PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5
November 2, 2023
Star Ocean has always been a more underappreciated franchise in Square Enix’s repertoire. Never reaching the highs and fandom of their hallmark series in Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, it’s sort of the weirdo RPG pick one might get into and surprisingly find themselves having a damn good time. I know this because this is now me. Having wrapped up my 20-odd hours with Star Ocean: The Second Story R, a brand new remake of the IP’s second entry, I am now all in on Star Ocean.
In Star Ocean: The Second Story R, fantasy and sci-fi collide in big and exciting ways. Starting the campaign, players choose whether they’d like to play through the story as the young, blue-haired elf-like girl known as Rena or Claude, the bashful and kind blonde plucked from the future, sticking out like a sore thumb. Following the meeting of the two, Claude quickly finds himself enlisted in a quest to save Rena’s people from apocalyptic events. Devastating earthquakes stemming from a mysterious source, a hunt for a magical ancient device known as the Sorcery Globe… this is the investigation and journey our party originally embarks on before it opens up into something bigger and far greater.
These opening hours see you venturing across the country to towns and villages near and far, meeting new companions along the way and engaging with a largely unassuming fantasy story. It’s all a normal world with very believable fantasy architecture and environments; towns with buildings made of cobblestone will offer a nice place of refuge at inns for a night while offering plenty of shopping opportunities for gear, cave systems with passages that snake around each other will be crawling with classic RPG enemies and so on. You’re also following very human narrative threads and character plots early on. Rena is on the search for her real mother. Her estranged part-longtime-friend part-crush is back in the picture, causing a rift between the dual protagonists. Charming new party members such as Celine, a striking treasure hunter wearing curious witchy attire, and a twelve-year-old scientist catboy prodigy (seriously) Leon pop up, each with their own motivations. All of this is quality comfort food RPG setting and gameplay, however, I did from time to time find myself wishing it’d sooner kick into that third gear I knew was coming.
“In Star Ocean: The Second Story, fantasy and sci-fi collide in big and exciting ways.”
Kick in it does about a dozen hours into the game. It’s worth that wait, but some will be tested by this somewhat slow start. When it does, everything falls into place and forms the beautiful RPG story we have in front of us. Rena and Claude’s mission to save the home planet of Expel suddenly becomes bigger, tasking them with saving nigh the entire universe. A mysterious group of ethereal beings known as the ‘Ten Wise Men,’ reveal themselves to you, providing great despair and a formidable obstacle to come when you learn of their universe-ending intentions. More alien structures and environments will now make up your locations, emphasising the grandiosity of the story.
Of course, a story, its cast and its world are nothing without style. Thankfully, this Star Ocean is far from lacking. Not quite the HD 2D trend we’ve seen in recent titles like Octopath Traveler II, The Second Story R is still very reminiscent of this design. Square Enix labels this adventure as 2.5D, using 2D pixel character sprites in a 3D world. The result means that characters well and truly stand out in their environments, featuring immense detail, shadowing and even animations that go the full mile. Whether it’s in the bite-sized characters running around through the overworld or the static images in visual novel-esque dialogue, they pop and are incredibly striking. Though the architecture and buildings and environment never go this level of depth with their detailing, with only small, jagged edges, it does help to create something of a storybook picture feeling to your journey, further adding to the majesty of the experience.
By my side the entire time is the weird group of friends I’ve come to know as my family, shifting my bonds with each individual throughout the journey through meaningful interactions. You and your family grow. At the end of it all, they’re a crew of lifelong friends who feel like they’d do anything for one another. With this feeling of character development amongst your party, they’re also growing in significant ways with the detailed and meaningful RPG systems found in The Second Story R. Yes, there’s the minute leveling that sees stats and numbers go up, bolstered by a bounty of gear offerings. However, this depth becomes an ocean when it comes to the specialty skills that can impact everything from the damage you dish out in combat to genuine quality-of-life improvements in the game.
Depending on whether you’re upgrading battle abilities, adding passives to combat (more damage, a random chance for party members to dodge attacks, etc) or upgrading your level in specialisation skills such as cooking, these respectively use SP (Skill Points) or BP (Battle Points). The specialty points are incredibly valuable and allow players to become more self-sufficient as the game goes on. No longer do you need to buy meals for healing from a storefront, you can instead either forage or purchase the ingredients and make the meals yourself. Some valuable specialty upgrades I recommend are ones that you use in the overworld when you’re running in between towns and doing your best to engage in or avoid battle encounters.
Investing in the ‘Bodyguard,’ skill means your party members will automatically deal with and destroy the little blob that represents lower-level combat encounters, netting you the experience without having to spend that time dealing with mooks. Another lets you summon a great, big and silly rabbit-like creature for quicker traversal across the overworld. These make for good flavour text to the already weird and wonderful world, but from time to time I do wish these were just built-in quality-of-life settings I already had in menus rather than having to work for them. Still, the options for specialisation are endless and feel almost MMO-RPG in nature with their offerings. Better yet, you’re often raining in this BP and SP as it’s obtained from the many, many real-time battles you’ll engage in.
This may not be the first re-visitation of this second Star Ocean title (it got a PSP enhanced port titled Second Evolution), but its combat is the biggest and best here. The real-time battles are more lively than ever. These all take place on a 3D plain with a quasi-isometric perspective with four members available on the battlefield at any given time. It works incredibly similarly to the way Final Fantasy VII Remake handles, letting players jump between any of the four companions to compliment each other’s attacks with different abilities, spells and the like. New to this game but like VII Remake, there’s a ‘break’ function where foes have defenses that can be whittled away at, stunning the opponent and leaving them vulnerable to even more damage.
Personally, I found this more enjoyable and readable than this aforementioned comparison. Having little 2D sprites and an almost birds-eye view means I can make easier heads or tails of the battlefield and not have teammates obscure my vision or bearings. Even more rewarding and celebratory for franchise fans is that throughout the game and within specialisations, you can unlock secret assault summons of previous Star Ocean protagonists, often very valuable in dealing out massive damage and AoE attacks.
Most beloved for me however is how much this game has me considering gear, more than any RPG I’ve ever played. My guilty habit of the genre is always just opting into equipping the gear with the highest stats and making do. I’m here to tell you that in Star Ocean: The Second Story R, you cannot simply use this strategy. Some battles in-game are super engaging and will have you scraping by the skin of your teeth for survival even on the lowest difficulty. Maximising your health and damage in these instances simply isn’t enough. Maybe now you’ll equip one healer spellcaster with an amulet that grants passive regeneration of MP. Combine this with a saving grace in the form of a ring that gives you a free instant self-revive if they’re downed, doubly backing up your healer. This implementation and emphasis on gear is refreshing and not something I see enough, often revitalising combat for me when I hit a difficulty hump.
- A beautiful story where fantasy and science fiction combine
- Pixel character art that makes the cast truly pop off the screen
- Deep and meaningful RPG progression
- Real-time combat that will keep you on your toes
- Some will find the start a little slow
- One or two quality-of-life additions could've been implemented better
Star Ocean: The Second Story R serves as a reminder from Square Enix that this is an RPG property not to be ignored. On offer is one of the most enjoyable of its genre I’ve played in some time with a heartfelt story, colourful cast, and a wonderful fusion of both fantasy and science fiction goodness. The quality doesn’t end there, though. Deep leveling and specialistion systems make for meaningful refining of your party, becoming more self-sufficient the further along you get. This complements some battle encounters that are deeper than many other RPGs on the market, always keeping you on your toes. One or two quality-of-life additions that could’ve been better implemented aren’t a worry for long when you also consider how gorgeous the world of Expel really is, with its characters popping off your screen. A killer title to convert newcomers and satiate longtime fans, this remake is one for all and all for one. Star Ocean forever.