"At its core, Planet Stronghold 2 is a very narrative-driven and choice-heavy title."
Three years after the Descoria virus turned nearly all robots against their creators on Planet Stronghold, life on the colony world has been a constant struggle for the remaining human colonists, though their circumstances differ greatly depending on alliances previously made or destroyed. Did Captain Nelson side with the Human Empire on a path of genocide against the alien natives of the planet before the virus hit, or did they form a tentative alliance with the natives instead and turn their back on their imperial overlords? How would either decision ultimately change the playing field and set the stage as the planet itself begins to undergo a transformation of catastrophic proportions that could very well threaten all of its inhabitants once more?
Planet Stronghold 2 begins by having players select their Captain Nelson (Joshua or Lisa) as well as their hero's job class, and it also gives them the choice between two very different alliances from the first Planet Stronghold. Selecting one alliance over the other greatly influences the way several key story scenes play out, offering a lot of replayability right from the very beginning. For instance, if you side with the Empire, most of the surviving aliens on the planet will be hostile to you. On the other hand, you'll get a very different sense of life on Planet Stronghold should you choose to ally with the aliens from the start. At the same time, years have passed since the events of the first game, so players will also see a more reluctant and jaded Nelson begin to question their various alliance choices in interesting ways.
At its core, Planet Stronghold 2 is a very narrative-driven and choice-heavy title. The initial choices are really only the tip of the iceberg. Every interaction Nelson has with another character has the potential to impact the plot in some way, even in minuscule details. For example, choosing to share a few drinks with a comrade will result in a slightly tipsy Nelson in later story scenes, to the point where other characters even notice and remark on it. An optional interview might have lasting repercussions for potential diplomatic relations depending on how you approach it, and telling the truth might have unfortunate consequences. Actions taken to solve a quest might be commented on or judged by other characters, increasing or decreasing the likelihood of them offering their own support to Nelson's cause. Based on choices made throughout Planet Stronghold 2, especially as it reaches its surprisingly emotional climax, there are multiple endings and outcomes for players to uncover.
The sheer amount of plot possibilities is impressive and offers incredible replayability for those who want to experience as many different routes and, as befitting a Winter Wolves game, romances as possible. Players can even choose to begin the game in an already established relationship, though it won't be without some problems, or start afresh as the sequel continues. I started my Lisa playthrough by having her side with the Human Empire and be single, though I ended up courting the spy Avae as the story advanced. In my Joshua playthrough, I allied with the alien residents of Planet Stronghold and continued a relationship with Prince Cliff. During both of my Planet Stronghold 2 playthroughs, I was amazed with how seamlessly the romance and differing plot points came into play.
Planet Stronghold 2's story and characters truly shine in this sci-fi RPG. The branching narrative points are set in a rather fleshed out story universe, populated by likable and believable characters who may not always support every response or action Nelson takes. I found quite a few favorites within the cast, from the cynical Philipp to the bubbly Michelle. These characters are all surprisingly complex and far from one-dimensional, with their own reasoning for being where they are and layers of nuance that belie outward appearances. For instance, Michelle struggles with a lot of negative emotions deep below the surface, particularly if your Nelson sided with the Empire initially. I have to admit, I wasn't the biggest fan of some of Milo's actions given the problematic tropes they could arguably fall into, but his viewpoints in other scenes and his reactions could be quite insightful all the same and helped him stand out from the cast. About the only character I was really unsure of was the new addition Lakadema; she seems shoved into the story and conversations at every possible turn once she's introduced at the game's halfway point. However, there is at least a narrative reason behind Lakadema's story precedence given how vital her powers are to the plot.
While it isn't necessary to have played the original Planet Stronghold or its prequel Planet Stronghold: Colonial Defense to enjoy this game, the sequel does provide some nice character moments and Easter Eggs for those who come into it with prior knowledge, particularly with the way certain characters, such as Damien, have developed over the course of the narrative's timeline. Planet Stronghold 2 does reference story elements that make more sense if you know about plot reveals from the previous games, but you won't really miss much if you haven't played the other Planet Stronghold titles.
Gameplay-wise, Planet Stronghold 2 presents its story in a visual novel style and offers traditional RPG elements such as equipping and using items, exploring area maps, turn-based combat, and learning skills for use both during battles and in story scenes. The various weapons and armor at your disposal all have grades and ranks, and higher-ranked equipment can even be upgraded as you progress through the game. Players come across equipment through battle spoils, buying it from stores or merchants, story scene results, and decrypting datapads found throughout the game. Equipment can also improve or protect you from certain types of damage, and I found it best to experiment with my party until I discovered the weapon and armor combos that worked for me. Planet Stronghold 2 throws a lot of text-heavy tutorials at you for combat especially, but I largely used trial and error to truly get the swing of things. Battles can be long, drawn-out affairs if your party is not properly equipped or leveled, but I generally found the combat system to be easy enough to get the hang of after a few tries.
Skills in Planet Stronghold 2 include class and hero skills that can be used in battle and differ between jobs and characters, as well as more passive and generic skills that characters can learn as they level up to help aid the party during certain story scenes, opening up alternative approaches to various situations. A character with high charisma, for example, might be able to talk a terrorist into letting hostages go, and someone who has a lot of stealth can slip in unnoticed from behind and incapacitate an enemy before they do something foolish. Using skills like this helps to keep scenarios lively and interesting, and it often yields more beneficial quest results than simply going with the default choice. A great strategy I found was to have every generic skill mastered by at least one party member so that I always had someone who could accomplish a specific task when it came up.
As the story progresses, you take on quests that earn you experience the same way battles do. These quests range from being main plot relevant to optional sidequests, and completing as many as you can within the time frame allotted for them is always beneficial. However, depending on what happens in the game, it is quite possible to actually fail certain quests too. Party members also have personal loyalty quests that you can partake in to get rare items specific to their characters and extra story scenes as well.
The weakest gameplay component of Planet Stronghold 2 is the exploration element. When Nelson leaves the main colony, you usually explore sectors of the planet that are depicted as large squares of an empty map. Moving through the map opens it up to reveal enemies lying in wait or areas of interest to explore. The exploration in theory isn't bad, but the execution is tedious, and I found myself getting bored trying to complete each map grid before moving onto the story scenes, where things move at a quicker pace. There are also special exploration missions called raids in which Nelson and company advance through a sector in order to get back to the main map. These raids often have the same tedious feeling as map exploration, but with the added difficulty of not being able to leave and refresh your party until the raid is over and done with.
For those just interested in Planet Stronghold 2's story, the game offers a visual novel mode. This mode does away with battles entirely, but you still unfortunately have to explore areas and can run into enemies, though you never have to actually fight them. The transition between story scenes where battles would have taken place isn't quite as seamless as it perhaps could have been in this mode, but it certainly speeds things along gameplay-wise and emphasizes your story decisions more than anything else. I found the visual novel mode ideal for quick replays in particular.
Graphically, Planet Stronghold 2 makes use of background and character art as well as the occasional piece of visual novel still art to convey its story. For the most part, I quite like the game's aesthetic as it fits the sci-fi setting. The slightly more anime-inspired designs really stand out, and the alien creatures are particularly well designed and interesting to behold. However, there is a big discrepancy with the visuals: it is clearly apparent that different art styles were used for certain characters, most notably Gustavo and the traveling merchants you meet while exploring sectors. This discrepancy is especially noticeable when the styles don't mesh well together on screen. It's off-putting at times, though I think the artists did a great job and it isn't as noticeable as it can sometimes be in other Winter Wolves games. There is a bit of fan service throughout Planet Stronghold 2, but I found myself not caring overly much about it as it's pretty equal opportunity for both male and female characters.
Voice acting is present to a degree in Planet Stronghold 2, though it is only in snippets of character dialogue and during battles. Lisa and Joshua stand out the most as you hear them often during quest resolutions, but the voice acting in general is surprisingly decent given how limited it is. Music is also quite fitting for the setting of the story, and I was surprised by how emotional certain tracks felt. This is especially true of the lovely vocal theme that plays during the credits. There are some typographical and grammar mistakes within the script, but I found that I was able to quickly correct them in my head without it being too detrimental to my overall enjoyment of the story.
It is obvious that a lot of time and care went into the creation of Planet Stronghold 2. The fruit of that labor is a truly enjoyable and well-crafted RPG/visual novel hybrid. Those who enjoy choice-heavy sci-fi tales with likable characters and a bit of romance should consider giving this title a chance.