Living the life...
It would be great to live in a RPG. Everyday I'd be on some "hero's journey" - falling in love, collecting money from slain enemies, saving the world, and stealing from the local villagers. Normally, you would think that in order to keep something safe, the best place to keep it would be in a safe or a chest. Well, that just makes it easier for me to steal. And if they don't like it, I just won't save their world. Take that, ungrateful townfolk!
Of course, I would never do that in real life, as I wouldn't be able to handle the prison time. So, playing RPG's like Star Ocean will have to do.
Star Ocean is a multi-tiered game. You experience the story through one of two characters: Claude or Rena. Through an intervention of fate, these two cross paths to set the stage for the story.
Claude is the son of Ronixis Kenni, a famous admiral. On an exploration mission, Claude accidentally activates a portal that transports him to another world. This other world is Rena's homeworld. She's an orphan with strange healing powers, trying to find the truth about her past. In this world, the presence of evil has grown, and it becomes your task to find out what's behind it.
For those wondering why it's Star Ocean The Second Story, here's the deal. Ronixis was the hero of the first Star Ocean game released on the Super Famicom in Japan, but not in America. While there are references to the first game, it isn't that important.
When you begin, your immediate goals are unclear. There are plenty of deviants and tangents to your quest. Options arise that let you choose to accomplish other things, like recruiting new members to your party or perform "Dragon exorcism" (you'll see...).
The story starts out great, but it begins to fizzle out after the second disk, focusing less on character development and more on generic RPG archetypes. The clearest sign of the game losing its cohesiveness is the lengthy plot synopsis right when you get to the second disk. From there, your objectives proceed more linearly.
Before you begin the game, you have your choice of three play modes: turn-based, real-time action, or a mix of the two. Having tried them all, I suggest going for real time. It's a good change of pace from the traditional turn based affair, with a style somewhat close to The Secret of Manna. Once battle starts, you control one character out of your party. You can then freely move around the battle plane, using either a basic or stronger attack. There are also spells at your disposal, but unless the character is a strong magic user, it's easier to whittle the enemy down with the weak attacks.
The other members of your party are computer controlled, but you can switch to them or set them to fight a certain way. In some of the early action scenes, you can simply switch to Rena (the consummate healer of this RPG) and simply have her heal up the other characters, letting the computer control the dirty work. Later on, it takes more skill and level building to get through battles. There also some pre-battle strategy, such as spells to set and formations to plan. Once you have it down, it's a lot of fun.
Unique to this game is the Private Action command. At certain times when you approach a city, you can select to split off as individual members. Then, depending on whether you chose Rena or Claude, you proceed to wander the city by yourself. Sometimes you get to talk one on one with another member of your party. Sometimes there's some mini-task for you to accomplish. The strength of this feature is that it allows for character development that would seem too muddled if you were still playing as a big group. It's also the factor that determines how many of the 80 possibles endings will show up at the end. The only awkward part to this is having to exit and re-enter the cities in order to bring your party back together.
The backgrounds in Star Ocean are stunningly beautiful, bringing back memories of an age before polygons. The overworld map is polygonal and looks out of place in contrast to these backgrounds. Character designs are well done; each character's personality resonates in their drawn images. Unfortunately, your character appears too damn small. While it does have that 8 bit charm, it's a bit cheesy in this day and age. I'd like to see the character take up fat screen space.
Another gripe is the tendency to reuse graphics. Hotel rooms and castle staircases (among others things) all look the same. The number of general character images also seems somewhat limited. At one point, you find yourself on another planet. Yet this "other" planet has the same familiar enemies but with a different color scheme. Ooohh, fancy.
The animated cut scenes feel lifeless. While it works in the opening, the other FMVs look dead. When an eathquake and a tsunami are going to destroy a town, I want to see little anime characters running in abject terror, wetting their pants, and screaming for their lives. All I got were buildings tumbling down.
I haven't heard music that I've liked this much in a long time. Most of the Village themes have this great ballad quality to them. In moments where the music needs to establish the drama, the game delivers. However, the battle music falls somewhat short of the other music; it seems too run of the mill, with a repeated set of tones and beats. And then there are the voices, which are lousy. I supppose there's something about mismatched sounds yelled out while fighting that adds more to the old school charm, but this is pushing it.
Star Ocean looks to be the best of the summer RPGs (among Lunar and Shadow Madness). While it doesn't provide the graphical flash of Final Fantasy 8, it delivers a different graphical beauty that feels warmer than the all too familiar polygonal experience. It's got a good story that sadly weakens at the end; though there's just enough steam left to get you through. However, whether you'd want to replay 30-35 hours of it again just for a slightly different ending scene is doubtful. While not the perfect RPG I've been waiting for, it's not a bad choice.