Xenosaga Episode II Reader Review
Xenosaga Episode 2
Plot and Characters
For Xenosaga these two areas of discussion are more important to it than any other game youíre likely to play for a while, let alone the oft-story/character driven genre of RPG. Xenosaga relishes in its cut scenes and this is the key area of Xenosaga 2 where youíll gain most of your enjoyment, or not, of course, depending on your preference. The line between being a player and a viewer is never as blurred as it is with Xenosaga, so Iíll take this moment to flash that familiar warning of Ďif you donít like cut-scenes, donít play this [bloody] game!í (parenthesis to empathise). Now assuming you who continue to read are in the Ďdonít mindí camp onwards, thereís some good news: the cut scenes are fucking ace. The direction is professional, emotive, downright exciting during the two sword fight scenes (standing up with anything you mightíve seen on the screen, big or small) and they generally push the sophisticated plot along excellently. The biggest complement I think you can level at a game where you spend as many hours watching as you do playing is that you donít care: time spent watching is time well-spent.
Of course, none of this would have a leg to stand on if the characters lacked the necessary credentials for you to care. And in the key cases of Jr., Shion, and MOMO (the formers being the consistent protagonists throughout and the latter having a decent chunk dedicated to her) they do. While suffering from much of the issues number twos in trilogies tend to have, this game does feature a lot expedition and heavy exploration of its main characters respective histories, but again itís all so damn interesting and appropriate to the bigger picture. Granted, the characters donít really deviate from the kind of archetypes you might expect from Japanese sci-fi, but they definitely warrant enough pathos and likeability to be a success.
But donít let these generally positive points gloss over the problems Xenosaga 2ís story. The game really couldíve done with being another twenty hours longer (average gamers getting about 30 or so hours from it), if only to provide more explanation of the context in which everyone is acting the way they are. It just doesnít feel like people and situations are developed enough for things to flow smoothly from one event to the next. And Jr. definitely dominates the plot, leaving other characters neglected; even the seriesí figurehead KOS-MOS isnít much more than the muscle in this episode, and after the amount of intrigue and mystery whipped around her in the first game this grates slightly.
No doubt you have to consider thereís one more game to come and lots of the remaining questions may be resolved in that final instalment, but thereís definitely a feeling of resolution lacking rather than purposefully excluded here. There are questions that wouldíve made much more sense to answer now and wouldíve gone a long way to improving the comprehensibility of the story. Plus with the revelation of Xenosaga/Xenogear creator and writer Tetsuya Takahashi with his co-writer wife Soraya Saga leaving the project, it causes an uneasy feeling of turmoil over the resolution of the series.
Perhaps the weakest area of Xenosaga 2 is its gameplay. Yet, itíd be unfair to describe it as Ďthe bits between the moviesí, because thereís a comprehensive battle system that is often challenging and entertaining, but still there are many problems with it and elsewhere that detracts from the experience. First letís consider the two methods of battle in the game:
The first is the variety that is character-based with a combo system designated to the square, triangle and circle keys of the PS2 joypad. With this thereís zones associated with each button and each variety of enemy has a weakness to a certain combination of buttons. Hit the enemy with this winning combo enough and youíll be able to Ďbreakí them, afflicting either an air or ground status (i.e. you either flick Ďem up into the air or pound them into the ground). This leaves them vulnerable to a whole new world of damage that can further be supplemented with the ability to stock attacks for the cost of a turn, providing that character with three extra attacks once full. On top of this thereís also a boost system that, with the tap of an R button and the corresponding button-to-character, can cause an ally to interrupt the next turn and join in with unloading their stock onto the incapacitated foe. Sounds pretty filthy, donít it? Thereís a definite sense of satisfaction when you pull off an epic joint smack down with all your characters on a particularly infuriating boss. But as Iíve said, there are problems. First is the matter of guesswork involved trying to find an enemyís weak zone and corresponding combination. This doesnít irritate so much with normal enemies, and there is a skill that allows you to memorise the combos and have them show up on the information screen in-battle, but with boss battles it can often be make or break (pardon the pun). The bizarre status affects of each turn are more confusing than useful, it frequently being chance that you do a certain action in relation to them that will benefit you.
The second method of battle involves two of your characterís E.S - large, elaborate-looking mecha that explore environments too hazardous for your characters to tread. This system is much less sophisticated than the first, often requiring you to simply stock (charge) then attack, stock then attack, etc etc. These charged attacks vary depending which combination of characters you assign to pilot each E.S, which provides a degree of tactics in your style of play but not much. Luckily E.S. battles are much less common than the character-based but still, it feels like an underdeveloped aspect of the game.
ĎUndevelopedí is a word that dogs Xenosaga 2ís gameplay in general. The skill system is basic and directionless, the same sets available for every character reducing their individuality in battle. Really, the only thing that differentiates them is the kind of attack their weapon has (be it piecing, slashing, aura-based etc.) and what they have equipped. The in-game puzzles are unchallenging and tedious. The ĎGlobal Samaritan Campaigní that provides most of the side quests is just as bad. Apart from the battle system, which is fundamentally quite fun and challenging (especially with the numerous boss battles), there isnít much to motivate you from one exciting cut-scene to the next apart from the promise of the fantastic cut-scenes themselves.
Graphics and Sound
The graphics of Xenosaga2 are above par, acceptable for this generation of RPG on the PS2 but not exactly dazzling. The character models are attractive and expressive, more realistic than their predecessors and better for it in my opinion. The sense of design is quite unified and well realised without really pushing the boat out - itís all quite typically sci-fi. In contrast, sadly, the environments that you interact with commonly feel sterile and bland, sometimes even feeling like independent set pieces rather than a cohesive whole or appropriate to the situation. The issue of character modelís hands being manikin-like during the in-game cut-scenes is a fair criticism as well, as they play a key role in the body language of the cast and thereís really no reason why Namco couldnít animate them properly.
However, in fairness, there are moments when the in-game graphics impress. The wind farms spinning serenely in the background of a rare pastoral setting; the slick, cleanly metallic look of New-Miltia; the hugely intimidating feel of the E.S. and their foes. Still, most of the wow-factor of Xenosaga 2ís visuals lies in the motion capture cut-scenes. And there are some truly mind-bending moments throughout the game that I wonít spoil here, but trust me when I say theyíre worth the effort to see. Again while some areas graphically remain simply quite good, the FMV stand-out as excellent.
The voice acting of the game is of decent quality. I recognise Jr.ís voice from a lot anime (usually the generically irritating young boy) and for some reason it doesnít bother me here as it usually does. Shionís voice actor has a number of impressive moments and the rest of the cast remaining appropriate to their characters. Albedo may get on your nerves with his hysterical squealing voice, but he only appears for a small amount of time. Music-wise thereís nothing that stands out. The sweeping orchestral score from the first game is gone in favour for a low-key, predominantly synth-based soundtrack. Itís not especially bad, just disappointingly mediocre.
As a cinematic work Xenosaga 2 is definitely enjoyable, verging on brilliant at times with an intriguing story and likable characters. However, as you might imagine, because itís such a story-driven piece of work the gameplay suffers and has a number of issues. The battle system has many things going for it, however, and provides an interesting challenge that will probably result in more Game Overs than youíre used to with RPGs. The presentation is quite uneven at times, but respectable voice acting and some truly excellent FMV make up for its faults. Personally I enjoyed this game and if youíre a fan of RPGs and donít mind a cut-scene bonanzas then itís certainly worth your time.
8 / 10