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SummaryShort, but sweet? Something like that
The GoodThis is the second installment of the Xenosaga series, supposedly prequels to the famous Xenogears. The series had large shoes to fill. The shadow of Square's monumental creation was hovering over the developers from Monolith Soft.
For the most part, they did a good job in the first episode of Xenosaga. They crafted an intelligent, interesting gameplay system. And they have started a monstrously complex story that could theoretically turn into something reminding Xenogears. The only question was: wasn't there a danger than Xenosaga would collapse under its own weight? This question still remains unanswered: the second episode is not yet the end of the story.
Though the middle part focuses extensively on the background story of one of the game's characters (Jr.), it manages to include the entire cast and continue to develop their personal stories reasonably well. They also introduced a new major character: Shion's brother Jin, who was only mentioned in the first episode.
The villains were somehow more interesting this time around. Now I see I was unfair to Albedo when I said in my review of the first episode that he was just an ordinary, schematic bad guy. In the second episode, he has a tendency to moral ambiguity, which is always a plus. This part was done very well, being in fact the core of the main story in this game.
Character design underwent a serious change for the better in this sequel. Gone are the disproportional huge eyes of the first episode, now the characters look more like real people. All the characters of Xenosaga benefited from this change, most obviously Shion, who got a complete graphical overhaul and as a result became a much more attractive woman.
The gameplay system has improved as well; in fact, I consider it one of the more interesting Japanese RPG combat systems around. At the dawn of this genre, those games were very difficult to beat, unless you fought countless random battles and leveled up. Then, gradually, excessive leveling up was replaced by more varied options, which in the end turned into the "get the most powerful attack and use it at all times" formula, which led to drastic reduction of difficulty level.
Some modern RPGs try to fix that, and Xenosaga is among them, especially the second episode. Leveling up is not required. But there are also no super-powerful attacks that are just given to you. Building up your characters is still important, but much less so than actual battle strategy. There are no random enemies, and one of the reasons is the difficulty of regular battles. The battles are much less frequent, but they last longer. You won't achieve anything simply by attacking. The enemies have remarkable AI and will tear you to pieces if you don't know what you are doing. And of course, the bosses are also very challenging.
The intelligent gameplay system of Xenosaga II forces the player to understand and exploit it. First, there is the weakness system. Each character's attacks have certain properties: physical, ether-based, piercing, slashing, aura, etc. This requires you to use different characters for different purposes. Second, it is imperative to understand the game's very interesting break system. Basically, every enemy, including bosses, is weak to a certain pattern of attacks. Since you can do attacks of various types (like in the first episode), your task is to find out what pattern is the enemy weak to, and use it in order to "break" it. Now, once in a break state, the enemy not only takes more damage from consequent attacks, but can also be thrown into the air (by Jin or Kosmos) or down (by Ziggy or Chaos), suffering even more damage. This is not all, however. You can stock up your attacks in order to be able to unleash them later. And, you can fill a boost gauge (like in the first game) so that you can boost your characters later, giving them an extra turn. Boost is much more important in this game than in the previous one, because boosting doesn't count as an extra turn, and therefore boosting characters can complete breaks and take full advantage of the enemy's weakness, and of the air or down state you have inflicted upon them.
Understanding this complex system is the only way to defeat the game's unforgiving bosses. The thing is, if you just attack normally, you don't only inflict minimal damage, but the boss also begins to heal himself, or goes berserk and unleashes attacks that mow your party down. So basically, the game forces you to learn and use its system properly, instead of just throwing it in there as a fancy gimmick.
In addition, you gather skill points from battles and customize your characters by making them learn supporting and attack magic, as well as equip various status-improving skills and protections. The skill system works completely differently than in the first game, but it is at least as satisfying. There are event slots during battles (critical, skill points up, etc.), which spice them up even more. The robot battles are now separated from normal ones, and there are robot dungeons, like in Xenogears. Personally, I liked it much more this way, when you are forced to use the robots - I never used them in the first episode, since battles were easier to manage with characters.
An interesting aspect of the gameplay is the total lack of money. You cannot buy anything in this game - reason more to plan your battles well, because you can get healing items only from battles, or finding them in treasure chests or hidden in objects you can destroy. There are also no weapons or armor. This simplicity has its counterweight in the complex battle system, so you never feel the gameplay here is simplified.
There is a fair amount of puzzles in the dungeons. The puzzles are mostly of re-arranging kind, normally you have to create a path for yourself by moving around blocks and similar things. Some of those puzzles can get pretty challenging, so expect to spend some time thinking. I personally could have lived without those puzzles, but I also don't mind extra challenge of another kind once in a while.
The BadA big problem of this game is its length. This must be the shortest Japanese RPG I have ever played. I finished it in 25 hours, and I did take time to explore the dungeons properly.
Unfortunately, the length problem applies not only to the gameplay, but to the narrative as well. The first episode had a considerably longer story. Here, I had the feeling the narrative "jumped" right from the introductory part to the ending one. Immediately after Sakura's subconsciousness, a short series of final dungeons followed, and that was it. This gives the episode a too much of an "intermezzo" feel.
While the writers didn't forget the unanswered questions from the first game, referring to them from time to time, they also didn't really answer any of them. In the end, you are left with the same burning curiosity, and can't help being "cheated".
The game shares many of the problems of the first episode. There is not enough movement in the game; I'd appreciate a world map of some sorts. Like the first part, the sequel is very linear. Although some side quests and new game mode partially make up for it, I would have liked more exploration possibilities. Only during the brief stay on Second Miltia there was a possibility to go to several locations in the city. In all other times, the game simply took you to the next destination. I would also really like to physically control a space ship.
The dialogues and the voice acting are still so-so. Not bad, but not too good either. I could put up with the voice acting, but the writing could have definitely used some improvement. There are still too many "programmed" lines, too many cliches; the annoying Japanese pattern of repeating the last phrase pops out whenever possible: "You are the only one!" - "The only one?" - "The only one who can save me!" - "Save you?" - "Or kill me!" - "Kill you?"... Well, you know the drill. Such dialogues damage the game, make it less mature than it was supposed to be.
Also, I would really like to have 360 degree camera rotation, why it is still not widely implemented in Japanese RPGs, despite the fact 3D shooters know it almost since their birth, is beyond me. Suikoden IV has free camera rotation and even first-person perspective navigation; this should become a standard for all 3D RPGs: otherwise what's the point of 3D graphics? Move on to the next millennium, people.