Star Ocean: Second Evolution – Staff Review

Nostalgia is powerful. It can help keep memories of games long gone, but also color those memories one way or another. Maybe that old game really was as good as you remember, or maybe when you pick it back up again it’s just not going to do it for you. With the PSP release of Star Ocean: Second Evolution, fans, foes, and newcomers alike will get the chance to test one of Tri-Ace’s older titles and see which way they really roll. Calling Second Evolution a remake is a bit of a stretch, but several convenience tweaks, quality voice acting, and a vastly improved script make it a far more accessible and enjoyable title than its Playstation predecessor.

Second Evolution centers around strange happenings on the planet Expel, home to a preindustrial society under sudden assault by monsters and possessed humans. An Out of Place Artifact, a meteorite dubbed the Sorcery Globe, is believed to be responsible. Several planetary systems away, one Claude Kenny — an ensign in the Pangalactic Federation and son of the renowned Admiral Ronyx Kenny — joins a ground crew in investigating an OPA on another planet. Claude foolishly ignores the warnings of his crewmates and accidentally triggers a malfunctioning portal, which whisks him away to Expel and effectively strands him there. Upon arrival, he uses a firearm to dispatch a beast, saving a local girl but breaking the Federation rule about interfering with underdeveloped worlds. Believing Claude to be a hero of legend, the girl, Rena, petitions him to investigate the Sorcery Globe and eliminate the source of the monster attacks.

While the story doesn’t stray too far from the beaten path of “find out what’s going on and kill whatever’s responsible,” it does have a few interesting quirks. For one, you have the choice of starting as either Claude or Rena. They’re joined at the hip for most of the game, but they do occasionally separate or witness a scene differently. You can also recruit up to six from a total of eleven possible companions, some of whom have their own sidequests or requirements. Some characters are mutually exclusive, or only available to Claude or Rena, but the comparative freedom to build your own party or even go it alone is a welcome change from other RPGs.

Welch travels back in time to answer a very important question posed by one Rick James.
Welch travels back in time to answer a very important question posed by one Rick James.

Real-time battle with freedom of movement was fairly new when the game was originally released as Second Story, but RPG veterans nowadays should have little trouble grasping the basics. You control one character in a fixed battlefield with the AI guiding the other three, and can switch characters at any time or give simple AI guidelines like ‘focus on healing’ or ‘constantly use spells/abilities’. There have been a few small changes in the transition to the PSP, to the game’s benefit: melee fighters can now deliver three-hit combos with basic attacks; fighters can swing upward to strike close airborne creatures without having to jump; and most spell animations have been sped up or cut down to varying degrees. In sum, fights are largely the same as they were in Second Story, but they’re often a lot faster.

Random encounters are ever present, and some dungeons have an annoyingly high encounter rate, but convenience tweaks have smoothed out a lot of rough edges. Several new private actions — short skits where your party splits up in town — accommodate lesser used characters and the single new addition to the cast. Running is now on by default, inventory items are sorted by category, and loading times have been shortened almost across the board. Certain other sequences, such as ship travel or scripted monster encounters, have been made faster as well.

Item creation, one of Star Ocean‘s hallmarks, is significantly faster than it was in the original. It still takes a sizable starting investment and a lot of trial and error (read: a quick gander at a walkthrough/FAQ) to get serious mileage out of crafting. However, one can make a variety of useful accessories, foods, and herbal concoctions with a little effort, and far faster animations make this easier to do. You can also train in a variety of other skills. Some are simple stat boosts or combat abilities, like shorter casting time or increased health gain from healing items. Others grant access to field abilities, which range from picking pockets to composing skill-boosting music, or even adjusting the encounter rate.

Visually, the game may as well be a straight port. Apart from a few new animations and crisper world map graphics, the look of Second Evolution is identical to that of Second Story. This isn’t strictly a bad thing. Towns and backgrounds are still colorful and full of detail. Locations run the usual RPG gamut of small village, mining town, snow town, carnival town, port town, other port town, castle town, and urban metropolis, but they’re easy on the eyes and easier to navigate. Sprites for common townspeople and monsters tend to repeat over and over, but the main and supporting cast are lively and well animated. The sole major visual addition is a series of short anime cutscenes for key moments. Though few in number, they’re drawn and acted well enough to add a bit of flavor to the otherwise straightforward story.

Opera, here, was smart enough to bring a gun to a swordfight.  To answer your next question, yes, yes I would.  Without thinking twice.
Opera, here, was smart enough to bring a gun to a swordfight. To answer your next question, yes, yes I would. Without thinking twice.

The one truly major addition to Second Evolution is voice acting. There are no standout performances, and a sizable portion of the supporting cast either hams it up or phones it in. That having said, nearly all of the main cast deliver solid performances, and for once the acting actually helps certain scenes. Some will recognize Spike Spencer (best known as Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion) and a few of others, but nobody feels out of place or miscast. While scenes haven’t actually been changed, the script has been completely rewritten and makes a lot more sense than its Playstation counterpart. All story sections and many private actions are voiced, and some of the skits are genuinely funny. Music, conversely, is copied almost note-for-note from Second Story. The soundtrack is fine overall, and fits the on-screen action well, but only a handful of songs can be called memorable.

Most of the characters you come across are a diverse and interesting lot. Claude and Rena are fairly typical RPG tropes in flesh, though better writing and acting make them considerably more likable. A sexy sorceress and a taciturn lone wolf swordsman round out the stock characters, though they’re decently written stock characters backed by competent actors. In the more interesting corner are a comically unlucky adventurer with a barrel fetish, a three-eyed woman with a AR-10 rifle kits who apparently ran straight from a dinner party to look for her boyfriend, and a klutzy reporter-slash-jujitsu expert who can call in air strikes on her cell phone. And then there’s Welch, the new party member: a recurring series character and item creation expert best known for exposing fraudulent shopkeepers and hitting people with a hand on a stick.

One of the more endearing aspects of the plot is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. To be sure, it plays its story straight and gets wordy at times, but it rarely comes off as preachy and it subverts the legendary hero trope in a couple of ways. While both main characters have their issues, by and large the cast is free of closeted skeletons. Nobody waxes philosophic at the drop of a hat or spends hours moping because things went horribly wrong. The story is remarkably uncomplicated and old-fashioned, though there are secrets to uncover when you get further in. But it is unique in focusing on people that mostly have no personal stake in what’s going on; Claude’s here because he screwed up and has no chance of getting home, and Rena just wants to know where she really came from. The good guys are just in the neighborhood, have nothing better to do, and would really like to stay alive. It’s refreshing, in an odd way.

'Look, all I'm saying is if she doesn't like barrels I don't think we could ever really get along.'
“Look, all I’m saying is if she doesn’t like barrels I don’t think we could ever really get along.”

The main drawback is that Second Evolution doesn’t go far enough as a remake. Many of the game’s old irritants are still around. A handful of boss fights are impossible to win, and two in particular are doubly annoying as they require you to survive for a minute or so; in neither case is this indicated to the player. The game’s bonus dungeon is only accessible after saving at the final save point, a hassle considering how long the final dungeon is. Little playable content has been added apart from Welch and the extra private actions. Some bosses spam wide area-of-effect attacks that, without careful AI management, will quickly spell doom for your party. Targeting specific enemies in battle is difficult at best, as it has been in every Star Ocean game to date.

At the same time, Second Evolution stacks favorably against some contemporary RPGs for a lot of reasons. After a sluggish beginning, the game moves at a fairly brisk pace. The core game can be pounded through in about 30 hours, though there’s enough side content for an extra fifteen to twenty. Party members can all be paired off throughout the game, their affinity for each other affected by private actions, time spent in battle, and other factors. While the final battle never really changes (the good guys win, in case you were wondering) there are scores of post-battle scenes that play out differently depending on who liked who. This, coupled with the above mentioned choice of main character to play, gives the game a surprising amount of replay value.

Closer to a rerelease than a remake, Second Evolution still puts plenty of polish on one of the genre’s less popular entries. For fans of the original with $30 to burn, it’s an easy recommendation: it’s a tighter, better-written trip down memory lane. People who disliked the original probably won’t change their minds unless the only thing holding them back was a silly script and overlong magic animation. However, newcomers who aren’t averse to dated gameplay will find a lot to like, and may yet wonder why more games don’t do a few of the things Second Evolution does.

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