Set 20 years after the events of Star Ocean: First Departure, Star Ocean: Second Evolution follows two bright-eyed adventurous characters, Claude and Rena, as they embark on a journey to fulfill a long-awaited prophecy. Second Evolution is a revised version of The Second Story, originally released for the PlayStation in 1999. The remake isn't a drastic difference visually, but the graphics have been polished so that it looks great on the PlayStation Portable. It plays and feels the same as First Departure, which isn't a bad thing considering that this gives new players a chance to experience the series and prepare for a brand-new Star Ocean game--a prequel--that will follow shortly after on the Xbox 360.
Second Evolution ventures off the beaten path by letting you choose either Claude (son of Ronyx J. Kenny from First Departure) or Rena from the get-go so that you can play from their unique perspective. It's interesting to see how the events unfold early on, before they band together to set off on their adventure. Claude is a young Federation officer who somehow gets himself transported onto Rena's underdeveloped world. He conveniently shows up outside of her small village and arrives just in time to save her from a wild gorilla-like beast. Since he comes from a more technologically advanced world with plasma guns, Rena thinks he is the "Hero of Light" from the legend, who has finally arrived to save her world. A strange sorcery globe crashed on her planet, and since then there has been an increase in hostile creatures. Since Claude has no clue how he's going to get home, he decides to set off in search of the mysterious globe, in hopes of finding some answers along the way. Rena also tags along for the ride in search of answers about her past.
As in the previous game, First Departure, you'll travel from city to city, exploring dungeons and fighting random battles. Second Evolution has a slower start, but once the plot gets moving, you'll have plenty of opportunities to explore, customize, and craft. The battle system is action-oriented, and when the fight begins, you're taken into a fixed area to combat a wide array of creatures. You can control only one character at a time, so you'll want to set up your tactics beforehand for maximum efficiency. Other than hitting the X button to attack, you can assign a special art or symbology spell--which you'll learn as you level--to the L and R buttons. The battles are straightforward and easy to play, and because of the fast-paced skirmishes, they don't bog down the flow of the game.
When you're not on the field, you can use the skill points that you've collected to learn skills and specialties, which will enable you to create items and boost your combat prowess. By visiting the skill guild to purchase a skill set, you'll be able to teach your characters to cook, write, and do other useful things. Each character also has special talents, so the chances of a successful item creation will increase if you teach them the appropriate specialty. This is an excellent way of getting rid of the random materials you'll collect on your quest, and it's always entertaining to see what kind of concoction you'll end up with.
Production I.G, a well-known anime studio, is responsible for the fully voiced, animated cutscenes in Second Evolution. These sequences are very well done and can be accessed afterward in the gallery. Details in the environment have been maintained from the PS version, from soaring birds to the reflections in the water. Each town you visit has its own distinct theme, and it's obvious that a lot of care was put into these areas when you look at the furniture, and what's sitting on the table. Motoi Sakuraba's score provides a wonderful setting to this sci-fi universe, with beautiful melodies and engaging themes to accompany the gameplay. The voice acting is decent, although there are times when it feels a bit over the top and some of the dialogue in battle is reused from the previous game. The private action system returns to provide a bit of insight on the characters when you approach town, which is entirely optional but worth checking out once in a while because it'll give hints as to what to do next.
Star Ocean: Second Evolution adds to the growing RPG collection on the PSP, and we're eager to progress further in the game to see how it all pans out. From what we've seen, Second Evolution is shaping up to be another high-quality remake, so look for it when it ships January 20, 2009.