Star Ocean: The Second Story

   "Looks great, less filling," would be a fitting slogan for Star Ocean: The Second Story, a game best described as "RPG Lite." Seemingly intended for gamers who found Super Mario RPG's gameplay too slow and intellectual, Star Ocean 2 does away with such unnecessary trimmings as "turns," "strategy," and "game balance."

Me Tarzan. This X button. Tarzan push X button fast.

   Like all of developer tri-Ace's games, Star Ocean 2 features a heavily action oriented battle system that pushes the game into what is basically action RPG territory. You control one character of four in the active party and spend most of your time pounding the X button -- X sends your character rushing to the nearest enemy and launches an attack. Stronger, MP-consuming moves are activated with the L1 and R1 buttons. Some characters can also wield magic, but only healing spells are worth using -- attack spells deal about a quarter of the damage that a physical attack inflicts. You take direct control of one character (of your choice), while the remaining three can be ordered about by altering their AI settings. The AI does a surprisingly competent job of staying in the action and using magic judicially. Unfortunately, this reduces your role to simply pressing the X button over and over to attack. It's fun for a while (and the chaos that results in large battles is exciting to watch), but the lack of depth ages the system quickly.

   Equally pointless is the game's skill system. Various skills, such as writing, counterattacking, or even whistling, can be purchased at Skill Guilds and upgraded by spending the Skill Points acquired after battle. When your skills reach a high enough level, you can acquire various Specialities: alchemy, scouting, pickpocketing (yeah!), etc. A few of these Specialities have obvious uses, such as the ability to send carrier pigeons out of dungeons to buy items. Most, however, are bizarre "item creation" abilities that let you create anything from weapons to symphonic scores. The great potential of this feature isn't anywhere close to realized, however -- since there's no explanation provided for how any of these abilities work (or what the created items do), item creation becomes an exercise is frustration. How can a character write a book, and then have to use a different skill to determine the identity of the book he or she just wrote? The whole system is just vague and unintuitive, and doesn't come close to fulfilling the possibilities it held.

Some Private Actions trigger lengthy events

   Star Ocean 2's other major system, the Private Action system, is a similar flop. Instead of entering a town normally, you can activate a Private Action from the world map. During a Private Action, your main character explores the town alone and can chat with other party members to build friendships. Characters on friendly terms with each other fight better in battle, and may even get together in the myriad of possible endings. While speaking with your fellow adventures is fun, there's no indication as to how your friendship levels are changing -- it's impossible to feel any sort of accomplishment or progress. Also, a command to activate a Private Action without leaving a town should have been available -- running out of a town, activating a Private Action, and then leaving and re-entering the town again to explore it as a full party is extremely inconvenient.

   Not all of Star Ocean 2's gameplay features fail, however. Most of the dungeons are large and maze-like, a welcome change given the recent trend of extremely straightforward dungeons. SO2 also boasts tremendous replay value; a choice of two main characters is offered, and while the quests are mostly the same (the two characters are together for 95% of the game), a few scenes change completely. It wouldn't be enough to make the game replayable on its own, but there's plenty more to see. Only eight of the game's 11 characters can be obtained in one game, so a second time through may see you using a vastly different party. A bonus dungeon, a secret form of the final boss, and the myriad Private Action events round out the replay incentives.

Graphics this good should physically not exist.

   Replay value aside, where Star Ocean 2 really shines is in the graphical arena. Even the most ordinary of locales has been rendered in unprecendented detail and color -- not even Final Fantasy VIII's backgrounds look this good. Item shops pack various trinkets on their shelves, golden statues guard castle gates, and waterfalls run down mountain sides. It's hard to imagine that even the most jaded of gamers won't be impressed at some point. Gameplay takes a backseat to scenery -- it's hard to resist pausing and taking in the sights every time you reach a new screen. An equally breathtaking soundtrack accompanies the visuals; almost every piece could stand on its own, apart from the game. (Particularly noteworthy is the Mountain Palace music - one of the greatest dungeon themes ever.)

Fun City
This isn't the Gold Saucer. Honest.

   Unfortunately, all the audio-visual flair in the world can't mask Star Ocean 2's poorly paced and plotted storyline. In a plot point taken straight from Final Fantasy V, the entire first half of the game is spent investigating a mysterious meteorite. All that stands between you and your ultimate goal are dozens of pointless "fetch quests." Halfway through the game, the entire storyline (or lack thereof) is dumped upon you. You're then sent through a series of trials (read: unnecessary dungeons) before arriving at the game's final areas, which, amazingly enough, are also highly reminiscient of FF V -- but wait! This isn't a bad thing, it's a chance to relive your favorite RPG moments! Befriend the last flying dragon (Final Fantasy V), visit an amusement park city with an arena and racing track (FF VII), enter a fighting tournament (Dragon Quest IV and countless imitators), discover the mysterious power embedded in the heroine's heirloom pendant (Chrono Trigger), catch a bunny and ride around the world to the tune of a speeded up Mambo de Chocobo (FF V, again), meet a reticient swordsman with long, pale hair (FF VII) -- it's like playing all the Final Fantasy games at the same time! Except, that is, without the character development and other interesting parts.

   On the other hand, the translation isn't nearly as bad as reputed. The dialogue starts off a bit on the stilted side, but makes a surprising improvement as the game progresses. By the time you reach Disc 2, little to be complained about remains. Unfortunately, nothing remotely as positive can be said about the horrendous voice acting. The back of the manual refers to the characters' voices as "Voice Talents", but just "Voices" would have been more appropriate. Even Resident Evil's actors look good when compared to Claude's "Teeeaaaaar inta pieces!" or Noel's "En-er-gy ARR-ow!" It's so bad, it's actually good -- if you got a kick out of Professor Daravon's ramblings, you'll probably find Star Ocean 2's voices equally amusing.

   Despite its flaws, Star Ocean: The Second Story still manages to be superficially fun, and the graphics and music certainly can't be faulted. Unfortunately, the fun is all too fleeting, and by the time the game is over, most players will be glad it's finished. If RPGs were dating prospects, this one would be the great-looking girl with an incredibly annoying personality.

Review by Fritz Fraundorf, GIA.
Star Ocean: The Second Story
GenreAction RPG
MediumCD (2)
Release Date

Star Ocean 2 calendars
18 CG shots / 30 battle shots / 18 event shots / 69 world shots
High-quality E3 art
North American box art