So good they saved the world twice

What happens after you save the world?

Well if you happen to be the caped hero of a charming fantasy RPG you round up a few of your old friends, make some new ones, and then go off to save the world all over again a few short years later. In a smart move for everyone The Legend of Xanadu II is a sequel in the way Sonic The Hedgehog 3 amiably follows on from Sonic The Hedgehog 2 rather than the complex web of interconnected events favoured by (early) Suikoden or Falcom’s own Kiseki/Trails series. The game only ever idly wonders if you remember the returning cast from their previous adventure: If you do then it’s sure you’ll enjoy seeing some of your favourite old faces again, and if you don’t then it doesn’t matter too much because you’ll pick up everything you really need to know as you play anyway, all other details just a nice surprise waiting for you to experience for yourself whenever you decide to dive into the prequel.

The first Legend of Xanadu felt – for all the good in it – more like a polished collection of Falcom’s greatest hits than anything else, while this follow-up feels more collected and coherent. Whether that’s because the first game took the hit for the team, naturally making this sequel appear more a continuation of that over a selected mass of Falcom’s past, or whether that’s down to the subtle ironing out of the first’s pick ‘n’ mix approach to game design I’m not sure, but after experiencing them in order I can say Xanadu II doesn’t come across as obviously recycled as its predecessor even though this sequel is from a certain point of view just a polished reworking of a polished reworking.

So this gentle rejiggling means the time system of old has been cast out and now you no longer have to wait for shops to open, don’t get to see gentle morning hues transform into the bright colours of day, and are denied the joy of watching NPCs put themselves to bed as night falls, but the rigid chapter structure used so effectively by the first game returns unscathed for the most part (dramatic finales excepted). As before every new chapter is a self-contained mini adventure culminating in an epic boss battle, creating sharp forward-moving focus in a genre that’s often happy to leave people dangling and directionless for the sake of feeling “epic” – which is something that should be determined by the plot and not the number of filler villages selling the exact same potions as the last one anyway. You still need to chat to the right person to trigger special events, go hunt for important keys to use in important doors, and get yourself lost in dangerous places but the chapter structure ensures you always get a true fresh start every couple of hours, and that means when you do get stuck you already know for an absolute fact the solution’s going to be in one of a highly limited number of places, not possibly three sets of caves and a castle’s worth of “Maybe I’d be better off playing something else” backtracking.

Using characters who know each other already (even if you don’t) mixed with a few new faces gives the dialogue a fresh energy – the cast can be a little looser and spend a little more time gently teasing each other than introducing themselves or saving more personal moments for later, everyone already confident in their roles and themselves. It’d be fantastic if more RPGs were like this, cutting straight to the interesting “a group of friends off on adventure” part rather than treating your party as an ever-growing assortment of important people the main character met along the way, as if the lead’s the fantasy equivalent of The Prince of All Cosmos chaotically rolling up a colourful katamari of strangers, and while a party full of magic-wielding ladies and brave heroes with swords is hardly breaking RPG ground, Xanadu II’s people do manage to stand out from the crowd and you do enjoy your time with them.

As before the pixel art used here is incredible whether judged against other titles on the same format or competitors from the same time period, every new scene showcasing a fantastic use of detail, colour, and animation – even outside of those gorgeous fully voiced cutscenes. Standard character sprites have amusing sleeping poses that reflect their personalities, can visibly sit on chairs, laugh, and turn their heads to either address someone standing to the side or look around. Overhead views seamlessly transition into panoramic shots of the horizon, and ancient ruins can rise out of desert sands before your eyes. These features would be noteworthy details on the SNES, so considering this is all happening on a glorified amalgamation of add-ons stuck to an 8-bit console core first released in 1987 it’s nothing short of incredible.

The infinitely screenshot-able side viewed areas are back and once again a beautiful exception to the standard gameplay rather than the rule, although this time around they’re reduced to single screen boss battles as opposed to the side-scrolling platform-ish lead ups they used to be. These epic clashes are always helpfully preceded by a deliberately empty and specifically designated preparation room, allowing you to decide who out of your current party will tag along – if you want anyone else at all in their with series hero Aerios. In battle fighting game style inputs are used to unleash each character’s unique special abilities: Dagger-throwing thief Ryukos has a sneaky backflip move, Pyura uses her staff to fling fireballs around, Aerios himself is more about shouting loudly while heroically slashing his sword, and so on. Keeping two people alive and on the offensive at once is thankfully pretty simple even in the magical end-of-chapter chaos; a tap of the Run button switches control back and forth between them, with the other reverting to a simple attack-when-you-attack AI routine when not in direct use. Guarding is performed by holding up on the d-pad at any time a character’s feet are on the ground, a small but significant skill that gives fights a tactical edge beyond “Hope you can do more damage to the boss than it can do to you” and you the feeling that your own fighting skill and personal reactions are just as crucial to your success as your equipment.

All other conflict uses a typical top-down point of view – and the typical classic Falcom “bump” system of fighting too. As always this means combat veers between being a non-stop rush, barrelling head-first into anything from slimes to the grim reaper, and getting side-swiped by an otherwise unremarkable bat in a tight space and completely wiped out in seconds, immediately sent back to the chapter’s inn (whether you’ve already been there or not) without the cute ghost-y floating present in the first Legend of Xanadu but thankfully with all your money intact. It’s as brilliantly irritating here as it is in any other Falcom title, but seeing as you can save at any time and anywhere in multiple save slots to a certain extent how much backtracking you need to do after an unlucky loss is up to you.

Whether you’re bopping monsters in Xanadu II’s various caves and sewers (it’s always caves and sewers with these games) or within its ancient cities and dense forests you’ll often have to track down hidden switches, clamber up and down a dizzying selection of ladders and staircases (between floors that aren’t necessarily connected either, making it possible to spend forever searching the “wrong” 2F) and find invisible tunnels hiding in the walls too. These relics of game design never take as long to push past as you think they would but they always feel like they’re taking an eternity, and its very obvious that an in-game map or kinder level design would cut a patience-testing hour’s work down into a fluid ten minute task. At least the game’s generous with its item distribution – even minor or accidental exploration is more than likely to see you stumble upon an ample supply of restoratives as well as the chapter’s very best equipment (especially important as there are no levels or experience in the usual sense, Aerios’ power/defence determined by his equipped weapon/armour and how much he’s used it up to a set skill ceiling), so at least there’s a tangible reward for all that extra legwork. You’re still best off stocking up on healing items for safety’s sake as soon as you get the chance but at least there’s enough of everything out there that your money goes towards extras rather than forcing you to scrape by with the bare essentials.

As with the original Legend of Xanadu this game has never received anything more than a highly limited number of very plainly emulated ports – no remake, no alternative version for another format (see: the Super Famicom port of Popful Mail), nothing.  So I suppose the upshot it that makes it a lot easier to pick the “right” version to play because there’s really only one of them, although I would in this one instance recommend avoiding the emulated versions included with the first print edition of Xanadu Next – the emulator used there has a horrible fuzzy effect that I’ve never been able to turn off, and it rather ruins the experience (I can’t tell you if the versions released on Project EGG suffer the same fate, although I do know the other PC Engine games I’ve bought from them don’t). However you end up playing The Legend of Xanadu II this is yet another successful love letter and fond farewell (for real this time) to not only the PC Engine but also the Falcom of old; the same year this released also saw Ys V drop the legendary bump system in favour of a more traditional sword swing, and outside of remakes the series – and the company – have never looked back.

[This post literally wouldn’t be here without the kind support I receive through Ko-fi! Thank you!]

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