Despite the fact that it's only two months old, 2005 has been a disappointing year for RPG sequels. Konami's Suikoden IV and Sony Online's Return to Arms, for example, have both failed to become the classics we anticipated them to be. Though technologically superior to their predecessors and near-identical in respect to the gameplay, neither one of these two high-profile follow-ups elicited the same special feeling of individuality that their forerunners did. Sure they were good -- and fans of the previous games would likely enjoy them -- but unless you had the Rune of Punishment tattooed on your backside or were the president of the "We love Shelox Fan Club," most of you probably didn't even care.
I suppose that's why it comes as no surprise then that Monolith Soft's own continuation, Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose, doesn't quite live up to its original inspiration either. Just like Suikoden IV and Return to Arms before it, Xenosaga II is definitely a good game -- and one that diehard Xenies will no doubt go crazy over -- but also like Suikoden IV and Return to Arms, Jenseits von Gut und Bose is missing the high level of personality and gameplay progression that made their progenitors such classics in the first place.
This lack of morale is actually pretty surprising considering just how interesting Xenosaga II's storyline ultimately becomes. Though it won't answer a lot of the burning questions left behind by the original, the plotline does go into some interesting and entertaining directions. Picking up immediately after the final moments of the first game, Xeno II follows the returning Elsa crew as they arrive on Second Miltia to extract the Y-Data from MOMO's subconscious and turn over KOS-MOS to Vector Industries. Of course, being the complicated space opera that this is, things don't really go quite as planned, and before you know it, Cyborgs, Realians, Androids, and sexually ambiguous "Maybe-Angels" team up to fight a series of mysterious and rambunctious foes.
Where the storyline goes from there is definitely a surprise because instead of focusing on Shion and KOS-MOS, Monolith opted to dedicate a huge chunk of the plot to Jr, Albedo, and all their motives in-between. In fact, so much of Episode II is centered on the midget and the madman that it almost borders on being too much for a single subplot. It's almost as if the remaining narratives established in the first title were somewhat forgotten when scripting for the sequel began. In truth, it left me a little homesick for the bigger and more epic pacing of the original. I do want to make it clear, though, that this doesn't mean that Jenseits von Gut und Bose doesn't have a great story -- because it does. But after relishing the first Xeno's excellent multi-character focus, it made me wish the sequel was a little less singular.
Peculiar directional changes aside, Episode II's chronicle is still nothing short of excellent. Easily the most intriguing game to hit the PlayStation 2 in terms of story so far this year, Xenosaga is a hell of a ride most of the way through. And for fans who felt a little overwhelmed by Episode I's rather disjointed cutscene direction and long-winded 40-minute cinematics, Monolith has scaled down that approach to allow for faster cuts and more frequent breaks between transitions. There are even a few new characters (including Shion's brother Jin and the Realian Pilot Canaan) thrown in for good measure and some cool space battles thrown in for Star Wars nuts.
In addition to Xenosaga's adjusted plot focus, Episode II has made a number of welcome advances to the previous title's audio/visual department as well. Though I did prefer Episode I's more stylized "Super Deformed" approach when it comes to overall appearance, the sequel's realistic presentational redirect makes for a much prettier experience. Just look at lead character Shion Uzuki, for example: Not only is she packing more polygons, more texture detail, and a hell of a lot more animation, but her character design is more flattering too. Or to put in simpler terms, she's been injected with ye old "Babe Serum."
These improved character designs continue on with the rest of the cast as well. Whether it's KOS-MOS' ethereal glowing upgrades, MOMO's Girl Scout Robin Hood outfit, or chaos' belt armor jumpsuit, the costumes all provide noticeable promotions over the originals. The only real exception here is with the guy we see most during the whole adventure, Jr. Who, with his pink turtleneck Gap sweater and crème-colored dork chaps, could garner his own one-hour "Help Me" special on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
The remainder of Xenosaga's visceral presentation is helped immensely by its improved environmental graphics. Just like the character models mentioned above, the backgrounds, foregrounds, and three-dimensional objects, all boast healthier details and polygon counts. Areas we visited before in Episode I like the Kukai Foundation and Durandal look twice as good as they did before, and when you throw in the fact that the new areas are a lot more varied, you have all the ingredients necessary for a pleasant visual journey. My only real gripes here are the flat pan-like beast paws that every human character seems to have, the less than spectacular special attacks when compared to Episode I, and the occasional bit of jaggies and clipping that pop up now and again. In the long run, these hitches are so isolated and insignificant, though, that they're really no big deal.
I should point out, however, that I sorely miss the soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda. His score in the first game was brilliant, and provided a great mix of ghostly space tunes and legitimately creepy horror ballads. The upbeat and poppy gameplay soundtrack of Shinji Hosei, however, moves in a different direction entirely. Granted, some of Hosei's pieces are pretty solid (like that in the Uzuki household), but for the most part the score just doesn't seem to fit the premise. Cinematic composer Yuki Kajiura does a better job of keeping Mitsuda's original ideas going in the cutscenes, but even so, the music still can't match the quality of the first title.
One of the most popular points of contention in Xenosaga Episode II has been Namco's decision to go with different (or restructured) voice actors for the majority of the cast. In some cases the change is for the better (with Juli Mizrahi and chaos for instance), but for the most part, the vocals just aren't as strong as they were before (KOS-MOS sounds totally off). In terms of the effects, however, Episode II does have a much richer selection and they sound a whole lot more convincing. Aided by some great Dolby Pro Logic II encoding and 5.1 cutscenes, the use of sound here is definitely among the best I've heard in awhile.
To its credit, the Jenseits von Gut und Bose design team listened to player complaints about the first game and tried to remedy them in Episode II. In a lot of ways, many of those objections have been fixed, as the frequency of travel and combat, for example, are at a much higher ratio than in 2003. Furthermore, building your characters' levels and skill points have been simplified as well, while the options available to players during battle have been expanded.
More specifically, enemies now have three different zones (low, mid, and high) that have different defensive properties in each area. The more a player hacks away at a zone, the weaker that zone becomes, and this exploitation makes defeating your opponent a whole lot easier (known as Zone Break). Another new addition are the Air/Down attacks which are specialty strikes that certain characters can perform when an enemy has had their Zone destroyed. Both attack types can cause twice the normal damage and can result in a foe being suspended in the air or knocked to the ground to give other characters an offensive advantage.
These new attacks are powered by an additional gameplay element known as Stocks. By using a Stock in a battle, players can store three circle strikes into a single reserve that can then be used for super combos and double attacks. The double attack is pretty cool too, as its similar to Suikoden's famous team strikes only with a lot more flair and pizzazz. When combined with several other new aspects, like the expanded event slot, a team-based boost gauge, a mid-battle character swap, and an actual need for piloted robots in alternative combat, you have a much more interesting battle system than that of Episode I. Speaking of the robots, the AGWS in Episode II have been replaced by ES Robots that have a lot more functionality than those of the last game, so players who complained of the uselessness of this feature before should be plenty happy now -- because trust me, you'll need them.
Despite all these improvements to the combat system, however, there are several downgrades that bring Episode II below its potential. The load times before a fight, for instance, can last as long as 12 seconds from the moment you run into an enemy to the moment you actually fight him. Multiply that by a few hundred encounters and you can see why upper-level stat building quickly turns into a chore (which explains why Monolith has made it a bit easier). What really takes away from the customization standard that was set in the last game, though, is the fact that Tech Attacks can no longer be learned or upgraded beyond their initial setting. What's more, is that money has been completely eliminated as well, making basic item collection or weapon upgrades near impossible without the frequent repetitive monster hunting mentioned above.
I was also not too fond of the fact that characters aren't as diverse as they used to be. Other than the default attack types that dictates combat maneuvers, everything else about your characters is upgraded in exactly the same way. The Ether Trees that allowed you to customize each character to his individual strengths has been replaced by an "everyone can learn the same thing" skill system that makes everyone essentially the same character. This in effect, nullifies your choice of combatants before a battle adding to the repetition. Throw in three or four times as much backtracking in comparison to the first title, fewer destructible objects, and the loss of the awesome UMN database and it's easy to be disappointed.
At least the dungeons are designed with a certain amount of style and the puzzles that accompany them are pretty decent. The new Global Samaritan Campaign provides a few welcome sidequests too.
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