Review: Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse (PS2)

Genre: RPG
Platform: PS2
Rating: T (Teen)
Publisher: Namco
Developer: Monolith Soft
Release Date: 02/15/2005

Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse (“Beyond Good and Evil”) picks up right where 2003’s Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht left off, and promises to answer many of the lasting questions fans may have had. But does it improve on its predecessor’s formula?


STORY

Love ’em or hate ’em, the Xenosaga games have always had a very deep story to rest on. Granted, sometimes it makes no sense, but it’s certainly not the typical save-the-world cheesy fare you find in generic RPGs like Final Fantasy. It’s like someone took as much religious philosophy as they could find from around the world and threw it in a blender with Star Trek-style technology and astrophysical phenomena.

In Episode II, our heroes have arrived on the planet of Second Miltia in order to decode the data stored in MOMO’s brain (MOMO is a Realian, an artificial human). Meanwhile, Shion’s been ordered to turn the android weapon KOS-MOS over to her employer, Vector Industries, for a refit. Seems like a simple enough start, but as you can imagine, things get difficult very quickly. Much of Episode II deals with the relationship between the young-looking Jr. and his psychotic clone, Albedo. Flashback sequences also provide more info on exactly what happened fourteen years ago on the original planet of (Old) Miltia. Meanwhile, everyone’s still trying to unlock the secrets the Zohar (a mysterious object that’s central to the Xenosaga epic as a whole) and deal with the Gnosis, a strange race of noncorporeal aliens who wish nothing more than to obliterate humanity.

The story of Xenosaga is the game’s primary support column, and luckily it doesn’t fail in this regard. While not as fleshed-out as the first title, Episode II certainly has plots and subplots that will keep you riveted.

(Rating: 8/10)


GRAPHICS

Gone is the big-eyed classic anime look of the characters from Episode I. Instead, the entire graphics engine has been completely overhauled, and the characters have a more “realistic” look. At first, I was a bit miffed, but Monolith Soft did such an amazing rendering job that KOS-MOS and friends really look fantastic. There’s a few jagged edges here and there, but no game is perfect, and it hardly detracts from the experience overall. Special effects during battle look good, and the cutscenes look absolutely phenomenal.

(Rating: 9/10)


Even flying mechs are no match for Jr.’s Makarov pistols.


SOUND

The soundtrack for Episode I was composed and conducted by Yasunori Mitsuda (who’s written the music for such legendary titles as Chrono Trigger and XenoGears), and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Sadly, the audio in Episode II is a far cry from the sweeping tunes heard in the first game. Mitsuda’s gone, and he’s replaced by Yuki Kajiura (.hack//SIGN anime). While Kajiura is a fine composer in her own right, her work doesn’t fit the grand scifi feel of Xenosaga. It’s far too upbeat.

The voice acting is good, just as it was in the first game. However, many of the characters’ actors have been changed; some for the better, some for the worse. Shion sounds very close to the original, but KOS-MOS sounds far too young. Granted, KOS-MOS is supposed to look like she’s about 18, but she’s a damn robot, and she appropriately sounded older and more like Lt. Commander Data in the first game. Now she sounds like a preteen! Is she going to fight alien monsters, or stay up all night talking about boys?

Sound effects are what you’d expect in a scifi game, with various blasts, clangs, and explosions. While nothing over-the-top, they get the job done and aren’t distracting.

(Rating: 7/10)


CONTROL

As with any RPG, the prime component of the game other than the story is the battles. Combat is very different in Episode II, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s three big changes to the combat system: direction, zones, and shared boosting.

In Episode I, enemies were always right in front of you. Now, they can attack from all directions; often, you’ll be surrounded! You can use this to your advantage, however. Attacking an enemy with his back to you, for example, gives you a 100% hit rate and a 50% higher chance of scoring a critical hit. The same applies if an enemy attacks you from the back, but the rule of thumb is to take out enemies to the rear as soon as possible.

Zones are a fancy way of saying “weak spots.” When you attack any enemy, a zone indicator will appear, depending on which attack combination you used. “A” is a high zone, “B” is middle, and “C” is low. If the indicator appears in red, that means it’s the enemy’s weakest zone. Hit the appropriate zone(s) twice in a row, and you’ll break the zone. Follow it up with yet another attack, and you’ll inflict 1.5x the damage! Coupled with boosting (which we’ll get to in a moment), zone breaking can make very short work of your foes.


That’s the last time anyone asks KOS-MOS if “the carpet matches the drapes.”

Boosting is no longer handled on an individual character basis. The Boost Gauge is now shared amongst all of your active combatants, which makes building up the gauge a hell of a lot easier. For example, instead of waiting for Shion to build up her gauge so you can force her turn before an enemy’s, she’s ready to go when anyone fills up the Boost Gauge.

There’s a few new features in the battle system, of course. The big one is the Double Attack. You won’t have these right off the bat; you’ll find and/or earn new ones as time goes on. Once two characters meet certain criteria during battle (i.e., enough stocked points, a certain amount of HP, etc.), then they can team up to deliver a devastating combo attack. This attack can only be done once per battle, but if you can pull it off at the right time (especially after a zone break), you can inflict catastrophic damage upon your enemies.

And then, of course, there’s the giant robots. You can no longer call them into battle at will; there’s specific battles where you’ll only be using the giant mechs. The very first battles of the game take place in the ‘bots, in fact. Each character will pilot a different mech, and as such, they’ll have access to different abilities and attacks. Since mech battles are actually required this time around, you’ll definitely have to formulate appropriate strategies to use them effectively; they’re no longer your “ace in the hole.”

Overall, the tweaked combat system works to the game’s benefit. While the simplified command structure makes things easier, the addition of directional combat and zones adds more strategy to the mix.

(Rating: 8/10)


REPLAYABILITY

There’s plenty of sidequests in Episode II, but seeing as how few of them are actually necessary to advance the story or complete the game, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to go back and find everything. The game’s a lot shorter than its predecessor, too; while Episode I was about 50 hours long, Episode II clocks in at less than 30 hours. Yet somehow, two discs were necessary to store all of this! Figure that one out.

(Rating: 6/10)


BALANCE

While Episode I wasn’t that difficult, many gamers complained that it was overly complicated. As a result, Monolith Soft has implemented quite a few changes to even up the odds.

First off…there’s no money anymore. If you want to get more items or upgrades, you need to beat down monsters until you get lucky enough to find the item you require. The number of enemies in the game has been increased slightly to facilitate this (as well as making you level up even faster), but often, all this manages to do is annoy the player.

Secondly, there’s no more unique Skills for each character. Now it’s possible to give everyone healing Skills, status change Skills, and so on. As you battle, you’ll earn Class Points and Skill Points; as you unlock Classes, you can then unlock the Skills inside them. There’s a ton of Skills to learn, and rounding out your party is a cinch now.

Finally, Tech Attacks can no longer be upgraded. The upgrading has largely been replaced by Double Attacks, but you can only do those once per battle!

(Rating: 8/10)


ORIGINALITY

Even though it’s a sequel with pre-established characters, Episode II still scores highly in the originality department because there’s simply no other RPGs out there quite like it. Use of real-world religion and philosophy in RPGs is nothing new, but none go to the extent that Xenosaga does. You’ll often find yourself searching for the true roots of the various names of the characters, digging around on Google and such. Well, maybe that’s just me…

(Rating: 8/10)


ADDICTIVENESS

As with any series game, this can be a tough call. Obviously Xenosaga fans are going to drool over it play it as much as possible. But other RPG fans? Not likely. The flashbacks and references to the previous game may confuse them, and if they can’t stand the many questions that may or may not be resolved until the game’s end, they may lose interest fairly quickly. For series diehards, though, the game’s a treat.

(Rating: 6/10)


APPEAL

With its heavy reliance on Episode I‘s plot and characters, I really don’t see Episode II appealing to mainstream gamers or even casual RPG fans. However, Namco did do something smart by producing an Episode I recap DVD, so even if you haven’t played Episode I, you can at least catch up on the story before jumping in. The downside is actually getting the DVD, as many retails were shafted on them. (For example, my local GameStop got over thirty copies of Episode II, but only four of the recap DVDs. Even people who preordered the game got screwed!)

(Rating: 5/10)


MISCELLANEOUS

If you’ve played through Episode I, then Episode II will read the save file on your PS2 memory card and unlock some random things, like bathing suits for Shion and KOS-MOS, and a “diving suit” for Ziggy, whatever the hell that is.

As far as the future is concerned, Episode III is slated to be released on the next generation of consoles (I’d assume somewhere in 2007 or 2008), and I’m sure it’ll have another Nietzschean subtitle to make us all happy. Let’s just hope it’ll be a bit less of a letdown.

(Rating: 6/10)


Final Scores:

Story: 8/10
Graphics: 9/10
Sound: 7/10
Control: 8/10
Replayability: 6/10
Balance: 8/10
Originality: 8/10
Addictiveness: 6/10
Appeal: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 6/10

Overall Score: 71/100
FINAL SCORE: 7.0 (GOOD!)