Xenosaga II: Jenseits von Gute und Bose

Namco’s Xenogears introduced to the normally swords and sorcery heavy RPG genre a remarkable sci-fi tour de force with giant mechs, a world with a mysterious past explored through an enthralling story, and a uniquely fun combat system that brought out the best from each character as they struggled to save the world. Although not an official sequel, Xenosaga I: Der Wille zur Macht would carry some of what had made Xenogears memorable into a new sci-fi epic.

Even though the first one was heavy on the cut scenes and felt light on the gameplay, I was pulled in by the story that unraveled and when I finally found some time to sit down with the sequel, despite how unforgiving many of the reviews…and some of the players…were to it since then. Xenosaga II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose continues the story, but in this new chapter, more has changed than the story and not all of it for the better as I found out the hard way.

When we Last Met our Heroes…

Xenosaga II’s story picks up shortly after the events of its predecessor which can be confusing for those that haven’t played it. Pre-orders of the sequel came with an extra DVD that compiled and edited the cut scenes from Xenosaga providing approximately four hours of content that summarize the story for those that may have missed out on it, or simply don’t remember what may have happened. Suffice it to say, players that have gone through the first chapter will be the ones to get the most out of what it has to offer.

The series takes place four thousand years in the future where humanity has spread across the galaxy with a civilization filled with technological marvels. Humanity had also discovered the Gnosis…a strange, extradimensional lifeform that occasionally manifests itself in our space, destroying anything within sight. There is also the Zohar, a powerful relic said to hold the very key to the universe and the destruction of the Gnosis, lost only to become the focus of a desperate search to keep it from the hands of those that wish to use it for their own ends.

As far advanced as humanity has become in their reach for the stars, old habits die hard. Xenosaga Episode II takes place some time following the end of the first chapter which saw Shion and pals save the planet of Second Miltia from destruction. In the aftermath, more questions were raised and loose threads were left untied with many factions contemplating their next moves in an intertwining story of revenge, arrogant ambition, and the desperate need to save what matters most to each. There’s a lot going on in between many of the major characters here and if you’re jumping onto the Xenosaga bandwagon just now, you’ll likely feel pretty lost.

That said, the story is easily the best part of the series with a narrative overflowing with more than a few religious allusions and names, adding a unique feel to the environment that it creates with plenty of JRPG inspired scientific pseudo-speak. References such as to Lost Jerusalem, Nephilim, Proto-Merkabah, and Testament help deepen the world of Xenosaga with familiar terms lending the power of their names to many of the title’s most surprising mysteries, although it can often feel that the story can be laying it on a little too thick by doing so.

It’s not perfect, either, and several sequences can overflow with enough sugary melodrama to embarrass the Bandai’s Galaxy Angels, or turn some of its villains into pretentious freaks that quickly wear out their welcome by becoming cliches. But the core elements of the narrative continue to work well, fueling the motives for one character in seeking to redeem their lost ‘brother’, or Margulis’ surprising return as the ultimate hardass with a sword backed by the unflinching dedication that he has for his cause.

And if you’re one of the players that thought Xenosaga was basically one long cut scene with only a few battles worked in between the chapters, the sequel doesn’t veer too far away from the formula. While the story was good, the gameplay actually felt shorter, much of it likely due to how much story there was to wade through which some players may not be looking forward in having to experience all over again.

So Who Closed All of the Stores?!

When you get to play in Xenosaga II’s linear backyard, you’ll be able to explore, talk to NPCs, do small side quests for bonus items or skills, and occasionally battle your way through one of the title’s ‘dungeons’. For the sequel, the gameplay mechanics were overhauled with some elements taken out while others were ‘enhanced’. The end result is something that fans of the first chapter might not be what they hoped to expect.

There’s actually very little world to explore as with the first, despite the epic scope of its story, with only a few real locations to interact with. As the story progresses, you leave behind dungeons that can only be revisited by ‘encephalon diving’, a sort of virtual reconstruction of those locations allowing you to explore and fight to earn more points or grab items that you may have left behind the first time through.

Many of the dungeons are also linear affairs with visible encounters, giving you the option to try and avoid them or confront them head on. There are occasional puzzles, most of which make absolutely no sense considering where they are, providing some challenge while destroying your suspension of disbelief. To progress in one area, for example, you have to destroy certain blocks in a particular order to proceed, leaving you wondering whether your enemies have to do the same thing just to get to where they are. Another has you filling a gap with even more blocks to get across. It’s somewhat disturbing to know that four thousand years later, we’ll still be dealing with block puzzles.

The richly detailed in-game encyclopedia from the first chapter is gone, further emphasizing this game as a title meant only for those that had gone through the first one and have some idea of what is going on as Xenosaga II makes little effort to bring new players up to speed. Even so, the encyclopedia provided a great source of information concerning major events, people, and many other things that the player would encounter during the game. As a somewhat poor substitute, there’s a log that can help keep track of side quests once activated, but some of the hints that it records from NPCs are pretty vague leaving you to record your own notes in addition to what the log is supposed to be doing for you.

There are also no stores to purchase healing goods or equipment to give your characters or the mechs that you will occasionally pilot a better fighting chance. Certain hidden skills and most everything else have to be found either as spoils from combat, through a little exploration, or as a reward from a side quest. Since there are no stores, there’s also no money, but there is another sidequest that allows you to get rid of items such as scrap iron or junked circuits found after battle in order to help pay off an NPC’s debt, but that’s as close as you’re going to get to any semblance of money in the sequel.

War and Pieces

Xenosaga’s combat system divides the experience that you get into three major categories: straight up experience for your character’s level, skill category points to unlock skill sets, and skill points with which you can actually purchase skills. This is a huge departure from Xenosaga I’s system, where each character had their own skill tree to develop through. With this system, which can feel like a precursor to Final Fantasy XII’s license board in some ways, every character has a shot at every skill. Some characters will simply be better at certain skills because of their core attributes, but the unique abilities and skills that they had enjoyed in the first chapter, with the possible exception of KOS-MOS, are largely gone which was a huge disappointment.

Unlocking skill sets and purchasing all of the skills within them will reward the character with a bonus of skill category points which, unfortunately, are not earned through most of the combat that you will experience forcing you to be careful in picking which sets to develop through and what skills to invest in.

Fighting in the game has several layers of detail that force you to think about what you are attacking and how to attack it versus simply going in and mashing buttons to string together fight combos. But unlike Disgaia’s tactical RPG formula, the kind of turn based, scissors, paper, rock gameplay in Xenosaga II can feel like playing a title such as Virtua Fighter in turns.

Each character acts in sequence depending on how quick they are and each enemy will also take turns in the queue as combat is started. The HUD does a pretty decent job in keeping you informed as to who is acting next to prepare for the next action, especially with event icons that also switch up during combat next to the queue display. Event icons can give your party, or the enemy, a particular edge during combat depending on what you do. An icon that pops up for “Critical” can improve the attacking character’s chances for even more critical damage during their turn, while “Skill” can double, quadruple, or even generate ten times as many skill points from a defeated enemy if they are taken out when it is active. Timing your character’s actions to make the most of this system is almost critical to survival later in the game, especially when it comes to grinding for precious skill points.

Enemies are vulnerable to certain types of attacks, such as a physical bashing or a beam attack from a ranged weapon. In addition to this, each attack may be attached to an attribute based on each character, such as ether or fire, for an added edge. This can create the illusion of a complex, tactical combat system. But instead of feeding your imagination on what to try, it can feel more like a guessing game of fitting the right moves into the correct patterns just to defeat your foes while shuffling your party around like playing cards. Other titles, such as FFX, do almost the same thing, but Xenosaga II drowns the player in enough vampiric minutiae draining the excitement out of most every encounter as you try and balance attribute damage, combination attack strategy, and zones in every move. I like tactics with my RPGs as much as the next person, but the implementation of it here with the use of “zones” felt more like a chore to be memorized than as something that you could play with and enjoy.

AP’s, or action points, have been changed from the first game. In the first title, players were able to stock up action points for their characters during battle based on certain actions to enable them to use certain powerful abilities. In the sequel, you’ll be able to ‘stock’ points, with a command instead of having to actually do something. Once you’ve stocked up enough points, you’ll be able to use them to unleash any special abilities for that character or use them up in chaining together a string of attacks for serious damage.

Boost has been changed as well, taking it away from each individual character and pooling it together in a party gauge that can fill up to three levels. Boost does the same thing that the old version did, allowing characters to ‘cut ahead’ in an attack sequence rather than wait for their turn if done quickly enough, enabling you to take advantage of certain event icons that you may expect to come up next in the sequence. This wasn’t too bad of a change as it streamlined the boost system, but it did feel as if it further stripped each character of a valuable tool that veteran players had gotten used to.

There are also team based attacks linking certain characters together for devastating moves that can help tip the wages of war in your favor. Many of these, much like certain skills, have to be found and uncovered in your explorations or as part of one of the many side quests that you can try to figure out. As great as it was to see combo attacks added to the roster of moves, I hardly ever used these, most of the time due to a particular party mix that I had for attacking my enemies. I found it easier to use the characters at my disposal than to break up a good team in order to take advantage of a combo attack that might not do much of anything to a foe because it had the wrong “attributes”.

Possibly The Most Boring Mech Combat Ever Devised

At one point in the game, you’ll pilot ES units which replace the AGWS mechs from the first title. ES mechs are pretty much the same thing, each one able to accommodate one pilot and a co-pilot, and one of which allows for the use of special powers during combat. As cool as it may sound to stomp bad guys with giant, hulking titans, these segments are probably the worst part of the title. For one thing, you can’t simply go into battle with an ES. These are used only at certain points in the game.

Even then, sticking the player into giant mechs and having them fight it out through dungeons against other enemy machines was as much fun as watching paint dry since combat follows the same, slow pace that character combat does. Since there are no stores in the game, anything that you can use to upgrade your mechs are found in battle just as with your characters, hinting for the player to grind some more in order to get better stuff for their machine since they can’t buy anything. Battles turn into a series of moves that are decided between whether you should melee a bad guy, shoot a bad guy, or stock up on boost and use a special move. Most battles outside of boss encounters devolve into empty melee and shooting matches which redefine boredom.

You can’t change the main pilot for any of these mechs, either, which was really irritating given that one of my characters had a huge number of spell-like powers that they could have used…if they were able to pilot the one that was able to use them. Most of the mechs will also be stuck with the weapons that they have since you really can’t swap parts, only add special items that you find as accessories that may help protect them from some of the cheaper attacks that the game will throw at you later.

The Story is Better than the Action

The gameplay can feel like grinding hell. Not only can combat be boring to watch with some drawn out animations that you can’t turn off and a glacial pace that drags down the excitement, but you never get a sense that your characters are actually growing into their own during the game since levels work only to improve most of their core statistics. Most battles pack enough damage to make it feel as if your characters have never left Dungeonbusting 101 which robs any rewarding sense of accomplishment for much of the forty plus hours that you might be playing through.

Fortunately, there are certain loopholes in which the game leaves you in control of only one of the characters as everyone else wanders off to do their own thing. As a result, all of the experience that would have otherwise been divided among everyone piles on top of one, lucky, character. Since the party levels up with only a small penalty that keeps them a few levels behind the one who you are in control of, it can be easy to get an experienced party with extremely high levels during these rare moments. They are rare, since you can’t simply remove everyone from a particular battle party by placing them in reserve when your teammates come back.

The music and graphics aren’t bad and do the job in creating a world of high technology and wonder with some remarkable set pieces such as a base held between two collapsing stars or a battle between two fleets flinging enough firepower at each other to reduce a world to slag. The character’s have been redesigned to appear more realistic, shedding their chibi looks, with both stars Shion and KOS-MOS showing off their new looks with dramatic effect which some fans may or may not appreciate. The voice acting is also pretty solid, although some of the dialog can sound a bit heavy handed in the drama department. But the actors have done a great job in bringing many of the characters to life through Albedo’s growing madness and Margulis’ commanding presence when they take the stage.

To Be Continued

Even as the closing credits end with a song and we catch up with each character as they recover from the final battle, there is more than one surprise left in store for the player. Xenosaga II may not have been the sequel that fans have been expecting and the changes may have driven away more than a few of those that Namco’s sci-fi saga had pulled into its twisting narrative, but the third, and final, chapter promises a return to the familiar gameplay found in the first episode. Despite the bland gameplay that can make it a trial to get through to what the sequel does best in telling a compelling tale of galactic conspiracy, ruthless ambition, and strange mysteries, players may have something to look forward to if they can look past the shortcomings that has made the second episode feel like a mixed bag.

– World 1-1

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