phantasy Star, allowed for another to shine in its place. For many people, the second game in the Star Ocean series is a true masterpiece. Yet, it is rarely considered as one of the top PS1 RPGs.
After finishing the game once, I fully understand why it is a favorite game for many, while at the same time failing to stick-out much for those who didn't fall in love with the game.
#78: Star Ocean: The Second Story:
Year: 1998 (JP), 1999 (NA).
First things first, I am changing my rating system to a simpler 10 point system. Games that get above a 7 I fully recommend, and those that get below that are mostly a waste of time. That leaves the score of 7 to depend on your taste.
"On the course of the journey you are about to embark, you should be able to find who you really are"
In what may be a disappointment to those who are expecting a space odyssey, the story begins and is mostly confined to the planet Expel. Here, you get the choice between the perspective of two heroes: Claude, the son of the first game's hero, and Rena, a local girl who may represent a deeper secret. Your choice doesn't have much impact on the greater story, but it offers the chance for a slightly different perspective. Also, each main character gets a unique party member that isn't available if you choose the other.
With any character in the driving seat, you start investigating a mysterious meteor that crashed into Expel causing all kinds of calamities. As you investigate, you are joined (sometimes you need to look for the) by colorful allies that help you out and get involved with some local issues. This provides room for the world and the characters to grow before the mid-game reveal.
After that, the stakes become larger and more immediate but is unfortunately hampered by a cast of ridiculously one-dimensional villains. This shouldn't be a big issue, as the story focuses on the personal journey of your characters and the relationship between Claude and Rena.
The game obviously builds the relationship between Rena and Claude that no other pairing makes sense
I say shouldn't because it depends on how much the awkward translation can affect your enjoyment of those interactions and how the story unfolds. This is par the course for PS1 RPGs, but I feel that the story here is affected by it more severely.
Thankfully, you get the chance to interact more with your party members through "Private Actions". Here, each of your party members goes about doing their own thing in town and you can talk to them. In some locations, you can trigger an event that fleshes out a character and change your relationship parameters with them. This in turn affects the endings you get in the game.
Practically, I don't think you can get the endings you want without a guide. Also, I think that the game's natural ending should have Claude and Rena hooking up. Regardless, the number of possible endings and the variety of character combinations suggest a game that invites multiple playthroughs.
"All of these are merely stepping stone towards us regaining our powers and making the galaxy and universe ours"
The idea of multiple playthroughs must be supported, of course, by the game being fun to play even once. To support its case, Star Ocean 2 attempts to be a more action-focused JRPG, continuing its foray into ARPG gameplay. Since you will be spending about half of your time in the game in battles, how much you enjoy the gameplay has a lot of influence on your appreciation of the game.
In battle, you control one character while the other three operate with broad AI mindsets. The battle can be paused at any point to change characters and issue commands, which helps when you need to use items, but Rena is usually good at keeping you healthy most of the time. When you control a character in full manual mode (the only mode you should play), you can walk around and attack normally as well as use one of two "Killer Moves". Controlling all but three or four physical characters isn't very fun.
It's always best to get close and personal
Early in the game, resource management is critical, and as such you pay attention to the flow of battle and how much MP you spend with "Killer Moves". Yet, as you and enemies get stronger, the game degenerates into a mindless button-mashing affair. I seriously was just jamming the R1 button as fast as I can in the final battle.
Ironically, this mindless battle system may be a blessing in disguise, but that's due to another key issue. Namely, the fact the random encounter rate is very high, which is apparently necessary to level enough to survive the late game difficulty spikes.
Objectively, I cannot say that the combat system in Star Ocean 2 is any good. However, it is fun and fast enough in a mindless way that actually makes the game easier to play through twice, since the battles become more of a set-up game than actual in-battle strategizing.
"I'm not doing anything as audacious as saving the world"
Setting-up your party is the most fun thing to do in the game, as there is a lot of customization both in character building and part composition. The key to that is the Skills you can upgrade for each character.
There are more than 30 Skills in the game, which are divided into permanent stat boosts, combat support skills, and some flavor ability. Once you upgrade your skills by spending level-up skill points, you unlock specialties that rank-up based on your skill level. For example, Pickpocketing is a very important specialty that you unlock by upgrading two skills: Poker Face which increases your critical chance, and Courage which does nothing but helps you upgrade Pickpocketing itself.
Specialties are actions you can take in the menu screen or in the game world to help support your party. Mostly, you use them to craft new weapons and accessories that are much more useful than the things you can normally find. As your party learns more specialties, they start being able to do super specialties, which again bring in more useful things.
You can make more useful things that can be bought in stores
As expected, the game is built around these skills and specialties to a great degree. You end up drowning in crafting, cooking, customizing, compounding, and composing materials for you to play with. It is almost overwhelming, but there are tons of online guides to help you sort through it. Also, there are tons of ways you can break the system, getting powerful weapons and armor very early in the game that makes most of the game trivial.
If you are not a fan of all the available tinkering, then this might actually turn you off. However, this is a big reason why the game is so beloved by its fans since it allows for a lot of experimentation different set-ups.
"My, my. How primitive those beings of undeveloped planets are. So quick to raise their voice"
A key element to most JRPG games that some feel were not rated fairly by the mainstream press is their adherence to the sprite graphics of the 16bit era. Ironically, most of these games look much better now than the venerated polygonal nightmares that were lauded for their "realistic" graphics.
Sure enough, Star Ocean 2 fits in that bracket. It features some charming 2D sprite work for all of its characters and enemies juxtaposed against some rudimentary 3D-looking backgrounds (like Final Fantasy VII) that are sometimes seriously gorgeous.
Case in point
In battle, the sprites are more detailed an the animation is varied and meets the requirements of ARPG gameplay. Yes, it sometimes looks weird to have 2D sprites running around in 3D space, especially since you cannot actually attack the sides very well. Also, the spell animations are varied but unfortunately stops the time during battle, causing battles to stall needlessly.
One honestly impressive thing is the quality of the CGI cutscenes, which are some of the best I have seen from that era and are used effectively to underscore key points in the story.
Sometimes the scenes have 2D elements as well
In the sound department, the voice acting is only used for in-battle chants, which are not very good. There is poor quality to the voice recordings and some samples are offensively bad, but not to a degree that brings the whole game down.
Musically, this is a classic Motoi Sakuraba soundtrack. It has some really good tracks, with "The Venerable Forest" being one example. However, the majority of the soundtrack, while very good, blends together in a non-distinctive, but highly competent soundscape.
I feel that Star Ocean 2 is the rare JRPG that is built to be replayed several times, and the super fans of the game are ones who like this aspect of it. For someone who rarely replays games, it means that I am missing a big portion of the experience.
Nonetheless, even a single playthrough showcases how this a charming game with tons of customization options. So much, that even with some slightly mindless gameplay and a prosaic story, it still is a very good game.
There is a lot of humor in the game as well....
1-Before you upgrade any skills, go to the town of Helie (in the eastern shore of the first continent) and buy the perseverance skill and upgrade it first. This will make the other skills cheaper to buy.
2-Utilize private actions to angel for a specific pair to hook up for different endings.
3-Stamina is important to recover after a battle (which keeps you going), so upgrade Dange Sense early on.
4-Upgrading the skill "effort" is great to help in leveling up.
5-Saying no to someone when they ask to join is FINAL.
6-Some characters are mutually exclusive. For instance, recruiting Ashton keeps you from recruiting Opera and her boyfriend.
7-Only physical characters are fun to play as.
8-Some of the best items in the game can only be gotten by pickpocketing your allies during private actions.
9-There is a lot of RNG involved in crafting and pickpocketing, so save scum if you are attempting to get the best gear (a must if you are aiming for the higher difficulty runs and the final optional dungeon).
There are also moments of real drama
For those reading one of my PS1 review blogs for the first time, here is the basic concept:
I already reviewed both major Generation 4 consoles, and am now to review Generation 5 consoles. I already finished reviewing the Sega Saturn, so I am now reviewing the PS1. In these reviews, I take a top 100 games list and review the games that interest me in that list.
This time, my review series is based on this list from Retro Sanctuary along with other sources, since the PS1 can handle a list bigger than a top 100.
Also, note the following:
-If you have any suggestions for a game that is not in the Retro Sanctuary list that I should review, please suggest it.
-Make a bet on each game to check whether Chris Charter played it or not.
Unfortunately, for a game set in space, the whole experience is very grounded
As expected, I really enjoyed Star Ocean: The Second Story. It's not as good an ARPG as a game like Tales of Destiny, but it has a lot of customization options and a unique skill progression system.
Next in my list is another JRPG at number 75, Breath of Fire IV. However, before playing it, I will play the third game in the series first. Reportedly, the PSP port of Breath of Fire III has an expanded fishing mini-game (which I don't care about) and it fixes a glitched soundtrack. For the soundtrack, I will actually apply an emulation hack to fix it on the PS1 version.
For Previous PS1 Game Reviews: