Star Ocean: The Second Story

     Tri-Ace is a funny body of developers; from what I've played of their RPG's, they mostly use the same basic game engines from title to title whereas Final Fantasy sees fit to radically alter control schemes between games that are vaguely in the same series.

     Let's start by dwelling on the bad. I'm good at that.

     The Tri-Ace model of combat is as follows: You control one character directly, in real time combat, while the others are on crude AI. Fighters usually have two attack techs equipped at a time (one invariably being a ground blast), spellcasters cast spells more or less at random depending on whether you've told them to "conserve MP" or to "Attack Until All MP Are Gone!" Unfortunately, MP-conservation mode is translated as "cast only the most powerful and wasteful spells available every five seconds." The fighters are even worse to leave on their own on all-out attack mode since their moves have next to no preparation time. The overall game engine feels a lot better than I make it sound- it's nice to be able to chase down an enemy, corner them and wail on them nonstop. But something feels a little off about the Star Ocean battle system at times. If you played the Tales games, it's essentially that with an added plane of movement. The hit detection wants your character to attack from just the right spot, which often leads to the fighter you're manually controlling running around in circles, totally out of your control, trying to get in their favorite spot with no way to cancel out of the selected action. A particular thing that bothers me is the jumping atack in this game. When fighting an airborne enemy, Claude jumps and swings his sword upward.

     Then there's the matter of the voice acting. While fully-voiced battles are cool and all, four characters chirping away attack names gets a little annoying after a while. Playing with a party of Rena, Claude, Chisato and Precis forced me to mute the game during a session of dedicated power leveling.

     That said, Star Ocean: The Second Story is, as it sounds, the second in the Star Ocean series. If the Tales of... series of games are their version of Final Fantasy (in that they are separate games that have only the slimmest of connections to one another), the Star Ocean must be their answer to Phantasy Star. The original SO was a Super Famicom title, and the hero (or at least that's what we're going to call him for the sake of summary) of SO2 is the son of a character from it. And Star Ocean: Blue Sphere apparently takes place after that and features more grown up versions of the kid characters as well as some returning faces.

     The Earth Federation ship Calnus (which sounds like a skin disease or something) is exploring an odd spherical artifact on the surface of an alien planet. Legendary admiral Ronixis Kenni and his son Claude(!?) lead the expedition. Ensign Claude is going through a personal issue and feels the need to prove that he's different from his father by stupidly poking at a teleporter. As unknown alien devices are prone to do, it zaps him to a random planet light years away called Expel. There he meets the painfully adorable Rena Lanford being attacked by a monkey thing. He uses his father's phaser to fry the monster, and since this is a medieval-styled world, she immediately jumps to the conclusion that he is the Warrior of Light from the village legend. After a few dozen mentions of the Sword of Light, I rename Claude to Gourry, the braindead swordsman from the anime Slayers. A name he lived up to at almost every chance he got.

     So, Claude and Rena become the star-crossed lovers/core of a rag-tag band of adventurers, fighting to save a world that they didn't create, etc. I can't really harp on them too much about the main plot being pretty generic, since these Tri Ace games always have such great characterization. Independent Actions let the party split up in town and have all sorts of scenes set up. Most of your actions affect how other characters think of you, and the game gets away with its brag that it has over 80 endings because it's the same main ending with little variations depending on who likes who.

      There are a lot of recruitable characters, so many in fact it gets a little aggravating having to be in the right place at the right time so you get the right person. Ashton, who's about the best fighter in the whole game (despite NOTORIOUSLY awful luck) requires you to backtrack to the second town in the game at just the right juncture in the story to find. And Chisato Madison, the black belt reporter requires you to, in a certain town, exit one screen to the right. Apparently if you exit the bottom, you'll miss her. The rest of the cast includes Celine, a chronic flirt of a sorceress with a craving for treasure and trouble; Precis, who's basically this game's underage genius who fights with out of place technology; Opera, a three-eyed alien with a BIG gun and her absentee lover Ernest; Bowman, a Hadouken-firing pharmacist (what's with that?); Leon, the prerequisite kid mage/scientist who's a little too full of himself; and Dias, Rena's childhood friend turned ice-hearted wandering swordsman. Oh yeah, I also forgot Noel, a tree-hugging hippie of a mage who is the only healer in the game besides Rena yet is hell-bent upon casting his stupid attack magic.

     Of the secondary cast, Ashton stands out since he's such a goofball. He arrives in a mining town when a reward is placed on the two-headed dragon dwelling there and while battling it (it's hard to tell exactly how well he's doing since the game does this fight by bonking his sprite against the dragon repeatedly) our heroes decide to cheer him on since the cave is too small to join in. Distracted by them, Ashton makes the mistake of turning his back on it, which leads somehow to the dragon imbedding himself in his back. And not only is he stuck with a pair of dragon's heads sticking out of his back, a side effect of Rena (adorably) naming the heads is they develop separate personalities and thusly start arguing. And that's not even counting his odd, unnatural interest in barrels.

     The story of the hunt for the Sorcery Globe is riddled with mishaps and detours, and amusingly littered with medieval-era buerocracy. (How many Final Fantasy games actually require you to have a passport to meander from country to country, or actually try to keep you out of the king's chamber?) And once they reach it, as might be foreshadowed by Claude and Rena's otherworldly natures, the Sorcery Globe ends up being Something Else and before you know it, the game changes tone from your party acting like errand boys to more of the rag-tag world-saving machine the genre is so fond of.

     The skill system is one thing that will probably make or break the game in the eyes of the player- you have to distribute skill points among various abilities not unlike in Neverwinter Nights or any number of those other pen and paper RPG systems. You can use them to learn abilities to fight better, create items, customize weapons- the skills and how you maintain them make a big difference in the experience. For example, my first time through the game was an agonizing, painful struggle that took over 40 hours, and my second game is about there at only around 15 hours, with more items and higher levels.

     So basically, if you're looking for lengthy RPG experience with interesting characters, and a high degree of customization and you're willing to wade through sarcastic menus, trial-and-error item creation, pitched battles with odd voice bites laced in, and number crunching, SO:SS is right up your alley. It's actually better than I make it sound, and you can find it for the usual $19.99 in most electronics stores.

     Remember, Claude's a moron, but you don't HAVE to have him in your party in this one.

Since I really have no half decent way of making screenshots off my PlayStation, here's something off Zany Video Game Quotes showing off one of the many helpful inventory descriptions. These also include advice in playing the market, and weird tangents about the characters the Portrait items are of.

Star Ocean EX

EX was an anime series that essentially retells the story of the Second Story in a mysteriously still-interesting fashion. The show was never picked up for a second season, which must have caught the animators off-guard as the series cuts off at the halfway point of the game.

SE:OX does get accessibility points over stuff like the Sakura Wars OAVs in that you can go into the show with no knowledge of the game and not be left in the dark; in fact the characters seem to be more at home in the linear proceedings of a 26-episode season. There's a good mix of development and action in each episode without dissolving all the way into Monster of The Week format, though the demon stones come close.

The artwork is generally nice, probably digitally-colored with some CG in parts (mostly the opening.) There is an odd feeling that the animators were playing favorite in terms of effort; Rena is almost unbearably wide eyed and adorable in every scene she appears in. Fortunately they restrained themselves from inserting She's So Wonderful takes every five minutes. Characters who struck me as pretty unremarkable in the game like Celine the sorceress and Bowman the pharmacist are rendered here with care and zing, though sometimes the character redesigns are so drastic as to be unrecognizable, like the tendency for any major NPC to appear here as an agonizingly beautiful men. Like the black haired (glorified date rapist) Allen's metamorphosis into a tall man in a Dante-esque red coat with long white hair.

The comic relief in the series is probably going to be more appealing to fans of the game- like Ashton's inflated barrel fetish. Actually, Ashton's whole character has been turned into goofy comic relief. No matter how cool an attack he does, nobody seems to notice him, and he spends most of the series walking around sullenly with Dennis the Menace pratfall music accompanying him.