The art of the Japanese RPG has been honed over the years, with modern takes on the beloved genre adding new ways to enjoy the kind of adventures that are full of twists and turns. That’s not to say the classics have lost their magic, just that a contemporary audience may not be as receptive. As such, the remake that is Star Ocean: The Second Story R by tri-Ace, GemDrops, and Square Enix finds the balance impressively between retro and new, bringing back one of the best in the Star Ocean franchise in great style.
Considering that it has been 24 years since the original, it felt like the developers almost have a clean slate to work with, especially with Star Ocean not being as popular as the likes of Final Fantasy or the Chrono series. But the love for the game is clear, retaining legacy mechanics but updating them to freshen things up, while adding even more layers to the storytelling to keep the intrigue.
The stars of the show are Claude C. Kenny and Rena Lanford, the main characters that players have the choice of starting the story with from their perspective. The former is from a technologically advanced civilisation, accidentally sent to the primitive planet of Expel due to a malfunctioning teleporter, whereas the latter is a sweet, young lady who has magical powers of unknown origins.
Brought together by fate, the pair embark on a journey not only to find out more about themselves but also about the world-threatening threat from the mysterious Sorcery Globe, an object with meteor-like properties that has caused corruption among people and creatures alike, turning them into aggressive dangers.
Such plot devices are not exactly groundbreaking, but they do set the stage perfectly for Claude, Rena, and the many characters they will meet to shine. This is particularly so thanks to the heartfelt conversations that take place between the unlikely pair, as well as with the 12 other recruitable party members in Expel. Beyond just the main story, there is always time for Private Actions to help players get a better understanding of their allies through side quests and interesting discussions.
Naturally, as more gets revealed, the stakes get higher, and it won’t be a surprise to find players caring even more about this diverse party that they have put together. Keeping things spoiler-free, there is indeed a satisfying climb towards the conclusion full of drama and impact, and it’s not just for veteran players, but also those joining for the very first time.
The 2.5D graphical treatment is undoubtedly another standout feature of Star Ocean: The Second Story R, bringing together 2D pixel sprites and 3D environments in a perfect blend. There is a constant sense of wonder while exploring the world from this perspective, and it is a trend that we certainly hope will continue for the genre.
On the audio front, the new arrangements by Motoi Sakuraba are a joy to hear, breathing new life into already iconic soundtracks for a new generation. The inclusion of full English and Japanese voice acting is also a welcomed change. That said, the English delivery doesn’t quite match up with its Japanese counterpart, but it is still an improvement to be celebrated nonetheless.
As an RPG, combat figures heavily in this adventure, whether it be out in the overworld or in specific dungeons and areas. Instead of random encounters, enemies manifest themselves in threatening clouds, which can either be avoided, fought, or approached from behind for a Back Attack to stun them from the onset of the battle.
Once the action begins, it is a real-time affair that can get frenetic quickly, more so when there are large groups of foes lying in wait. Even with a full party of eight, only four can engage the enemy at any given time. Players will take control of their chosen party member, while the rest will be taken over by AI. Regardless of your preferences, melee and ranged combat are always a treat.
Sword slashes are accompanied by impressive-looking magic, with the game’s visuals and particle effects particularly stunning. Normal attacks can be augmented by more advanced combat skills that are a delight to use and watch, offering plenty of depth whether it is up against a singular, powerful foe, or an extended chain of enemy encounters.
Defensively, players can dodge enemy attacks for a chance for a powerful counter, but this is one area that the game falters in more often than not. While the game tells you early on that a glowing enemy in red is readying an attack, indicating the perfect time to dodge, the timing required is not very consistent. Making a mistake while dodging can lead to characters being stun-locked and open to massive damage, so definitely proceed with caution.
Star Ocean: The Second Story R spices things up further with the new additions of the Break and Assault Action mechanics. Not content with taking the pain, enemies now possess shields that will negate the damage dealt by players, and only by breaking the protection can true damage be delivered. Knowing what skills can aid in this aspect will ensure that players keep experimenting to find the right balance.
As for Assault Actions, it provides an opportunity to bring the other non-active party members into the fight. With adjustable skills and quite a generous cooldown, this can easily lead to spectacular combo sequences that will bring down even the toughest of bosses, demonstrating your understanding of your party. There are also references to other Star Ocean games through the system, with certain side quests and rewards allowing players to summon characters like Edge from Star Ocean 4 to help out, a nice little touch to amp up the nostalgia.
Another system of note is the bonus gauge that has been adopted from Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, where successful battles and multipliers from techniques help build up a bonus that applies to all future battles. This can be XP bonuses, buffs to your defensive and offensive stats, and more, helping to further incentivise the pursuit of more enemies to vanquish.
Other than just levelling up, winning battles also rewards players with Battle and Skill Points, which feed into other progression systems present in the JRPG. Skills can be enhanced and made better, stats can be given a boost with upgrades, and a variety of useful Item Creation skills can also be improved to give players even more options to aid their adventure.
It is advisable that players invest time in Item Creation as a great way to progress the party when it comes to equipment and preparing for the dangers ahead. Using materials gathered or bought in Star Ocean: The Second Story R, more powerful gear and items can be crafted anywhere, anytime, giving players a leg up against the increasingly intimidating foes. There are also several gameplay-changing options, like the ability to call upon a bunny that can climb up mountains in the overworld, which opens up the game even more for secrets and the like.
And once you have seen the adventure to the end, it is not exactly a curtain call either. The post-game challenge that is the Maze of Tribulations offers the toughest of all fights found in the JRPG, and will test even the hardiest of fans. Get that out of the way, and there is still New Game Plus to consider, especially since it will offer a chance to recruit the other characters not in your party just yet. With 99 different character endings to see based on relationship levels and Private Actions, trying to see everything is a mountainous venture.
Star Ocean: The Second Story R is a remake done right, staying true to the core ideals of the original game while incorporating additions and tweaks to further enhance the experience of saving the world. The 2.5D visuals are outstanding, as is the music, and its battle system remains an engaging affair throughout its entirety. It may not win many plaudits for its storytelling, but the characters’ hearts and relationships are undeniably rich, leading to another excellent JRPG to dive into for the year.