Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse review
Will The Cutscenes Never End?
We have quite a range of entertainment mediums these days with which we can entertain ourselves, and each one tends to come with a different means and reason to obtain that enjoyment. Movies let you sit back and enjoy the onscreen action as the sequence of events is fed to the viewer through visual and audio cues. Dive into a book and you get to read up on all the finer details as the picture of events form in your mind. When it comes to video games the player is expecting solid gameplay as the primary goal; a concept seemingly lost on Monolith Software when they developed Xenosaga Episode II. It's a game trying to be a movie, but honestly the way they go about it the game fails at either one.
It's quite frustrating, because first impressions can be fairly good. The game looks the part, with impressive use of 3D graphics to create wonderfully detailed worlds. The whole scifi aspect is captured with the (perhaps cliche) popular concept of what futuristic civilisation will be like. There is also a decent range of locations like a ruined city or a serene countryside home, while apparently resisting the urge to throw in random places out of misguided sense of obligation.
Character models are well designed and rendered, with outfit choices that aren't too far out there (exceptions apply). Animation of these is mostly smooth, like deftly pulling off battle attacks or simply moving around the place. They seem to suffer from flapping mouth syndrome though, which tends to make a joke of cutscene conversations when it's so blatantly obvious.
Combat in itself can be rather impressive too. You can choose from up to 3 character to enter battle, which then produces a turn based system where commands are issued on an individual basis. Depending on the character you can either press circle for a straightforward but strong attack or you will have a choice of moves. For those possessing choices you still have a circle attack or can strike with a two hit combo using the square and triangle buttons. Enemies themselves have hit zones, and different attacks strike different hit zones. Extra damage is caused by hitting weak spots in certain zones, so learning them and tailoring attacks to hit them there is a key to success.
That by itself doesn't sound too shabby, but it goes further than that. Characters can charge stock, which can then be unleashed for extra combo strikes for high damage output. By hitting weak spots it's also possible to break an enemy's guard, which can then be followed up by other characters for more hits. The boost command helps here, as it's possible to cut in the queue by boosting. Combining all these methods can see some crazy combos on the enemy.
You also have the use of ether moves. In battle ether skills will either act as support skills, like healing or boosting stats, or attack the enemy will special moves such as fire or ice strikes. Using ether uses up points though, so you can't spam these like crazy. The attacking moves seemed a little pointless though when comboing with regular attacks could lead to mass damage, but support skills are always welcome. There's an extensive range of ether moves to learn too by earning points in battles and spending them at the ether skills screen.
Of course, this does pose the issue of characters seeming too close to each other. Aside from stats the only other thing that seems to separate characters are whether they can combo attack or unleash a piercing strike instead. All ether moves are open to everyone and nobody specialises in certain areas.
The item system seems alright too. You earn items from battles or finding them in the open, but it's not really possible to mass stockpile items so they using them has to factor into your strategy.
Unfortunately, that's where the good stuff ends, and the rest nosedives into oblivion.
The single biggest problem lies in the pacing. Combat sections are interesting, but the space between them is filled with cutscenes and wandering around that can literally take hours to wade through, and both elements utterly fail at engaging the player.
Cutscenes try to explain the story as it progresses, but aside from going on for far too long these are just not interesting. A shame, because the actual backstory has some merit to it. It's nothing majorly new as such. Humonoid robots, a mysterious phenomenon, shadowy organisations etc. There's a feeling of a bigger picture being revealed and you might even understand the kinds of tragedy some of these people have had to endure.
The problem is that I didn't care. I really don't think it would have been possible for the voice actors to deliver their lines with any less emotion than they did here. Were they as bored with proceedings as I was? The complete lack of drive meant that I wasn't encouraged to show any interest in things. Everything had to be dragged out beyond logical reason as well. It's the classic problem of trying to explain every minute detail to the player, but doing so just gets incredibly boring. Too much standing around discussing the merits of whatever the hell they were talking about, and everyone has to have a word.
Technically it is possible to skip through cutscenes at the press of a button, but surely that is completely missing the point when it comes to the RPG genre?
Even worse is the whole exploration aspect - something handled so horribly you have to wonder what they were thinking.
Area design in this regard can be quite horrid. Many places are too linear and boring to hold any real interest. These areas tend to simply fill in as places where enemies appear to fight. There's an attempt to introduce exploration off the main path, but these paths generally don't veer far from the linear route so you don't get much freedom.
The worse of it though are the more complex locations, which just end up being too confusing for their own good. The main city you visit early on has so many ridiculous paths and a complete inability to actually look around with the camera means it is very easy to get lost and not know where you're going.
Perhaps as another means to artificially extend the lifespan (as if it needed anymore of that) are the run about bits. Triggering one event means triggering all the previous ones, and this can lead to a lot of running back and forth just to progress the story, and unlike cutscenes you can't skip this. Early on in the game I was tasked to run all around this one facility - often going back in my tracks several times - just to trigger different cutscenes that bored me half to death before I was allowed to continue.
Those are the real game killers, but there are more problems plaguing the end product.
Difficulty has a tendency to spike all over the place. The part after the tutorial section starts off relatively simple, then a spike occurs when each battle can result in one of your character getting one rounded. Difficulty drops off again for the boss, spikes again for the next few generic enemy fights that once again start one rounding before finishing with a boss battle that looks like it might be troublesome only to be one of the easiest fights you've had so far. I'm not even sure they were aiming for consistency here.
This also makes the save system rather frustrating, as save points can be rather spread out at times and some are poorly placed.
The setup subscreens are hardly user friendly either. The design choice to make nearly everything varying shades of blue hurt it alone, as it can be a bit tricky to see which option is highlighted, but that by itself wouldn't be a concern. However, confusing window layouts that don't make it clear what can and can't be selected do, and a myriad of subscreens where some options are practically hidden makes it a nightmare trying to set up your party.
Xenosaga Episode 2 should have spent more time trying to be a game, because parts of that were quite good. However, spending hours between the good bits does not make for an enjoyable experience and it's more likely to drive away gamers, especially for those lacking substantial time to play games in the first place. There are way better RPGs out there much more deserving of a gamer's time.
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