Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse starts off so strong it’s worth staying on the title screen for a while just to hear Yuki Kajiura’s haunting musical piece “In the beginning, there was…” gently flowing around an otherwise silent scene of the ES Asher (these replace the AWGS’ of Episode I) being constructed piece by mechanical piece. It’s a sombre and showy opening, the bloom of the white lights and choir-like vocals somehow working in harmony with the giant mech’s sharp angles and atypical design to create a brief moment of perfect serenity.
This peace is thoroughly shattered the instant you begin to play, Episode II seemingly keen to make clear everything you thought you knew – everything you’d invested yourself in one game earlier and committed yourself to exploring in further detail with the purchase of this sequel – has changed. And so the story begins not where it left off with the group finally arriving on the much-discussed but previously never reached planet Second Miltia but with Chaos and suddenly-important newcomer Canaan descending into the original Miltia’s Realian conflict as the two-man team piloting ES Asher; gliding easily through the sun-kissed oranges of the atmosphere and through fluffy clouds into the darkness and bullets below, unmanned enemy craft carving impossible patterns through the air. It’s a welcome reminder of Xenosaga’s tightly held sense of wonder towards the infinite cosmos and the potential future of scientific achievement, something Episode II sustains effortlessly through visuals that manage to stun on an artistic as well as a technical level. The game is awash with subtle bloom, sharp rain, beautiful reflections, and countless other special effects. Many of these details are, of course, faked in a way they aren’t now – distant “cars” are nothing more than moving dots of light, a “reflection” is a static image that shifts slightly over a curved glass window as you move around the fixed-view room – but it’s still enough make you wonder why we ever thought we needed hardware more powerful than Sony’s second console.
Unfortunately much of that praise is reserved exclusively for Episode II’s environmental detail, with the game’s huge shift in character design – less eyeball and pointy noses, more “natural” proportions – something of a mixed bag. How successful this newfound pursuit of “realism” is varies wildly depending on the character its been inflicted on. Some, like Ziggy, Albedo, and Gaignun, appear to be virtually unchanged from the previous game. Chaos and KOS-MOS were already adult sized and shaped to begin with so giving them a more standard set of features doesn’t create a jarring change for either of them (strangely enough KOS-MOS’ all-new redesign has a worse face than her redone original). Momo however looks like an off-brand version of herself, the initial shock much like spotting the hairy stunt double in a blonde wig during a movie’s action sequence. Her look improves significantly when she changes into her new Episode II outfit but she never truly recovers from that first bad impression.
Thankfully the first few hours are so mesmerising you won’t have the time or inclination to dwell on anyone’s new hairstyle or choice of clothing, Chaos and Canaan’s opening tutorial flashback (yes, another) on neon-lit streets in the rain soon giving way to a space pope who is more literally a pope in space than I personally felt able to take seriously, and a thrilling high-speed chase sequence through Second Miltia’s bustling city streets before a final confrontation with two towering mechs that must be fought using nothing more than the cast’s bare hands (and guns, and Momo’s all-new bow and arrow set whose sudden appearance never seems to be explained by anyone).
The battle system of old has been effectively chucked out, replaced by a more streamlined skill/ether learning system (although being more streamlined than Episode I is neither difficult nor a vast improvement), a complete absence of equipment (this means all stat upgrades come either through levelling up or spending points to unlock “STR+2” and similar in the new skill system), and a completely new idea – combo “zones” and “breaks”. Like much of everything found within Xenosaga, all of this is exciting and inventive… in theory. So the idea is you attack the enemy to reveal their combo weakness (their are only two main zones – B and C – so working this out usually takes no more than a single turn, especially as the game highlights the correct one in bright red text), exploit it using a longer chain combo (anything finishing with a circle button attack), and when they’re either knocked down onto the ground or suspended high in the air everyone else piles on using the “boost” command to deal massive damage while they’re vulnerable. It’s dynamic, challenging, and unusual. That’s the theory, anyway. In practise enemy health is so consistently high that there is little point attacking at all if it’s not part of one multi-character combo break attack, and so battles endlessly revolve around doing almost nothing for a dozen turns (three characters, each with three segmented stock gauges that can only be filled one section at a time, plus extra turns to fill the boost gauge to max), praying your combo actually connects when you unleash it and the enemy doesn’t evade or interrupt with a boost of their own, and then repeating the tedious process as many times as it takes until you’re finally free. I had one boss take over nineteen minutes to kill (the final XP-granting screen helpfully includes a timer so you can see exactly how much of a slog every fight is), and that’s when everything went well. Now let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and assume the intent here was to inflate the difficulty/HP pools this way in an effort to make people actually use the fascinating system they’d invented instead of blindly hitting things until they fell over – and in this respect, it worked. You really do have to understand and engage with every tool placed at your disposal if you want to win – but that’s also the problem. By forcing you into this rigid routine of breaks and boosts – even when fighting the most inconsequential automated drones – you’re not making clever tactical decisions or being rewarded with a quick kill for carefully planning a string of moves and executing them perfectly, it’s just more work.
The story has been given an equally thorough do-over, the focus slightly shifting away from Shion and her precious killbot (once again nobody seems overly concerned KOS-MOS is able to hear Shion call out to her from across the depths of space or power up at will without a power unit installed) and onto the genetically modified former child soldiers Jr., Albedo, and Gaignun. Again, this didn’t have to be a problem: Episode I always made clear that it was one part of a larger whole, and all three of these characters were properly introduced and treated as a core part of the story’s foundation one game ago.
And again, it is anyway. Much of the first disc’s unnecessarily lengthy playable backstory is a dull collection of slightly expanded events the previous game already shared with us, a retread of areas we’ve literally just walked through – including the same puzzles – (“It’s fine! It’s different! Look! Snow!“), a few details that serve no real narrative purpose (Albedo and Jr. were conjoined twins – and?), and worst of all once again treats Momo as a disposable trauma magnet. At one point this Realian modelled after Dr. Mizrahi’s dead daughter (that’s your explanation for Momo’s “mother’s” coldness) almost dies and locks her mind away as a protective measure after her mind and her entire childlike body were used as a vessel and a trap by two different men without her consent, and so the gang do the techno-magical mind-dive thing to try and rescue her. Great. Fine. Only from the moment they enter her mind it’s not Momo’s story at all, but Jr’s. His past. his sadness. His rivalries. His secret promises to Mizrahi’s dead daughter. And at no point does either the game or anyone within it say “Hang on, weren’t we here to help Momo?“.
During the course of these events its made clear (painfully clear) that manufactured monster Albedo’s violent streak stems from his own unique brand of immortality, both how “apart” he is from all other life as well as the fear he will inevitably be left alone. When he’s shown as a little boy, his face red with tears at the horror of this realisation, you’d have to have a heart of stone to not feel some empathy for him. But while this informs his past it’s not of any special relevance to his present, the vicious killer with his own entourage of identical little girls to murder as he pleases. Yes the change in him over the years is profound and obviously detrimental to him as much as it is everyone else, but when he’s this far gone – cutting his own head off far gone (as demonstrated last game) – the only thing we really need to know is “Jr.’s sad about Albedo because he wasn’t always that way and considers him his brother“, and we already knew that.
Shion continues to be mostly awful, her sudden reaction to her older brother Jin being in the same place as her – literally hiding in a corner – unexplained and unjustified, especially as in the previous episode the two had what appeared to be a normal video call together, no more or less awkward than any other conversation between distant siblings in semi-regular contact. She’s a hard character to like; the anger, guilt, and sadness bubbling under the surface due to her parent’s death (she blames Jin for not arriving in time to save them, even though it was made clear to us all a game ago that not even a man who can cut mechs in half with a sword would have been much use back then) portrayed as something to conveniently wallow in whenever the story needs a little extra drama.
And so after many hours work all we really learn from Episode II is that everyone’s been emotionally damaged to some degree by past events that were not their fault and they were powerless to stop – and to be honest, we already knew that before Episode II started. Before Episode II had been released. There needed to be some growth, some change, some point to these scenes to prevent them from being just another round of misery for misery’s sake – but it’s just not there. It’s as if the writers equated personal trauma with depth of character, and decided nobody who had ever been happy could be considered interesting enough to be worth spending any time with. It’s all just too much of too much, the plot lurching from one flashback to another to a conversation between multiple people the main cast have, two games in, never met, and it feels like you’re constantly caught up in a string of events that while not uninteresting are definitely not what you came for, as if you walked into a shop in need of a pen and came out with a pot of glitter and an inflatable zebra.
“Too much of too much” applies even more so to the dungeons, each one a miserable labyrinth of unavoidable battles and tedious puzzles included purely to pad the total length. No context has been given for these nonsensical conundrums, no reason why Vector would be storing a large sheet of glass on a few boxes or why a gigantic spaceship has an elevator that has to be weighed down with utmost precision if you want to pass, why things must be slid and not pushed, why it’s impossible for a spacefaring mech powered by God to leap ten feet into the air and must instead travel to new floors in the same room via a button-operated lift, why the game makes you run back through a whole dungeon – fresh battles and all – on a half-hour countdown timer you actually need because this really does take that long only to face a boss you can’t prepare for instead of going with an infinitely more exciting fade to black followed by a brief cutscene of explosions, mad dashing, and “Wow, we barely made it!“.
The most frustrating part of this is I can still see a great deal of care and effort has been poured into Episode II’s creation. I can see a world filled to the brim with sweeping sci-fi imagination and understand that, at least on paper, I’ve experienced an inventive battle system that eschews hitting things as often as possible for good tactics. But it’s not enough. Or maybe it’s too much. This is a game trying to tell five stories but only has the time and budget for one, a game that over and over again mistakes “telling you a lot of things” for detail, immersion, and emotional texture.
And I’ve had enough. I don’t care about the story any more, because after two games I’m not seeing any great thrust towards an exciting conclusion, all I’m seeing is another chance for Allen to be made to look the fool and Momo to somehow take second place in her own unnecessarily drawn-out and uncomfortably detailed suffering.
Episode III‘s got a lot of work to do if it’s going to draw me back in.
[I may not be having fun, but I’m still very grateful! Ko-fi supporters make exploration like this possible!]