Many would argue that Star Ocean: The Second Story — originally released for the PS1 all the way back in 1998 — is the pinnacle of the long-running RPG series, and we'd be tempted to agree. In some ways it does feel like it nails the core themes of the franchise, as sci-fi technology clashes with medieval fantasy — and so we're pleased to report that Star Ocean The Second Story R, a faithful remake, is the best version of a classic.
On a surface level, this revival overhauls the game's visuals with 3D environments and all-new lighting effects, and the result is a genuinely pretty adventure that blends old and new. Characters — from party members to monsters — are still represented through 2D sprites, but the whole style meshes shockingly well.
The user interface has also been completely redone, with impressively neat menus and dialogue bubbles adding a real sense of polish. But perhaps best of all, the new character illustrations that appear in the party menu and during conversations are immaculate, adding welcome detail to the core cast. It's a perfect example of how a remake can successfully reframe an existing experience.
But all the graphical upgrades in the world can't outweigh decidedly dated gameplay. Thankfully, The Second Story's core mechanics have mostly stood the test of time. The action-based combat is perhaps a little clunky by today's standards, and the dungeon design can be a touch tedious, but overall, this PS1-era RPG remains a blast to play through.
Let's go over the story before we dig into details, though. In typical Star Ocean fashion, the plot centers around a young space-faring hero who ends up stranded on an underdeveloped planet. You can actually pick between two playable protagonists in The Second Story: the intrepid Claude, a young ensign of the Earth Federation, and the somewhat mysterious Rena, an inhabitant of Expel, the aforementioned planet. Your choice of lead character impacts various scenes and events, but the main narrative stays the same, as the two heroes team up almost immediately.
Initially, Claude and Rena set off on a journey across Expel for different reasons. Claude is simply looking for a way to contact his ship, while Rena is saddled with treating her world's current woes, which have been brought about by the fall of a strange meteor. Naturally, these reasons gradually entwine, with the story itself hitting some predictable, old-school JRPG beats — but it's the personal character development that keeps things interesting.
To be more specific, this remake features optional, character-driven side stories that breathe additional life into the already colourful cast. When you come to a new town or city, you can temporarily disband your party and, with your chosen protagonist, interact with your companions. As such, the remake does a terrific job of making each character feel like they're part of the journey — and that's important, because you don't have to recruit the majority of available party members.
Indeed, a particularly intriguing part of The Second Story is that you can ignore — or potentially miss out on — a number of main characters scattered throughout the game. Fortunately, the remake utilises new map markers and menu icons to highlight things like side quests, points of interest, and party interactions, which is obviously a huge quality of life improvement. Back in the day, the title's unmarked events and obscure instructions could lead to frustration — or heavy reliance on a guide — and so having this information clearly represented in the remake is ideal.
And the updates don't stop there. The battle system — a bit button-mashy and basic in the original — benefits from expanded mechanics. For starters, you can now 'break' an enemy's defenses with repeated attacks, opening them up to huge damage. What's more, party members who aren't in your frontline team of four can now be summoned to the fray; they'll unleash a unique move or buff that can help you extend combos or even turn the tide against stronger foes.
Combat is still chaotic, though. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a "I can't see what's happening" kind of way. Character sprites can often get completely lost in the melee — an issue that's now compounded by all of the new visual effects — and party member AI can be annoyingly stupid on occasion. It's not a deal-breaker since you can take control of your allies at any time, but especially in big boss fights, it's possible to hit a brick wall because your AI buddies simply refuse to move away from imminent danger zones.
On that note, it feels like The Second Story R suffers from noticeable difficulty spikes every now and then. Standard battles are usually over in ten to twenty seconds or so, and they don't really prepare you for encounters where bosses have massive health bars and can almost one-shot your characters. This sort of uneven design feels like a leftover from the PS1 generation, and so it's a bit of a shame that it hasn't been smoothed out for the remake.
That said, these are fairly minor criticisms in the grand scheme of things. The vast majority of fights are good, crunchy fun — and the system's pushed further by addictive RPG character progression. Levelling up, learning new abilities, and spending skill points on passive perks — all of it keeps you invested in what can be a sizeable party roster later on (even if unlocking and improving character traits still feels needlessly convoluted, at least in the opening hours).
Star Ocean The Second Story R is exactly what it needs to be: a faithful remake of a classic PS1 RPG that greatly enhances the experience for both new and returning players. A wonderful visual overhaul combined with numerous quality of life improvements and expanded battle mechanics make this a borderline must-play for anyone who's looking for an old-school adventure. Although the underlying PS1-era design does still have some rough edges — particularly in the storytelling and combat balance — it's hard to knock such a well crafted revival.