Star Ocean: The Second Story is the 32-bit follow-up to Enix's original Super Famicom title, Star Ocean, a game that was released in the dying days of the system and did not receive the success it was due. A departure from the first game, Second Story, like most RPGs, offers you a fresh set of characters to play as. At the start of the game you select one of two characters: Crawd or Rena, and where the story begins depends on whom you choose. Your choice only affects the direction of the storyline, since the two of you ultimately meet up anyway and progress together through the game. As the story advances, you'll meet up with other key characters, whom you can also add to your party. Marking Enix's first major RPG undertaking in the next-generation wars, Star Ocean: Second Story is a decidedly conservative attempt to refine rather than reinvent, and it shows.
Second Story is 16-bit in nature but 32-bit in execution and is a conservative step forward in RPG gaming, coming across like a combination of Grandia and Saga Frontier. The backgrounds in the game are prerendered, like Saga Frontier, while the characters are sprite-based. Unlike in Saga Frontier, the citizens of Star Ocean blend well with their environments. Little touches like seeing your reflection on smooth surfaces like water, or seeing your characters darken whenever they walk through a shady area are very cool. Other details, like birds flying across the screen, are also very realistic and must be seen to be fully appreciated. Although tri-Ace is the developer responsible for the creation of Star Ocean: SS, it should be noted that the company was assisted in this project by Japanese CG house Links. Links may not sound familiar, but its works speak for itself. The company was responsible for much of the CG rendering in Final Fantasy VII and for creating the CG intros in all three Shining Force III games. Links' assistance is evident in Star Ocean's gorgeous opening movie, as well in the prerendered backgrounds which are easily on a par with FFVII and Parasite Eve. Although the game plays like an old-school RPG, it certainly doesn't look like one.
Battle scenes, on the other hand, switch to a fully polygonal backdrop, like Grandia, while the sprite-based characters duke it out in real time, which leads us to the next interesting feature of Star Ocean, and that's the battle engine. Depending on your familiarity with the Star Ocean battle system, you can choose from one of three settings during combat: standard, semi-active or full-active. Standard is for those who are new to the series, since the battles are fairly fast paced, while semi-active and full-active are for gamers who want more control over every aspect of the battles. In any case, as in the original, fights are fast paced and have an almost action-game feel to them.During battle scenes, you can choose special attacks, which are learned during the course of the game. Once you have multiple characters in your party (which can number up to eight, with four on the battlefield), you can combine specials to create a super-specialty. Other features in the game include item creation, skill learning (after learning an appropriate amount of skills, you can combine them to acquire more-powerful specialties, and more.
Exploration takes you through myriad towns and villages, each of which has its own unique look. The usual suspects appear in great numbers: merchants, weapons shops, restaurants, inns, etc. Once you've filled your inventory with the necessary supplies, your travels will take you onto an overhead 3D-map, much like the one found in FFVII, where you will have to search for hidden caves and well-hidden harbor towns, among others. Spanning two discs, Star Ocean has plenty to see and do.
Possessing one of the more incredible soundtracks composed for a video game, Star Ocean's US translation is functional, although not as clever as some of Working Design's better work. Star Ocean: Second Story is an engaging RPG that ranks up there with the likes of Xenogears and Suikoden, with the storyline leading you on an incredible journey that's not as flashy as some, but certainly more substantial than others. With at least 50 hours of gaming in each character's scenario, Star Ocean might not be compelling enough to play through twice, but the first time is as engaging as any RPG you're likely to play. Highly recommended in any case.