Anyone up for Seconds?
Sometimes each game in an ongoing series can be painfully similar to the one before it. This can easily be said for Square Enix’s recent duo of Star Ocean titles on the PSP. Several months ago, PSP owners were treated to the series’ action RPG gameplay smattered with sci-fi elements, with the U.S. launch of Star Ocean: First Departure (a game only previously released in Japan on the Super Famicom). Folks who just wrapped up exploring the massive breadth of that title might be dismayed to find Star Ocean: Second Evolution looks and plays almost exactly the same. However, there are plenty of subtleties to be found in the Star Ocean sequel that simply make it far more enjoyable than its predecessor.
Though Second Evolution picks up in the game’s universe a while after the original left off, it’s a self-contained tale that thankfully doesn’t require experiencing First Departure to fully enjoy. Second Evolution was the first Star Ocean title to be officially released in the U.S. (as Star Ocean: Second Story) and it’s actually still the best place to start off with the series for players who haven’t already dived into First Departure. The sequel is definitely a no-frills port that’s faithful to and improves upon the PSOne remake, but the lack of juicy extras shouldn’t deter players seeking an enthralling adventure that’s brimming with replayability.
This time the adventure follows the journey of a young Earth Federation officer named Claude C. Kenny (who’s consequently the son of the previous game’s protagonist) and a native girl named Rena Lanford from another planet. While out on his first space mission to investigate unusual technology discovered on an alien world, Claude is accidentally teleported to the forested planet of Expel – a technologically inferior world featuring more traditional fantasy RPG trappings rather than the modern lasers and spacecraft he’s accustomed to. There Claude meets Rena who mistakes him as a hero prophesied to save the land from the cataclysmic events caused by the arrival of a meteor dubbed the Sorcery Globe. They eventually set off together to investigate the nature of the Sorcery Globe, meeting new companions, venturing off on numerous side jaunts, and helping others along the way.
Things get off to a bit of a slow start, but the story is full of compelling character relationships, plot twists, and dangerous encounters that make the game highly engaging. Additionally, you can play either as Claude or Rena, and each offers a slightly different perspective on the events that unfold throughout the game. There are instances when the pair will split up, and you’ll experience different battles and story elements based on which character you choose. In other moments you’ll be privy to a specific character’s inner dialogue and emotions about what’s happening, and it’s worth playing through the game as both to experience the full adventure in its entirety.
Aside from offering an infusion of science fiction, Second Evolution delivers much of the standard gameplay and mechanics you’d expect to find in any other fantasy-laden RPG world. Characters will gain experience in battle and points to spend on upgrading useful skills. You’ll frequently have to run around fetching important items and taking on side-quests that eventually tie into the main plot or serve other important functions. The progression of the adventure often hinges on venturing from one town to the next in the realm, where unusual events or sub-plot elements tend to unfold. Towns facilitate lots of dialogue and character encounters, and they’re useful for stocking up on supplies, items, and weaponry. As before, the inventive item creation system is a nice touch. When venturing to and from various locales (or deep into dungeons), you’ll run into tons of monsters to battle in random encounters. It’s the way these battles play out that separates the game from other of its ilk.
Instead of the more traditional turn-based battles, combat happens in real-time with you taking direct control of your main hero. Any other characters in your party are controlled by the A.I. and can be assigned basic, specific behaviors like attack, heal, or use magic. You do have the freedom to move your character around to manually attack or use magic, but simply tapping the action button will auto-lock on to the nearest foe, send you running up to them, and have you take a swing at it.
The real-time combat has an interesting brawler feel to it, yet it quickly degenerates into a single button mash-fest whenever there’s no immediate need to waste MP and engage your extra abilities. Your companions and their abilities seem a bit more unique and varied in Second Evolution, which makes the combat less tedious. The A.I. gets the job done but with the least amount of efficiency possible. Fortunately, you can also switch your control over to any of your teammates at any given time in the battle.
Second Evolution’s presentation is solid, despite being rather dated. The widescreen format makes the sprites a little fuzzy, and the world map leaves much to be desired. Other areas of the game look and sound great in comparison. There are quite a few Anime cutscenes to uncover, and the extensive voice work applied liberally throughout the game is stellar. The pacing of the dialogue feels a little sluggish sometimes, but this is easily remedied with a button tap to skip things along.
In terms of the core design elements – menus, play mechanics, abilities, equipment, etc. – virtually everything in Second Evolution is identical to First Departure. The storyline, main characters, and setting are the main differences, and they’re substantive enough to warrant a purchase – even for RPG fans that have already recently spent a lengthy block of time trudging through the first game. Based on the overall quality, depth, and length of the adventure, it’s hard not to recommend Second Evolution over its predecessor.
The game may be virtually the same in many regards, but the experience it offers is superior. Most quality RPGs can easily absorb dozens of hours of your time; Second Evolution doubles that with multiple playable character perspectives and a compelling tale that simply screams for a second playthrough.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
A strong-yet-dated visual presentation is bolstered by plenty of anime cutscenes. 3.5 Control
The same functional, button-mashing prone controls as its predecessor. 3.9 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The voice work is notable, and there are some strong musical scores located here and there. 4.3 Play Value
This adventure is lengthy, varied, and absolutely worth a second playthrough. 4.1 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.