Xenosaga: Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse - Reader Review  

Im Westen nichts Neues
von Jeremy der Herzog von Otterland

20-60 Hours


Rating definitions 

   In 2002, Namco released the long-awaited first episode of Monolithsoft's epic Xenosaga series in America. Reasonably well-received, there were nonetheless a number of complaints about various aspects of the overall package: the gameplay was a bit of an afterthought, the soundtrack a definite step down from Xenogears, and so forth. Two years later, Xenosaga: Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse has added to the mix, and regrettably, things have only gone downhill.

   Episode II's battle system drastically builds upon its predecessor's, though not entirely for the better. Each character, as with before, has various types of attacks assigned to the X, Square, and O buttons, though enemies now have Break Zones where characters can attack them with a certain sequence of attacks to "Break" them, with each attack from that character and attacks from characters that "Boost" afterward dealing more damage than usual, and the potential for deadly combos. Each character, moreover, can "Stock" attacks up to three levels for more attacks during their turn.

   As you can probably infer, the boost system from Episode I returns, though your characters and the enemy share up to three levels of boosts this time around, and mercifully, you can actually see how many boosts your foes have. Stocking and boosting, alongside "Breaking", are, in many instances, essential for beating the toughest bosses.

Even in the future nothing works! "Uh-oh, better get MAACO!"

   Once you win a normal battle, all characters gain normal experience points, while the three characters in your party at the time of victory gain skill points, and once in a blue moon, class points. Class points come chiefly from bosses, and are necessary to unlock various levels of skills your characters can learn with skill points. Once a character learns all skills of a certain class, that character gains more class points than was used to unlock that class. Special keys are necessary to unlock certain skills.

   Instead of giving your characters the ability to switch between fighting on foot or in their mechs like in Episode I, moreover, Episode II instead mandates that the player uses up to three mechs, with two characters able to occupy each one, to explore certain areas. Mech battles are much like battles on foot, though without attack chains, only two mechs fighting at a time, and stocking (and to a lesser extent, attacking) building up points that allow the use of special abilities. Once you win a mech battle, each mech gains normal experience levels alongside the occasional item.

   Despite all this, I just couldn't fully enjoy combat in Episode II. For one, normal battles, on average, take several minutes to complete, and get old quickly, what with all the time the player can waste trying to figure out what kinds of attacks work best against enemies and what Break Zones are (though your characters can each acquire a skill to remember break points, and there is scan magic), and the fact that switching out one character for another wastes turns, though I actually found mech battles be moderately enjoyable. Moreover, some genius at Monolithsoft decided, like in Episode I, that the turn order meter should eventually run out of icons before "refilling" the next turn, and the turn order meter even dictates that only characters not in it at a given moment can boost, which can somewhat damper preparation for combos.

Eyeyeyeyeyeyeyeyey... "That's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it...uh-huh!"

   The skill system is also terribly unbalanced, given that only the three characters in your battle party at the time of victory gain skill and class points, and characters you don't use often can quickly fall behind in this area. The ability to see enemies before encountering them and that save points fully heal your party partially redeem the battle system, though. Whatever the case, battles aren't nearly as enjoyable as those in Xenogears, and in the end, most fights in Episode II become soporific tests of survival, which is not a terribly exciting way to spend twenty hours.

   Fortunately, not every aspect of Episode II is below par. The game is, if anything, spotlessly translated, and character and item management isn't too shabby, with no equipment or shopping to worry about, though some form of transportation other than your characters' feet (and the occasional spaceship they need to walk to) would've been welcome, what with all the running around needed especially during the Global Samaritan sidequests, where you help people with random tasks for various prizes.

   Episode II retains enough features from its predecessor to make it feel like a logical continuation of the series--many characters, places, the general structure of the battle system, and so forth--yet includes some new features such as break points and a drastically revamped skill system that help make it feel fresh overall.

   Though Xenogears Perfect Works suggested that the series' six episodes would take place several millennia apart, Monolithsoft instead decided to continue Episode I's storyline, bringing back Shion Uzuki and her companions while adding her brother Jin to the mix. The plot mainly focuses on Jr.'s past, although most cutscenes are far longer than in most other RPGs of the current generation, and pretty much do their job. Some features from Episode I like the databank and mail system are unfortunately gone, although the game's story is easily one of its high points.

And his, er, backup T-t-t-today, Juniyah!

   Another high point is the visuals, which are largely the same as they were in Episode I, save for more realistic character designs. There are only some minor issues, such as unpleasing textures on close-up, some minor blockiness with the characters' hands, and many enemies that look annoyingly similar, although complaints in this area are at best minimal.

   There was much uproar when Yasunori Mitsuda was not the composer chosen for Episode II's soundtrack, with Monolithsoft instead settling for other composers, who this time around actually did their job and ensured that the game's various areas were not completely devoid of music. Some of the music, especially in Second Miltia and on a few spaceships, is actually pretty catchy and quite good, although most other tunes are forgettable. Voice acting is above average for an RPG (KOS-MOS' new voice isn't as bad as I had heard), as well, and in the end, Episode II's aurals are a definite step above Episode I's, despite not being perfect.

   Finally, Episode II is more difficult than your average RPG, and, without the sidequests, can take as little as twenty hours to complete; with the sidequests, around forty hours; and with post-game quests, up to sixty hours.

   Were Xenosaga: Episode II a novel, it would be a welcome addition to anyone's bookshelf; as a game, however, it's difficult to recommend, what especially with its unengaging battles, even though the title's other aspects, ironically, hardly suffer. If only Monolithsoft would look more towards Xenogears for inspiration on how to make a great battle system instead of Episodes I and II when developing the next chapter, the Xenosaga series would certainly become a more enjoyable gaming experience.

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