While gameplay for the most is very good, depending on what you’re actually doing in Star Ocean it can range from “Great” to “Archaic and obscure”. Well, that may be a bit harsh. Let’s break it down.
Menu navigation and other standard issue JRPG fare all handle perfectly fine. There’s tons of customization options for changing window tints and button arrangements, as well as control for how your party members behave in battle. Shopping for items is different, with you effectively lining up all your buys and sells before locking the entire transaction in, but after getting used to it it works really well. To top it all off, you have an Equipment Wizard that will automatically equip any new upgrades you find, which is fantastic.
Underlying it all is a Skill and Profession system. The Skill system dictates how your characters grow, both in combat stats and abilities, and in how effective they are in different professions. Skills offer a certain level of character customization, allowing you to decide how each character excels, even if their base stats wouldn’t normally have them work as well that way. The system is also quite prone to abuse, especially early on, allowing you to pool your Skill Points and dump them into cheap Skills with massive stat gains relative to where you are in the game. This levels out later on, and I never felt bad for taking advantage of it in this way. Professions, on the other hand, never sat very well with me. The game throws crafting materials at you left right and center and implies that the system is vital to progressing through the game, but never actually tells you how to use it. For what seems like such an integral system, it goes entirely unexplained! Even after gleaning a little bit of understanding, I was left not liking what I was working with. Different types of professions are leveled up by learning different types of skills, and these professions are maintained uniquely to each character. That’s fine, but what I really dislike is that characters cannot benefit from other characters’ professions. For example, Claude has a high level Customize skill, allowing him to turn weapons into other weapons. In this way I was able to craft a very powerful sword for him to use. Celine has a rod that, through a high-level Customize skill, can be converted into a much stronger rod. Unfortunately, since Claude can’t use rods, he can’t craft them for Celine either. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if level professions didn’t take such a massive amount of skill points…
Finally we arrive at combat. You fight in real time, taking control of character directly while your other three party members follow whatever AI preset has been assigned to them. These presets run the gambit, allowing casters to go all out, conserve MP, act as support, or be dedicated healers, and more. Attackers get similarly appropriate options. This goes a step further by allowing you to pick and choose which abilities your party members can and cannot use, adding an excellent level of control to the flow of combat. Combat itself is fast and frantic, and generally pretty fun. What I didn’t like was that, ultimately, there was very little room for any actual strategy. While it’s possible to pause everything and micromanage each of your characters, this never felt particularly effective and only served to grind the battle to a halt. Additionally, the PS1 version of the game has a minor bug with combat, where if you close out of the battle results screen too quickly, your game will freeze. I call it a minor bug, but really it had me throwing my controller a few times…
Story / Value: 8.3
I feel like Second Story is a game that’s carried by its systems. That’s not to say that the story is at all bad, just that it’s fairly generic and, at least on the PS1, presented in such a way that it doesn’t feel like the main draw of the game. It’s hard to look past the ultra stiff writing, as it does rob many of the characters of personality, and that’s very unfortunately. Even still, it’s never “bad”. There’s a pretty good roster in this game, but I never got too terribly attached to any of them.
Luckily, the game gives you tons of stuff to there, too much sometimes! There several optional quests, completely missable side characters, Personal Events to give you more insight into character relations, and even more to do after the game has actually “ended”. I never really had the patience to go through many of the Personal Events, as they required re-entering towns under different conditions. Not a big deal, I just didn’t want to take the time. Turns out this cost me not one but TWO optional characters! Ah well…
Visually, Second Story is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, you have the godawful world map. It’s just terrible, and perhaps unfairly so because on the other hand you have these beautiful character sprites that mesh and scale so perfectly with their environments. Really, the sprite visuals in this game are just gorgeous, it’s just a shame they’re not particularly animated or expressive. It’s impressive how well the game manages to blend multiple art styles, and honestly I love to have seen what other early PS1 RPG’s like, say, Final Fantasy VII, would look like had they adopted this method. Second Story holds up very well as a result.
It was great going into a game that holds zero nostalgic value for me and getting blown away by its soundtrack. As soon as start a new game you’re treated to a beautiful piano score during initial configuration, and every track from that point on is as good if not better. There’s a wide variety of music and and musical styles at work here, and it’s all excellent. The only reason I couldn’t score it higher was because, while it’s all fantastic while you’re listening to it, it’s not particularly memorable.
I can’t fault the game for giving voices to its characters, but I’m not giving credit where it isn’t due either. While voice clips, which really only ever play during combat, are generally annoying and poorly acted, the really issue is the quality of the sound itself. The game starts out with a voiced introduction that’s perfectly clear, but as soon as combat started I began checking my audio connections, as the voiceover quality just turned to garbage. Every other sound effect in the game is just fine, but the voices are just awful.
Fun / Afterthoughts – 7.5
I wanted to like Second Story a lot more than I actually did, and when I first started the game I was sure that I would. It doesn’t take long for things to get a little too formulaic, and without solid writing or interesting set pieces to move things forward, it falls on the systems to carry the game. While the systems are, with a couple exceptions, very good, I ended up getting either too bored or too frustrated with them over time.
Also, I can’t help but feel that this is the time of game that really deserves a lot more time than I can realistically give it. I’d love to explore every nook and cranny, learn everything there is to know about the crafting, do all the side quests, but ultimately I just can’t give it that kind of attention. Luckily, the PSP port is excellent, addresses a lot of my complaints, and is something I can bust out at the office during my lunch breaks. It very well may be my next handheld game.
All in all, I found the game’s good qualities to be very compelling, but I eventually reached that point where playing felt too much like a chore for me to enjoy myself.