Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Xenosaga II, A Comparison

Xenosaga II

Hopefully they'll find a way to cram some numbers and gauges into the boring bottom left corner of the screen on the next episode.

Pluses: The deepest RPG combat system I've played to date. Improvements to the story and artwork over Xenosaga I.

Minuses: A deep combat system means that even routine battles turn into drawn out affairs. The skill upgrades (casting magic, etc.) is largely a waste of time.

After assuring that I would play no more of the series, Kid Sandmich picked this one up for me for Christmas. I thought the story from the first one was OK and I loved the set designs as well so I had something to look forward to going in.

First off I was a little disappointed to see the chintzy items given to me by this game as a reward for completing the first game; I was kind of hoping for some additional levels or skill points. However, this iteration has been so completely revamped that it feels like a completely different game so any expected bonuses may not have matched up. Much like the original, this game again is delightfully paced with the play time slipping in at under 40 hours. Some grinding is expected, but probably less so than the typical RPG. This is fortunate since the battles can be rather involved at times.

Early on in the game I was upset to see that copious level grinding wasn't making the battles any shorter or easier. It was then I learned that the game all but requires a semi-complicated use of chains, combos, and vulnerability exploits in order to easily get through any battle as well as to have any prayer at all of making it through a boss battle. This differed from the previous edition, and all other RPGs I've played, as the individual battles here are much more geared toward strategy and peppered with puzzles. I was used to applying differing skills and techniques to difficult boss battles in other roll playing games, but Xenosaga II takes it a step further and is closer to a tactics game than a roll playing game. This setup made individual 'grind' battles much more entertaining as a whole and it was fun figuring out how to quickly discharge opponents. This changed into a problem later on in the game though when intricate, yet repetitive five to ten minute minor league battles seemed to exist solely to pad out the playing time. The game does take some mercy on the player though by eliminating around two thirds of the defeated opponents instead of respawning all of them when leaving an area and coming back.

Additionally, one irritating aspect from the first game got ported over to this version is the cheating AI that gets to break your combo at will. As is typical, a combo consists of consecutive hits to a single opponent; the higher the combo, the more damage subsequent hits cause. Combos are much more critical to this game than the first episode since it's well expected that the only way to defeat most enemies in a prompt fashion is to rack up a large combo by using various forms of chicanery. I can understand bosses getting a little leeway but every peon in the game gets the option of interrupting a strategic execution. It's as if the developers determined that the easiest way to increase the game's difficulty was to allow for the field goal posts to get moved when the computer opponent was about to get knocked onto the ropes.

This episode focuses much more on Junior and Momo, two of the genetically engineered, lab grown replicants realians.

Being a Xenosaga game there are a generous number of cut scenes. I should mention that the previous edition piled on hours of disjointed cut scenes that featured spotty voice acting in an effort to cram as many plot points and characters into the story. Don't get me wrong it was still entertaining, but the story in this second episode corrects many of those missteps and focuses on a handful of well voiced characters and brings some sanity to the first episode's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to storytelling. This cuts back on the game time somewhat, and the wheels do eventually get a little wobbly toward the end in what seems to be an afterthought effort to open up questions for the final installment; but overall it's an improvement on the first episode.

What wasn't an improvement was the moderately changed system for acquiring and using "skills". The game had maybe a half dozen worthwhile "skills": 'heal', 'super heal', 'revive''m sure some others. The remaining hundred or so abilities had very limited applicability and were difficult to acquire. This whole portion of the game seemed like it got halfway changed from the original, but then was abandoned due to the release schedule. That's a shame since if it was tightened up (like if you were able to freeze an opponent and actually have it work) that would have turned an already decent strategy sim into an excellent one.

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