Star Ocean: The Second Story

Claude Kenni, son of Ronixis Kenni, is exploring a mysterious planet with his father and fellow cadets, where he encounters a device that takes him to an underdeveloped planet, Expel, where he meets a girl named Rena and begins a quest to return back home, while dealing with the mysteries of a meteor known as the Sorcery Globe, responsible for a greater number of monsters in the world. Enix’s Star Ocean: The Second Story marked the franchise’s debut on the Sony Playstation, and first taste of the series for North American gamers. The sequel is mostly a solid experience, although there are a few elements that could have used more polish.

As with the first installment, combat is randomly-encountered and real-time, with the player controlling one character (preferably Claude), while various A.I. options control his three allies in combat. There are two main types of characters: melee characters that excel at attacking normally and using Killer Moves, two of which each melee character can bring into battle and use; and magic-based characters, who are inept at attacking but excel at using healing and offensive magic, which require some charge time to execute, during which enemies can attack them and cancel their spell casting. Luckily, the player’s characters can cancel out the enemy’s own spells with their own attacks and skills.

Winning a battle nets the player’s party experience, money, and occasional items. Level-ups are a frequent occasion, providing the leveling character with Skill Points they can invest into a number of different skills (which the player can purchase at special shops) that play a significant role in item creation, and also occasionally increase that character’s stats. The player can also invest Skill Points into special combat skills that can do things like decrease a character’s spell charge time, allow a character to occasionally ignore an enemy’s defenses when attacking, and so forth, although a select few (like Flip, where a character will move behind an enemy to attack) can sometimes do more harm than good; in these instances, the player can “turn off” these skills.

As with the first Star Ocean, the player can try their hand at item creation in different specialties if a character’s personal skills in the right areas are at least at level one. However, at low levels, item creation will usually result in junk, although new to the second installment are specialty skills, where the player’s characters combine their talents to create items. One particularly useful combination skill is Orchestra, where, if the player has acquired enough musical instruments and written enough music for each, music will temporarily be played that drastically increases the success rate of item creation, even at low skill levels.

Overall, the game systems are fairly enjoyable for the most part, although the first Star Ocean sequel can pose a decent challenge at times, depending upon the party’s equipment (with some of the best weapons, for instance, only available through item creation), and levels. There are a number of cheap enemies throughout the game, such as fire-breathing foes that can instantly kill characters if they pin them against field walls with their breath attacks, and magic enemies that too can easily slaughter the player’s party if not killed quickly enough. Status ailments, as well, can add some strain to battle, with characters, for instance, able to die petrified and/or paralyzed.

Fortunately, though, Star Ocean 2 is one of those games where a few levels can really make a difference against tough bosses, with a certain skill allowing for faster leveling at the expense of some stats, and dozens of personal skills giving nice stat bonuses as the player invests Skill Points gained from leveling. Item creation itself can make for better equipment and consumable items (each character, moreover, has a “favorite food” that restores more health to them when used on them), although it does often involve a heavy degree of randomization, and has some rare glitches (the programmers, for instance, forgot to program in a certain character’s favorite food). Despite all this, combat has more going for it than against it.

The interface of Star Ocean 2 is more than adequate, with easy game menus, smooth shopping (the player can simultaneously buy and sell different types of items), quick character management (with an “Equipment Wizard” automatically equipping the best gear for every character, unless the player turns this off), and so forth. At each town, moreover, the player can break apart the party for “Private Events” where the protagonist (either Claude or Rena) can converse with his/her fellow party members, which can have a significant effect on the ending, and is sometimes necessary to recruit additional characters; Private Events also point players in the right direction if lost. There are some minor shortcomings, such as the potential to lose bursts of playing time, given the number of cheap enemies in certain dungeons, but other than that, interaction helps the game more than hurts.

The first Star Ocean sequel retains enough elements from its predecessor to feel like a logical continuation of the franchise, such as real-time combat, item creation, and many story elements, although it does introduce some new gameplay elements, such as an expanded battlefield and new quirks in item creation, that make it feel fresh.

When starting a new game, the player can choose to have Claude or Rena as protagonist, with the story differing somewhat depending upon the chosen character, and certain characters being only recruitable depending upon whom the player picks. The main plot itself generally isn’t all that superb, although it does have many redeeming aspects such as ties to the original game, the Private Events system, which can add some depth to the characters, and dozens of different endings, depending largely upon Private Events and recruited characters. The translation is a little on the unprofessional side, as well, and overall, the story could have been better polished.

Motoi Sakuraba’s soundtrack, however, is one of the game’s high points, with most tracks being all-around solid, such as the peaceful town themes, heart-pounding dungeon themes, and energetic battle themes. In battle, however, is a large degree of voice acting, which, thanks to Sony’s evident use of their janitorial staff, leaves a lot to desire, with characters either sounding overenthusiastic or completely bored; unfortunately, the player can’t turn it off. Despite the unprofessional nature of the voicework, the sequel’s sound is far more than adequate.

Star Ocean 2 also has a nice visual style, combining pre-rendered environments in towns and dungeons with two-dimensional character sprites, alongside occasional FMVs and even rarer anime cutscenes. This combination works well for the most part, although there are a few shortcomings, such as the ugly overworld, and inconsistency with some character sprites and their respective designs. Still, the sequel is more than easy on the eyes.

Finally, the sequel isn’t terribly lengthy, taking somewhere from twenty to forty hours to complete, with few sidequests, but tremendous replay value given the countless endings. Overall, Star Ocean: The Second Story is a worthy sequel, building upon its predecessor and being generally polished. Aspects such as its story and voice acting could have easily been better, although these don’t detract from an otherwise solid experience. A Japan-only direct sequel, Blue Sphere, would follow it, not to mention a port to the Playstation Portable, giving Square-Enix the opportunity to polish it more, should they choose to localize it.

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