Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse

Ever since the ending credits of Xenogears indicated it was the fifth episode in a larger series, those that enjoyed the game greatly yearned for official prequels, the first of which came in 2002 in Japan and the following year in North America, Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht (“the will to power,” with the series inspired partially by the works of Fredrich Nietzsche). A few years later came the second installment, Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse (“beyond good and evil”), which, in defiance of Xenogears Perfect Works, continues its prequel’s storyline, the game itself nonetheless being a nice experience.

As in Episode I, enemies wander the game’s various dungeons, and coming into contact with them, whether on foot or on mechs known as E.S., triggers encounters. There are occasional traps on the ground near enemies that have various effects upon the encountered enemy when triggered using the active character’s ability to blow stuff up, although most of the time, the player will have to make do without the advantages of traps.

Combat is structurally similar to that in Episode I, with the three active characters squaring off against a number of foes. New to the second installment is party formation, with each character during their turn able to change their current position from facing the enemy to facing the back of enemies so long as the foes hasn’t caught them in a pincer attack, and attacking enemies from behind will yield additional damage.

Initially, each character can chain a combo of two physical attacks against the foe using the square and triangle buttons, although each ally can “stock” up to three times to obtain additional circle button attacks used after a square/triangle combination. Also new to Episode II is that enemies have Break Zones, where attacking an enemy with the correct combination will yield additional damage after the breakage, and chaining combos by taking advantage of boosts (with the party in the sequel limited to three, the gauge increasing with damage dealt) is in many instances essential to victory.

Enemies can boost as well, though mercifully, this time around the game limits the antagonist party to three boosts as well, their own gauge increasing as they deal damage to the player’s party. Victory nets experience points for occasional level-ups, skill points the player can invest into various skills (with one particularly useful one being Memory, which will memorize an enemy’s Break Zone when they take their turn), and occasional class points the player can use to unlock sets of four skills each, some unlockable with certain sidequests. There is no system of currency or shopping (not to mention no equipment) in Episode II, so the player must rely upon occasional enemy drops for consumable items.

E.S. battles may also occasionally occur when the player is exploring dungeons in E.S. units, with three mechs total but only two active at a time in battle, each unit having a pilot and a copilot, with the setup affecting E.S. skills. Here, each unit can only execute one square or triangle attack at a time, although they can also stock for up to two hundred points (three hundred with a certain accessory) one hundred points at a time to unleash more powerful abilities that generally make E.S. battles go by more quickly, the E.S. units themselves having experience and levels of their own.

The battle system works decently for the most part given its streamlined nature, although there are a number of flaws, one of which is the inability to pause in battle, an annoyance since enemies may boost while the player is contemplating their next move. Another is that switching with reserve characters (an addition to Episode II) consumes the turn of the character that swaps, a step down from the superior character-swapping systems of other RPGs such as Final Fantasy X and Breath of Fire IV. Still, as long as the player exploits Break Zones and occasionally, the weaknesses of enemies, particularly the bosses, the battle system overall is tolerable, although there are certainly some areas in which it could have been better.

Loading times aside from those that precede battles are generally better in Episode II, and there are some other interface improvements such as an easy menu system, control, and direction on how to advance, although there are still some annoyances such as no automaps for dungeons, not to mention some irritating puzzles that might require a guide to solve, which is something no gamer should ever have to refer to when playing a game. In the end, interaction is probably the game’s weakest link.

Like its predecessor, Episode II weaves an excellent storyline that gives especial focus to Jr. and his past, not to mention the strained relationship between siblings Shion and Jin Uzuki. The sequel unfortunately lacks its predecessor’s databank, although the dialogue translation is definitely more than adequate, and in the end, the plot one of the game’s highlights, and a decent reward for triumphing over the toughest boss battles.

An improvement over Episode I is the soundtrack, which is actually present during dungeon navigation, with a decent techno style, although there are still some orchestrated pieces such as the battle themes. Some have complained about the sequel’s change in voice actors, although this reviewer personally didn’t see any difference and found the voicework to be well-above average, the only flaw there being the occasional inconsistency with matching dialogue and lip movement. In the end, an excellent-sounding game.

Episode II also ditches its predecessor’s anime style in favor of a more realistic style for the main protagonists, with the change working well for the most part, although there are some imperfections such as blocky hands at many times and bland textures when seen close-up, as well as plenty of jaggies.

Finally, the second installment is shorter than its predecessor, taking as little as fifteen hours to complete if the player breezes through or possibly thirty or more depending upon whether they participate in a myriad of sidequests that primarily come in the form of the Global Samaritan Campaign.

In conclusion, Xenosaga Episode II is for the most part a solid sequel that hits many of the right notes, chiefly with its battle system, great story, nice soundtrack, appealing graphics, and plentiful lasting appeal, although there are nonetheless some areas that leave a little room for improvement, particularly some areas of combat not to mention various areas of interaction. Despite the deviation from Xenogears Perfect Works, with the installments allegedly taking place millennia apart, those that enjoyed the first game will most likely enjoy the sequel.

The Good:
+Decent battle system.
+Excellent story.
+Nice soundtrack and voice acting.
+Good graphics.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Normal battles can be long.
-Some annoying puzzles.
-No in-game maps.

The Bottom Line:
A good sequel.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Controls: 6/10
Story: 9/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 8/10
Localization: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 15-30 Hours

Overall: 8/10

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