I need to make a confession, I’ve never played a Star Ocean game in my life. I know, I’m sorry. I’ve been very aware of the series since working in an EB Games store almost 15 years ago, so there’s absolutely no reason I shouldn’t have used my staff discount to pick up an entry in this epic RPG franchise.
But then last month, I had Square Enix in my email inbox offering me the chance to interview The Second Story R’s devs. This opportunity allowed me to hear all I needed to know in order to start my Star Ocean journey, as they assured me that I didn’t need any prior knowledge in order to enjoy the game fully. So, if you’re in the same boat as me, I recommend reading our interview and this Star Ocean The Second Story R review to get the full picture and decide whether this is the entrance point for you.
The Second Story R is a remake of the second installment of the Star Ocean series with an absolutely gorgeous, pristine 2.5D style. The 2D pixel characters are amazingly vibrant, and the 3D environments are crisp, making the 20+-year-old game feel very fresh and modern. The story also stands the test of time, and the dual protagonist system allows you to play twice and learn so much more about the in-game universe.
To give you a quick rundown of the story without spoiling anything, as either Rena or Claude, you’re tasked with traveling the planet Expel to work out what exactly a weird meteorite the people call a “Sorcery Globe” is, and learn what links it has to the massive amount of monsters that are flooding the world. Along the way, you meet up to 11 new party members whose individual stories you can follow via the Private Actions system (more on this later).
Now, that’s an incredibly condensed version of the events, as I find the main draw point to RPGs is their enthralling stories with numerous twists and turns that are always so much better to experience yourself rather than read about in a review. However, to tantalize you a little further, you can expect world-ending scenarios where you’re the only hope, a will-they-won’t-they love story, and dastardly villains who threaten more than just the planet of Expel…
I’ve spent about a week and a half with The Second Story R, completed the game with Rena Lanford as the protagonist, and started my journey with Claude C. Kenny. The story follows a very similar path regardless of which hero you choose to play as, but it’s very interesting to play out the short times Rena and Claude are apart and see how they both interact with the party at large.
I touched on the Private Action system above, but it’s one of my favorite parts of the game. Whenever you enter a main city, you can press Y on your Joy-Con to split the party up and walk around as your chosen protagonist. During this time, the party members you’ve recruited spread out across the map, and you can speak with them to trigger friendship-boosting events, learn more about each character, and occasionally pick up new skills. These actions add more life to the game and encourage you to backtrack with the handy dandy fast travel method whenever you complete a new section of the main story.
However, a small thing that bothers me is how characters react to major plot points. The world is about to end? Oh well. A new powerful villain has revealed themself? Alrighty then. Why do our heroes not have reasonable responses? Every other little interaction and Private Action is so real, and you can feel the emotions they intend to portray. It feels like these moments had more thought put into to them than the main story at times, which is a little jarring. This obviously isn’t a constant annoyance, but it’s worth mentioning as one of the very few things that feel off to me.
Outside of Private Actions, I spend most of my time in hub cities leveling up each of my specialty skills so that I can customize my weapons, create an orchestra with my team, replicate items, and a lot more. There are 28 specialty skills altogether that really help you play the game in a way that suits you and can either lower or heighten the difficulty if you so choose. These skills, alongside a separate combat improvement system, tickle a section of my brain that loves the grind and elevates the game to greater heights than it already reaches.
However, if you choose to not take advantage of these skills to make things easier, you’re going to have a rough time. Star Ocean The Second Story R is hard, and I may have called it punishingly difficult if not my saving grace in Earth difficulty. Now, I know many gamers out there shun the idea of playing a game on easy mode, but I started The Second Story R on Galaxy mode, which I thought meant medium, and died over and over again in the very first area. There was nowhere to grind, and I couldn’t get new weapons. I’m unsure if I’m particularly bad at this game, but there was no way I was getting any further without the lower difficulty.
You can swap between difficulties at any point, and I did try to swap back to Galaxy at one point. However, it might not surprise you to hear I got my ass handed to me again, so I swapped it right back. I’m an advocate for playing however you’re comfortable, so never feel ashamed for playing on easy. I’m here for you.
On my chosen difficulty, I find the combat fairly chill for the most part. The Second Story R sees you take part in some standard action-style battles where you control one of the characters in a team of four while the others perform actions automatically. You’re able to equip a skill to the L and R buttons for quick access or open a menu with X to use items or spells, escape from battle, or change how the AI characters act. You can also use Assault Actions that allow you to equip a character outside of the party to each directional button to perform some hefty follow-up attacks.
By the end of the game, I did get a little bored of the same combat scenarios over and over again, so I tended to avoid a decent chunk of the random encounters. But in saying that, we all know I was playing on the easiest difficulty, so maybe you’ll have more fun if things are a little more challenging.
Moving on from gameplay and my own inadequacies, allow me to gush over the art for a moment. Star Ocean The Second Story R’s pixel characters exude so much life for 2D sprites. They’re incredibly sharp, have so much expression, and mesh perfectly with the more realistic 3D backgrounds. I’m in absolute awe really, and I think this is one of the best-looking games of 2023, showing not everything needs to be photorealistic and human.
To accompany this experience is a sublime new rearranged soundtrack that fits the game world wonderfully. For all you existing fans out there, don’t worry if you have nostalgia for the old soundtrack, as you’re able to swap back and forth whenever you choose.
I played the game on Nintendo Switch, and I believe this is, without a doubt, the optimal way to play. I didn’t have any performance issues, and the ability to switch to handheld mode to grind and casually explore the map is absolutely wonderful. The only minuscule issue I can think of is the loading times are perhaps a little longer than they would be on a next-gen console, but they by no means hinder your gameplay experience.
I plan to complete the game a second time with Claude so I can get the full picture and hopefully pick up every playable character, as I managed to miss a few on my first playthrough. I’m also aware that there are multiple endings, so I look forward to seeing what occurs this time around. I highly recommend The Second Story R as your first Star Ocean, as it’s inspired me to finally try out other entries in the series. I can’t say for sure, but it also feels like a very faithful recreation with some quality-of-life improvements and new elements that should be enjoyable for existing fans as well.
For those of you who are looking for even more of the best Switch RPGs out there, make sure you check out our lists of the best JRPGs, best Final Fantasy games, and the best gacha games for something a little different.
Star Ocean The Second Story R is absolutely stunning and could be the best-looking game of 2023. With a gorgeous 2.5D aesthetic, timeless story, and the ability to play the way you want with a range of skills, this is a great entry for new fans to start their Star Ocean journey and a faithful remake for existing fans to return to.