Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
While Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht (The Will to Power) was generally regarded as one of the best RPGs available for current hardware platforms, it also quickly earned a reputation among fans for what was generally considered tedious and boring gameplay. With Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Boese (Beyond Good and Evil), Monolith Software did not only tune the battle system, but also changed the main characters’ visual style and the way the story is presented.
Visually, Xenosaga Episode II is easily among the best looking RPGs on the market, especially the environments and lighting effects (for instance in the Flood City) which can only be described as beautiful. Considering the high quality of the prequel’s character models and detailed environments, a visual quantum leap would have been hard to accomplish, given the technical limitations of the PlayStation 2 hardware. Very rarely does the old nemesis of all PlayStation 2 developers, the infamous aliasing, raise its ugly head in the form of jaggies, such as during Jin’s victory pose. This minimal flaw can be neglected though, given the overall beauty of the game. Character designs have been altered to make characters, in particular Shion and KOS-MOS, look more realistic. Whether one welcomes this new design, is essentially a matter of taste.
The variety of locations and dungeons is not as great as in various Final Fantasy installments, but we are talking about a RPG set against the sparse background of space, after all. The spaceship Elsa and the Kukai Foundation are two locations that return from the prequel in slightly altered form. The two dungeons which comprise the MOMO Deep Area are reminiscent of Episode I’s Encephalon.
One of the biggest surprises following the official announcement of the game, was the absence of Yasunori Mitsuda’s name from the staff list. The composer, who has worked on both Xenogears and Xenosaga Episode I, had been replaced by the duo of Yuki Kajiura and Shinji Hosoe (the former is best known for her wonderful .hack//SIGN soundtracks.) Kajiura does a more than decent job scoring Episode II’s movie sequences, even though her solid ending theme is not in the same league as previous Mitsuda compositions like Radical Dreamers. Hosoe’s generally upbeat techno-inspired compositions, on the other hand suffer from an impersonal touch, are hardly memorable and occasionally straight out of place. If he tried to correct the often criticized subdued role music played in the prequel, this was definitely not the right way to do it. Sadly, the “Image Theme”, by far the most memorable track Kajiura composed for Xenosaga Episode II, never made it into the game. It was only on the second disc of the soundtrack as a bonus track. Voice acting is as stellar as one should expect from a high profile Japanese game production. All the voice performances fit their respective characters and convincingly bring them to life during the cut scenes. Characters also say a few lines in the beginning of a battle and during their respective victory poses.
Story-wise, the game does pick up exactly where the ending of Episode I left off, but not without taking players into an interactive flashback showing Militia 14 years ago, just after the initial Militian Conflict had begun. At this occasion, the player is introduced to Shion Uzuki’s older brother, Jin, and Canaan, who is working for representative Helmer. The two will join the well-known cast of playable characters from the prequel (Shion, KOS-MOS, Chaos, MOMO, Jr. and Ziggy). On the villains’ side, Albedo, U-TIC commander Margulis, his deputy Peligri and scientist Sellers are still around and continue to play major roles. New to the bad boys’ camp is a second organization wielding significant power and influence over U-TIC, called Ormus. Ormus resides in a huge orbital fortress and is headed by a gray-haired leader known only as The Pope.
After the short flashback in the beginning, the storyline follows the present events again as the party arrives on Second Militia. The omnipotent Y-Data stored in MOMO by genius scientist and U-TIC founder Joachim Mizrahi is to be analyzed at the UMN Administration Center and KOS-MOS is to be upgraded at the local Vector Industries facility. Needless to say, neither of those two ventures plays out as planned. As the door to Militia, where the original Zohar is located opens, a race between Federation, Kukai Foundation, Vector Industries, U-TIC and Ormus to retrieve the all-powerful item is on. In addition to following this major story line, Episode II however also shines some light into the tragic past of the three U.R.T.V.s Albedo, Jr. and Gaignun as well as Jr.’s connection to Joachim and Juli Mizrahi’s daughter Sakura.
Contrary to Xenogears and Xenosaga Episode I, Episode II’s main story and countless flashbacks are presented in a more straight forward and easy to grasp way, as per Monolith Software responding to the criticism of Episode I’s often difficult to follow story progression. What the development team also promised were answers to all the questions raised in the prequel. Indeed, the player will walk away with answers to some burning questions (such as: why did Albedo turn into his insane self? Of what quality is his obviously close relationship with Jr? What is the origin of Jr.’s affection to MOMO? What did Wilhelm’s cryptic comments at the end of Episode I relate to?). In the process of explaining some things, however, the game raises new questions, which remain unanswered even after watching the ending sequence. Given that director Kou Arai has already clarified Tetsuya Takahashi’s stance on the series’ further development, this might not have been a bad idea. According to Arai, Xenosaga is the story of Shion (and KOS-MOS). Hence, explaining every little detail about her and her surroundings in Episode II would make Episode III a rather senseless affair.
Xenosaga Episode I’s single biggest flaw was its gameplay, or so the often voiced opinion by an overwhelming majority of those who played through the game would say. I have to admit, I found little wrong with Episode I’s system and would have had nothing to complain about, had Monolith Soft just transferred the prequel’s system to Episode II without making a single change to it. But since I do not unite the series’ entire audience in one person, change was inevitable. First and foremost, the development team did away with weapons, armor, accessories and money. Levelling up aside, the only way to raise a character’s statistics is through the use of skills. Some of which can be equipped while others automatically take effect once mastered by the respective character. Even healing items can’t be purchased, but have to be obtained the hard way- by defeating enemies. Instead of being able to learn tech attacks, which after being mastered can be executed on the fly, Episode II requires players to find out a foe’s “break” point. Depending on its size and position on the battle field, each enemy has its unique break point, which can be exploited by attacking him with a special combo. The most effective combos require players to boost their characters for up to three turns, so they can perform a long chain attack sending their enemy flying into the air or crushing him into the dust of the battle field. Once the foe is in this weakened state, another party member can unleash a powerful follow-up attack dealing a significant amount of damage to your pitiful opponents. Another attack option is the so-called double tech, which allow two character to team up and perform a combination attack. Similar to Final Fantasy X, it is now also possible to change characters on the fly in the midst of a battle. This feature comes in particularly handy, when one realizes that a currently active character is unable to inflict any damage to an enemy.
Three key aspects which have not been changed are the magic spells known as “Ether”, the good old Boost command and the event slot. Since each character can learn up to 112 different skills, keeping an eye on the latter might be a good idea to obtain precious skills points as quickly as possible (Skill Bonus will quickly become your friend again.) The 112 skills are divided into four levels, of which the first three have eight and the fourth four classes each hold four skills. In order to access a certain category, players need to spend a certain amount of C.Points (Class Points). Only after they have gained access to the class, they can spend their S.Points (skill points) to unlock the various skills. More than once one might just wish to unlock one skill in any given class, while ignoring the other three. Since the only way of obtaining class points (not counting sparsely available items) is to unlock all four skills of one class, you will find yourself in a somewhat frustrating situation from time to time: Your preciously earned skills points are wasted to unlock unimportant skills only to obtain class points to unlock a class with more advanced skills. It goes without saying, that after unlocking said class, you could need the skill points spent on the unimportant skills, as described above.
Despite the fact that in Xenosaga Episode I all-powerful high-priced mechs were available to those willing and able to shell out a tiny sum of 300,000Gs, the tall robots ended up being relegated to the role of rarely used equipment. In the sequel, players will have to use their Anima Relic-powered ES series robots on a more frequent basis. Nonetheless, Xenosaga is not Super Robot Taisen or Gundam, hence the ratio between boss battles fought by characters versus those fought with mechs is still only 3:1. These mech battles basically follow the same basic rules as character battles, with one small exception: The two characters piloting one of the three ES series robots at your disposal can’t use any ether spells while inside their mech. The exception to this rule is MOMO.
There seems to be a general rule in the genre: No RPG is complete without sidequests. The more of these more or less rewarding wastes of time there are in the game, the better, or so it seems. Xenosaga Episode II easily trumps its prequel in this regard, for better and worse. The most rewarding side quest has returned in form of the Professor, his assistant Scott and their dream to build the ultimate weapon in robot form. The decent result of your labor and the Professor’s genius is the powerful Erde Kaiser – Retsu, a new form of Episode I’s all-powerful ether attack. Segment Addresses, the red doors behind which the desired treasure chests reside have made their return in dozens as well. And since those two quests are not enough, the development added the so-called G2 campaign. Encompassing a total of 36 campaigns, completing G2 takes more time than playing through the actual game itself. Among those 36 campaigns, some require you to defeat certain enemies, others require hitting a given sequence of at least 45 buttons correctly, but the vast majority are completed by bringing desired items from one resident to another. One can argue that the rewards are worth the labor, however after the umpteenth space trip between Second Miltia and the Kukai Foundation, this necessary evil starts getting tedious. For those who still want to spend even more hours with the game, four challenging bonus dungeons await to be cleared.
Despite some flaws, Monolith Software must still be commended for what they have delivered with Xenosaga Episode II – Jenseits von Gut und Boese. Like its prequel, the game does not even try to convince the player it would be anything else but a classic, heavily story-driven RPG with a traditional turn-based battle engine. The visuals are currently among the best in the genre and at least the songs composed by Yuki Kajiura are solid. Those who could not get used to Episode I’s battle system however, should not hope for salvation to come in this game. Several key aspects might have been changed, but the basic battle engine still shares a lot of similarities with its predecessor.
For those who can overlook a few flaws, Xenosaga Episode II is a must-buy and an example how to craft a RPG with a truly epic story. Given the game’s lower than expected sales performance in Japan (280,000 copies versus a projected figure of 450,000 copies), one can only hope Tetsuya Takahashi and the development team at Monolith Software will stick to their formula and deliver another classic with Xenosaga Episode III.