Faux-retro games are all the rage these days, but what about actual retro titles that managed to slip under our collective radar? Displaced in time, action RPG Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection arrives in North America nearly a decade after its original Japanese release. It rides in on the same wave that has seen much of Falcom’s catalog sent to our (digital) shores over the past few years courtesy of XSEED. As is typical of its venerable developer, Zwei possesses a timeless essence that makes it a competitive release in a year full of standout video games.
Zwei possesses a timeless essence that makes it a competitive release in a year full of standout video games.
It’s no stretch to say that much of Zwei’s charm can be attributed to its outstanding localization. A trope-reliant tale of a vampire princess and her newly christened vassal on a quest to reclaim a stolen birthright, Zwei is far from the most cerebral (or even unpredictable) title in Falcom’s library. It carries a cartoonish sensibility that’s one step above something like the wacky hijinks of Gurumin, but not quite as serious as Ys. As long as I’m making comparisons, Zwei actually reminds me intensely of Brave Fencer Musashi, with a 90s anime vibe that eschews all of the moe pandering that feels omnipresent in modern games of this style.
Zwei’s characters aren’t especially deep, but they’re incredibly charismatic. The best is how each of their bold personalities shines through after only a few lines of dialogue. Roguish hero Ragna feels particularly well-characterized; he’s a rough but good-natured sort of guy, with a toolbox of colorful phrases that help him steal every scene he’s in. Plus, he doesn’t sulk overly long during his requisite “hero discovers a shocking revelation” character arc. Bonus points, my dude. Surprisingly, the game even features an English dub that is astonishingly high-quality considering its status as a niche, PC-exclusive JRPG from 2008. I don’t know how or why they got the budget for it, but I sure ain’t complaining.
Zwei has serious moments, to be sure, but it generally skews goofy. It’s actually stronger for it. Falcom has plenty of other games awash in melodrama, so while the developer clearly has the chops to write complex stories, it’s nice to see them let their hair down with Zwei. Just don’t mistake “silly” for “childish” — Zwei doesn’t avoid darker themes like death and self-doubt so much as it dances around them with a knowing smirk. Its soundtrack contributes to its lighthearted tone; it’s retro, rooted in PSX-era sensibilities, and maybe a tad more comical than Falcom’s usual fare. (But trust that there’s a violin-heavy battle theme in there somewhere.)
The action in Zwei sticks to a predictable loop: watch some cutscenes, dive into a dungeon, fight a boss, and repeat. Of course, just about any video game can be boiled down to the repetition of a few key tasks, but I bring attention to Zwei’s structure because it starts to feel repetitive pretty early on. Dungeons are unfortunately bland and boxy, consisting of hallways connected to rooms connected to hallways. There’s little variation in terms of shape, structure, or mechanics; they only differ aesthetically, and even then, most fall into the typical “elemental dungeon” archetype so common to RPGs.
Combat isn’t especially nuanced, either. Zwei’s namesake is its two-character combat system that enables the player to switch between melee fighter Ragna and spell-slinging Alwen with the press of a button. Ragna gains access to a few customization options for his multi-purpose “Anchor Gear” weapon, and Alwen has a total of seven magic spells, but Zwei’s floaty physics and imprecise targeting prevent it from achieving the tactile feel perfected by Ys. There’s very little strategy required in any dungeon beyond mashing the attack button until enemies die. Bosses are an exception, demanding pattern recognition and skillful execution that make them the most exciting part of playing Zwei.
One of Zwei’s more unusual touches is its non-traditional experience point system. Instead of leveling up by defeating enemies, Ragna and Alwen only gain experience by eating food. Food drops from defeated enemies, however, so it doesn’t feel that different from a standard experience system in practice. Food also restores health, and because some bosses have attacks that feel impossible to reliably dodge, I tended to stockpile my food until the end of every dungeon, leveling several times in the course of each boss encounter. In short, it’s a little weird, but not too weird to make sense of.
Though disappointingly routine in terms of gameplay, Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is a welcome throwback to early 2000 JRPG aesthetics. There’s a level of polish here that goes beyond what a lot of modern RPGs fail to achieve as a result of their expanded scope. It’s also terribly, almost annoyingly charismatic, so much that I couldn’t believe how quickly I was drawn into its intimate little world.
Maybe it’s the floating islands. I do have a thing for floating islands.
The reviewer previously worked under contract with this publisher on an unrelated project prior to accepting the task of reviewing this game. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer’s opinion of the game or its final score.