We’ve seen Square Enix port a lot of beloved RPGs from the original PlayStation to modern platforms in recent years. Some have been fine. A few have been disappointing. None of them seemed quite worthy of the source material they were working with…until Star Ocean The Second Story R. The Final Fantasy maker’s latest blast from the past isn’t just the best version of an all-time classic: it sets the new standard for PS1 RPG remakes moving forward.
Out November 2 on PS5, PS4, PC, and Nintendo Switch, Star Ocean The Second Story R is Japanese action-RPG studio Gemdrops’ renovation of Tri-Ace’s 1998 mash-up of sci-fi space exploration and medieval fantasy tropes and upgrades the visuals, adds voice acting, and introduces a host of new quality-of-life improvements and interesting gameplay tweaks. It’s helped me fall in love with one of my favorite games all over again, and proves a retro remake can elevate the original while still retaining the style and sensibility that made it so special in the first place.
There are over a hundred distinct endings predicated on who you recruit and your relationship statuses with them, while standard dungeon crawling and button-mashing combat are fleshed out with a bevy of secondary skill systems that let you do everything from crafting weapons to playing in an orchestra. I’m 10 hours into the game on Switch so far and everything is as I remember it, just much prettier, more streamlined, and more engaging than either the original game or its 2009 PSP remaster. I’m having a blast rifling through my old Prima Star Ocean 2 strategy guide, which in some ways still feels mandatory given the sheer amount of off-the-beaten-path side content and baroque skill trees.
A PS1 classic reimagined
Star Ocean: The Second Story’s sprite pixel art returns with an HD touchup for characters, NPCs, and enemies, but environments and backgrounds have been overhauled with a beautiful new 2.5HD look in the vein of Octopath Traveler. They don’t always retain the vibrant colors and compositions of the original pre-rendered scenes. Still, the new look often made me feel like I was exploring the game for the very first time again. Far from looking jarring, the 2D pixel art against 3D backgrounds feels like the best of both worlds.
The quality of the new English voice acting varies from character to character, but it helps liven up The Second Story’s notoriously belabored and verbose script (you can switch it to Japanese or turn the volume off at any time from the settings menu). The amazing soundtrack has also been newly arranged by original composer Motoi Sakuraba to add real string instruments and live band performances. I still prefer the tinny, echo-y tracks designed for the PS1, though I suspect anyone coming to the game for the first time will appreciate the warmer, deeper sound of The Second Story R overall.
The remake also shines during combat. That’s great since that’s where you spend roughly half your time. Random encounters now appear as small floating clouds on the map that you can surprise attack or bypass altogether. The real-time fights still play out like chaotic scrambles, but some key changes add new layers of depth. Enemies can be staggered if you hit them enough times in a row, or parried if you perfectly time a new dodge maneuver. The window is small and fickle, but it helps break up the monotony of spamming regular attacks or special abilities. You can even call a collectible cast of characters from other games in the series to act as temporary summons who will assist you in battle. And any time you die in combat, you have the option to retry the fight rather than getting booted back to your last save.
Every defeated enemy also drops orbs that you can collect to gain temporary modifiers like a 25 percent damage boost. They’re wiped out only when you die or fail a parry, incentivizing you to be a little more meticulous during brawls. My favorite feature by far, though, is the ability to chain together multiple fights if enemies in the overworld get close enough. Doing that makes the fights sequential, multiplying the money and experience points you get at the end. It makes grinding a little more interesting and much less of a slog.
Second Story is a long game full of big dungeons, tons of dialogue, and an overwhelming amount of side content. Fortunately, while the classic RPG remains a bloated slowburn by contemporary standards, the remake streamlines proceedings in some important ways. Every dialogue scene can be skipped, run at two times speed, or paged through automatically. A mini-map gives you a good lay of the land, and even includes mission markers to stop you from wandering around confused in the face of obtuse storytelling. Plus generous autosaving helps cut down on lost progress.
Otherwise, it’s the same beefy blend of party building, item crafting, fighter customization, and side stories that wowed fans of the genre decades ago. There are six main games in the Star Ocean series, and none of them has ever matched The Second Story’s beguiling mix of charm, beauty, and overwhelming PS1-era overworld RPG sprawl. The remake showcases these high points perfectly, and meaningfully improves in the areas that were more dated. The evocative, meandering story still can’t compete with era rivals like Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears, or Suikoden II. But the overall package remains irresistible to me, and has never been better. I only hope some of the other original PlayStation RPGs stuck in the past can get the similar glow-up they so much deserve.
More from Kotaku