The Saga Continues
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Diving back into the story of the first Xenosaga title, Xenosaga II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose (Beyond good and Evil) brings a good experience to the table for those who have just started or continue with the saga. Just to preface, I have not played the previous Xenosaga or Xenogears so I am strictly going to address the game itself and not the story. Perhaps this will bring a fresh and unbiased perspective to both the veteran and amateur Xeno-series gamer.
In order to follow the story fully and comprehend every action that is taking place, there is no doubt you need to have played or somehow experienced the prior games. However, for a crash course you can check out an area in the beginning of the game that allows you to read a recap of the storyline. Still, admittedly, this seems like a poor substitute to actually playing the game. Nonetheless, it provides some insight into the story and allows the novice Xeno-gamer to somewhat follow along and enjoy the cutscenes a bit more.
I wouldn't say that Xenosaga 2 is a groundbreaking RPG but there are some interesting tweaks and changes to traditional RPG's. The story alone can probably hold the attention of most Xenosaga veterans but us newbies probably expect a little bit more than just a plot.
One of the most interesting changes is the ability to "boost" your character which makes him eligible to deal out some major damage with combo hits. Combine these combos with the ability to attack different areas of the enemy and you find yourself working to see what combinations best suit you and leave you smirking at your opponent's corpse.
Trying to figure out where your opponent is most vulnerable makes confrontations enjoyable but not necessarily easy to master. Once you become accustomed to who can do what and where certain enemies are vulnerable, you will be dealing some incredible damage.
Not only can your characters throw some wicked combos alone and together but they can all learn magic skills. Some of them may have more ether (magic hitpoints) than others which will make you plan carefully what they can specialize in, should you choose to treat them that way. With every character having the ability to learn all spells, it can make for an uber-group or make you realize that you just supplied your character, who has the lowest ether level, with the spells that cost the most ether (been there, done that).
As you level and gain experience and the ability to learn more magic, you can then make up for prior *cough* mistakes in magic distribution. The door is open to so many different combinations of moves and ether abilities that the possibilities are nearly endless and you can toy with them as you please.
Some might argue that all players having the ability to learn all of the various spells is a bad thing because it takes away from certain combat personalities (the healer, the damage dealer, etc). For me, anything that pushes the limits of the genre but doesn't take away from gameplay is an added bonus. Even though it appears to be a mild alteration to what we are used to in RPG's, it can make for an interesting combination of group members. Not only that, but you cocky players can say, "I beat the game using my lowest ether character as my healer!"
Outside of combat, the navigation portion of the game is nothing to get too excited about. In fact, as you slow-motion-run around the boards, the camera angle can become cumbersome by not letting you see what lies ahead. Having said that, it sometimes hinders your ability to escape from combat.
That's right, you can escape from combat on occasion. If you see an enemy and just don't feel like going into battle, you can attempt to outrun them. While this doesn't always work, the camera angle can sometimes hinder your ability to escape leaving you at the mercy of your enemies...hope you healed your group before you decided to wander!
The ability to save the game at many points will help soothe your worries if you mistakenly walk into a trap. It might even be a good idea to take your group into the same enemies a few times so you can buff your team a bit. You'll find that some of the enemies seem unstoppable but all it takes is some clever magic use and complete use of your group. Remember to figure out whom you want to bring into combat and substitute an ailing character for your "bench" player at an appropriate time.
You'll find some goodies dropping from your enemies but there really aren't too many new and exciting items. As you walk the boards, be sure to bust your way through objects as you lock on and clear your path. On occasion you will find a hidden treasure or even an enemy! The ability to shatter objects doesn't seem too exciting but knowing you can either get an inventory item or end up getting your party killed makes you wonder and question your greed.
The menu's item, ether, skills (magic), and party tabs make for a rather easily navigable outlet to view your characters and also look ahead to what you will be able to learn. There is no doubt that you will like what you see and aim towards obtaining certain spells through your experience points.
Some thought definitely went into the menu system and allows even an amateur gamer page through with ease. In an RPG, there is nothing worse than a difficult system of leveling and learning skills, but there are no worries here as it is very self explanatory and simple to follow.
The anime atmosphere of the game is rather standard but most of the graphics leave a good impression. There is much attention to detail in not only characters but environment as well. Sure, there are imperfections and the ever-present lip movement/voiceover are painful at times but they can be overlooked by throwing in some stunning scenes and interesting attack animation. The musical score leaves a bit to be desired and can become grinding after a while. Don't look to be impressed by your battle tunes. The voice dubbing is surprisingly good for a Japanese title and you don't find yourself cringing at awkward dialogue too much. If you can get past the game's storyline jargon, you'll find that the conversation is rather simple and easy to follow.
Alas, now, I must break some of the bad news. There are painfully long cutscenes and even long periods without actually going into combat. The other night I played for almost two and a half hours without fighting one enemy. Grab your popcorn, kiddies, you're in for some long movies. I'm sure the Xenosaga veterans drool over these but they are excessive and interrupt what is an otherwise exciting game. One of the worst things I noticed about the movies is that they are so in-depth. Sure, they tell much of the story but you sit back and wish you were playing and unfolding the story yourself.
Talking to the non-combat characters is pretty standard with paging through text and at times a seemingly bustling city is sporadically populated with interactive guests. You will find that you need to talk to some of them due to the minigame system. The minigames really aren't too exciting or necessary in my opinion, but they break up the monotony of battles and long cutscenes.
While Xenosaga 2 probably hit home for those already familiar with the storyline, it also was more than playable for those just being introduced to the series. While there were no mind-blowing industry breakthroughs, Xenosaga II presented itself as a finely tuned game with all facets of a stable RPG that any level gamer can enjoy. Sadly, the movies permeate the game and make you put down your controller a little more than you would like. Take out the excessive movies and you can easily find yourself lost in your character's levels and spells for hours.
Judge, jury, and when necessary...executioner of lesser games. Craig's gaming experience started with Intellivision and the rest is history. He can be reached at : email@example.com.