Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PS5, PS4, PC
The Star Ocean series has always been one of the more esoteric entries in Square Enix's voluminous library of Japanese RPGs. Equal parts science fiction and fantasy, the series blends hard SF trappings – including a meta-narrative that spans from before the birth of the universe through to the distant future – with sword-and-sorcery trappings. Characters are as likely to be drawn from Starfleet-style galactic federations as they are to be pointy-eared spellcasting space elves, and equally capable of wielding a sword as they are a blaster.
This particular chapter, originally released on PS1 a quarter-century ago, leans into both strands with glee. It's the story of Claude C. Kenny, a young space cadet who gets teleported across the galaxy to an unknown world after recklessly poking an alien device. Or perhaps it's the story of Rena, a young woman with a mysterious past, raised on a world with no concept of space travel, and with the unique ability to use healing magic. In truth it's the story of both – you'll select either Claude or Rena as you begin the game, the decision altering the flow of the story and a few key events, as well as which characters can be recruited to your party later in the game.
The most striking aspect of the remake– the second the game has seen, following a PSP upgrade back in 2009 – is the visual style, maintaining the 2D sprites of the original but placing them in detailed 3D environments. Along with some stunning dynamic lighting effects, it all looks phenomenal, channelling the feel of JRPGs of the original version's era, while also being a treat for the eyes on a modern TV screen. It's a notable evolution beyond even the gorgeous HD-2D style defined by the likes of Live-A-Live or Octopath Traveler, and sets a new standard for revisiting retro games.
The remaster approach adopted here by developer Gemdrop – taking over from original studio tri-Ace – does justice to the game's previous releases in all areas, though. Second Story R is packed with options that respect its history, from the ability to choose between characters portraits as they appeared in prior versions or brand new and beautifully detailed ones, to multiple voice-over options that can be tailored down to individual characters, allowing you to mix performances depending on which voice actor you might prefer. The music, already a gorgeous score from famed composer Motoi Sakuraba, also offers a choice between original audio and newly arranged recordings. Across the board, this is a masterclass in how to approach remaking the classics – other developers, pay attention!
However, if Super Mario RPG is an entry level JRPG, Star Ocean 2 is an advanced course in the form. Its combat leans heavily into real-time attacks, with one party member directly controlled, and the remainder operating according to pre-assigned instructions – for instance, setting Rena to focus on healing. However, you can also issue direct commands and use items from a menu system, or swap the actively controlled character at will, if you fancy using a particular skill manually. How and when to best make these switches is a fine art though, as if you're interrupted mid-action, you'll sacrifice a bonus gauge that can boost your efficacy in combat. Then there are a host of battle formations to learn and utilise, changing the default positioning and efficacy of party members in combat.
That's all just scratching the surface of combat, too – character growth and skills have their own deeply complex systems to master. There are dozens of abilities to be learned, some used in battle and enhanced by spending BP earned after battle, others used at calmer points to cook, craft items, customise weapons, or sundry other actions, which are all improved by spending SP, a separate resource.
It is, by any measure, hideously complicated in places, especially when you factor in that the usual JRPG character growth metrics – attack, defence, intelligence, and so on – are impacted by seemingly disconnected skills. For instance, increasing Claude's Aesthetic Design stat (yes, really), bumps up the numbers on his attack, hit rate, chance to avoid enemy attacks, and spell-casting power.
Yet from that complexity comes brilliant ways to twist the world of Star Ocean to your liking. Invest in Scouting, and you'll be able to decrease or increase the rate of enemy encounters; increase it, and more enemies will spawn, which can then be fought in sequential chain battles that offer escalating amounts of experience to level up faster. Or pump some SP into Writing and you'll be able to pen books that unlock skills earlier. Your base weapon not hitting that sweet spot of lethality? The Customisation skill lets you combine it with other materials to transform it into a more powerful form. Not got the materials you need to do that? Try your hand at Alchemy, and turn common iron into rare orichalcum first. The more you experiment with _The Second Story R's_multifaceted systems – and thankfully, new tutorials and an easily accessible database help you wrap your head around them all – the more you'll get out of the game.
Sure, Gemdrops could have streamlined things even further in the name of modernity or mass appeal, but that would have lost some of what makes the game so engaging. This is simultaneously the definitive edition of what many hold to be the best entry in the Star Ocean series, and also a celebration of its earlier releases – excessive complexity and all. For anyone interested in preserving gaming's history, this is a case study in how to update a classic without totally overhauling everything that made it special in the first place. While the sometimes-daunting depth of its systems may alienate more casual players – you can spend a lot of time in menus adjusting skills or preparing items and weapons – for those who want something a bit richer and more involved from the genre, this is a deep delight. Star Ocean: The Second Story R is a rare treasure for JRPG fans.