Pros: Great graphics, story continuity, supports old game saves, much
improved combat system
Cons: Still more sitting and watching than playing
The Xenosaga series continues in Xenosaga Episode 2: Jenseits von Gut und
Bose (that means Beyond Good and Evil for you non German reading
people). Unlike the Final Fantasy series, Monolith Soft's Xenosaga series
is a direct continuation from game to game. Xenosaga Episode 2 picks up
shortly, almost immediately, after the events of Xenosaga Episode 1. If
you haven't played the first game there is a quick summary of some of
the main events in the first game from Shion's perspective, but it is
highly recommended that you play through the first game before playing
the second. At this point of the review be warned that there may be some
minor spoilers for both Xenosaga Episode 1 (if you haven't completed it)
and Episode 2. Just a warning for those hardcore RPG fans that want to
hear nothing about the story.
Most of the story, like episode 1, is
told in a seemingly endless number of cinematic CGI bits. When you first
start the game up you see a flashback with Chaos, Cannan and Jin Uzuki (Shion's
brother who was supposed to be in the first game). In this sequence
there is a really cool movie of Jin doing a sword fight, that is fluidly
animated and has some good use of slow motion. Yet, the gamer is
watching the fight rather than playing it. Soon later on there is a
chase scene where a giant robot is chasing Jr and friends, but once
again you're not controlling the car or blasting bullets at the robot.
Instead you're watching a well done CGI sequence. If you thought
Xenosaga Episode 1 had a lot of sitting and watching time, you'd still
be surprised at how much watching and not playing you'll be doing in
Xenosaga Episode 2. The problem with the CGI movies, isn't that they're
bad, in fact they're an excellent example of the Playstation 2's
graphical capabilities and the imagination of the designers at Monolith.
There is just way too many of them in a row and you'll get to the point
where you'll want to play the game and not watch it. You can skip any of
the movies by pressing start to pause and then triangle to skip, but
you'll be missing out on the story and what to do next. So you probably
won't skip through many of them.
The CGI sequences show how much Namco and Monolith Soft upgraded the
graphics from the first game. The character's have much more fluid and
natural animation. Namco also spent a lot of time improving the
character's facial expressions from the first game. All of these
improvements can be seen in about the first ten minutes of movie
watching. There is a lot of change in the presentation of Xenosaga
Episode 2, too. As I already noted there is use of the slow motion
technique to "dramatize" events. Xenosaga Episode 2 also has a new art
direction. Instead of the cartoonish anime styled characters you now
have realistic anime styled characters. In the first game Shion and
Chaos had huge cartoonish looking eyes, where now they look more like a
regular people. The realistic style carries on in the in game graphics,
where characters have slightly more realistic basic attacks. For
instance Momo's days of whacking a giant gnosis (those are the giant
aliens) with an attack that has colorful stars come out are over.
Instead she has a bow and arrow, which is not only more useful but goes
in the realistic art direction Monolith soft was thinking of.
Monolith did put a lot of changes not only in the graphics, but also
in the battle system. Xenosaga Episode 1's battle system was OK. Not
nearly as unique as when it was introduced in Xenogears and not refined
enough to make it entertaining. Xenosaga Episode 2's battle system is a
definite upgrade from the first game. The game still draws its core from
the Xenogears battle system of making your own combination of attacks by
pressing the square, triangle and circle buttons. To do more powerful
attacks or longer combos you can choose to "stock" your turn. To do
deathblows, those powerful cool looking attacks, you'll need to utilize
stocking a turn or two. Stocking also plays an important role in using
the new double attack. If you have two characters in a row that can make
a combo and enough stocked turns you can unleash a double deathblow
combination between two characters. Unleashing a double would be hard if
it wasn't for the returning boost system. You can switch the static turn
order by pressing R1 or R2 and selecting which character you want to go
next. By doing this you can give another character an instant turn,
which means if you pick a character you can do a double with you can do
a double for your next move.
Even though Xenosaga Episode 2's battle system seems like a simple
turn based system there is something to master if players want to. First
there is mastering the event slot that returns from episode 1. The event
slot grants players different bonuses like boost energy up, critical
attack up and ether (magic) damage up. By paying attention to what is on
the meter you can deal out extra ether damage, get extra skill points or
more. Although this requires attention and a lot of luck since the event
slot is random. Something that requires more skill is the new zone
system. There are three zones that you can give damage to which are
essentially high, medium and low. Most enemies have a particular region
they take extra damage to, so remembering that location can make fights
go faster. There is even a rocks-paper-scissors elemental attack system
that can be used to give extra damage as well. All of these different
tactics can give a player an advantage in a fight, but at the
same time they can be easily ignored and you will still be able to
playthrough the game.
The mech combat system is similar to the basic combat system. You can
still choose different attacks with different buttons, use ether magic
and stock turns. The one difference is when you defeat enemies it not
only charges your boost meter but the stock meter as well. Having energy
in the stock meter will allow your mech to use the special command and
utilize more advanced attacks. On another note the mech design is much
better than the episode 1, which seemed to lack any decent mech design.
While the mechs that I've seen have yet to top the coolness as the mechs
looked in Xenogears they seem to have more personality and at the very
least look discernable from one another.
Besides the combat system most the other part of the game you play is
the same old RPG walking around. You don't have to walk over a long
arduous world map, but instead you pretty much walk through "dungeons"
or better put stages. Monolith hasn't dropped the idea of having an
interactive environment, in fact they cleaned up this aspect of gameplay
too. There are plenty of objects that you can destroy by pressing the
square button. There is no penalty for smashing objects, in fact doing
this may even reward you with hidden treasure. There are a number of
different environments that you'll be passing through, all of which are
more unique than the bland spaceship designs of episode 1. One of the
early environments is the burning city seen in the episode 2 demo and
then you'll move to the aqueduct of a bustling city.
To complement that variety in environments is a good selection of
background music. Xenosaga Episode 2 has a huge upgrade in the
soundtrack, which captures the moment much better. Still it is largely
ambient music, but it is more upbeat than Episode 1. One excellent
option that was added with the audio is use of the optical port for 5.1
Dolby Digital sound. More games need to take advantage of using the
optical port and 5.1 surround sound.
If you've played through the first game you probably are eagerly
awaiting Episode 2. Xenosaga Episode 2 seems to top Episode 1 in almost
all aspects of gameplay, graphics and sound. It still suffers from such
problems like walking around aimlessly and fighting enemies to level up
your characters. Although, these are more problems of the traditional
RPG genre, rather than problems that Xenosaga Episode 2 created for
itself. If you liked Episode 1, you'll like Episode 2. Speaking more
generally, if you like RPGs you'll like Episode 2. If you don't like
RPGs pass Xenosaga Episode 2 up.
Sitting through all of the movies, which have Japanese voice acting
and Japanese subtitles will be boring if you don't understand any
Japanese. Even if you do know some Japanese, unless you have really good
language skills you'll miss out on the depth of the story, which is what
the Xenosaga series is all about.
Xenosaga Episode 2 is slated for a 2005 release.
Xenosaga may not be the all around perfect game, but it is a paragon RPG.