Star Ocean: Second Evolution
The RPG genre has come under a fair bit of scrutiny this past year, with most of them simply failing to excite. Whether it be a lack of ideas, a bland storyline or cumbersome combat, this recent slew of mediocre titles has not given gamers much confidence in the genre. It is arguably the most popular, or at least most loved genre of videogame culture, with games like FFVII and the Dragon Quest series both cultivating a magnificent following – the former easily contends to being the most discussed videogame ever. Sure, we’ll always have that one off classic RPG appearing out of nowhere like Persona 4, but for the most part, decent RPGs are getting increasingly hard to come by in the current gaming climate. Sometimes, however, you get a game that reinstates your dying interest in the genre. A game that reminds you just how engrossing, well designed and magical an RPG can be. Star Ocean: Second Evolution is that game, and while it sticks fairly closely to the genre’s conventions, it makes you remember why we regard the RPG as one of videogames’ most revered genres.
Star Ocean: Second Evolution is an enhanced remake of the PlayStation game Star Ocean: The Second Story, and features improved visuals, fully voiced dialogue, and new characters and cinematics. The story, as the original, is intriguing, convincing, and told such that it is easy to understand. The game follows two characters; Claude C. Kenni and Rena Lanford, and quite brilliantly you can choose at the beginning of the game which character to use, and hence which story to pursue. They are acquainted with each other almost from the very start, so the events don’t drastically change depending on who you go for, but it nevertheless means there’s more than an enough incentive to play through the game twice. These two characters each have their own stories to tell, with Claude a confused space cadet lost in an unknown world and Rena trying to come to terms with her abilities and family. They’re both utterly likeable characters, with cheeky quirks and great lines.
The voice acting is on the whole of an extremely high standard, and the fact almost every piece of dialogue in the game is spoken is an immense achievement, and generally makes proceedings more interesting and polished. Some may find the script a little too saccharine filled, with the squeaky clean teenagers’ pre-pubescent wails grating quickly. Regardless, the attention to detail prevalent in the scripting and character development is fantastic, and helps move the story along well. The amount of lines you’ll read shows developers Tri-Ace’s impressive faith in their story. It sometimes plods on a little too slowly, and the little animations that signify each character’s emotions become immensely annoying early on till the end credits, but it’s not enough to greatly mar your enjoyment.
Thankfully the story holds up just as well, too. RPGs at least need a decent story in order to entice players through the game, and with Star Ocean: Second Evolution, you’ll be at times interested and other times hooked as you traverse dozens of beautifully decorated locales. The game takes place twenty years before the original Star Ocean, with the story unfolding as Claude and Rena meet on the planet of Expel, where initially Claude needs to find his way back home. From there a bigger problem surfaces in the form of the sorcery globe, a great deadly force that threatens to destroy the whole universe. You’ll later encounter a powerful organisation who you find are planning to utilise this force for their own benefits, and your team becomes the only force capable of stopping them. It’s standard RPG-fare in terms of the general story, but it’s nonetheless interesting, with many twists occurring along the way, and some genuinely original events that happen. You can improve character relationships and particular affiliations with a feature called private action scenes. These split up your party when entering a town to give you the opportunity to strengthen certain relationships. These ultimately affect scenes in the game, and will determine which of the eighty-seven – that’s right, eighty-seven – endings you’ll unlock. These private action scenes are optional and its relevance to your enjoyment will differ greatly on the type of gamer you are, but they’re a worthwhile addition to the game nonetheless.
Much like the game’s story, the combat in the game doesn’t break many boundaries, but it does things with extreme confidence and flair. The combat compared to most RPGs is high-tempo, fierce and energetic. Fights take place within specific areas in real time, and the difficulty range is well designed so you’ll never get too frustrated or too bored. You control one character out of four, but can program your allies’ tactics, or even switch to their manual control if need be. The action is vibrant and intense, and rarely uninteresting. The spells and attacks on show are a treat for the eye, with colours that almost pop out of the PSP’s screen. While you can’t skip spell animations which may have been an oversight, it takes a while for them to lose their appeal, and with the wealth of attacks available to learn, it’ll take a long time till you’ve mastered every move. Just like any other RPG certain characters specialise in different areas like alchemy and healing, or physical strength, but no two characters have the same style, so you can afford to mix it up a bit for more interesting battles.
You’ll fight hundreds of unconventional enemies, with all of them neatly drawn and bursting with character. To say a game that operates with sprites can hold so much charm is testament to developers Tri-Ace. These battles take place over many brilliant locations, some more inspired than others. While you still have some fairly lacklustre, cookie-cutter areas such as caves and the like, there’s a lot of creativity apparent in most places. You’ll visit humble villages, army front lines, bustling cities, towering mountains and even a flying field named the field of love – you’ll often look forward to where Star Ocean will take you next.
Unfortunately the world map of the game lets down the artistically rendered locations, as it looks simple and slightly out of place. The world map works on a 3D plane, and with its pixelated style and an empty atmosphere it’s slightly lacking. It also suffers from minor pop-up, which is most noticeable when you are able to traverse the world on the back of a flying creature later in the game. The world map arguably adds variation and perspective to the game’s predominantly 2D aesthetic, but it could have done with some touching up.
One part of the game that feels wholly unique is the game’s skills system. This isn’t just a simple level up mechanic – it’s much more deep and rewarding, and means you can build up a truly individual character. You can increase your character’s affinity for cooking, their knowledge on items, their ability to play or write music, or even their expertise with machinery. These aren’t mere trivialities, they actually benefit your party members with the ability to do such things as get discounts in shops, decrease random battles, make more exotic food dishes that will heal your party more or create expensive jewellery. The possibilities are endless, and the more you level up your character with skills, the more helpful they become when you find some vegetables that can be cooked, or an unexplainable item needs appraising. Your party can even combine skills, too, for maximum results. It’s a system that initially feels daunting, but soon becomes compulsive and a joy.
Much like the skills system, the audio experience is also great. You’ll rarely if at all turn the speakers on your psp down, as each line is delivered expertly by the voice talent. Music is fitting and typically fantastical, with a huge amount of recurring ditties that are more successful than others.
The visuals are on par with the audio, with high-quality throughout, bar the inelegant world map. Every location has its own distinctive quality, and every player will come out from playing the game with a favourite area. Dialogue between the more central characters is accompanied by excellently design character drawings, and this only serves to add to their personality. There are times where an anime sequence will play, but these are few and far between, which is a huge shame, as they are incredibly enjoyable and full of character and professionalism.
It may not stand out massively in the RPG world, but Star Ocean: Second Evolution deserves a lot of recognition for simply being an enjoyable, well scripted and interesting RPG. Its appeal ultimately lies in its down to Earth approach to making a likeable, charming, no nonsense RPG. It doesn’t genre-defy, it doesn’t claim to be anything more than what it is: a fantastic journey into the places we can only dream of visiting, and a compelling story to boot. When you think of it like that, it’s easy to love the spellbinding RPG genre all over again.