Game Description: The gods are out to destroy the universe. When their meteor collides with the planet Expel, the paths of two heroes will cross and the fate of the universe will lie in their hands. You take the role of either Rena or Claude. While both characters are on the same quest, there are times when they will take separate paths. Naturally, both characters develop different skills throughout the game and along the way their actions determine which other characters in the game can be recruited. You can also spend skill points to learn new abilities that will improve your chances of success. Ultimately, both Rena and Claude will be able to create new items with their skills and some raw material. When you encounter enemies, all of the battles take place in real-time in beautifully rendered environments. It’s up to you to try and save the universe from the gods in Star Ocean: The Second Story.
When it came to role-playing games (RPGs), there was Square, there was Enix, and then there was everyone else. Nowadays, however, Konami, Capcom, and Sony are entering the fray with competent RPGs that seem to improve with each consecutive release. Square apparently had taken notice and decided to blow them all away with Final Fantasy VII. Enix, on the other hand, is still sitting on its hands. I figured Star Ocean was supposed to hold us over until the latest Dragon Quest epic was completed, but after playing Star Ocean, I have to say they'd better come up with a new plan.
It begins with a pre-rendered 3D intro that's beautifully done but looks generic. It's overly flashy and lacks personality. In fact, it doesn't even feel like it's part of the game. It seemed to be there by default and results in Star Ocean faltering right out of the gate. Another immediate blunder was deciding to go with simple 2D sprite characters to interact with high quality 3D pre-rendered backgrounds. For all the effort on the backgrounds, the game just comes off looking dated. The sprites were done at a low resolution and animate horribly. As with most everything else in the game, the sprites look out of place and only further confuses the look and feel of the game making this 32-bit entry look more like a 16-bit relic.
Any supposedly dramatic interaction between the characters comes off as unemotional. There is never a sense of tension as the story progresses. The developers try to drum up emotions incorporating sad music and sappy dialogue, but it's all so cheesy that all I could feel was nothing. All of these cliches were embodied through the two lead characters. The main lead, Claude, is an adopted son trying to live up to his father's reputation (how many times have you heard that before); the other lead, Rena, is of course a rebellious girl with a mysterious past (Terra from Final Fantasy III). Will they end up saving the world? Do we have to guess whether they will fall in love? All of the answers are as predictable as the plot. No matter what angle they try to twist or what arc they try to turn, everything feels forced and contrived.
To their credit, they did try to innovate by offering the player a chance to play the game from one of the two main characters' perspective. It was a twist I looked forward to, but I was disappointed by the execution. Playing as Claude was pretty uneventful and downright predictable, but playing as Rena is simply a nightmare. Rena is a secondary character so no matter what I did, the action still revolved around the boy. It's unforgivable that I had to sit around and wait for the boy to rescue me or wait for the boy to do his thing while I milled around killing time. Their stories are identical and vary little from each other. It's just no fun to use that option so it would have been better left out and had the attention transferred over to the story.
They should also be commended for their variation on the battle mode. It removes the standard line mode of most RPGs, where my characters are set in position on screen and I'm left to choose the their actions through a menu. In Star Ocean, I'm given a targeting system that allows the player to roam the battlefield and control the character in a real time battle. I can choose which enemy to attack and then chase it down and kill it. However I can't control more than one character at a time but I can switch to different characters if I choose to, which adds a lot of strategy and freedom to the confrontations. As a personal peeve, this new option would have been sweetened even more if there had been an addition of a mutli-player option to take advantage of all the action onscreen, but it's really not a major issue.
In the end, Star Ocean shows that you can't go back to the past. The industry, for better or worse, is moving towards full-motion video and elaborate pre-rendered backgrounds as a minimum in cutting-edge RPGs. Star Ocean delivers in that department but then it leaves out the most crucial element: a compelling story. The story is predictable and unimaginative and little is done to move the story forward any faster than at a snail's pace. The game is subpar with a few good points, but none of which are really strong enough to warrant a look. This game could have been so much more but it simply isn't.
I think Dale was more insulted by this title than I was, though I was particularly appalled at the horrendous art direction. Like some kind of outsourced nightmare, everything from the cut sequence, to the pre-rendered backgrounds, to the character sprites, don't just look as if different teams did them, they look as if different companies did them! There isn't any visual cohesion to ground all the other elements in the game.
This isn't an easy game to get into either. There's confusion right from the start and the initial setup before the actual meat and potatoes of the game seems to drag on forever. The dialogue is needlessly long and seems to plague every conversation. That wouldn't even be so bad if it wasn't so poorly written. The game is riddled with RPG cliches and stereotypes. Everything pertaining to story seems recycled and regurgitated.
Still, I gave it a slightly below average review because for the most part it delivers what I have come to expect from the genre. There's an extremely long quest (for better or worse), a huge cast of characters, and attempts at innovative gameplay such as the private action sequences, numerous endings, and extensive skill development. Unfortunately, none of these positives can overcome the overwhelming level of mediocrity and staleness. For me to sum up Star Ocean, I need to refer back to those tiny 16-bit RPG characters, who were only able to express emotion through little gestures such as a drop of sweat or jittery shaking. It was cute and clever years ago considering their graphic limitations, but when huge 32-bit cousins try to incorporate the same conventions, it's a bit like watching an adult behave like a baby. What used to pass for adorable is now tired and actually rather disturbing.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Animated Violence, Mild Language
The once RPG-barren PlayStation library is now bountiful, so finding one better than Star Ocean shouldn't be too difficult. Xenogears should be a good starting point. Only the most die-hard and desperate RPG fans will put up with all of the game's negatives to get to the more redeemable parts. All others should save their time and money. Come to think of it, isn't Final Fantasy VIII right around the corner?