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Warning: Being a direct sequel, this review contains unavoidable spoilers of Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht.
Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse, the latest installment in Tetsuya Takahashi's grand series, has finally arrived... but, has Monolith Software been able to address the gameplay shortcomings of Der Wille zur Macht?
When the road to Lost Jerusalem has been opened, KOS-MOS shall awaken.
Shion and company have finally arrived on Second Miltia, a direct continuation of the events from the game's predecessor. This time around, however, the story focuses exclusively on two characters, Rubedo and Albedo. In terms of character development, the rest of the cast merely comes along for the ride; love them or hate them, this game is about URTVs. Monolith Software has managed to expatiate several key relationships; Shion and Jin, M.O.M.O. and Juli Mizurahi, Chaos, Wilhelm, and Nephilim, as well as the U-TIC (Ormus) Organization all receive their fifteen minutes of fame, but the storyline manages to overlook several prime elements which were introduced in the previous installment. What happened to the Gnosis? The seemingly ubiquitous threat to the galaxy has all but vanished, relegated to the role of a simple plot device. In return, several key questions have been answered, but many more are now lingering in the aftermath of the game's ending, an incredibly unexpected cliffhanger. Any form of entertainment which can inspire one to examine the nature of his own existence is truly precious, and in this regard, Xenosaga's writing surpasses all expectations.
Given the task of developing an epic series of this caliber, it's understandably hard to please everyone; while many importers have found themselves dissatisfied with Episode II's emphasis on resolving a single plot thread, few can deny that the overall experience that Xenosaga provides is one ultimately unrivaled throughout the history of console role-playing games.
Monolith Software has addressed many of the issues which hindered Episode I in the gameplay department, particularly with the redesigned battle system. 'Break' patterns, specific attack combinations that can result in increased damage, effectively add an element of strategy to combat. Unfortunately, deciphering each enemy's specific pattern amounts to little more than a guessing game, as the player experiments with various attacks until the proper combination is discovered. Once in 'Break' status, the enemy is vulnerable to the unique attributes of each character's particular arsenal; for instance, KOS-MOS and Jin are capable of knocking the enemy into the air, resulting in the inflicted 'Air' status, while Ziggy can crush them into the ground, resulting in the inflicted 'Down' status. These effects serve as damage multipliers and can be used in conjunction with the Boost system to create massive chains against an unsuspecting adversary. In addition to the new Double Techs and Double Ethers, all three characters now share a single Boost Gauge and can be dismissed mid-battle in order to summon an ally waiting on the benches, fairly reminiscent of Final Fantasy X. The system works well and succeeds in spicing up the monotonous combat featured in the game's predecessor.
However, an old adage holds true: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Several functional aspects of Episode I's gameplay have been unnecessarily simplified in the series' latest installment. Currency is nowhere to be found in the world of Episode II, resulting in a complete absence of shops and character equipment. In order to compensate for this change, items can be procured from chests and are frequently dropped by enemies. The level of character customization available in Episode I has been almost entirely removed; Ethers, Techniques, and Skill Extraction have now been condensed into the incredibly generic 'Skills' category. Skills are contained within a variety of 'Classes' which must be unlocked by using Class Points (CP). Having done so, the player is granted access to the various Skills contained within that Class, which can be learned by using Skill Points (SP). Unfortunately, every character has access to an identical array of Skills; by the end of the game, each member of the entourage is likely to have an indistinguishable suite of abilities under their belt, while the only unique attributes separating them are their inherent elemental affinities. These changes were incredibly disappointing and served to encumber the potential for greatness within the surprisingly dynamic battle system.
Segment Addresses mark their return in Episode II, while a newcomer, the Get Global (G2) Campaign, is also introduced. G2 consists of thirty-six unique side quests which yield items, Double Techs, and even unlock hidden skills as rewards for completion. Several of these tasks can be completed in as little as five minutes, while others (particularly the notorious #32) can require over ten hours of gameplay in order to thoroughly conquer. Many of them present challenging optional boss fights, interesting puzzles and other mini-games, but an unsettling number of them fall into the dreaded 'fetch quest' sub-category. While I applaud the effort to deepen and extend the gameplay experience beyond the main storyline, fetch quests, particularly those which require the player to fly back and forth between Second Miltia and the Kukai Foundation ad nauseum, are not the proper way of accomplishing this goal.
Aesthetically, Episode II is hindered by several unacceptable oversights. Monolith's decision to use realistic character models breathes new life into the Xenosaga universe. While the upgrade from their previously anime-influenced designs was well-intended, jaggies find a way to manifest themselves in disconcerting quantities, and rampant clipping becomes an unfortunately common occurrence, particularly obvious in Jin's victory stance. Most noticeable is Monolith's failed attempt at rendering hands, which more closely resemble colored blocks than anything related to human anatomy. Even so, breathtaking environments and intricate mech designs easily compensate for such nuances with the textures. As always, a screenshot is worth a thousand words.
Aurally, Episode II is incredibly inconsistent. Yuki Kajiura's contributions to the soundtrack, most of which are contained exclusively in cutscenes, are truly excellent; deep, emotional tracks such as "Lamentation" and "I am Free" highlight poignant events in the lives of Rubedo and Albedo throughout the course of the game. Kajiura's style is much different than Yasunori Mitsuda's, but the transition wasn't necessarily in ill-taste; "Sweet Song," the vocal ending theme, easily rivals the talents of Joanne Hogg, although thoughts on this controversial issue will vary from person to person. The in-game music was composed by Shinji Hosoe. Compared to Yuki Kajiura, his contributions are relatively hit-and-miss. The good news is that each area in Episode II is accompanied by a track of music, an improvement over Episode I's monotonously dissonant melodies of footsteps. Unfortunately, Hosoe's compositions range from 'uninspired' to 'completely inappropriate' for their respective scenarios. As several importers have described it, each area is infused with an unnecessarily upbeat 'techno dating simulation' resonance which accompanies the new tracks.
Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse breaks boundaries in terms of storytelling and cinematics, but remains hindered by unbalanced gameplay, monotonous quests, and blatant oversights in production quality. Monolith Software has made significant progress in recent years, but the proper execution of Tetsuya Takahashi's vision requires further tempering at the forge. However, those who enjoyed Der Wille zur Macht, despite its shortcomings, should be thoroughly satisfied with the epic tale of Jenseits von Gut und Böse.