Thursday, 15 September 2011

Star Ocean: Second Evolution (PSP Review)

When it comes to Square Enix (and originally Enix) JRPG series in the west, Star Ocean has always been the underdog. It has always been overshadowed by the monolithic Final Fantasy franchise and despite its age there are comparatively few people who recognise the series’ name. It has also been long plagued with a few almost iconic problems such as bad translations and overtly horrible voice acting.
That’s not to say it’s not been unsuccessful though, the series having drawn enough attention to have instalments still being made today, the latest of which is The Last Hope.

Apparently trying to reproduce some of the success of the original titles, and fix some of the more glaring errors while they’re at it, both of the first games have been remade for the PSP. So let’s see how the redone Star Ocean Second Story, now called Second Evolution, holds up.

Background and Story

Second Evolution has little to no connection to the first game. While it is set in the same universe and the basic plot of its predecessor is retold during the opening it’s really a stand alone title.

The game takes the same story gimmick as the rest of the series; setting a number of characters from advanced cultures in a feudal world of magic and dragons. In this case an officer aboard a Federation exploration ship visiting a dead planet, Claude C. Kenny, activates a machine which warps him to the world of Expel. Even before he can get his bearings he encounters the second protagonist, Rena Lanford, running away from a monster the size of a big rig.

In the ensuing fight Claude manages to vaporise the monster with his phase gun, all but burning it out in the process. Rena, watching it and with little to no understanding of what has happened, mistakes the weapon as the “Sword of Light” of legend.
Taking him back to her town, Claude quickly learns that Expel is a world being plagued by monsters, spawned from a fallen astral object known as the Sorcery Globe. The kingdom closest to it is fighting a losing battle against an endless tide of monsters and his appearance apparently matches a legendry Hero of Light who is prophesied to defeat them.

So, one technologically advanced man trapped on a seemingly doomed medieval planet, trying to get off of it, and a heroic prophecy behind him. In essence Outlander with less Vikings and more monsters. Sounds promising doesn’t it?
Well, the game never goes anywhere with it.

Claude quickly does his best to dispel the fact he might be the Hero of Light and aside from NPC comments in the first two towns it’s never brought up again. You might think this is to later reveal that he has a much bigger destiny but no, he has no link to the prophecy in any way. Sure it’s one way to throw the player a red herring, but it feels like it’s an unfinished plotline.
Furthermore, though Claude is much more advanced and has a much better understanding of the universe, it’s an aspect of his character never used. Aside from occasional comments and inner dialogue the idea is never really used until quite late on into the game, and even then it’s underplayed. Actually, the idea is almost completely undermined at a number of points such as when a JCB shows up being used on the supposedly primitive world. Or when you apparently lead an assault fleet on board a modern day oil tanker. Say what you want about Final Fantasy X but at least it tried to clearly show Tidus reacting to an utterly alien world totally different from Zanarkand.

There are a surprising number of inconsistencies like this throughout the first part of the game, and with such a simple background you’d think it would be easy enough to make it look primitive. Instead it looks like most towns still using sailing ships should already have access to firearms and steam engines. It’s something not helped when you get to a much more advanced civilization which is still using swords and magic.

In spite of these problems, and that the story is very generic until you get to the big reveal about the Sorcery Globe, the game does offer you plenty of reason to keep playing. It’s mostly due to the characters and well rounded personalities.
Claude and Rena are mostly straight forwards as a hot headed hero trying to get out of his father’s shadow and a girl with an unknown past along with mysterious powers.
Ashton is a down on his luck mercenary who ends up being cursed, Celine is a surprising voice of reason but with a streak of vanity, and while they are always background figures no two seem the same. Something the game definitely with a wide assortment of playable characters. Surprisingly for a JRPG there are also almost no characters which grate on your nerves, most are well rounded and are mostly inoffensive. Save for Leon anyway, someone so irritating even the writers seemed to realise this and scripted Claude to punch him in the face not long after meeting him.

Graphics and Design

The graphics of the game are simultaneously very good and very bad. The characters are displayed in 32-bit graphics but the backgrounds are incredibly lush pre rendered environments. They’re arguably some of the best seen on the PSP and can easily outdo many games with supposedly superior graphics like Resistance Retribution. It makes for a very strange experience, playing characters that look like they’re from the Gameboy Advance combined with PS2 level background graphics.

Actually, speaking of the Gameboy Advance players of the Golden Sun series quickly find aspects of talking to NPCs, and party members, very familiar. With emoticons, sweat drops and thought bubbles appearing in time with the flow of conversation. In addition to this there are small drawn anime images which are supposed to better represent the emotions they’re conveying.
A good idea, but not well implemented. Rather than having enough images to cover the full emotional spectrum for each character the game has only four or five at the most per character. This left the programmers to approximate which one to use at which time. This resulted in Bowman having a perpetual smirk on his face when he is supposed to be serious or determined, Celine looking like she’s barely interested in anything taking place and various other problems. At one point where Ashton is supposed to be angry and resentful they bring up this expression for him:

In spite of this, the anime drawn parts of the game aren’t all bad. There are some very well made animated segments and a gloriously explosive introduction for the characters before the game starts. It’s just a shame they spent so much money on infrequent cut-scenes than the constantly used conversational drawings.

One final problem actually comes from the towns themselves. While it was noted that all of the environments were lavishly put together there was surprisingly little variety amongst them. On Expel you only come across a grand total of four towns and three cities with a slightly larger number of dungeons littering the maps.
All of the towns save for the first one felt very similar to one another and not enough time seemed to have been put into differentiating them from one another. It probably doesn’t help that half of them seem to share the same theme music.

The same really goes for a lot of the major offensive spells seen in the game. All of them, right from the very first Laser Beams attack, are light streams which fall from the sky in some way and trigger shockwaves. As impressive as they might be it feels disappointing that the developers didn’t take the time to give the characters more variety of attacks, like a fist which rises out of the ground to crush enemies or summoning plant monsters. Like a lot of aspects of this game they look impressive but they quickly become repetitive.

The lack of obvious diversity within the spells and towns their might be is made up for by the designs of the game's creatures, their outwards appearance ranging from the unconventional to  outright insanity.
They start off fairly conventional, most enemies you run into being very weak bandits with occasional unholy beasts. Then about the time you head for Krosse things stop making sense.

You see this? This is your airship. 
Amongst the diverse enemies you fight you come up against giant multicoloured rectangular frogspawn with poisoning attacks.
Then they are soon followed by creatures which look like the bastard children of Dune’s sandworms and Venus fly traps.
And who could forget the man sized hourglasses with floating hands which attack you by tipping over and firing flamethrowers from their “heads”.
Expect to see some very weird things while playing this, not all of them good ideas but certainly memorable foes.


Second Evolution features many of the traits commonly found in all JRPGs. You travel across an overworld, going from town to city, dungeon to dungeon, talking to NPCs and doing side quests. There are random encounters, you get EXP from killing monsters, have points to spend on attributes, have various generic RPG classes and pick up new characters along the way.
The thing is though, the game tried to actually be inventive with its genre and change a few things. It’s still recognisably a JRPG but it took a very different direction from, say, most of the Final Fantasy games.

While there are cut scenes and the game is very plot focused, there are very few lengthy sequences in which control is taken away from the player. The story, while central to the plot, never feels like its intrusive and is trying to ram things down the player’s throat with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Actually some elements are so unobtrusive you can almost go throughout the entire game learning only what your companion’s names are and their fighting specialities if you so wish. You have to spend time in each town, entering it while breaking up the party so the other members can wonder about, to speak with them and learn more about them. It’s certainly a novel idea. Anyone who doesn’t like the talking to NPC aspect of JRPGs can skip them without any trouble. For anyone who does, spending the additional time to do this and seek out Private Actions feels like the game is rewarding you for going the extra mile in playing it.

The combat is the same. Rather than having all the fighters stand in one place, occasionally lobbing potions at people and hitting enemies with swords you can move about. You fight in a small featureless area, in real-time, and switch between controlling each member of the party or giving them general orders. It means you have to think a lot faster and have a lot more freedom for strategies than in turn based battles.
It’s not something which is unique now, especially since Final Fantasy XII, but it was new then and makes it stand out from other RPG titles on hand held consoles. Actually almost the entire game feels like it was made trying to be unique, being the total opposite of what you’d usually see in other releases.

Take for example the classes. While you do get some fairly generic ones, Celine for example being fairly standard Black Mage spellcaster, many were a break away from the usual class tropes. Rena mostly served as a healer but doubled as a fighter early on and gained a number of attack spells in her later levels, Claude mostly served as the party’s tank but learned “special arts”. Things which weren’t spells but covered everything from performing dynamic entries out of the sky to firing Dragonball style ki blasts out of his hands. And then of course you have Ashton, a character who simultaneously dual wielded swords and dragons.
Second Evolution isn't so flexable that can turn a white mage style healer into an effective tank but it’s very nice change from what’s usually seen in the game's genre.

One other aspect of the characters which is very different from other JRPGs is the abilities they learn. As mentioned before each of your characters get points to spend on attributes, but not ones which help in combat like strength or agility. No, instead you get to spend them on certain bits of knowledge your characters learn such as technology or aesthetics. These are used to primarily do one thing: create items.
With the right set up your characters can forge new weapons and items, create new healing potions and cook food. Surprisingly, the last one is actually the most useful as Rena begins with all the necessary starting knowledge, the ingredients are cheap, and some of the best HP/MP healing items are food. Yes, apparently eating fruit sandwiches can cure lacerations far more effectively than magic healing potions can.

What you create is based mostly upon random chance with the quality of the item influenced by how many levels you have of certain skills. For example trying to forge protective equipment at low levels frequently seems to produce rings which double a character’s weakness to certain spells. In spite of this experimenting with item creation at high levels can produce some indispensible things such as items which make characters immune to petrifaction.
You can learn new skills through buying them in towns and by recruiting new characters.

Actually character recruitment is the other thing which is another memorable aspect of the game. Adding certain characters to the party frequently bars others from being recruited at points in the game, for example Bowman or Precis cannot both be recruited in a single play through. Other characters can be barred due to the protagonist you have chosen with Dias only joining a party led by Rena. It, along with item creation, gives the game a surprising amount of replay value. It’s often interesting to specifically recruit different characters than you’d normally choose just to see how they develop and interact with one another. The fact the game has more than 80 endings means there’s plenty of reason to keep coming back to Second Story and trying to play though things differently.


As portable JRPGs go, Star Ocean Second Evolution is a fairly good game. It’s got some obvious flaws but there’s enough to like to make you do at least one play through. If you’re someone who is missing the classic Final Fantasy games, I-VII, or you loved Golden Sun then you’re going to enjoy this one.

With its high replay value, lack of necessity to endlessly grind levels and aspects like item creation, I’d suggest it to anyone who is open minded about the genre. Just don’t expect to be playing the PSP equivalent of Dragon Age Origins if you buy it.


Star Ocean and all related characters and media are owned by Square Enix.

Some images have been taken from Star Ocean Wiki.

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