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STAR OCEAN / Enix / SNES
Made very shortly after Tales of Phantasia, Star Ocean looks like an attempt by then-fledgling design team Tri-Ace to stretch out the same concept and resources into two games. There are a lot of shared art resources, especially in terms of the sprites, the menu system is almost identical, and a lot of the items are the same. Star Ocean differentiates itself, however, by being more of a traditional console RPG, albeit one with a real-time battle system that employs action on the part of the player (just to a lesser degree than Phantasia).
The plot and setting of the game is sci-fi very oddly meshed with a fantasy world very similar to the one of Phantasia. You begin on the planet Roak, in a small village of furries. The village to the north suddenly begins turning to stone out of nowhere, and our heroes go on a quest up a dangerous mountain to retrieve a healing herb that supposedly can reverse the sickness. When they get there, however, random Earthlings teleport in, and bring them to their spaceship for a high-tech cure. A bunch of other stuff ensues, and it turns out that in order to cure the virus, the characters actually have to go back in time 300 years to find the origins of the virus on Roak. So you wind up with sci-fi at the very beginning and very end, but for 90% of the game in between it is really just straight fantasy on the order of Phantasia.
As with Phantasia, the main unique selling point here is the battle system. It plays out much like a typical console RPG, but everything is in real-time. You can control any one of the four characters in your party, but at the beginning of the fight you default to whoever is in the lead. You can continuously attack in real-time, but you have to protect those who are using items or casting spells from getting hit in the midst of it and disrupted. You can also change formations and give characters instructions to implement battle strategy; build a wall of fighters backed by a healer/mage, for example, or build a wedge of quick attackers to break the enemy ranks apart.
There is also a Skills system that appears to add a lot of depth to the game. With every level that you go up, you gain Skill Points, which can then be distributed amongst various abilities (you also sometimes get skill points handed to you as part of the plot). Aside from combat abilities, proficiency in certain combinations of skills give you new abilities outside of battle, such as the ability to mix herbs into potions, smith your own weapons, or play music. I say that this system "appears" to add depth because, in the end, all these non-combat abilities come back to only having a use in combat. Art just leads to cloning items and equipment for combat, every item you make is combat-related, even the music skill simply summons battles with bonus monsters that you wouldn't otherwise encounter.
And here's where the game hits its main snag - the combat is the center of the game, and it is just really, really repetitive and lacking in challenge. Combat mostly turns into you v.s. overpowered enemies as you mash the A button over and over again to quickly slice your way through them. When you occasionally encounter some tough monsters, the prescription is simply levelling. Battle strategy doesn't actually work out all that well - if you want to switch characters in a fight, for example, you have to both not have the current character doing anything, and also wait for the other (computer controlled) character to stop attacking or doing whatever, leading to really long delays keeping you from jumping around quickly and really implementing detailed strategies. Both the computer and your partner AI are fairly dumb and random as well, and you are severely limited in the behavioral instructions you can give to your allies.
Also, glitching - it isn't just for ROM pirates anymore! Even if you have a legit copy of the cartridge, you are susceptible to a lot of sound screwiness and the occasional random freeze. This is due to the game stuffing a record amount of data into a SNES cartridge; unfortunately, most of this data seemed to be used for repetitive voice clips of the characters shouting their moves out in generic anime style. I really would have traded more stability for not having the privilege of hearing Cuil exclaim "Sazzo Sazzo!" at the beginning of EVERY SINGLE GODDAMN BATTLE and stand there waving his arm around when he really should be fighting.
Aside from some really gorgeous and detailed background art, and a nice soundtrack by Motoi Sakuraba, there really is not a lot of reason to put up with the repetitive fighting, unless you are into the good ol' Morphine Drip Reward System. You'll see the usual breathless nerds on forums exclaiming that this game is just as good as, or better than, SNES giants Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger; the difference between this one and those, however, is that is simply lacks charm and soul. I'm not going to make the claim that FF6 or CT has astoundingly great writing, but they had much more engaging stories, characters and worlds than this game does, crafted by a team with a clearly higher level of skill. Writing duties here are on Tri-Ace helmsman Yoshiharu Gotanda , and as with his other games, it feels here like he just had a few ideas rather than a fully fleshed-out story and world, and padded all the time in between those ideas with tedious fetch quests that send you roaming back and forth across the world map and tons of random combat. The story thus ends up feeling like it was kind of cobbled together on the fly, never has real consistency ("We're in space! Now we're in fantasy furry world, forget about the whole space thing!"), and it is just hard to give a damn about any of the characters as they have little depth.
What you are left with is a game with awesome visuals (by SNES standards), and a great soundtrack (when it isn't glitching up or disappearing entirely), but no reason to stick with it beyond that other than it caters to the obsessive-compulsive streak in many RPG players to simply grind and power-up solely for the sake of grinding and powering-up. If that's you, your time is probably already almost totally consumed by World of Warcraft now anyway.
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