Star Ocean: Blue Sphere - Import Retroview  

A Little Blue Sphere in the Cosmos
by Michael Baker

40-60 Hours
+ Enjoyable on its own merits
+ Item creation not as random
+ Intricate dungeon designs
+ Surprisingly complicated advancement system
- Still has some rough spots
- Where is the updated port!?
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   Every series has its odd duck, if not a black sheep or two. For the Star Ocean series, the oddest duck is Star Ocean: Blue Sphere. A direct sequel to a game that didn't really need one, and on a secondary platform at that, it's a title which prompts the question of "Why?" The answer from the developers was apparently, "Why not?" What came from that glib response is one of the most technically impressive RPGs ever to grace the Game Boy Color.

   First, how does one continue a tale that ended in the way of Star Ocean: Second Story? The obvious answer is: don't. Blue Sphere doesn't bother continuing the tale in any way, instead skipping two years ahead, with the heroes on a quick trip to help some friends. Ernest and Opera, intrepid explorers that they are, ran into a bit of trouble in a system on the edge of known space. Following the distress call, almost everyone else from Second Story flies to the rescue. This means that right from the beginning, the player has access to Precis, Ashton, Celine, Noel, Bowman, Dias, Leon, and Chisato. Ernest and Opera join up once they're found, while Claude and Rena are the subject of a late-game side quest when they arrive as part of a second rescue attempt.

   It's interesting to note that Blue Sphere does very little to explain these characters or how they've come together, despite the fact that many of them are mutually exclusive choices in their original game. They each have little profiles that cycle through if one waits at the start menu for a moment, but for the most part it's just assumed that they're all friends who have decided to go adventuring together. Why does that one guy have two dragons growing out of his back? Why is the little girl riding around in a robot? Why is the intrepid reporter running around with her camera taking snapshots of dangerous flora and fauna? These are all unnecessary questions, as far as this game is concerned, and strangely enough that works. Blue Sphere doesn't bog down on the introductions, instead letting the story of this new planet play out naturally without any character arcs. Here and there, character-specific "private action" scenes may happen, but these are more for entertaining the fans than anything else, and in no way interfere with the action.

Everyone remember where we parked! Everyone remember where we parked!

   The player is free to organize a party any way he or she might like, which — while an obvious sop to fans who may have disliked the party options in Second Story — actually allows for a lot of strategy in and out of battle. Each character has a different set of field actions, and while these can be expanded as the game goes on, the physical needs of exploring the world often shape the current party as much as anything else. As an example, the second dungeon is filled with roots and vines, so Ashton and his fire breath skill are indispensable. Some skill sets become more interchangeable as the game progresses, and many later dungeons provide multiple paths or solutions, so the player shouldn't feel too constrained in their choices even as those choices impact how the game is played.

   In true tri-Ace fashion, funny things were done to the character advancement systems. Experience points have been replaced by skill points, which are held in a common stock and dispensed to characters as the player desires. These points are used to buy levels in different skills on a character's development chart, which is a two-axis spider graph based on paired attributes: Brains and Brawn, Skill and Intuition. Each skill has stat gains attached to it, and many field and combat abilities have stat and skill requirements to meet before they can be accessed. For instance, leveling the Hayate (Gale) skill increases a character's agility by a great deal per rank, and at three ranks it also gives them the ability to dash (except for Dias, who comes with that ability as standard). New skills can be sparked and added to the list as an attribute levels up, but developing one too far makes it more difficult to spark anything on its opposite's list. It is unfortunately possible, and even likely, to lock out at least some of a character's potential through poor leveling choices, but on the other hand a lot of the highest-level stuff is of interest mainly to power players and completionists. There's nothing in there that prevents the game from being completed, but plenty to keep the min-maxers busy.

Spank that monkey! Spank that monkey!

   Blue Sphere also presents the player with three different ways of learning combat skills. For magic users, all that is necessary is the right numbers in the Intelligence and MP stats and possibly a skill level requirement. Once those are met, the character will spark a new spell the next time the player makes them use a related spell in battle. So for example, if Celine's Intelligence is 20 and she uses Firebolt, there is a very good chance that she will instead use Thunderbolt, after which that spell is learned permanently. Physically oriented characters like Ashton and Dias are supposed to learn attack skills in the same way, except (at least for my playthrough) that never happened. Whether this was an accident of the random number generator or a sign of an issue with the game code, the raw attack power of those two swordsmen made it a small matter. The third group includes Precis, Chisato, and Opera. These three ladies learn new abilities (both for combat and for field use) by using items created through the Materials item creation mini-game.

   Item creation and similar skills have been turned into mini-games in this iteration, for good and for bad. These mini-games certainly make it feel like the player is in greater control of the outcome, as with practice it's easier to aim for the point total of a desired item. Some are easier to work with than others, though the armor enchantment game in particular seems far more effort than it is worth, even at the higher levels.

   Dungeons are a bit odd in that, despite some superficial resemblance to the handheld Zelda games in their varying combinations of cube-shaped rooms, they don't seem to be designed as collective units, with each part fitting into and contributing to the whole. Instead, many levels contain completely extraneous subsections, some of which cannot be accessed until much later in the game, as well as numerous false leads and dead ends. There are three dungeons, not including the post-game level, which contribute nothing to the game's plot, and overland routes are similarly convoluted at times. Not that this detracts from the game; instead, it provides a sense of a world larger than the events taking place within it, and gives the player a lot of places to explore while building up the party's levels. That said, the later dungeons really take this to a crazy level, including push-block puzzles spread out across four or five screens, or a recurring section of the final level that was essentially a nine-by-nine-by-nine cube of rooms that could be rearranged vertically at various points. Better mapping tools would have been sorely appreciated for some of the dungeons.

Fear the tsundere tiger. Celine knows how best to fry electronics.

   Monsters roam freely on the screen, and the game transitions to a combat screen when contact is made. It is possible to both surprise and be surprised, and there are at least three field actions that help the party get the jump on the enemy from a safe distance. Blue Sphere possesses what is probably the best-realized version of the Linear Motion Battle System ever to grace the Game Boy Color — though granted, not many GBC developers would tackle something so dynamic and complicated. Three chosen heroes take on singular enemies both large and small, with only one hero under direct control at any given time. Physical attacks vary depending on how far the controlled character is from the target, and different characters may aim high, middle, or low at different points than their comrades. While there isn't an overwhelming need to swap out characters for front-line offense, it's often worth it just for the variety of action.

   Enemy sprites often have multiple parts to target, though only one vital. A monster may change appearance and attack patterns depending on what's been disabled, and bosses in particular only pull out the big attacks once a certain part is out of commission. It's not actually possible to target specific parts, so damage dealt can be hit-or-miss, but since most physical attacks cancel whatever the enemy is preparing, regular and steady assaults often win the day.

   Blue Sphere does not look like it should be a GBC game. There is a depth of detail to the graphics, both in the background and with sprites, so far beyond the early games of the system that there's really no comparison. It even manages several sprite-motion cut-scenes of considerable length and complexity. The only thing that is lacking is the color palette, which is stuck with the muddy rainbow of the GBC. It's rather amazing that tri-Ace didn't just wait and refurbish the graphics for a Game Boy Advance release, because Blue Sphere would have outshone most games for that system as well. The sound doesn't rate quite so highly, though that is largely due to the natural limitations of any handheld sound card. The tunes are enjoyable, though understandably derivative of the parent game, and that's that.

   Star Ocean: Blue Sphere is a game designed to give the fans more of what they want, and the developers managed to do just that, without resorting to the usual list of dull or problematic elements that make for half-assed sequels. Instead, the player is presented with a polished, fun game with lots of hidden depth and an impressive forty-five-plus hours needed to complete it, all on a platform that could barely handle the action. This is a game that deserves a good remake, and even received one — for cell phones. Since then, neither Square Enix nor tri-Ace has shown any sign of doing anything more with this game, not even a smartphone or 3DS downloadable port. This can only be seen as a shame, because there's a lot going for this one.

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