Editor’s Note: Due to the nature of this game as a direct sequel, this review contains spoilers for Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht, as well as a few minor spoilers for this, the second Episode. If you are interested in the series but have not yet played the first game, consider doing so before reading this review.
Beyond Good and Evil
Tetsuya Takahashi, along with the old and new members of the Monolith Software staff, continued with the Xenosaga series by releasing Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits Von Gut und Boese (Beyond Good and Evil). Like Der Wille Zur Macht (The Will To Power), this title is a direct allusion to a work of the same name by 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (also spelled “Nietzche”).
But while we’re on the idea of “beyond good and evil,” that is, neutral, amoral, etc., let us note an unintentional connection between the game’s name and the game itself. For anyone playing this game that has also played Episode I (that should be about 99% of the Episode II gamers), the changes made from the previous game to this game come as a shock. Many of the people that worked on Episode I are gone — and new artists, musicians, scenario writers, and programmers have come to give a fresh perspective. Is this good? Is this bad? Many people took it to be a bad thing, but I see it as beyond good and evil; it simply is as it is. The change was, for most gamers, not at all desired, but in many regards, the game flows smoothly in this transition. The specific changes from I to II will be discussed throughout the review.
As Sweet and Seductive As a Deal With the Devil!
In today’s videogame market, nothing seems to be more important than graphics. Episode II doesn’t do anything to “push the envelope” on graphics, but it does look beautiful, as do most games developed late in a console’s lifetime. There are some particularly pleasing environments, such as the forested Subconscious Domain (Summer) or Old Miltia, lit by a remarkable sunset.
The “movie” sequences in Episode II, while being smaller in number and in length when compared to Episode I, look beautiful. No PS2 RPG is complete without a solid introduction movie, and in my opinion, Episode II delivers on this one. The introduction sequence features some awesome giant-robot-fighting action, along with some stunning visuals of a city being ripped to pieces.
The big change, graphically, comes in the form of character designs. The characters from Episode I had a “pseudo-anime” style to them, especially in regards to faces. In Episode II, nearly every character has been given a “facelift” to make them like more realistic. This change was one that I initially resisted, but eventually came to accept as good in its own right. The characters do look remarkable, especially in movie sequences. Of all the character design changes, none is so drastic as that of Shion Uzuki, who goes from Sailor-Mercury-nerd-cute to pseudo-sophisticated-post-teenage-brat. She loses her glasses (explained by a comical scene in the game’s introduction), then she changes outfits, and voila: she’s a whole new girl.
In battle, graphics look fairly smooth. The enemies and the characters of your party interact with one another seamlessly, giving the feel that a real battle is taking place (which is difficult to do in a traditional menu-style RPG combat system). Again, none of this is entirely spectacular considering the fact that almost every PS2 game these days “looks good.” But I’d say that a significant amount of work went into these graphics, and I was pleased by them: hence, a high score in this category.
You Can Hear What I’m Saying?
Generally, when considering a game’s sound, the category splits into music and sound effects. For games that have it, voice acting is also considered. For Xenosaga Episode II, the category of music is split into further divisions: “in-game” music and “movie scene” music. So distinct is this contrast that, as of the date of this review being written, Episode II has only had a “movie scene” soundtrack released, and there has been no separate publishing of in-game music (the likelihood of its release is also quite low at this point).
Gamers generally agree that, between the two types of music, the movie scene music is much better. First of all, it is not constrained in such a way as to require a “loop,” so they can be composed like any song, with a true beginning and ending. Second, it is composed by Yuki Kajiura, who has written music for popular animes such as .hack//SIGN and Noir. Indeed, Ms. Kajiura shines as an accomplished composer, using a number of ethnic instruments and “voice chants” to make a tense situation even more tense, or comfortable situations even more comfortable.
In contrast to this music, the in-game music is composed by veteran composer Shinji Hosoe, who has written music for a variety of types of games. Hosoe’s style is generally electronic/techno, and I’ve read many reviewers accuse him of being simply too repetitive, both within a song and among the songs for any particular game. While I personally enjoy and support Hosoe in his musical endeavors, I have to agree that his music in Episode II is not particularly inspired, and sometimes does not seem to fit within the game very well. It also stands in stark contrast to Kajiura’s songs. Unfortunately, since movie sequences are seemingly few and far between, the gamer will spend 90% of game-time hearing Hosoe’s songs. The battle themes are not at all unpleasant, but the town themes can quickly become very irritating.
To make matters worse, both of these composers are following on the heels of Yasunori Mitsuda, the well-loved composer of Episode I (who also composed music for Xenogears and the Chrono series, among other titles). I’ve heard many Xenosaga fans complain about this staff change than any other, including the changes in character design. However, I thought it only made sense that a change in music should accompany a change in graphics and gameplay. It gave Episode II a unique flair that I hope can happen with each subsequent title in this series.
More changes abound from the first to the second Episode as roughly half of the voice actors have been replaced. Jr. and Ziggy are the same, but KOS-MOS, MOMO, and Shion are clearly different people. Even chaos has a new voice actor, though this change is not as noticeable. Having an all-new female cast is hard to swallow on its own, but what’s worse is that the things that made the characters charming and unique are now gone. MOMO was my favorite character from Episode I, precisely because I thought the voice acting was done so well. In Episode II, I feel that MOMO has become a bland and typical whiny girl. KOS-MOS’ “robot” style voice has also been removed, and she has begun to sound slightly more like a real person — I welcomed this change, but I still long to hear the Episode I KOS-MOS speak. Shion’s new voice actor does a superb job in matching the new “Shion” style, demonstrated most effectively in her pathetic arguments with her older brother, Jin Uzuki.
Speaking of Jin, his voice is new to the game, as he is essentially a new character. Generally, I found that the male voice actors sounded quite realistic: dramatic when needed, calm when appropriate. Jin’s voice was truly exceptional in my opinion, one of the best voice actors I’ve heard yet in an RPG.
All of these things combine to make a soundscape that is good, but not exceptional. I will not remember the music after a few months of having played the game, and I am trying to block memories of the new MOMO shattering the cute and lovable voice of the Episode I MOMO.
Every Cell In My Body Is Aching For a Fight!
The gameplay in Episode II features a lot of similarities from Episode I, but also has a lot of new features. As for me, I loved these new features. What are they, you ask? Again, I think it’s only fair that we break this category down into further subdivisions. Let’s start with the most obvious part: battles.
Battles in Xenosaga II are designed in such a way that every battle is interesting, and every battle takes a fair amount of time to complete. Even when the characters are at the end of the game, going back and fighting enemies from the beginning areas can take much longer than, say, Final Fantasy X, where a physical attack from Lulu could “overkill” any enemy from the first quarter of the game.
The reason for all this is that the battle system is set up to be very complex. The most important new feature is the “zone attack” system. Enemies can be attacked in three zones: A (high), B (middle), or C (low). Different characters in your party are able to attack different zones: for example, Ziggy can attack B and C, but not A; Shion can attack A, and sometimes B, but never C. Most enemies have a two-hit combination zone that you have to figure out, and doing this leads to a “Zone Break.” This means that damage can start accumulating in the form of “combos”, but it also means that the enemy can now be sent into the “Air” or “Down” to the ground, depending on who attacks them. KOS-MOS and Jin can use their strongest attack to “Air” an enemy, whereas Ziggy and Chaos use their attacks to “Down” an enemy. Jr., because he wields guns, is unable to do either.
Of course, none of this is possible without boosting, a feature remembered from the days of Episode I. The boost bar goes up by attacking enemies, and can increase drastically on a “boost” turn (which appears one out of every four turns on a wheel, making the battle even more sophisticated and complex). To successfully “Break” and then “Air” or “Down” an enemy, boosting at least once is required. For harder enemies and bosses, the two-hit combination becomes three, even four hits. Discovering the patterns can be tricky: BCCB, ABCB, CCCB, patterns along these lines need to be discovered by trial and error on the boss to learn how to do any effective damage.
Take note: this two-paragraph explanation is already a bare-bones summary of how to effectively battle an enemy. There are a number of other factors involved in battle, including ether (magic), double techs, “stocking”, and mid-battle character-switching. I am mentioning these to demonstrate that battles are fairly complex, and in my opinion, highly enjoyable for the gamer that loves a challenge. A fair complaint to raise against this combat system is that the path to victory is quite narrow, and so it’s almost like solving a puzzle: there is only one effective solution. Furthermore, that solution is generally quite time-consuming, as it involves maximizing the stocks, the boost gauge, etc., until the major assault is made. This can become quite repetitive. However, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it a refreshing form of combat.
Oh, did I fail to mention battling in E.S. units?
In Episode I, characters were given AGWS (Anti-Gnosis Weapon System) units, which were essentially another form of giant robots. However, in Episode I, these things were fairly useless. I went through the entire game without using them for any relevant battles (such as bosses), and I determined that using money to upgrade them was a waste. Many gamers agreed that these AGWS units were not anything to get excited about.
However, the E.S. units of Episode II are definitely a praiseworthy addition to the game. Unlike Episode I, where the gamer had the option to fight in an AGWS or on foot, there are whole dungeons, whole segments of the game where the player must fight in an E.S. unit. Two characters go into one of three E.S. units — Dinah, Asher, and Zebulun (note that these names are names from the twelve tribes of Israel, excluding Dinah, who was a daughter of Jacob and who, according to Xenogears Perfect Works, stands in place of Benjamin). Zebulun, piloted by MOMO, can use Ether skills (magic) acquired by MOMO; the others can only use the skills that come from the pilot (and to a small extent, the co-pilot).
Battles in the E.S. units allow only two of the three units on the field, which gives a different feel from the person-to-person combat. “Stock” and “Boost” features exist in these battles as well, but in modified form. The “Zone Attack” system doesn’t exist, so these battles are much simpler in terms of strategy. However, the boss battles in E.S. units can prove to be quite challenging. In fact, almost every boss battle in Episode II is quite challenging, which is very refreshing, considering how extravagantly easy most RPGs of the PS2 era have been.
Understand that I could rant about battles and how complex and difficult they are for another ten to twelve paragraphs, but I will stop here for the sake of brevity.
Leveling in Xenosaga Episode II has changed drastically from Episode I. Rather than being awarded Skill Points, Ether Points, and Tech Points, characters are only awarded Skill Points and Class Points. There are a sum total of 112 skills in Episode II, and none of them are character-exclusive. Hence, one can customize characters as they see fit.
However, skills are “ranked” under classes, and to unlock a group of four skills, class points must be spent. Class points are only acquired through rare items, defeating bosses, and learning all four skills in any particular class. Hence, it is expected that when learning one skill, the character will likely learn the accompanying three, so that the character has enough class points to continue to learn more skills.
There are three types of skills: Ether skills (magic that can be used in combat), Equippable skills (of which you can only have three or four at a time on any one character), and Mastered skills (skills that, once you choose to learn them, automatically take effect). These skills all seem less than powerful to the gamer who wants to get 50% damage resistance to elemental magic but can instead only get 25%. However, in the grand scheme of things, learning the skills makes a character very powerful, and the character lacking in skills becomes useless by the end of the game.
Obviously, skills and classes of higher levels (there are 4 levels, each containing 8 classes, except the 4th level which only has 4 classes, 4A through 4D) cost increasingly higher skill and class points. To make matters even more complicated, slightly less than half of the skills (mostly in the higher levels) are not available until you unlock them by attaining a certain item, which is usually achieved by completing a side quest or opening the right treasure chest.
After completing a battle, experience points are awarded to all members of your party (the unused characters will only get a portion of them; I would estimate 75%), but skill points only go to the characters used in the battle. This causes one serious balance issue: since no character has any intrinsic worth in terms of skills, most gamers will find themselves using the same three characters in every battle, since the character needs to stay in battles to keep acquiring skills. There are a few times Shion must be used, so I used Shion to a fair degree, but my “main” party consisted of Jin, KOS-MOS, and Ziggy. I would have loved to switch my characters to make them all balanced, but it seemed simply too inefficient and too time-consuming to do. As a result, my Jr., chaos, and MOMO were pathetically weak. I would consider this a fault in the game’s design.
Despite this fault, it is fair to say that this leveling and skill-learning system is somewhat fresh, and certainly not a copy from Episode I.
The game also sports some serious side-questing; specifically, there are 36 side quests to do in the “Global Samaritan Campaign,” which is a neat way to organize the side-quests. Each quest is started by talking to some random NPC, and then it begins. Depending on what you do, you may pass or fail the quest. A few of these quests cannot be completed until after the game has been beaten, and the quest is to be done in the “Epilogue scenario,” a welcome addition to the game allowing for much replay.
In addition to these 36 side quests, some of which involve action-oriented or puzzle-oriented mini-games, three “insanely-more-difficult-than-the-final-boss” bosses were added exclusively to the North American version of the game. Preparing to defeat these enemies adds a significant amount of time to gameplay hours, and is another welcome addition to Xenosaga Episode II.
One final note: Episode II has no shops, no equippable weapons or armor (except for a bonus “Swimsuit” that is used as an equipped skill) — nothing of that sort. This makes items, especially healing items, significantly more valuable and significantly less available. The closest thing to a shop found in Episode II is a station where one can essentially “throw out” items by means of selling them to help pay off Captain Matthews’ exorbitant debt of 10,000,000. This is actually one of the 36 GS campaigns, and is nearly impossible to complete short of stealing a special item from the last boss 20 times, which means beating the game 20 times, which has got to be the most mundane activity in the whole world.
In summary, there is much more “playing” to be done in Episode II, especially in comparison to Episode I, which many people accused of being essentially a movie with a few bits of gameplay thrown in for kicks. The battles are challenging and well-executed, the side-quests are fun and rewarding, and the leveling system is unique to this style of RPG. As a result, I consider gameplay the best aspect of this game, and I award it a 93%.
Shion, I am switching your craft to control mode B. Prepare for docking.
The most important part of “control” for an RPG is menu navigation. Fortunately, menu navigation in Xenosaga Episode II is fairly convenient. It takes some getting used to, but once the player has learned how to go from one submenu to another seamlessly (with use of the L and R buttons), things start to run rather smoothly.
My one complaint, one that I consider a major flaw, is that it is virtually impossible to avoid enemy encounters without first starting the encounter, then running. In Episode I, changing from running to walking to sneak by an enemy was an effective way to avoid combat. In Episode II, walking doesn’t do you any good whatsoever. Once you are within a certain radius from the enemy, the enemy darts toward you at a speed about twice your own, and the battle will commence. This becomes an even more significant problem when attempting to shoot one of the “bonus” tiles that cripples an on-screen enemy and gives either a boost or stock bonus to the player. Usually, the enemy will reach the player before the player can hit the square button to shoot the bonus tile, and then the battle begins without the bonus, and the bonus tile is rendered useless.
Another problem I found was that in some mini-games, the player would be required to rotate the analog stick a certain number of times. For some reason, even when I went slowly, I would have a difficult time convincing the game that I was actually rotating the analog stick. I tested out a number of controllers to make sure I didn’t just have a faulty controller; thus, it was either the fault of my thumb, or the fault of the game. I’d prefer to blame the game.
Since “control” shouldn’t really be an issue with a traditional console RPG, but it somehow became an issue in Episode II, I have to dock some points and give control a 75%. It could’ve been a lot worse, but it could’ve been better too.
I’m thrilled…that you’ll finally be entering the stage.
In my mind, the single most important aspect of an RPG is its plot. As far as gameplay goes, it can be as fun and exciting as bungee-jumping, or it can be as tedious and excruciating as pulling hundreds of staples from a bulletin board with your own fingernails; as long as it has a decent plot, it’s still a good game overall.
This belief of mine certainly holds true with a game of such philosophical depth and complex character development. People are expecting Xenosaga to contain all the plot twists and shocking revelations found in its pseudo-prequel, Xenogears. Xenosaga Episode I laid the foundation for the plot of Episode II nicely, and it is now up to Episode II to continue the story in a way that isn’t too fast or shallow, nor too slow and belabored, but just the right tempo to keep the player guessing at what will happen next, and more importantly: who’s good, and who’s bad?
Things certainly get confusing, as the emphasis on characters switches from Shion (and, to some extent, KOS-MOS) to Jr. By the end of Episode I, most players expected Shion to forever be the “main character,” but by the end of Episode II, a new idea emerges: perhaps for each episode, there will be a new character in the spotlight. To be sure, Episode II does bring much depth to each of the seven playable characters, but it is clear that the center of Episode II’s story involves the URTVs Rubedo (Jr.), Nigredo, and Albedo. Through use of encephalon dives, U.M.N. simulators, and other such things, the characters spend much of their time delving through memories of the past to reveal various key things.
Along with Shion taking a backseat, it seems that the Gnosis have also been downplayed. While their origin is unknown, the reason as to why they have shown up is explained in further detail, but is done so in passing, as if it didn’t matter. Hints were given at the end of Episode I as to who the real villains were, if they can be called villains: in Episode II, the identity of these villains are confirmed. This is done primarily in the Ending movie sequence, which simultaneously ties up the loose ends of Episode II and brings into question the identity/existence of some of your characters. To be sure, by the end of this game, any player who has enjoyed the plot thus far is begging for answers to the mysteries of this complex and multi-layered story. Each character still has a lot of secrets waiting to be unveiled; it is torture wondering what it is Tetsuya Takahashi is trying to get across.
The story’s execution is done primarily through the use of the movie-style cut scenes. These cut scenes are often much more “action-oriented” than Episode I, which was weighed down with hours of dialogue from characters that just stood there, having the camera pan different angles. In Episode II, there seem to be a lot more action sequences: destruction of buildings and vehicles, chase scenes, that sort of thing. There are more of them in Episode II, and they make the story feel a lot more upbeat than the story of Episode I. However, the massive amount of reading that could be done in Episode I’s encyclopedia of terms is unavailable in Episode II. I was disappointed to see this feature go, as these explanations from Episode I were very informative to the gamer concerned with every last detail of the plot.
My one problem with the story is that, by the end of Episode I, I expected it to go in a specific direction. Episode II feels like one very large “aside” to the overall plot. Whether or not this is the case remains to be seen; the point is that there is a feeling of discontinuity in the plot. The end of Episode II suggests, however, that KOS-MOS will continue to play a key role in the plot as the story continues, as was suggested throughout Episode I.
Because of this one complaint, I do not feel I can give the story a perfect score. I award the story of Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits Von Gut und Boese a 90% for being intricate and complex, but perhaps slightly irrelevant to the over-arching story of Xenosaga.
Exit the stage. Your act is over.
Xenosaga Episode II is another solid game from Monolith Software and Namco. Since I can’t get away from writing this review without making the comparison, I will say that I slightly prefer this game to Episode I, though Episode I has a certain charm to it that the second lacks.
However, when comparing this title to other RPGs released in recent years, I cannot claim that this one is the best, though it is certainly “up there” in the rankings. It will appeal to a certain niche of gamers (generally, those who like to “think deep” alongside Nietzche, Jung, and those other contemporary philosophers that Takahashi seems to be obsessed with). The game has some significant replay value, especially with all the side-quests to complete after “completing” the game. I put 50 hours into this one, and I did not attempt to conquer those three new North American bosses, though I did do nearly everything else. Compared to Episode I, which I absolutely obliterated in 35 hours, this is a game with a chunky serving of “stuff” for the gamer to complete. All of that said, I give this game an 89% — not quite “A” material, but still very good, and definitely worth playing.
As long as Xenosaga continues to sell well in both Japan and the USA, the series can continue to be developed to the point where it reaches a conclusion. Gamers who enjoyed Episode I and want to see this tale come to an end should take that into consideration when deciding whether or not to purchase Episode II. Even if you are turned off by the change in music, graphics, character design, and plot, try to put that aside for a few hours and force yourself to get into this game. It is a rewarding experience, and who knows: Episode III could be even better than the first two combined.