A good work of fiction will lead you to pick it up again and again. It pulls you into the story, and if you like it you will read it over and over. This will happen until you know the story by heart, and you will want to go read the book again. I have encountered several games that are like this as well. Vandal Hearts, Final Fantasy III (VI depending on who you ask), Phantasy Star IV, and Skies of Arcadia. These games hold very few surprises for me, but somehow, I still go and pick them up periodcially and play them again. The story in the games, and the characters driven by the story pull you in and make you a part of their lives during the time that you are playing the game. Ash Lambert’s drive to make the world safe for people to live in, Chaz Ashley’s attempts to find his way in the world as an orphan, Vyse’s spirit of exploration are all strong expressions of character and provide a goal to the story.
Xenosaga II is the second chapter of the Namco produced Xenosaga series. The first title was released two years ago with much anticipation, as it was previously thought that the whole Xenogears story would be completely lost. It didn’t, and the first chapter sold well. It was a love it or hate it game for some fans mostly due to the massive retooling of the story. Xenosaga II continues this trend, looking great and continuing to confuse people trying to make head or tail of the story.
I would like to warn readers now that I may discuss events that happen in the middle of the game and/or spoil events in my review of this title. My sincere apologies, but I feel that some indepth discussion of the situation is necessary.
The graphics for this title continue the trend set in the first one. Very clean areas with good detail all over. The outdoor environments look alive, and have a decent amount of detail animation to them. The city and indoor environments are detailed and well lit. Both environments also have enough detail to make it live, with people wandering the paths and wildlife moving about in some cases.
The game’s main characters have recieved a facelift as well. Shion, MOMO, and chaos have been redesigned, each of them getting some updates to their characters. The new look, for the most part, is purely eye candy. It is nice to see these characters in some other clothes than what they were in for the fifty plus hours in the previous game.
I experienced some disappointment when I heard some of the character voices in game. Either we are dealing with some people that are bored, resigned to their fate of being devoured by Gnosis, or they just don’t care about life. Either way, some of the scenes just fell flat because the voice acting was flat. In contrast, there were other character scenes that were funny to the point of my wife coming over to see why I was laughing.
The music was solid all the way through and was the perfect background soundtrack. It supported the mood of the game and the onscreen action without overpowering it. The downside is that it wasn’t very memorable, save for the closing song.There really isn’t much to say about the controls in the game. I didn’t encounter any action sequences that the basic controls were inadequate for, and the battles are turn-based menu driven affairs. When moving around the areas, there is little to select. If you can blow something up, it gets hightlighted when you are near it. If you can interact with it, you just walk up and hit the circle button. The only confusion is the designer’s need to use circle as the primary selection button rather than X, which confuses me when I have been switching games a lot.
Sometimes I wonder why developers feel the need to completely revamp systems when they do sequels. With this version of the game following the end events of the previous one so closely, you would think that some of the previous combat system was intact. The only things that I could find that were the same were the names of the ether attacks, and the system for actually intiating attacks with different patters of circle, triangle, and square buttons. I found this terribly disconcerting, especially since I had been replaying episode I just to get up to speed.
In its place is a system that allows you to chain attacks together, using different elemental status effects, the special attacks of each character, and liberal use of the boost gauge. Also added were Double Attacks, which allow two characters to pull off special maneuvers with a little build up.
In place of the skill tree is a skill system broken down into levels and classes. Each level contains eight classes of special abilities that each character can equip. These abilities are available to all of the characters. Each character will not earn enough class and skill points to buy all the skills, so you will need to develop your characters depending on the role you want them to fill. In addition, some skills, like STR+2, provide no useful bonus for several characters like Shion, MOMO, and Jr. as those characters only have a ranged attack. The abilities are broken down into equippable abilities, ether abilities, and learned skills. A character can equip four abilities at any given time, but always has all of their learned skills and ether abilities available to them.
Characters earn exp and skill points at the end of each battle. These skill points are spent buying the different skills. As you buy all four skills in each class, you earn class points. These can be used to unlock classes in any of the levels you currently have access to. Early on, I set up MOMO as my healer, and developed chaos as the offesive caster of my party. It worked really well when I finally got the hang of the elemental chain system that is built into the combats. The system is not bad, but more confusing that it needed to have been, considering that it had recent material to work with. Had Xenosaga I been five+ years old, I might have understood the total revamp of the combat system. But I don’t think it had to be as drastic as it was here.
Another thing that is different in this version is that you cannot just jump into your giant mecha in any battle you want to. Instead, there are some areas in which you are using the new AS systems, with two characters piloting each one. Depending on your characters that you assign to each AS, they will have some slightly different roles in combat. I found the giant robot combat to be fast, fun, and somewhat rewarding.
Also very rewarding is the story. If you are willing to stick with it, and accept that they may use terms that won’t even get completely explained in this chapter, it is a decent science fiction story. It’s just not simple to follow, and translation from Japanese to English probably did not help make things any easier to understand. I may not fully appreciate all the nuances of the story, but they have built characters here that you will love, hate, despise, or deplore. And even more, your opinion will change over time as their stories are revealed. The cast has grown a little bit in this chapter, but it does not hurt the events of the story. This is very much a cinematic RPG, with lots of scenes to watch through. I found myself looking forward to the next scene and what it might reveal about these characters.
If you don’t play Xenosaga I, this game will make no sense to you. I had to go back and review what happened in the first one just to bring myself up to date. Once you’ve finished the game, there are some secrets that you might of missed, and may warrant playing through again. The game does read your Xenosaga I completion data, but I had not finished the first title again to make use of this feature and see what might have been unlocked. Also, once you have completed the game, you can go back and replay more of the dungeons and a secret dungeon for more challenges. They did make it easy to play through the game again by providing the ability to skip cutscenes. Would it be worth it? Maybe sometime down the road.
I would like to mention here that I miss the card game that was in episode I. I still boot up episode I and play that game for the heck of it because it was fun. It was truly disappointing that it did not return in episode II.