Despite the fact that it's only two months old, 2005 has been a disappointing year for RPG sequels. Konami's Suikoden IV and Sony Online's Return to Arms, for example, have both failed to become the classics we anticipated them to be. Though technologically superior to their predecessors and near-identical in respect to the gameplay, neither one of these two high-profile follow-ups elicited the same special feeling of individuality that their forerunners did. Sure they were good -- and fans of the previous games would likely enjoy them -- but unless you had the Rune of Punishment tattooed on your backside or were the president of the "We love Shelox Fan Club," most of you probably didn't even care.
I suppose that's why it comes as no surprise then that Monolith Soft's own continuation, Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose, doesn't quite live up to its original inspiration either. Just like Suikoden IV and Return to Arms before it, Xenosaga II is definitely a good game -- and one that diehard Xenies will no doubt go crazy over -- but also like Suikoden IV and Return to Arms, Jenseits von Gut und Bose is missing the high level of personality and gameplay progression that made their progenitors such classics in the first place.
This lack of morale is actually pretty surprising considering just how interesting Xenosaga II's storyline ultimately becomes. Though it won't answer a lot of the burning questions left behind by the original, the plotline does go into some interesting and entertaining directions. Picking up immediately after the final moments of the first game, Xeno II follows the returning Elsa crew as they arrive on Second Miltia to extract the Y-Data from MOMO's subconscious and turn over KOS-MOS to Vector Industries. Of course, being the complicated space opera that this is, things don't really go quite as planned, and before you know it, Cyborgs, Realians, Androids, and sexually ambiguous "Maybe-Angels" team up to fight a series of mysterious and rambunctious foes.
Peculiar directional changes aside, Episode II's chronicle is still nothing short of excellent. Easily the most intriguing game to hit the PlayStation 2 in terms of story so far this year, Xenosaga is a hell of a ride most of the way through. And for fans who felt a little overwhelmed by Episode I's rather disjointed cutscene direction and long-winded 40-minute cinematics, Monolith has scaled down that approach to allow for faster cuts and more frequent breaks between transitions. There are even a few new characters (including Shion's brother Jin and the Realian Pilot Canaan) thrown in for good measure and some cool space battles thrown in for Star Wars nuts.
In addition to Xenosaga's adjusted plot focus, Episode II has made a number of welcome advances to the previous title's audio/visual department as well. Though I did prefer Episode I's more stylized "Super Deformed" approach when it comes to overall appearance, the sequel's realistic presentational redirect makes for a much prettier experience. Just look at lead character Shion Uzuki, for example: Not only is she packing more polygons, more texture detail, and a hell of a lot more animation, but her character design is more flattering too. Or to put in simpler terms, she's been injected with ye old "Babe Serum."