Review by Lord of Chaos

"It's average..."

Star Ocean: The Second Story, or Star Ocean 2, is a very mediocre game. On the one hand, the game’s battle system is one of the best that I have seen and the graphics are [mostly] very attractive. However, on the other hand, SO2 is very lacking. Its plot is shaky at best, and its dialogue bland. The game is also somewhat on the easy side. Therefore, I would think SO2 is a pretty good game, if it weren’t for its glaring flaws in execution. The combination of the two make the game so average. In this review, I will detail exactly what makes this game what it is, but first, a little history.

SO2 is a game made by Enix, a company which released a lot of odd games [like The 7th Saga] to US audiences during the SNES era and for obvious reasons, Enix’s American division essentially shut down at some point in the mid 90s.

Years later, when the PSX was out, Enix probably decided to bring back its US division and so the first game Enix America released was this one. The game is called ‘Star Ocean: The Second Story’ because there was a first Star Ocean game for the Super Famicom, but we didn’t get to see it.

Graphics 7: There are two basic types of graphics that exist in SO2: the wonderfully drawn field map graphics, and the not exactly wonderful world map graphics. The field graphics use pre-rendered backgrounds, in the vein of FF, but they look really good: they’re hand-drawn, and are detailed and look really nice. Also, the loading time between going from one field area to another is minimized to the point where it’s nearly instantaneous, and this is a welcome change from waiting what seems like several seconds in games like FF9. The characters are 2D sprites, and they don’t look quite as good: they look kind of pixelized, and very ugly; inexplicably, both of the main characters are about the ugliest of the bunch. However, these characters animate very fluidly, so control is very tight.

On the world map, though, the graphics degenerate a lot. Gone are the clean, well-rendered world map graphics we’ve become accustomed to. They’ve been replaced by a horrible, pixelized mess. The landscape features look very flat and artificial and trying to rotate the background results in the pixels sort of crawling across the screen, at maybe 5 fps. These graphics are frankly about the ugliest world map graphics I’ve ever seen: the frame rate is too choppy, and that’s odd considering that everything is very low-res. One thing I can give the developers credit for, though, is the nice sense of scale: large towns or castles look good in proportion to your character.

In battle, the terrain is done in the same type of grainy 3D, but it’s a less low-res, and it actually looks pretty good. The character sprites are substantially larger than they appear in either the field map or the world map, but this is bad because the pixelization is very apparent. However, the battle animations are pretty fluid and don’t seem jerky at all.

It actually looks a lot better if you kind of half-squint.

Spell effects are done in 3D, and they can easily look really nice or really crappy. One of my favorite is ‘Leaf Slash’, where a character runs at an enemy to attack and a number of very sharp looking leaves swirl around him and slice the enemy. Some spells, though, don’t look quite as nice, ‘Burst Knuckle’ is probably one of the game’s most visually unimpressive attacks.

There is some full-motion-video in this game, but there isn’t a lot of it. Notable is the FMV that plays as the game’s intro. This is very high-quality stuff. There’s no grain, and it looks great. There isn’t much FMV throughout the game, though.

As a result of all this, this game’s graphics are a sort of mish-mash between 2D and 3D effects, as though the developers couldn’t quite make up their minds on everything. I would have probably preferred it if the developers just left the entire game in 2D: it’d look a lot better, but, whatever.

Music 6: The music of this game is, shall we say, extremely varied. There are a few good tracks and a few bad tracks. Most fall squarely in the middle: very mediocre, like most of this game.

The battle theme is a great song that hardly gets repetitive, as is the boss theme, a rock piece, and most of the town themes all sound good.

Most of the poor music, though, falls under the category of dungeon music. I don’t know what the deal is here, but none of the dungeon music actually fits the setting very well. Much of it is too fast-paced and destroys any feeling of mystery or suspense. It all sounds like random tuneless drum-beats. Just total garbage.

A lot of other music just falls in the middle, no feeling here; just ambient music, which is pleasant, but isn’t memorable.

Sound 5: The sound is average for an RPG. The voice acting, however, is a completely different story. All the voice acting takes place during battle. The names of spells are shouted out and characters shout out useless phrases before and after every fight. It’s not uncommon to complete a battle and hear someone exclaim something like, “We got a full score with this!”, when you have no idea what the hell he’s talking about, or, “Well, that’s somewhere around eighty points!” When actually you got about five thousand. Experience points, that is. What were they thinking?

The actual voices sound so entirely corny that you’ll never even want to play this game while anybody is around. The actors are obviously amateurs, and their voices made me wince. There is NO option to turn voices off.

This game was made by the same team that developed the first Star Ocean for the Super Famicom as well as Tales of Phantasia. Both of these games included a special ‘music test’ option that let you listen to any song from the game; this was cool. Anyway, SO2 has a far more useless feature. Obviously they liked the voice acting so much, they nixed this feature and gave us a ‘voice test’ where we can listen to snippets of voice from the game. The only useful function this has is to invite your friends over and have a night of laughter.

Plot 2: The plot is SO2’s weakest point for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is not fully explained and doesn’t even make sense; things that seem relevant to the plot turn out irrelevant, the story is very tenacious and boring. The plot is nonexistent for large portions of the game.

You can choose to be one of two characters: Claude [What were they trying to do, rip off of Cloud?] is a guy who’s with the Star-Trek-like Federation. His dad is Ronixis, who was in SO1, but is only a very minor NPC in this game, and so Claude is, well, yeah. You’ll notice I don’t really know what I’m saying and this is because the game isn’t clear on what the deal is with Claude. If you pick him as your main character you get a nice 2 minute FMV sequence with him narrating what he’s been doing and so forth, and maybe about 30 seconds of dialog about it throughout the game, but this is basically it.

So Claude and his dad along with a number of soldiers are exploring an uncharted planet, and it just so happens that Claude is an idiot, so he runs ahead of everyone and is teleported to another planet [we don’t know why], where he has a lame adventure.

The dome is, to the best of my knowledge, never referred to again in the entire game.

So Claude is teleported to this other planet, with the rather creative name of Expel, you know, like Microsoft Excel, only not. So he enters a forest, finds a girl with blue hair being attacked by a demon, and whips out his phaser and toasts it.

There’s another main character you can pick. It’s the girl, Rena. Therefore the game is for all purposes identical if you pick her instead of Claude. It’s the same stinking game. Don’t know why they bothered with this....

The plot from this point is nonexistent. There are no unexpected plot twists in this entire game. The story is something you could not care about while you play. Let me give you an example.

Claude saves Rena. The village elder says that he is the legendary hero. This hero is never spoken of again in the game. They find out that there’s another continent with some demons. They decide to go to the kingdom of ‘Cross’ and ask the king if they can go there. They do so and then reach a port town to leave, and suddenly the whole city sinks underwater in an FMV. Why? Well the game never tells you. And this is irrelevant to the plot.

There are so many things like this in the game that just disappear after showing up for five minutes as though they never happened. Every playable character in the game besides Claude or Rena is entirely optional: in other words, you can clear the game with two characters, and so the characters are optional to the plot! Once I got wiped out by a boss playing this game, and before the boss the characters had a discussion. I restarted and the discussion was the same, but different characters said the same things, so in other words, all dialog is interchangeable in this game. Something Claude says can be replaced with something Rena says and no one will notice.

The plot de-evolves into a kind of hazy background from which side-quests, optional characters, and disappearing cities emerge. It makes no sense, and the bland tone of the translated text doesn’t help either. This game’s plot is vanilla. Bosses literally pop up out of nowhere. You go on quests for no reason. You never find out who the final boss is until right before you fight him. There are no villains in this game, just generic ones. There is a demon named “Shin” who attacks you 2 or 3 times, then he vanishes into the plot.

It seems the makers just threw lots of random stuff together. No foreshadowing because they didn’t know what they were doing.
This story could have easily been written by a fourth-grader.
I can’t stress this enough. The plot is weak.

The characters are also weak. Many people accuse RPGs of having two-dimensional characterization. This may be true, but if it is, then this game has one-dimensional characterization: No character development at all, all the characters seem to have been designed for the hell of it.

There’s a guy called Ashton, who has two dragons attached to his head. Why? We don’t know. Celine comes from the village of ‘Mars.’ Why did she leave her family and join us? We don’t know.

This game’s characterization is pathetic. The game appears to realize this and features something called the Private Action. It works like this:

When you enter a town, you can choose to just enter it or enter the town via a Private Action: you can enter the town, but will only be controlling the game’s main character, Claude or Rena. Your other party members will wander off. You can find them and talk to them, and then they will tell you things. These Private Actions are entirely optional, and they are the only way that any character develops.

Their only purpose in the game is that you can choose to say something to the character in question occasionally, and you can either say something nice or something bad. If you say something nice, that character’s AR, or Approval Rating increases with you, and if you say something evil it goes down.

Also, if you put the same characters in your party all the time, then their AR is high toward each other.

What does AR have to do with anything? Since the game is too weak to have an ending, the developers decided that for the ending they would simply string together scenes of characters with high ARs. So if Claude is often nice to Ashton, they’ll be best friends in the ending. What’s the point? I have no idea.

Localization 5: The game’s text is incredibly, incredibly plain, which is kind of startling. This game’s translation is lifeless, and so clinical and sterile that it’s kind of scary. Every character speaks in the same manner, in a very stilted way: Often it seemed like they were intentionally trying to word confusingly. This combined with the deadpan delivery of the voice actors makes this game about as fun to read as, well, I can’t even think of an analogy.
The vocabulary used here is also incredibly limited and people speak in a “See Spot run. ” sort of manner. As a result, this game’s localization is extraordinarily bland.
All instances of alcohol appearing in the game were wiped out, like the old man’s cider of FF6. People apparently go to ‘tea bars’ or whatever it calls them in this game, and if I correctly recall, you can get ‘woozy’ from drinking too much ‘tea’.
The localization job barely gets a 5. It’s all grammatically correct, after all. Too plain, though.

Gameplay 8: Well, at least there’s one good thing about this game: The gameplay is really good.
Some innovations are that you can have special skills in this game, which you gain by using up ‘skill points’ [obtained at level up]. You can purchase skills with SP and most of these skills are directly tied in to special abilities. For example, cooking is a special ability which you can use via the item menu. You can raise your cooking skill by raising any skills directly tied to it, so spending SP on the kitchen knife skill will end up raising your cooking skill by a certain number of ranks. Some of these skills are useful; others are not. For example, a special ability called ‘Come on Bunny’ lets you can summon a giant pink bunny on the world map and ride it around. Oookay.
To get the skills that you spend SP on, you must purchase them from ‘skill guilds’, and they’re usually expensive.

Item creation is another type of skill, with which you can get items. For example, ‘Identify’ is an item creation skill: you might find items with names like ‘?ROCK’ meaning that you know it’s a rock but aren’t sure what type. You can use Identify to find out. It’s possible that you fail, in which case you need to raise your Identify ability by spending SP. Cooking allows you to take raw materials, like the wheat I mentioned earlier, and then your character will convert it into a food item, which can be used to heal [but not in battle]. Something humorous is that if you fail during cooking, you can create an item such as ‘raw milk’, and when you use it, you may damage or poison yourself. It’s kind of funny. Okay, not really. The game keeps Item Creation under control by forcing you to consume things to use it: Every time you use Identify, you use up one magnifying glass [must be pretty shoddy workmanship] and you can only carry up to 20 of them. Cooking uses up raw materials, etc. There are also a lot of other strange skills, for example there’s a writing skill with which your character can attempt to write novels—oddly, each character can only write one novel—evidently they aren’t very creative—using up one pen each time they write. There are special “party abilities” which are like one-character skills such as cooking or whatever, but they increase when the entire party puts SP into their respective pools to raise their own skills. “Publication” is one of these skills—you can use it to publish a novel and collect royalties on it! It’s too cool….

There are also combat skills you can spend SP on, such as ‘Below the Belt’ which lets you ignore an enemy’s defense like attacking, kind of like one of the Blitzes in FF6, I forget which. Each time you raise the level of a skill like this, the game increases your likelihood of using it in battle, and a little window will pop up telling you when you’ve accomplished this.

As you level up, you can also gain actual skills usable in battle, you know, like spells. Well, only the magic-using characters get spells—since all characters besides the one you’re currently controlling use AI, you can tell characters which spells from their list to use in battle, which is cool. Fighter characters, such as Claude, get [get ready for this] “Killer Moves”. Yeah, I haven’t heard anything this cheesy and stupid before either. Killer Moves are like techs in, uh, all other games. You can set one Killer Move to the L button and another to the R button and then use them at will [Well, they consume MP.] This goes for NPCs, too—the computer decides which one to use in any given situation.

The status display in this game shows you basic stuff like stats, but also gives you a nice anime-style picture of that character, and a few things such as their favorite food [it recovers more for them if they eat it] and, uh, other stuff. They also have certain ‘traits’—like their affinities, e.g. “Writing”, “Cooking”, “Art”, etc, and if a character has an affinity toward a certain thing, then they’ll do better with such skills. My only problem with this is that these traits are random—when you first meet a new character, the game calculates what his traits are; each one having a certain percentage chance of appearing or not appearing at all, making it entirely likely that your character could have all the traits or maybe just none at all. So, if you really want a character to have a certain affinity, you have no choice but to reset—it’s the luck of the draw.

One problem with SO2’s menus is the fact that they are usually extremely confusing. For example, in the item menus, due to the food items and so forth, there are often hundreds of items with very similar uses that crowd up the screen. They should have removed a lot of this dead weight—after all, who cares if there are twenty different types of chicken dishes you can prepare when they prevent you from finding the important stuff like the things that revive dead characters. Speaking of these, there are often five or six items [I only exaggerate a little here] that do that. And often about twenty items that restore the same amount of HP. [Okay. Maybe a lot.] The point is, there’s a lot of useless dead baggage here!

When you enter combat in this game, you are taken to an essentially 2D plane [I know it’s rendered in 3D, but you still only actually move in two dimensions], a couple of characters say some corny things [see the sound section above] and then, well, you’re off. Essentially, this game has three battle-modes. The back of the game CD case actually advertises this fact, but they aren’t different enough to advertise, I’d say. Basically, in the first mode, you can move by pressing the left stick or using the arrow keys while holding down Square. Hitting X makes you attack the closest enemy. The second mode is the same thing only you don’t have to hold down Square—I like this, because its easier to control. The third mode is just a separate switch in the game’s options menu: basically you can choose whether or not to have auto or manual targeting, where auto targeting means your character automatically runs for and attacks the nearest enemy when you hit X, and manual means when you hit X you have to move an indicator over what you want to attack and then hit X again. I usually use auto, unless I’m fighting one of those pesky multi-part bosses and need more strategy. Because your character runs automatically, you only need to manually run if you need to hide behind a rock or something.

So when the battle starts, you [the active character—you can change this in the game’s menu screen so you don’t always have to be the main character] just stand there and your AI-controlled buddies act according to algorithms you set up. There’s a setting for this in the game menu, and it’s just a simple list of things you can do, e.g. “Don’t use spells!”, “Attack with all MP!”, etc. There’s also a tactics option on the main menu with which you can choose the exact formation you want, using a grid-representation. You can only pick formations from a list, though; you can’t actually set them.

Anyway, you can basically attack and stuff and if you’re a fighter, then you can hit L or R to immediately run up and perform a Killer Move on the nearest enemy. You can also hit Triangle to bring up a cool circular menu, kind of like the one in Secret of Mana, with which you can select a number of options. Bringing up this menu pauses the action, and lets you cast spells, attempt to run away, change the AI for your friends, and use items. When you cast a spell there is usually a short delay, usually only a couple of seconds immediately after the spell is cast, to prevent you from slinging off hundreds in just a few seconds of game time. The delay is represented by a little bar that fills up over your character’s head. There is no such delay for Killer Moves, since using one does not pause the game’s continuous action. Note: When a spell is cast, that character shouts out the name of the spell as it is cast, so you might want to turn the volume down. For extra fun, try having Rena cast Tractor Beam—she shouts out the name in Japanese, I guess they forgot that part. Dang. What a sloppy job.

Since the game progresses in real-time and it is often difficult to figure out what is going on, you can hit Circle to immediately switch control between characters. This is useful if one of your mages starts getting hit physically—you can direct them away from the offenses.

Overall, the battle system here is good—it’s fun, and it takes place in real-time—basically an action/RPG like Secret of Mana, only the pacing is much faster. If you’re used to games like Dragon Warrior or something, though, you might have trouble adjusting.

The only problem I can see with the combat system is the fact that often it goes by too quickly and it’s difficult to plan strategy. More often than not I have won boss battles simply by randomly hitting L, R, and X.

Overall, the gameplay is good, with few flaws. It’s very original and imaginative, and the skill system is one of the deepest I’ve seen on a console RPG. The battles are enjoyable and almost never get monotonous.
This is in incredibly sharp contrast to, well, to the rest of the entire game.
Star Ocean 2 is basically another game that could have been great if its execution wasn’t so flawed.

The breakdown is as follows:

Graphics = 7

Music = 6
Sound = 5
11/2 = 5.5 rounding up to
*The above two scores are averaged together.

Plot = 2
Localization = 5
Gameplay = 8

Total: 28/5
=5.6 rounding up to a total of 6.

To Buy or Rent?: It really depends on pricing. I would rent it first, if there are places that still rent this game out, and see what it’s like, and if you can find it cheap and enjoy it, by all means by it. Additionally, if you’re into emulation and, uh, don’t mind breaking the law, get a ROM of Star Ocean 1 for the Super Famicom: DeJap’s web site has graphics packs for the game and a rudimentary translation [the game is only available in Japanese]. The game is very similar to SO2 in terms of how it plays: it uses a similar battle system [yet, inexplicably, has a better plot].

Replayability: The back of the game box boasts that Star Ocean 2 has over eighty different endings but as explained above, those aren’t really endings: they’re short cut scenes that depend on who has high AR toward who, and trust me, this game’s plot is so bad, you won’t care. They only get the number eighty because of all the character permutations, and so the gist of this is, screw the different endings. If you want to replay the game, don’t do it because of this, you’ll be very disappointed. If you’re one of those freaks who likes to get ‘perfect games’ [no offense, I am one, I just don’t think I could stomach it for this game], then go ahead and try to get all 80 ending possibilities, but be prepared to use up several memory cards trying.

Besides, the only way to get high AR between characters other than someone-and-Claude/Rena is to fight lots of battles with the characters in question in your party. If you can justify 20 hours of fighting to get a certain ending, then go ahead and replay the game, but you probably need help.

The Bottom Line:
Star Ocean 2 is an all-right sort of game, it’s your average RPG. It has potential; the game’s actual mechanics work seamlessly and make the game great fun, but it has downsides such as its total lack of an intelligent plot. I bought my copy used for fifteen dollars, and if you see something similar, go ahead and get it, the gameplay is enough for me. There are far worse RPGs out there, so you wouldn’t be making any large mistake in adding this to your game library, and the game really is fun to play. If only that damn voice acting weren’t there, this game’d be even more fun.

Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 07/27/02, Updated 07/27/02

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