Star Ocean: Second Evolution Review

It's been a few weeks since the second Star Ocean remake, Second Evolution, was released for the PSP here in the U.S. We at always try to get new games reviewed a.s.a.p. because we understand the draw of a brand new game and the nagging question of whether or not you should purchase and enjoy it. In this game's case, a number of things slowed my turnaround time. I had finished the first PSP Star Ocean remake, First Departure, right as the second came out and needed a break before hopping headfirst into the sequel. Add to that the fact that I tried to plow through things as fast as humanly possible so I could get this review out. As it ended up, I had a team of severely under-leveled heroes and nothing else to accomplish aside from the final boss and New Game+ stuff. After I FINALLY won (through sheer dumb luck, admittedly), I felt as though I could review Second Evolution fairly and thoroughly. Consider this my personal apology for the delay; but delay or no, both First Departure AND Second Evolution are top-notch RPG remakes with relatively simple plots and even simpler customization. Despite their one-dimensional characters, shallow RPG options (new weapons, skill points, talents, item creation, etc.) and "meh" stories, both games more than deserve a spot in your PSP library… and with the handheld's abysmal release schedule over the past year or so, well, lets just say these simple RPGs look even better against a backdrop of crap like B-Boy, Neverland Card Battlers and who knows how many other embarrassments.

Because both PSP Star Ocean remakes came out so close together and their plots tie directly into one another, it's easy to think of them as one long game, rather than two separate adventures. That's even easier for me, because before First Departure, I'd never so much as touched a Star Ocean game. For the purposes of this review, though, I'll be sticking mostly with Second Evolution. And while this one is better than the first, if you love one, you'll love 'em both.

Down to business. Second Evolution picks up about 20 years after the events of First Departure. Before you even begin, you're given a choice between two characters. A nice touch, because each ties into the other's story, but the game pays differently enough that you can justify playing through twice, once with each of them. The male character, Claude, has a more direct tie to the first game, so based on whether or not you played or remember the first's events, you can make a more advantageous decision on who you'll choose and enjoy more.

For the most part, Second Evolution is a paint-by-numbers RPG. You have all the clichés here – unlikely, nervous hero from another place/time, a budding romance with the game's equally unlikely female hero, a world-destroying evil force, items/weapons to collect upgrade, random battles to fight, party members to choose, a world map to explore…. Blah, blah, blah. We've all played this same game dozens upon dozens of times, but both Star Oceans have a few high points that served to capture my imagination for long enough for me to finish and love both.

First, let's talk about the more action-based approach to the random battles and boss fights. Though your party will include upwards of four heroes at any given time, you have explicit control over your parties' leader, who can be switched up at any time. The other characters can be given marching orders from the status screen and provided you make the right choices, they can take care of themselves and fulfill their duties, be it attacking with magic or weapons, healing your team or even just staying out of things. As they follow pre-set objectives, you have total control over your leader. He/she can attack with their weapon, use a few pre-selected moves/spells, run around crazy… you decide. The fighting can get dangerously close to feeling like mindless button-mashing, but if I never play another RPG where my characters stand in a line and the extent of my input is choosing stuff from menus, it will be too soon. As much as I hate random encounters in RPGs, I hate menu-based fighting more; having the option to directly control my heroes makes the antiquated system seem less like a chore.

The second, and more universally agreed upon high point is the game's presentation. Every single line of dialogue in the game is fully voiced by a group of actors who really give life to the characters without being cheesy or too over the top. Beautiful anime cutscenes have been peppered throughout the game and you are even given a movie viewer as a reward for finishing the game, so you can watch these over and over. The characters retain the 16-bit sprite-based charm from the original game, and by setting them against new dreamy, watercolor-esque backgrounds, the game blends old and new in a way that demands attention. Second Evolution is a treat for the eyes and ears and almost demands the use of headphones o you can appreciate every nuance. My only gripe comes with the scripted interchanges. In First Departure, you could hit X and skip through conversations, provided you didn't care to listen or read. In Second Evolution, you can't skip through these bits. Instead, you can speed the text up, but not skip it entirely. Most won't even notice, but as I said above, I got stuck right before the final boss. I've read and listened to that final interchange so many times, I nearly have it memorized.