"Dig, if you will, this picture. You’re walking through a desert. Typical desert; full of sand, scorpions, snakes. Sun’s beating down, burning away the few brain cells that the videogames haven’t. You’re hot, you’re sweaty, you’re thirsty, and you’re starting to gag on your own BO. Pleasant experience. "
Dig, if you will, this picture. You’re walking through a desert. Typical desert; full of sand, scorpions, snakes. Sun’s beating down, burning away the few brain cells that the videogames haven’t. You’re hot, you’re sweaty, you’re thirsty, and you’re starting to gag on your own BO. Pleasant experience.
Ordinarily, walking through such a desert would be a very inconvenient form of suicide. But this is not your ordinary desert, for every few miles there’s an oasis. And not just your standard, cliche, couple-palmtrees-and-a-pool type of oases. These oases have margaritas. Candy, so much candy. Oh, and Carmen Elektra magically appears at all of them. And uh, for the female gamers, there’s…um…who’s the ‘it’ guy with girls nowadays…Morgan Freeman, yeah.
If you can imagine this hypothetical and honestly absurd situation, then you have a great idea of what it’s like to play Xenosaga II.
Players of the original Xenosaga know a bit of this experience; after all, the first Xenosaga wasn’t exactly the most fluid of games. The dungeons were drab at best and butt-ugly at worst, the enemies had good variety but could be annoying as hell when they wanted to be, and the fighting system, while it had some fine attacks, got extremely boring extremely fast. Xenosaga might have actually sucked if it hadn’t A) had a kickass story B) had a kickass story that was executed through kickass cutscenes C) had a kickass story that was executed through kickass cutscenes that mostly involved a kickass android chick.
Fans of the original Xenosaga, prepare to rejoice and prepare to lament at the same time. Everything the first Xenosaga did well, the second Xenosaga does better. But where the first Xenosaga stunk, the second Xenosaga reeks. Get ready for a trying experience.
Xenosaga II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose (which translates to ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ and should have two little dots above the ‘o’ in ‘Bose’) is a game of amazing triumphs and colossal failures, but since talking about what sucks is so much more fun than talking about what rocks, I’ll save the failures for last and start with the good stuff.
All it takes is a single glance on the cover for players of the first Xenosaga to figure out the biggest change from game to game, namely the switch of graphical styles. Where the first game had a more traditional anime look for the main characters, Xenosaga II opts for realism, going with a style that knocks on the grittier side of Japanese animation. In plain English, say goodbye to the first game’s cutesy eyes and oversized heads, Xenosaga II deals in the real.
The transition to a more realistic style has mixed results, the lowest of which has to be KOS-MOS’ new look. Those round, red eyes of hers that gave KOS-MOS a vaguely haunted look in the first are gone, replaced with the more minimal normal eyes that don’t do justice to KOS-MOS’ more divine manner. Furthermore, the game’s new humanistic style succeeds too well with her. In the first Xenosaga, KOS-MOS status as an android was blatant; obvious not just from the first words she spoke but from the first movements she made. Now, KOS-MOS doesn’t look so much an android as she does a sad woman dressed up like an android. A sad, anorexic, pale woman.
As much as classic KOS-MOS is going to be missed, the new style does more good than it does bad. For some, the change proves minor; Ziggy looks exactly the same as he did before, and Jr.’s only grown a few inches. The biggest change has to be MOMO, though; by some miracle she’s grown about seven years between games. She looks like a fifteen-year-old girl now, and since her previous look was cute enough for cavities, I can’t say I’m complaining on the change. Shion’s had a growth spurt, too; she may still be ditzy at times, but at least now she looks like a mature woman. And, best of all, that little problem with chaos’ lower body has been fixed. That’s right, no more will you swell with shame every time you happen to glance at chaos’ shorts. The Battle of the Bulge is over.
The NPCs you’ll be running into have good variety; if there are any clone characters walking around, it’s not noticeable. Everybody looks different, has their own distinct size, height, and color, giving the game world a sort of authenticity. When you’re walking in city, it actually feels like you’re walking in a city. Children run about, people saunter through the streets, you can even see the buildings out in the distance, all coming together to make a serene scene that stays solid despite the environment. The world of Xenosaga is so vast and so expansive, and even though you’ll never get to explore every corner and crevice of it, you’re made to feel like it’s there nonetheless.
Xenosaga I was a cinematic affair, no doubting that; you spent more time watching cutscenes than you did in the actual game. While that ratio’s been evened out a bit for the sequel, Xenosaga is still a game that runs on story before all else, and it doesn’t make any bones about it. But, where the first game mostly just used cinemas to drive the story and develop the characters, the second game does all that with an added bonus: The action level’s been turned up.
Complex, choreographed sword fights that leave the eyes widened and the mouth gapped. Mech battles so intense that the control stick nearly rumbles out of your hand. Sights so incredible that no word in the English language could possibly do them justice. I realize I sound vague, I realize it sounds like I’m spitting baseless hype, but there truly is no way to aptly describe it all; the scenes of Xenosaga II are simply that mind-blowing. There are actually some things that defy explanation so well that I couldn’t spoil them if I tried.
I guarantee there will be moments when words escape you, I promise that you will gaze at the screen in awe, I know you will question if your eyes deceive and your mind believes. That’s the power of Xenosaga II, it’s greatest strength, the one thing that truly lets it shine through the grime and become a true diamond in the rough.
But Xenosaga II’s not just eye candy; it’s ear candy, too. Amazing graphics are matched by equally amazing voice acting; top talent all around. Most of the voice actors from the first game reprise their roles, but the voice actors that grated eardrums in the first installment have been replaced, traded out for more soothing tones. The most noticeable of these has to be chaos, who seems to have hit puberty while we weren’t looking. His voice is much deeper than the chaos of old, and while it can be a bit hard to understand what he’s saying at times, it’s a fair trade-off considering the whiney nasal voice he had before. MOMO has a new voice to go along with her new look, and while she’s still sugary, it’s no longer to the point of annoyance, a tolerable tone. She sounds like she has a pair of Cheerios stuck up her nose, but I digress.
The musical score is epic, grand, as majestic as it is awe-inspiring…which could be said for about nine out of every ten RPGs that come out nowadays. But Xenosaga’s music has a different vibe than the usual fare, a religious slant to match the game’s religious overtones. While the score still chimes with the force of a full-scale orchestra, there’s a subtle mantra under it all, like they’re summoning some ancient god from the depths of space (which might actually happen next installment as far as I know. Lots of stuff in Xenosaga just comes out of left field) As near as I can tell, most of Xenosaga II’s major tracks consists of people humming in some nonexistent language. Which is fine…if you like it. If you don’t like it, if you prefer your RPG music to sound more like Queen and less like it’s fit for a queen, than you might want to consider investing in a good set of headphones, especially for the dungeons. You will be spending much time in the dungeons. Oh…so much time.
You see, the problem with Xenosaga II’s dungeon is that whoever made them had no concept of the thing we call ‘reality’.
Case in point: You break into the enemy base. Fight your way through swaths of vile villainous types, all fully-armed and fully-intent on taking you down. You come across all these dangers, come close to destruction and beat back, watch some sweet cutscenes that whet the appetite, and then…
You come face to face with a block puzzle.
Yes, that’s right. Your enemies, have, against all common sense and reason, decided to place a block puzzle in the middle of their highly secured facility. Apparently, in the future, bad guys are real big on Tetris.
I’ve had similar complaints with games before, but Xenosaga II pushes the cliche to the maximum. To navigate the elevator, you must shoot this block, but don’t shoot that one, and then wait for that to do this, and then do that with careful timing. Switches, switches, so many switches. Paths that lead to nowhere and draw you into needless fights. It all raises the question: how the hell do people get around these places with all the damn puzzles? Bet they have to solve the Rubix Cube just to use the bathroom.
I realize it may sound like some small thing, and maybe it is. But when the plot is getting thick and the action is getting heavy and you’re hanging off every little twist, its gets a bit annoying when you have to stop to push some blocks around. And it wouldn’t be so bad if it was just one or two puzzles a dungeon, but this is a constant annoyance; some of the latter dungeons practically have puzzle in every room. If I wanted to do puzzles I would have bought a puzzle game.
Of course, with puzzles like this, you’d think the enemies would be fairly weak, right? After all, the developers want you to reach the end of the dungeon sometime before the New Year, right?
Perhaps. But as I trudged through the endless slew of annoying, cheap enemies, I couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere, somehow, someone was laughing at me.
There’s not a whole lot of variety with Xenosaga II’s enemies; for the most part you’ll be fighting robots and armed soldiers with guns, nothing fancy. Towards the latter half of the game you’ll be fighting these weird cat-girl-looking machine hybrid android…things. The game never really explains what’s up with cat-girls or why they want to kill you or why they are where they are, but that’s fine. I didn’t give much of a damn, anyway. Come to think of it, Xenosaga II leaves a lot unexplained, and not just major plot stuff, either; it leaves out small stuff, stuff that they could easily-
Oh, right. It’s Xenosaga. Thought I was talking about a normal RPG for a second.
Now, one might think that, what with the trying puzzles and whatnot, that the developers would exercise a little common sense and have a fighting system that was relatively painless. You know, so you could maybe get in and out of a dungeon in about an hour and not have to wait too long between cutscenes. After all, Xenosaga’s biggest strength is its cutscenes, no doubt; what developer in their right mind would make you wait longer than necessary to get at them?
The enemies are tough and persistent buggers, far stronger than anything the previous game had to offer. Gone are the days when you could just hit a few buttons, kill the enemy and go about your business; unless you’re leveled up something amazing, you’ll be fighting a seesaw battle with just about every enemy.
Part of this has to do with the game’s new fighting system, which has you doing different attack combinations until you hone in on the enemy’s weakness. Until you find that weakness, you’ll be doing crap damage, barely even scratching the enemy. But…even when you do, the damage won’t be all that spectacular. No, in order to get in the heavy damage, you’re supposed to coordinate your attacks, switch characters around, find out who can do the most damage to each type of enemy, analyze the patterns, and then launch a full offensive. Only thing is, once you’ve figured out everything you need to figure out, the enemy has inevitably kicked your ass and you need to focus on healing your party back from extinction.
See, while the game’s fighting system is designed with an emphasis on coordination, the door swings both ways; the enemy will be going for precision strikes on you, too. The difference is that you will, in all likelihood, suck at it. The game is quite good, and has no bones about launching massive assaults on a single character. We’re talking about instances in which a single character is beaten to death by eight enemy strikes in a row, with no pause in between for you to heal or even pull out. Frustrating doesn’t quite describe it.
Not only does the enemy have the arguably unfair advantage of not sucking, but you’re given a pretty lame arsenal to work with. The spells are noticeably low in eye-candy, unimpressive little sparks and flames that are about as weak as they look. Even the higher level magics, those end-all-be-all attacks you have to work your ass off to get a hold of, aren’t that much to talk about; they’ll only do slightly more damage than the average stuff, not worth the points spent.
The game tries to keep things spicy by introducing team-up attacks; two-character strikes that involve a hefty amount of special effects and deal a hefty amount of damage. These attacks actually are impressive affairs. They give out good chunks of damage to the enemy and look damn good, all I ask out of a special attack. Problem is, they take some preparing, just like with the rest of the battle system. The conditions have to just right and you’ll wind up wasting around five turns just to get things set up. In a game where most enemies can take out any character in few solid attacks, that’s five turns too many.
But as bad the puzzles may be, as annoying as the enemies are, and as dull as the battle system is, they’re not the biggest flaws with the dungeons. Puzzles I can take; any seasoned RPGer’s done his fair share of meaningless block puzzles. Annoying enemies? Yes, but I’ve seen worse. Dull battle system? Duller than most, but not the dullest.
Even though all of those elements combine to make Xenosaga II’s dungeons a pain, they pale in comparison to the game’s most irritating features: its ladders.
Yes, the ladders. A petty aspect, it may seem; something that we take for granted even though just about all RPGs have them. After all, what’s to a ladder? It’s got some rungs, you use it to get to higher levels, every year a good chunk of people break their backs trying to use it…it’s a ladder. How frustrating could a ladder be?
Very damn frustrating. Maybe the game developers spilled some beer on their computer and screwed up some intricate ladder climbing code. Maybe they just spent more time on other, admittedly more important features of the game. Maybe all my three controllers are just coincidentally messed up in the exact same way. Whatever the case, getting up and down a ladder is next to impossible.
You push up. The character goes down. You push down. The character goes up…and then starts to go down again for no reason. You push up. He decides to go up. You reach the top rung and…he won’t get off. You furiously jam on the analog and watch the character descend, ascend, kind of descend, kind of ascend, over and over until, by some miracle, he gets off at the top. Random, totally random. Then you notice that you just spent ten minutes watching a little girl with pink hair and puffy blue shorts shimmy up and down a latter. And, if you’re like me, a little something dies inside.
Dig, if you will, this picture. It’s late, very late, and you find yourself staring at the TV, watching the end credits roll. Xenosaga II’s end credits. You’re done with the game, finished. Took you about forty hours. A trying forty hours, filled with grueling dungeons and thankless combat. But the story was awesome, and the game’s end left you clamoring for the next installment. You want to play Xenosaga III now.
So as you sit there, a bag of Cheetohs in one hand and a controller in the other, you ask yourself: was it worth it? Was all the pleasure worth all the pain?
Me, I answered ‘yes’. As much as I hated the trip, there were some very nice pit stops along the way. Would I do it again? I probably will when the third installment comes out, just to get reacquainted with the plot. But if the game came in a DVD format, minus every little thing about it that makes it game, no dungeons, no enemies and no stupid ladders, I would take that in a heartbeat. Xenosaga is a game that would be better off if it wasn’t a game. Hopefully, one day, the developers will realize that.
Featured community review by lasthero (July 29, 2005)
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