Cidolfas's RPG Reviews: Star Ocean: The Second Story (PSX)
You Are: Either Claude C. Kenni, an Earth Federation cadet, or Rena Lanford, a young girl from the backwoods town of Arlia.
Your Goal Is: If you're Claude, you'd like to get back to space civilization after being transported to a medieval planet. If you're Rena, you're researching the Sorcery Globe, a mysterious device which is causing all sorts of disasters to occur.
General System: Star Ocean 2 has some of the most interesting features yet developed. First and foremost are Skills; you buy them in shops and level them up using SP, which you win by gaining experience levels. There are around 50 Skills, whose effects range from raising stats to having special effects in combat to teaching Specialties. Specialties are abilities mainly centered around creating your own items (such as Authoring or Cooking) but also include things like playing music or decreasing encounters. In turn, learning enough Specialties opens up Super Specialties, which are similar to Specialties but require multiple party members to execute. There are over 1,000 items to find or create! Characters can also equip a full set of armor, a refreshing change from the current trend of giving people a weapon, body armor, and an accessory and going away.
The other fun thing this game has is Private Actions: you can do them in any town, and your characters will separate and go their own way, allowing you to talk to them or initiate various events depending on how far along you are and your feelings towards each other. These feelings (or Approval Ratings) affect various things in the game, including the ending; unfortunately, there's no way to actually measure them.
There are actually twelve characters that can join you, though you can only get eight of them in one playthrough. What's more, characters don't just hang around; you can (and must, sometimes) initiate events, including entire dungeons, which revolve around one or two characters. This gives SO2 a lot of replay value, since events play out differently if you're playing as Claude or Rena and depend on who's in your party.
Battle System: SO2's battles take place in real-time on an enormous 3D battlefield, and it's an all-out barrage as your party of four dukes it out with anywhere from one to ten enemies! You directly control only one character at a time; the rest are AI-controlled, and while the AI isn't amazing, it's pretty decent. Your fighters can use only two skills at any time (set to L1 and R1). Your mages can cast spells, but it takes a while to cast (and the animations take forever), and there's a delay after either casting a spell or using an item. Interestingly enough, your fighters often need more MP for their skills than your mages do. There are voice clips that play out during the battles, and they're almost uniformly horrible, both in sound quality and acting quality. There's no way to turn them off, either.
Graphics: Beautiful prerendered backgrounds and sprite animations. It doesn't always work, but it does allow you to see a huge area of the screen at once, which is nice considering the size of the dungeons. The characters could use some more animation.
Music: Some great tracks (heart-pounding electronica and rather tinny orchestral scores being a staple) but there are a lot of weak ones.
Story: I wouldn't put story as the heart of this game. The characters are certainly a lot of fun, some of the most colorful in any game, but the story itself, especially in the second disc, tends towards the cliched and banal (not to mention the blatant ripoffs of Star Trek). The translation is awful, though not in the same category as FF Tactics or Wild ARMs 2, and sounds very stilted.
Challenge: Varies; you can unlock more difficulty levels
Length: About 45 hours; closer to 60 if you want to do the side quests
My Thoughts: SO2 has some of the coolest gameplay around. It's hard to define why using your skills to create items is so much fun, but it is. It's just such a great idea - why not have the characters who are good at cooking make some food to sustain you? Or how about customizing your weapons, or writing books on how to learn the skills they've already learned? The huge amount of items and abilities makes for tons of variety and allows you to customize your strategy quite a bit without being too open-ended. The fights can be easy to start with, but as you progress you'll run into some very challenging battles. There are some unfortunate downsides - the story isn't great, nor is the translation, the encounter rate is too high, spells take too long, and the graphics leave a bit to be desired, but the pure personality of the gameplay leaves all that stuff in the mud.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10