The original Xenosaga broke new ground in the staid field of role-playing game narrative upon its release with its singular, intense devotion to storytelling through cinematic sequences and its memorable cast of characters. Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose ("Beyond Good and Evil") shares the same spirit as its dramatic predecessor, incorporating new factions, new intrigues, and new faces into a universe already teeming with complex history. The series' momentum adopts a more leisurely pace, however, taking the time to more fully develop the characters and their relationships, to both each other and to the danger represented by the strange artifact called the Zohar. At the same time, this game is shorter than its prequel and features a much more simplified, less robust character advancement system. However, improvements to the game's turn-based combat engine, graphics, and its still-captivating plot ensure that fans of story-driven role-playing games and the Xenosaga series itself will still find much to appreciate about Episode II.
The beloved cast has returned, accompanied by yet another ominous-sounding German subtitle.
A flashback sequence starts things off, with the soft-spoken, enigmatic young man named Chaos accepting a mission alongside a serious-faced Realian (android) named Canaan. They're being sent to the surface of Miltia, a world being wracked with destruction due to the near totality of the Realian population suddenly going berserk. Upon reaching the surface, they come into contact with what appears to be the only other individual still possession of his wits--Federation officer Jin Uzuki. Together, they set off to find their objectives: the URTVs, specially bioengineered teenaged boys with the power to stop a deadly form of energy by negating it. Matters start to heat up, and just when things are getting interesting, the story shifts to the present, and we rejoin the intrepid crew of Shion, KOS-MOS, MOMO, Ziggy, Jr., and their friends as they land on Second Miltia.
There are a number of factions jousting for advantage in the game, and the advantage they're positioning for is control of the original Zohar, the mysterious artifact that was sealed away on Old Miltia several years ago. The grim swordsman Margulis and his employers come into the fore, as well as the smiling young Wilhelm with his powerful associates. There are new characters on the side of "good" as well: Shion's brother Jin Uzuki finally makes his appearance as a master of Japanese swordsmanship that can't seem to decide on a steady job; and Canaan, the aloof Realian, also comes along for the ride. Much of the storyline explores and unmasks the relationships between various characters, such as the storied past of Jr. and Albedo, as well as some new revelations about MOMO and her creation, the source of tension between Shion and her brother, and so forth. Much of this game is character-driven, and so the events in Episode II seem mostly concentrated on developing these individuals and their relationships even further. Mind you, this isn't a bad thing--the rich cast is what drives this series, so the indulgence is justified.
Ziggurat 8: half-man, half-machine, all melancholy. Who wouldn't want to learn more?
When wandering through Episode II's slick, sci-fi future, you'll still encounter enemies as entities visible on the screen. You can either attempt to avoid, engage, or ensnare them in a trap that you can activate nearby in some cases. You'll have to be ready to fight more often than not, as your foes are rarely parked with enough wiggle room to truly bypass them. Fortunately, the battle system has gone through some refinement, affording you a wide spread of options that you can use to fell even the most difficult of foes.
Your party members now unleash strikes on enemies according to a specific "zone" on that enemy, such as zone A, B, or C, as well as their ether "magic" attacks. All zones will do some damage, but each enemy has "weak" zones which, if they are struck in a certain order, will inflict break status on them. Breaking an enemy causes that attack to do greater damage, and if you use the boost command to give your party members initiative, you can chain attacks on vulnerable opponents for bonuses. Also, enemies in break can be hit into the air or onto the ground, at which point they can be flayed by party attacks for even greater injury. Each turn taken in battle tends to have a random attribute associated with it, so you can try and time your attacks for critical bars to get bonus damage or to get extra skill points. This sounds like it would make battles almost trivial, but the enemies on offer in Xenosaga Episode II are of a hardy sort. Mindless button mashing will likely get you a dead party of characters, particularly with bosses; careful usage of boosting and breaking are the keys to success. But that's not all.
Your characters can also store up to three extra attacks by "stocking" their turns in battle. Someone who gains stock cannot act in that same turn, but then they have an additional attack saved up that you may use when you wish. Stocking is often necessary for double attacks, which are a combined offensive launched by two characters that are acting together. You can also stock when piloting one of the giant mecha robots in the game, which are now known as E.S. robots instead of A.G.W.S. These machines are controlled by two characters at a time, and the robots' abilities reflect those of their pilots. For example, only an E.S. driven by MOMO can use ether spells.