After such a long time, the sequel to one of the biggest RPGs to date has finally arrived. However, Xenosaga II is no simple arbitrary sequel; in almost every aspect it’s entirely different from the original and, regrettably, it just doesn’t quite live up to its RPG predecessor. However, despite its shortcomings the sequel is by no means a disappointment, it still offers the same depth and timelessness evident in the original.
Both previous Xeno titles (Saga and Gears) are generally renowned for their incredible, thought-provoking, and often confusing plots. Xenosaga II adheres to this tradition, and keeps the storyline as the game’s biggest contributing factor. Surprisingly, the first few hours of Xenosaga II are devoted to the events which started Shion and crew on their path in the first game – the infamous Miltian conflict. The recap revolves around ?chaos’ (still without a capital ?C’ to call his own) and his role in the uprising, where he fights alongside Canaan, a new character who’s an abnormally skilled pilot Realian (a humanoid android), and Jin Uzuki (Shion’s brother) who acts like he’s from 17th century Japan. Spoilers aside, the plot eventually gets back on track, picking up right after the closing movie from Xenosaga. The story focuses heavily on the Mizrahi family (those who created MOMO and brought the monstrous Gnosis into the universe) and the URTVs (Jr., Gaignun and Albedo). Of course, the plot unfolds through dozens of CGs and FMVs, which any Xenosaga veteran is already well accustomed to.
The graphics have been heavily altered since the first Xenosaga. While it used to brandish the Anime-style saucer eyes and huge heads, this installment has been rehashed with a much more realistic look. Although they appear more lifelike, the characters just don’t look as good as they did in Anime-form, which really makes everyone who isn’t an adult male (everyone but Albedo, Gaignun, Ziggy and Jin) look a little odd. A handful of voice actors have also been changed, and the replacements don’t sound quite right for the parts. Small quibbles not withstanding, it’s the game’s music that’s been totally wrecked. Instead of using the operatic hymns and classical music realized by Yasunori Mitsuda and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, this episode uses folk-style music by Yuki Kajiura, the woman behind .hack//Sign, whose musical style seems somewhat out of place for this type of game. In retrospect, the game really needed the familiar hymns and violins to keep the mood of the game rather than the folk caterwauling it now contains. The aural changes, however, don’t detract too much from the game itself and, admittedly, they’re still good when compared to other games.
The most critical changes in Xenosaga II emerge through its battles. The new engine is similar to the original, and skirmishes are still started by being caught by an on-the-field enemy – a la Xenosaga. Boosting, now more party-oriented, is the most important aspect of the new system, which allows a character to force their way into the next turn and build upon the preceding character’s actions. Instead of simply using the ?square-triangle’ combo with the occasional ?circle’ thrown in for good measure, Xenosaga II has a new, more strategic style. Each enemy has physical ?zones’, which are simply parts of their bodies with varying levels of vulnerability. Pressing ?triangle’ or ?square’ makes most characters attack a certain zone and are combined to make four different two-hit combos, while ?circle’ executes a different attack, which is roughly as powerful as a regular two-hit combo – but can have varying effects. Instead of attacking, a character can use ?Stock’, which allows the character to expand their combos up to five attacks. During these combos, enemies can be knocked into the air, or smashed into the ground, and each landed attack doubles in damage during the enemy’s hang-time or down-time. To expand upon this, a character can finish their combo after knocking an enemy into a more vulnerable position, when this occurs a boosted unit can use their own combo on the susceptible enemy, and get in a few easy shots. There are also new features like Double Techs and the new Mechs (now called ES), which bring interesting changes to the game.
This leads into one of biggest changes to the game, the simplification of?well, everything! The original Xenosaga had a plethora of different stats, meters and points for use while personally customizing and enhancing the specifics of your character. They’re almost entirely removed from the sequel. No longer can a character have a custom-made, heavily enhanced skill like Angelic Requiem or Meteor Strike to be used at the end of a powerful barrage of attacks, which will come as a BIG disappointment to customization-junkies – like me. The Ether system is also desecrated. Instead of having each character with a web they must work their way through, there is now a pool of skills each character can learn, which offers the bad brand of enhancements, like making MOMO the tank-character and having KOSMOS as the healer. This effectively kills much of the individuality of the characters, and almost inevitably leaves one of the team members useless.
While the game is still decent, it simply isn’t as great as the original installment. Though it still offers spectacular plot, it just isn’t as deep in its character customization as it once was. However, the new battle style is still interesting and innovative, offering an intuitive and strategic style. Even middle of the road fans of the first Xenosaga should feel safe enough with a sequel purchase, but they may end up on the wrong side of disappointment if not an absolute hardcore fan of the original. For newcomers to the series, taking the first game for a trail run would be sound advice before investing in the sequel. Either way, though, Xenosaga II is still a quality RPG, which shouldn’t leave any RPG fan feeling empty or cheated, regardless of whether they believe it to be a reiteration or improvement of its predecessor.