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Star Ocean: Second Evolution
Score: 86%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG/ Classic/Retro/ Strategy

Graphics & Sound:
There are limits to the fog of nostalgia. We tend to remember even mediocre things in a slightly rose-colored glow after some time, but reintroduction will often clear the cobwebs. Try watching some of those old movies, reading books you loved 10 years ago, or visiting those old friends from high school, and you'll see what I mean. That Star Ocean: Second Evolution is retro can't be disputed, but it's important to distinguish between what's here, and the original material from Star Ocean: The Second Story. "Second Story" was released for PlayStation way back in 1999, and built a strong fan base at the time. Bringing it to PSP in the form of Star Ocean: Second Evolution gives people that played the original a chance to see how much their love from a decade past has held up. For the rest of us, it's terra nova, so read on...

Upgrades in the overall presentation and new characters in Star Ocean: Second Evolution make it more than just historical reenactment. The visuals and voice-acting added for the game build on what was already an epic RPG experience. There's so much material contained here that it comes across at times more like an interactive movie, where you are just navigating your character from one point of dialogue to the next. A weird choice was to set the default so you can't skip dialogue; I love good voice acting, but skipping some of the spoken parts is necessary, unless you've got a few hours to play or don't mind things moving slow as molasses. During certain scenes, the imagery changes or cuts from one angle to another, betraying some adjustments in the visuals that weren't in the '99 version. Star Ocean: Second Evolution is modeled on classic RPGs that painted colorful environments for their characters, with elaborate locations and NPC chats that often revealed secrets of the game's world, if you were paying attention. Battles that have lots of motion, where you can switch roles on the fly, against large groups of enemies jockeying for position, make for more of an adrenaline rush than the traditional turn-based RPG. Suffice it to say that if you like playing through classic RPG titles, this series has been translated faithfully to PSP, and is also getting the update of its life.

It struck me while playing Star Ocean: Second Evolution that the latest crop of groundbreaking RPG titles like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3 owe a great deal to the Star Ocean series. The advent of Action/RPG as a genre was a signal that there was a way other than the traditional turn-based play style. Millions of units sold confirmed the notion a decade ago that people were ready for something different. Today's hybrid RPGs aren't direct descendants of franchises like Star Ocean, but you'd have to count this game and its surrounding genre as signs of things to come. Today the notion of controlling a character's action during battle and still qualifying for RPG status is becoming commonplace. Back in the '90s, there weren't as many high-profile RPGs breaking away from the turn-based mode. The influence of the deep, nuanced storyline and play style of Star Ocean: Second Evolution is persistent, even if the game itself is 10 years old.

The story begins with a thread connecting new characters to old. We meet Claude C. Kenny, son of Ronyx J. (who appeared in the original Star Ocean game) in a very high tech, "have spaceship will travel" world. Claude and his father are embarking on a mission to investigate a strange dome that has appeared without explanation and for seemingly no purpose. Near the dome, Claude is separated from the group and finds himself transported suddenly to a strange place and time. His storyline immediately bumps into that of Rena Lanford, a girl in some trouble at the time, whom he conveniently rescues. Once someone rescues you from a dangerous monster, is it ever really in doubt that you'll join him on his quest? Certainly not in this case, because Rena shares Claude's dilemma of feeling a bit out of place and time and sees an opportunity to hitch her wagon to a lucky star. The hint of affection between these two resolves more in the direction of brother/sister at first, but you'll find that Star Ocean: Second Evolution plays strongly toward relationships, love, and mutual affection.

The mechanical means for delivering a good RPG are well known, so relying on them has rarely made a game excellent. The greatness of an RPG is usually defined more by the story it tells than anything else. Good games find ways to combine story elements with gameplay, as in Materia collection and combination in Final Fantasy; various games' job systems that parallel historical settings or themes from the game; and unique battle mechanics built on partnerships between characters. It's this last example that draws us most into the world of Star Ocean: Second Evolution. Every character in your party has a certain affinity for the other party members. Doing things to change this affinity will often create special attacks during battle, or even special endings to the game. Using special skills and items can also bring two characters closer, again with some profound influence on the outcome of the entire game. When you look at all the neat things possible in Star Ocean: Second Evolution, such as crafting items, cooking, surveying, and building magic inventory, it all works in service to the relationships between characters. This isn't a game you'll finish feeling you only knew the main protagonist and his lady friend; you'll be drawn into the creative story and follow the development of the party with great interest. The best thing, unusual for role-playing games, is that you'll have the opportunity to make certain choices through party or private actions that influence the characters that join you. This vastly increases the possibility that you'll want to replay the game.

If it sounds like there's a lot packed into Star Ocean: Second Evolution, it's because the game is incredibly dense. Playing through until your first battle, you won't see as much difference. The first battle is a wake-up call as you realize that those enemies aren't waiting for you to select your menu item... Events in battle move ahead slowly but inexorably, with or without you. Running and attacking enemies is possible using a single character, and you can choose to hang back, cast magic, or use an item instead. At first, it is hard to understand where the choice is during battle, other than pressing the (X) button to attack and attack and attack. Over time, you'll find that there's a significant depth of gameplay, not only in how you customize the actions of the character you control, but also in the characters set on "auto" that fight in your bank rank. The instructions are just okay, so it takes some trial and error the first time you play. Thankfully, the initial difficulty level is low and prevents most of the monsters in early dungeons from taking advantage of your inexperience. Where the manual leaves off, there are plenty of NPC interactions that will educate you on skill development, the second difficult concept to grasp for players new to this franchise. Thinking of skill development like a job system is a good start, but mostly scratches the surface. Skills are actually the building blocks on which jobs are derived, and although Star Ocean: Second Evolution doesn't explicitly tout a job system, there's one in here. It isn't like this is the most challenging RPG we've played, but there is a definite learning curve to mastering the game's unique features.

Game Mechanics:
A few of the more challenging mechanics have been mentioned, but there are plenty of others that make Star Ocean: Second Evolution a unique experience. Smart things like auto-equipping beneficial items to party members can be found here, as well as deep customization of items through abilities like combining or crafting. Towns become places to gather raw materials, rather than exclusive outlets for goods, favoring players that like their RPG experience very measured and involved. The menu system is surprisingly lightweight considering the big feature set, but there is a lot to work through once you get a few characters in the party. Smart, intuitive, and well planned touches are everywhere, such as the menu selection under Items that lets you just look at recently obtained objects. You can dive down into menus later once you know where to look, but highlighting immediate needs is a great feature. Action battles might sound intimidating, but the reality is that they are easier in many ways than the menu-driven battles seen in other RPGs. You can easily switch characters during the battle, if you prefer to play as Rena with healing spells and items, or anyone other than the main character Claude. Setting up formations for battle and the spellcasting A.I. is definitely a mental exercise, but it isn't all that hard to master with some experimentation. As you play more, you'll open up new features for battle such as the team attacks that build on mutual affinity between characters.

We've seen a glut of retro titles on the market, and there's an argument to be made that many of the recent RPGs haven't come that far at all from their ancestors. Star Ocean: Second Evolution is a stronger installment than the first game, whetting our appetite for the possibility of a third and final entry (Star Ocean: Till the End of Time) to make its way to PSP. It's especially rare to find a deep RPG with replay value, but that's exactly what is on offer here. It's sad there isn't much competition on the system now, considering the slow release schedule for PSP during the last 6-8 months. In a time of drought, everyone craves even a sip of water; Star Ocean: Second Evolution is more like giving the proverbial dying man a drink from the fire hose than a glass of water! You'll appreciate the depth of the game and its replay value, since unfortunately there's no telling when we'll get another good release on the system.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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