Reviewed: March 12, 2005
Released: February 15, 2005
Following Final Fantasy VII’s runaway success in the United States, Squaresoft (now Square Enix) saw that the American market was primed for RPG's and released a wide lineup of software. The new avalanche of titles for the original PlayStation was a mixed bag: some games, like Saga Frontier, were forgettable, but there were also some gems that may never have been released otherwise. One of the most pleasant surprises among these “secondary” Square titles was a game called Xenogears. Released in 1998, Xenogears was a creative, entertaining mix of role-playing and giant robots, with beautiful anime cutscenes and a long, engrossing story.
Although Square never released another game in the Xenogears series, Namco filled the void in 2003 with Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht. Although published by a different company and apparently not directly related to Xenogears, Xenosaga featured many of the elements which made Xenogears unique: a complicated science-fiction plot riddled with religious imagery, and a robust RPG engine with giant robots.
Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse picks up immediately where Episode I left off, and provides further development of Xenosaga’s colorful cast with improved graphics, a modified battle system, and twenty bazillion hours of cutscenes. Although it provides some RPG fun for gamers needing their fix, and a continuation of the original’s intriguing story, Xenosaga Episode II feels like a filler episode in a very expensive mini-series.
Xenosaga follows a strange group of humans, mutants, and robots as they explore the appearance of strange, ghost-like monsters called “Gnosis.” In researching the Gnosis, the team looks for the ultimate source of energy in the universe, a mysterious artifact called the “Zohar.” However, other groups are also seeking the Zohar, groups with ominous names like “The U-TIC Organization” and “The Immigrant Fleet.”
Xenosaga Episodes I and II do a good job with the exposition of the story through the use of long, beautifully crafted movies. Unfortunately, this exposition comes at the expense of gameplay, and this is especially true of Episode II. While the series’ spiritual predecessor, Xenogears, also had long cutscenes and a convoluted story, it also had a lot of great gameplay – the player felt as if he or she was playing out a sci-fi epic.
Xenosaga Episode II feels much less ambitious – by the time you play through its twenty hours, you’ll find that not much happened. Episode II is as much movie as game, and the core gameplay takes place over a handful of sparse stages, which are filled with puzzles that often just feel like a cheap way to add length to the game.
The RPG’s battle engine is difficult-to-learn and provides a lot of challenge to the game. Unfortunately, it is also a source of frustration and wasted time. Most of the game’s combat takes place while the characters are out of their robots. While fighting on foot, characters fight with various combinations of buttons, which represent high, medium, and low angle attacks.
With the right combination of attacks, an enemy will enter a “break” state, which allows allies to cause extra damage to the enemy, and even juggle them in the air. This effect can only be exploited when other allies “boost” during your player’s turn, and the number of boosts available is indicated by a meter on the screen which build up to a maximum of 3. Boosts essentially allow a player to cut in line to the front of the attack order, so that they will have the next available turn.
Characters can score extra attacks per round by storing up stock points during their turns. When combined with “breaking” and “boosting”, characters can unleash a long string of combos causing massive amounts of damage. Unfortunately, building up for such combos leaves characters open to powerful attacks from their enemies. “Ether” techniques (which are for all intents and purposes magic) can be used to cure allies or damage enemies, but they are often of limited effectiveness. Also, “double attacks” can be used by combinations of two characters, but they require a long build up and are generally not effective enough to justify their expense.
Individual attacks by allies cause frustratingly little damage, especially compared to the strength of enemy fighters, and battles against garden-variety enemies can take 10 minutes. The damage one can deal to a monster varies widely depending on the target’s weaknesses; since there are only a few types of enemies in each stage, you will find that you lean on certain characters more than others.
Boss battles are even worse, requiring very specific strategies and very specific characters to beat. In some battles, allies will slowly hammer away at bosses for a half-hour, and everything will seem to be going well; then, suddenly, the boss will unleash some massive special attack that will wipe out any ally with less than 80% of maximum HP, or will heal itself for half the damage you have dealt so far. There are few worse feelings in gaming than fighting a battle of attrition for a half-hour only to lose all that progress in one fell, cheap swoop.
One cannot play Xenosaga Episode II without feeling that the game is rigged to give the opposition some cheap advantages and ramp up the difficulty of fights. For instance, enemies can cancel your boosts with their own, a dirty trick which your own fighters cannot pull off. Even your cheap reviewer ended up firing off some vile language of which I had not thought myself capable.
Skill development has been dumbed down in this game as well. Actual character levels make very little difference in Xenosaga Episode II, which is good, because fighting normal enemies to gain experience is an exercise in futility. Instead, a simple skill system is instituted. Characters gain “class points” and “skill points” through fighting and the use of special items. These points can be spent on character skills and improved attributes; the available skill set is the same for all the characters. Unfortunately, no skill provides more than a small improvement over your normal abilities.
There is no equipment in Xenosaga Episode II, although characters can “equip” certain stat improvements, up to a maximum of 3. In addition, there is no way to buy healing items or other necessities – the only way to acquire these items is through battles and treasure chests. Fortunately, you can revisit old stages of the game through a holographic viewing system and fight more monsters or acquire treasures you missed the first time. Also, save points in the game provide free healing.
In addition to the game’s main story, Episode II features a system of side-quests and hidden treasures, which add gameplay and provide opportunities to power-up your characters. By finishing mini-quests or unlocking special doors, players can learn otherwise unavailable skills, double attacks, and obtain swimsuits for characters, which not only change their look, but also increase their speed (though I must admit putting MOMO, an android who resembles a 10-year-old girl, in a swimsuit is a bit disturbing).
Though the gameplay in Xenosaga Episode II can be frustrating at times, it also requires skill – the battles cannot all be finished by pushing a single button or spending a few hours power-leveling. The mini-quests also provide some extra fun to the game. It is a shame that the game is over so quickly; I found myself feeling cheated when I had to change discs after the first two or three stages of the game.
The graphics in Xenosaga Episode II are stunning. A player beginning a new game is treated to an introduction filled with high-speed space battles and exciting sword duels. The cutscenes are so well done that players would truly enjoy watching them if there were more game in between.
Xenosaga Episode I had a cartoony, “kawaii” look to it. Characters in cut-scenes had a chubby-faced, somewhat infantile look about them; in Episode II, the characters look much more mature and human in their proportions. Most noticeably, the animators of Episode II are apparently trying to sex up the main character, Shion Uzuki; she has gone from the nerdy, bespectacled corporate scientist of the first game to a much trendier, younger look in the second game.
In addition to the magnificently beautiful cutscenes, which rival the Final Fantasy series, the graphics throughout the game are excellent and add to the experience. The high-tech look of the game echoes the style of Xenogears. Each stage has a unique look and feel which helps set the mood of the game; in one stage, you run through a burning city, and the glow from the fires casts a realistic shadow against walls, which makes the scene seem palpable. Battle animations look great without being overly complicated or flashy (something Final Fantasy could take note of).
The sound in Xenosaga Episode II is nothing special, but it serves the game’s purposes well enough. Some tracks of music sound excellent; the opening theme is beautiful, and there are a few themes in the game which sound amazing. The music in some areas, however, is repetitive and grating; when exploring Second Miltia, you might find yourself cutting your visits short to avoid having to hear one more minute of its weird, 25th century-muzak style theme.
The voice acting in the cutscenes is mixed. At best, characters such as Shion and Ziggy display a wide range of believable emotion in their voices. Other characters, like chaos and Canaan, display almost no emotion at all (perhaps by design). KOSMOS’ voice is provided by a new voice actor, who manages to make her sound even more contrived. Voices in battle are the same voices used in the previous game, and characters use the same hackneyed phrases over and over again (which can get really old in the game’s long battles).
At $49.99, Xenosaga Episode II feels like an expensive four-hour long anime film where not much happens, with about 10 hours worth of decent game attached to it. At this introductory price, only hardcore Xenosaga fans may feel justified in buying this game. If the previous game is any indication, Xenosaga Episode II will soon drop in price.
At $19.99, the price at which Episode I sells, this game would be a bargain. Curious gamers may wish to wait a few months for the price of the game to come down a bit. There is enough entertainment value in the movies and in the short gameplay to warrant buying this game, but not at full price.
Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse offers a continuation to the exciting story of Episode I and several hours of challenging RPG gameplay. Though the game is woefully short, the game does set a standard for RPG difficulty, which might breathe some challenge into the genre. Hopefully, in Episode III, Namco remembers that game players want to play a great game first and watch riveting cutscenes second. They really could have combined both Episodes into one complete game and justified a $50 selling price.