Video game sequels are a hit or miss affair. Xenosaga Episode II is chronologically the Jan Brady of its series: the bright, gangly and well meaning middle child that must live up to its bigger sibling's legacy, which is rarely an easy task. Unfortunately, like Jan Brady, Xenosaga II suffers from the sophomore curse, where the second iteration is lacking when compared to its predecessor. I really enjoyed the first game, which told a fascinating and organic story centered on the android KOS-MOS and her naive but well-meaning creator Shion. Through a mix of grand drama and humor, a balanced battle system and enjoyable sidequests, Xenosaga Episode I took me on a rewarding journey but left me with a lot of unanswered questions.
Xenosaga Episode II attempts refinement of the series, as it expands on the story from the first game and brings new elements to the television screen. It definitely tries hard to be grown up in its new look, and the creators ditched much of the anime styling from the first game. Anime vibes are still present but the visual grammar is generally more realistic. This newfound "maturity" extends to game's environments, which have a sharper, more defined aesthetic. Unfortunately, the upgrades to the battle system didn't enhance the game as much as the new look.
Modern role-playing games (RPGs) tend to be defined by their battle system, and live or die by this crucial component. I'm sorry to say that this is Xenosaga II's biggest weakness. There is an element of strategy to the battle system - or so I assume the designers intended. The new battle system is that old saw: it sounds great on paper, but in practice it's lacking.
Each enemy requires a certain sequence of attack types, classified by Zones, in order to effectively be dealt damage. The game's confusing explanation is that a Zone is the height where an attack hits. Each attack from a character will target a specific Zone and the combined sequence determines overall success. One enemy might be vulnerable when hit with a "high-low" attack, whereas another enemy might be susceptible to a "low-mid-high" attack. It required experimentation to determine the Zone sequence for each new class of enemy. There is also the option to "Stock,"or save an action, rather than attack. This lets a character build up actions to be used when she finally take a turn.
Things get interesting when the enemies get tough, particularly bosses, because they may require a chain attack that hits four zones in the correct sequence, which cannot be done by a single character. Proper attack sequences also cause more damage and induce a state of weakness in the enemy. This need to chain attacks together in just the right waymakes another ability, "Boost," crucial to survival because it lets the player (or enemy!) change the attack order- i.e. a Boost allows someone to "cut in line" and steal the next action.
Taking an active turn with Boost and using Stocked actions is the only way to score a high number of Zone attacks: one character starts the attack sequence, then via the magic of boosting, a character capable of hitting the next Zone(s) jumps in to continue to sequence. So, each battle entails knowing which characters need to be boosted and ensuring that the right one is chosen for the attack at hand. It also means characters have to sit around and take damage in order to build up Stock, which I found aggravating. Learning the battle subtleties was difficult for me, and I found the game much tougher than its predecessor. If this description of the battle system seems belabored upon in this review, then I can only say that learning it was as painful as reading about it.
The main problem was that I didn't feel I was applying strategy to win. Rather, I felt I was sopping up damage while waiting to accumulate enough Stock and Boost to execute a series of attacks. Heaven help me if I didn't have the right party members available to do a high piercing attack, or to withstand enough damage until someone could heal everyone. This tedium was the biggest disappointment of the game for me, and I didn't enjoy most of the battles. Some bosses could easily be a half-hour ordeal, or longer, which is not my idea of fun.
Story-wise, fans of villainy and ignominy will rejoice to see Albedo, the nemesis from the first game, return to stir up trouble. I learned more of Albedo's history and how his past intertwines with other characters, which was sketched in the prior game but is painted fully here. Indeed, as with many sequels, questions are answered and new ones left in their place. Shion's brother Jin, glimpsed in the first game, joins the party as a playable samurai in this game. His introduction comes with an amazingly choreographed swordfight sequence, as befits a talented master of his weapon. His troubled relationship with sister Shion provides some humorous moments, which contrast nicely against the large scale drama that drives the story. Being a typical role-playing gamer, I was sucked right in. I especially enjoyed the arc involving the created girl/experiment MOMO and her "mother," wife of the late Dr. Mizrahi whose work is so crucial to the plot. A segment that let me experience the past of some of the characters as a "dungeon" to explore was interesting, but unfortunately was bogged down by the fact that exploring meant progressing through areas by fighting battles.
I don't think I can stress it enough; I really don't like the overhaul of the battle system in Xenosaga II. RPGs on consoles tell a story that requires battles to unlock. This is a long-standing formula, and one that I generally enjoy, especially if the rich storyline and fighting experiences complement each other. Despite my familiarity with console RPGs, I found this system difficult to understand, and not worth the effort to do so. When the battle system alternates between boring and annoyance, it drags down the pacing and the game cannot succeed as a whole. This is a shame for Xenosaga II, because I really looked forward to continuing the series' story. Sadly, this Jan Brady of a game will forever be gangly, and wear the braces which big sister Marcia lacked. Hopefully Xenosaga III will be a return to better things.