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Star Ocean 2 - Retroview

A Game with no Heart
By: Phillipe Richer

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 9
   Interface 7
   Music & Sound 5
   Originality 8
   Story & Plot 3
   Localization 3
   Replay Value 10
   Visuals 5
   Difficulty Moderate to Very Hard
   Completion Time 30-40 Hours  
Overall
7

Good job! Now do that until you reach level 255.
Good job! Now do that until you reach level 255.
Star Ocean: The Second Story

   Enix initiated their comeback to North American soils with the release of Tri-Ace's Star Ocean 2 in 1999. Sporting a real-time battle system, two different worlds to explore, a huge cast of characters, and loads of replay value Star Ocean 2 (SO2) succeeded in swaying many gamers' hearts. The package looks virtually flawless, but there is one critical element missing from Star Ocean 2: heart.

   Claude Kenni, son of the Ensign of the Earth Federation, Ronixis Kenni, sets off to explore a mysterious aura emanating from a barren planet deep in the universe. Upon careful inspection, Claude is trapped in a warp hole and gets teleported to the lush green planet of Expel. There, he encounters the innocent Rena and soon learns about the evil casting its shadow on the endangered planet. Claude decides to do his part to save Expel and thus embarks on a journey filled with benevolent allies and unruly villains. While the plot looks promising at first, it never propels itself faster than a rusty paddle-pusher.

   The battles in SO2 are all completely free roaming. Every encounter with the enemy will quickly turn into a big brawl of magic and close range combat. You can control only one character at a time, and everyone can attack continually without restrictions, unless the enemy starts throwing shots of its own. Fighter type characters can also use "killer moves", or special attacks so to speak, which use certain amount of MP and can be activated by pressing L1 or R1. Mage type combatants on the other hand are encouraged to cower in the corners so they can have the time needed to chant their spells. One problem is that not much strategy is needed during battles. Rather, as long as your levels are high enough all you have to do is gang-bang foes one at a time with attacks and killer moves until they fall. There's much more going on outside of battles rather than inside.

   The gameplay on the map is incredibly diversified. First off, when characters gain levels they will also gain "skill points" (SP). You allocate your points among dozens of different skills that improve every aspect of your characters. You can increase their strength in combat, heighten their proficiency with a number of creation skills, and even turn them into thieves. The more skills you learn, the more "specialties" you'll master, which in turn let you literally make a wide array of items out of raw materials. You can create anything ranging from food to weapons, adding an immense amount of depth to the gameplay. There are more "item creation" (as they are called) skills than you could imagine, including eight group skills using all of your characters' proficiency. You'll spend loads of time playing around in the menus, although you might not get the results you'd expect often. Item creation becomes much more pleasant when you know what you're doing, which is why I'd recommend using a strategy guide.


Sweet. Watching yet another lifeless character
Sweet. Watching yet another lifeless character "develop"...

   Another cool aspect is the "private action" setup, which allows you to speak privately with your party members in towns. The way you act around your allies alters their sentiments toward you, ultimately leading you to one of 89 different endings. The problem is that there is no way of knowing just how much each character likes you, which makes aiming for certain endings all but random. Also, you shouldn't get too excited with the promise of 89 endings because what Tri-Ace refers to as an ending is actually just a simple tasteless 15 seconds segment. Not much of an incentive for another 35 hours of gaming I think. And unfortunately, the bad translation and the colorless characters don't contribute much charisma at all.

   Considering the massive amount of options and skills, the menus are decently arranged. You'll need a lot of time to familiarize yourself with all the possibilities the game has to offer, but you'll definitely get the hang of it in time. On exploration sprees, the union of 2D characters on pre-rendered backgrounds can make landscapes a little hard to navigate. You can choose between many different formations for combat, but since everyone just starts running around at their own leisure, choosing any formation will do just fine for most occasions. The various AI's for your characters do an alright job but aren't all that clever when it comes to using items. The controls during battles are simple enough with buttons being used for a single purpose only, from guarding to prompting the item menu. One great implementation is the ability to rob any single NPCs in towns using your "pickpocket" skills, which are fun to pull off.

   Motoi Sakuraba-san was the man in charge of composing the music for S02. Opinions differ greatly has to the goodness of its soundtrack, but I think I can sum it up in one word: impersonal. Every town (there are a lot of them) is accompanied by a full orchestra of flutes, violins, cymbals, trumpets, and harps. The result in most cases is some very soothing music, though somewhat inappropriate for this game. Much like a movie soundtrack, the many compositions feel much too impersonal and unrelated to the various events and locations of the game. The tone is very grand but doesn't exactly liven up the moments appropriately. Emotional tracks are almost inexistent, although there are a large number of mediocre suspense tracks when danger nears. The overworld themes are very, very good however making those long item creation sessions a joy. The normal battle music gets annoying very quickly, while the good variety of boss music gets the job done. Listening to the music by itself isn't much fun, but it's serviceable during the game.

   Sound effects are a whole other matter. Outside of battle, sounds are totally inexistent since the music overpowers the rest. In combat, your ears won't get a second of rest with the annoying and continuous English battle cries. Every time someone casts a spell, performs a move, or does just about anything else they'll start garbling some poorly acted and very low quality expressions. This horrific acoustic goes on nonstop for the entire game and there is no off option to boot. You can listen to all those comments in the option menu, and after a certain level of voice completion you'll be able to access harder difficulty levels. There should've been less commenting on the characters' part and better sounding voices not to annoy gamers, but Tri-Ace chose quantity over quality.


The FMVs aren't great at all.
The FMVs aren't great at all.

   Now the plot. The plot. Unquestionably, this is where the game starts losing credit and even worse, appeal. An evil sphere fell on the planet of Expel, monsters have started to multiply, and you must figure out why all this has happened. As a throwback to the old Dragon Warrior games, the near entirety of the plot does not consist of uncovering new truths and discovering plot twits but rather about performing many seemingly futile item searches and dumb NPC rescuing adventures. For the whole first disc, I was awaiting that big plot twist that would finally give my party (and therefore me) a purpose for continuing onward, but when it finally happened (with the help of some incredibly grainy and low-quality FMVs) I was severely underwhelmed and uninterested. In SO2, there are two different worlds, containing many towns and dungeons each, for the simple purpose of giving you more gameplay, not for the sake of character or plot development. Every being in S02 cruelly lacks heart, which makes the excellent idea of the private actions all but wasted. You won't like your characters because of who they are or how they act; you'll like them because of their combat prowess. In the end, SO2 feels like a dungeon crawler where the plot has been treated as an afterthought to gameplay. Thankfully, the gameplay in SO2 is incredibly deep, but an RPG without a good plot isn't really an RPG in my book.

   Much of the blame for the game's transparent characters can be put on the very, very mediocre translation. The sentence structure is good, the wording is correct, but everyone sounds exactly the same. It's like LoD with a better vocabulary but even less personality. Does anyone remember Noel, Bowman, or Chisato? Every character is as bland as could be. Those bland translations might have seemed appropriate three or four years ago, but looking back at them now makes them look weaker and weaker. If I told you that FFVIII's translation was lame would you believe me?

   With all the different private actions, items to find and create, characters to meet, and monsters to vanquish, SO2 has replay value spilling from its two discs, not to mention the fun attraction park (Golden Saucer rip-off!). You can also choose either Rena or Claude as your main character, slightly altering the (mind-blowing) events you'll face. As a challenge to hardcore gamers bent on total completion, the max character level has been set to 255, which is absolutely insane. There is a very long, very difficult dungeon called the "Cave of Trials" for you to explore if you have the nerves, which is the only good reason why you should attempt reaching level 255. To me, the 89 endings is a bluff, but if you really want to see them all, be prepared to play a good dozen times and to follow a FAQ very closely. To accomplish all this, 30-40 hours of gameplay seems a little bit too long however. Different difficulty levels will also satisfy your cravings for challenge.

   The backgrounds in SO2 are very enchanting. Dungeons are vast and look absolutely breathtaking, as do the many towns built in Expel and Nede. Unfortunately, the characters don't fit in the painting very well. The sprites are very basic and poorly animated, both in and out of combat. To express what little emotions the characters show, Tri-Ace resorted to a bunch of dumb emoticons and sweat drops which really don't mesh well with the music and the backgrounds. Spells and attacks in battle don't look that great either. There are several FMV sequences during the game, but they are of the poorest quality ever this side of, well, anything. The amount of effort and detail put into the backgrounds is truly incredible, but the rest doesn't quite match up.

   Regardless of its many flaws, Star Ocean 2 manages to stay fun for the most part. The real-time battles are great but do get repetitive after a certain time, while the item creation aspect can provide immense amount of fun if you know what you're doing. Nonetheless, the impersonal translation and poorly executed plot leave much to be desired, and could manage to detract gamers looking for strong emotional immersion from their RPGs (i.e. me). Star Ocean 2 leaves me in a state of dissatisfaction, because for an RPG to truly entertain me it must first grasp my heart; a hard feat to accomplish when the game doesn't have one of its own.

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