"I am happy to report that Aphelion 2 overcomes the first game's biggest fault..."
This review contains spoilers for the original Aphelion.
I played Aphelion months ago, and found it to be a decent RPG with some interesting concepts. However, my enjoyment was soured by terrible story pacing and gameplay balance issues. Still, it was Lunatic Studio's first game, it stood out amongst indie games for its unique visuals, and it showed some untapped potential. Now, the 2nd and final game has arrived. Does it improve upon what its predecessor established? It does. It is not flawless, but it does deliver a better overall experience.
Aphelion 2 starts off exactly where the first game ended: Savion and friends managing to rescue the scientist, Delith, and escape the Earth military and Odyssey Tower. As this game begins, Savion demands answers as to why the first game's events occurred, and Delith fills him in. It turns out that he and a few other scientists had been working on a dangerous nanobot project, and anyone who got their hands on these nanobots would be able to shape the world to his or her will. When the military discovered the project's potential, they decided to take control and kill off everyone involved. By the end of the first game, the military had managed to obtain the nanobots, but all is not lost. The nanobots must still be activated, and that can only be done at a secret facility. Still, it's only a matter of time before the military finds it, and in addition to stopping the nanobots from being activated, the team still needs to figure out the Crimsons' role in all of this. With the fate of the world at stake, Savion and crew are determined to reach the facility and resolve all these events.
It's fortunate that I still remember the details of the first game's plot, because no recap of those events is given in Aphelion 2. The developers did explain the game mechanics (which are already fairly self-explanatory), but having a quick reminder of the story as well could have greatly benefitted those who jumped straight to this installment or who don't remember the prior events.
Recap or no, I am happy to report that Aphelion 2 overcomes the first game's biggest fault, featuring dramatically improved storytelling. The plot is not great by any means, but the improved pacing makes for a much better experience. Most of episode 1 took place in just one location, and very little happened in the span of its five hour tale. Important story segments felt scarce, and a lot of filler was thrown in to needlessly pad the length. It raised a lot of questions, but provided too few answers, and failed to provide enough intrigue to make me care about the unresolved questions. Episode 2 is mainly about one mission as well, but it features a lot more relevant moments, as well as more locales to visit, which keeps the scenes fresh. This game answers many of episode 1's key questions within the first few minutes, then manages to keep that momentum going until the end. It ties up a lot of loose ends and concludes the saga on a fairly satisfying note. Some unexplained details are left hanging, but not enough to ruin the experience.
The frequent interactions between characters remain enjoyable (their amusing banter with one another was highlight of the previous game's plot). They have great chemistry with one another, and the things they say come off as believable. Some of the characters also receive a nice dose of development this time around, with the most notable being Delith. When he first joins the group, he is quite full of himself, but as he realizes the damage his work has caused, he also gains compassion, warms up to the party and begins to be more likable. It's not incredibly deep or original by a long shot, but it is good to see the improvement. It's too bad the villains are such one-dimensional characters, and are barely around enough to bother remembering.
The other big problem in the first game was the way players were thrust into a scenario the instant they started playing, with characters who talked about in-world concepts that had not been given any prior explanation. That has been remedied in this installment with the inclusion of a database that gives a brief background for each character along with information on the world and the terminology. It gets updates periodically as the plot advances, so the information doesn't spoil future events or grow outdated. Do all players care about these things? Probably not, but the database adds some depth to the world for those who do care, and that is never a bad thing.
The lush visuals show slight improvements over the previous game, and they remain the series' greatest strength. The avatars of major characters are displayed during dialogue to add a little extra touch to the presentation. Dungeon layouts are streamlined, enabling players to explore, but the number of useless paths was cut down, removing a lot of redundancy. With such detailed visuals, the only real problem comes from the animations outside of battle, or rather the lack of animations. In many story sequences, everyone just stands still, and in town, no one moves at all, making the locales feel completely lifeless. The same issue was present in the first game, but because this game features more interaction between characters, it feels much more noticeable.
The audio is also generally improved. It features key tunes from the first game, but adds in a lot of new music as well. The musical style is primarily orchestral, but a few other styles pop up from time to time and add to the musical variety. The music is mainly atmospheric, with just enough catchy, melodic substance to give it memorable impact. I also give props to the composer for giving the villain a classy theme song with piano organs, accompanied by a great final battle theme. As a whole, the music is still not great, but it does stand out more than the music did in episode 1.
Controls are as simple and smooth as they should be for a traditional RPG, but they have some minor technical faults. For some reason, the controls are inverted when selecting party members, and players can't simply hold down the d-pad or analog to scroll through a long list of items. Maybe it's just my 360 acting up, but the load times also seem longer and more frequent than before. They're not major flaws, and a patch could remedy them. Interestingly, the mini map was completely removed, but the streamlined dungeon layout makes it less necessary than it was in the first game.
As a direct sequel, core gameplay remains the same, so I will only explain the adjustments and additions made to it. Please refer to my review of episode 1 for a more detailed explanation on the combat mechanics and other features.
Battles still play out in standard turn-based fashion, although the enemies show a much greater level of balance. The regular foes were far too easy in the first game, and they now put up a bit more of a fight. On the other hand, the first game's bosses had a ridiculous HP pool, and could occasionally kill you in one shot, even with a great setup. This time around, their strength and HP has been toned down, but they still pack a punch. The challenge level is fairly low as a whole, but the fights are well-paced, and it's a much fairer experience. The break meter (which gives party members a free turn) makes its return, and it's still vastly overpowered, although it fills up much more slowly, making it less abusable.
The crafting and character customization systems are carried over from the first game, but there are some notable changes in customizing. Each category now has five tiers, and combat skills are highlighted for your convenience. Some of the stat-boosting categories were merged, leaving fewer categories to choose from, and to balance things out, characters earn one skill point every third level instead of every level, so players have to choose their builds wisely. Overall, these changes are a good thing, as they make many categories more relevant and allow players to get to the good stuff more quickly.
Crafting is unchanged, and it's still a heavily underutilized feature. The game is easy enough without ever needing to touch it. In addition, new recipes are based on a character's crafting level, and since those points are now far more limited, there are simply better, more useful categories to invest in.
The sense of progression remains linear, but episode 2 adds sidequests into the mix. To facilitate this new feature, a teleport system has been added, allowing players to revisit previous areas. Normally, I'd try to complete them all, because sidequests add value to my enjoyment, but I didn't bother in this game. They were just so poorly implemented that they made me wonder if they were a last minute addition.
Quests usually consist of obtaining x amount of items or finding a specific NPC. It's the typical type of questing found in RPGs, which itself isn't a bad thing, but I wish you the best of luck in trying to complete some of these. The instructions are way too vague, asking you to find items without telling you where to search. They do tell you where NPCs are, but somehow I still couldn't find any of them. I tried hard, but had no luck finding that missing scientist in the swamp after forty minutes of effort. Maybe it was random NPC talk and I was mistaken to think otherwise. To top it all off, the rewards from the quests I did complete weren't worth all the trouble I had been through.
Fortunately, near the final stretch, new side content pops up, and it is far more polished than the earlier sidequests. The coliseum returns, but instead of one-on-one battles for each party member, it's a series of tougher boss fights. They're fun, and the payoff is much better than it was in episode 1. A tough optional dungeon is also available. Last but not least, there's still New Game+, which carries over your level and enables you to select a higher difficulty. It's too bad that no bonuses are earned for having completed the first game, but I presume that can't be done in Xbox indie games.
Aphelion: Episode Two still has its share of problems, but manages to be ultimately better than its predecessor by overcoming that game's most critical flaws. The story is improved, and the combat shows some much needed fine-tuning. I do suggest playing the first installment to get the whole picture, but the game's new database ensures that you won't miss much if you jump directly into episode 2. It's not an RPG that will blow you away or redefine the genre, but it's solid.