Star Ocean: The Second Story
Based on: Overly technical invention and skill systems, the grind, and open-ended character relationships.
Most Japanese RPGs tend to follow some very traditional and very, shall we say, restrictive design philosophies. You can thank the Dragon Quest series and its absolute bare-bones game design for this. DQ owes more to Wizardry and Ultima than anything else, and in turn probably spawned more clones than there are copies of E.T.? for the Atari 2600 buried in that New Mexico landfill. Hyperbole? Maybe, but not by much. This is a series that, according to urban legend, the Japanese government forbade from weekday launches for fear of disrupting the entire Japanese economy and inspiring truancy. When even the lies about a series are that grand, itís practically impossible to overstate how much of an influence it's has on Japanese RPG design. Meanwhile, Dragon Quest's only other truly major competitor, Final Fantasy, exists in an endless cycle of changes and revision, but even so, it's pretty much stuck to its own particular brand of convention until recently.
What this means, essentially, is that if youíre a Japanese RPG developer, you have exactly two franchises you can rip-off wholesale if you want to make money. A lot of people tend to make the argument that the Japanese RPGs have stagnated in recent years, but this is in woeful ignorance of the barriers of localization that kept the majority of JRPG mediocrity trapped overseas for nearly 20 years. The genre has been in a stagnant state the 8-bit Dragon Quests made it big, and only rarely does a newcomer manage to upset the balance. First came Square and Final Fantasy, followed a decade later by Wolf Team, more or less. Sure, Japan saw its share of odd, fun, one-off RPGs in that time, but most of those were single games that earned only the merest slivers of fandom.
At any rate, Wolf Team had been making a nearly indecipherable hodge-podge of games since 1987, ranging from RPGs to military strategy games to side-scrolling brawlers with RPG elements. Of course, the header for this article mentions Tri-Ace, not Wolf Team. Which is correct. The thing is, Wolf Team is Tri-Ace, give or take a few details.
You see, way back in the waning days of the Super Famicom -- say, 1995 or so -- the guys at Wolf Team developed a game called Tales of Phantasia, which was published by Namco. But before publication, Namco insisted on changing a significant portion of the game, which pissed off the developers. Wolf Team had long been a division of Telenet Japan, sort of the Japanese equivalent of Majesco, but the Tales kerfluffle prompted a bunch of them to go solo and form their own company, which they called Tri-Ace. They then went on to create what might well have been the single most ambitious 16-bit cart ever, a game called Star Ocean?. Phantasia and Star Ocean were the Super Famicomís twin swan songs, running on massive, extensively modified chips and featuring far more voice acting and character animation than one would think possible within the constraints of cartridges.
Both the Star Ocean and Tales? series share a number of connections and similar technical and content similarities due to having been established by the same creators. Their sequels are an interesting case in divergent evolution: Namco's Tales team has focused on the brawler and mainstream RPG elements of their franchise, while Tri-Ace has emphasized for the more technical and open-ended part. (Namco has also whored Tales into the ground with about five releases a year, while Star Ocean sees a sequel every five years or so.) In this case, "open-ended" equals "experimental," and in fact Tri-Ace's resume on the whole has been far more cutting-edge than just about other Japanese RPG developer you can name. They're sort of the Treasure of role-playing games, always taking bold risks that sometimes hamper playability, but which nevertheless have a certain trademark feel and which always merit being experienced just for their freshness and potential.
Star Ocean's first sequel, The Second Story for PlayStation, is far and away the most "open" of Tri-Aceís games, with the possible exception of Radiata Stories?. Its large cast and sheer bulk of side-quests, character relationships and possible endings give the game almost endless replay value, a rarity in an RPG that doesnít feature a New Game + doohickey. The skill, talent, and invention systems all add layers of complexity to an already convoluted game. Whatís really bizarre, however, is how incredibly simple the battle system is -- although on higher difficulty levels, it does demand a fair amount of strategy. It's probably worth noting that Wolf/Tri-Ace games arenít really meant to be played at the default difficulty level if you want a challenge... although the higher difficulties can be extremely harmful to one's ego.
The system is so open-ended that it can easily be gamed through grinding and clever use of the various invention skills to create the ultimate weapons for several of the characters less than halfway through the game. Unsurprisingly, that open-ended nature is the source of the majority of the gameís problems. Balance issues are nothing new to gamers -- those who grew up on the NES probably have a lifetime's memories of sheer frustration. Rarely, however, does the unbalancing comes from the playerís side of the equation, as thereís no real rule that says any Star Ocean player has to make use of the game's exploits. For one thing, doing so requires a fairly extensive understanding of the various systems along with a healthy dollop of luck, making it a sort of reward for those who have actually spent the time learning the game's innermost workings. The battle system is considerably more interactive than the usual Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy format, too, so it's conceivable most gamers will be content to simply battle through to the end without taking time to learn how to bend the underlying mechanics to their will.
That said, The Second Story still has its share of "traditional" ideas, meaning plenty of bosses with abnormal amounts of HP... although Tri-Ace boss fights also have a history of being challenging beyond the sheer numbers. Additionally, the Ten Wise Men fights are among the better RPG battles in (somewhat) recent history. Grinding is also a fact of life, though it's negated somewhat by the imminently breakable skill and invention systems that allow the player access to customized stats and gear that easily close the gap when you find yourself overmatched. Still, in order to gain access to those items you must often grind to gain the skill points and funds necessary to create them, so it's a wash at best and a catch-22 at worst.
As PlayStation RPGs go, it's visually striking and aurally impressive: Motoi Sakuraba contributed some of his best work to the gameís soundtrack, and most of the nitpicking directed at the game has to do with technical gameplay issues and minor shortcomings than anything truly major.
So what makes Star Ocean: The Second Story worth remembering nearly ten years later? In a nutshell, because it stands out. It represents something of an anomaly; its origins are obviously within the highly ossified world of Japanese RPGs, but the results vastly different from most games made with the same building blocks. Few Japanese RPGs are this open, and the few that are usually come from Tri-Ace. Star Ocean is in some ways the Japanese answer to the Western-style RPG, only with a more linear story component and with more of a pop-fantasy sheen to the sci-fi trappings. If you can call being dumped on a medieval fantasy world with no sci-fi a "sheen," that is.
Despite that, itís no Final Fantasy XII, and for as much time as the game requires you to spend on combat, the stiffness and inflexibility of the control scheme mar an inherently simple, entertaining, and tactically deep battle engine. Its interface quirks combined with the lack of transparency for its various sub-systems makes this a lousy choice for someone seeking for a more casual or bare-bones approach to their RPGs. But for those who don't mind making the effort, itís a quirky and enjoyable oddity of an adventure.