Throw it All in the Pot
You know, at this point, I don’t know if I have much more I can say about the developer Falcom. We have already reviewed quite a number of games from them, and I think I’ve exhausted most of the bits of history and trivia I know and can find about these games.
The company has been around for decades in Japan, and is really one of the grandfathers of the action-RPG genre. Since then, they’ve dipped their toes into everything from story-heavy JRPG to bouncy, colorful platformers.
…but what if they were to take all these genre’s they’ve toyed with and blend them all together?
First, take some parts from their more well-known series, say, the soundtrack of Ys and a touch of the story develoment from Trails in the Sky. Then, a splash of of their smaller titles – the dungeon-crawing gameplay of Xanadu, as well as the color and humor of something like Gurumin.
Throw it all in a blender, mix until frothy, and serve in a glass with a garnish of XSeed Games’ localization charms. That, I believe, would be the recipe for the game we are looking at today.
Developed by Falcom and published in the west by XSeed Games, Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection was released on October 31st, exclusively for PC.
Zwei followes Ragna Valentine, a treasure hunter who crash-lands his airplane on the floating islands of Ilvard. Luckily, his life is saved by a young woman who introduces herself as Alwen du Moonbria…and she is a vampire.
Perhaps not so luckily, in exchange for saving his life, Alwen leverages this act to recruit Ragna to assist her on a mission: retrieving her lost magic and retaking her castle from which she was recently ousted. Sensing adventure, Ragna agrees, joinging her on a quest around Ilvard.
The story overall is relatively lighthearted, filled with all kinds of unusual characters. Even darker or more serious story beats are handled with an air of sarcasm from our protagonists, keeping the plot from ever really feeling heavy.
While the core plot is relatively thin (this game, much like Ys, puts more of its focus on gameplay), the characters more than make up for it. Ragna and Alwen play off each other beautifully, becoming fast friends and a powerful pair of teammates. The antagonists are also wonderfully entertaining, even including a cat-like character that manages to make constant cat puns without getting annoying!
Many of the random NPCs you meet around the world manage to be memorable as well. From the waitress at a Chinese restaurant speaking in stereotypical broken English, to the gentleman who believes his dog has a refined taste for the arts, the characters that populate this world are all infused with humor without crossing the line into overly wacky.
Surprisingly, Zwei takes a note from Falcom’s own Trails series, with the NPCs changing up their dialogue and actions between each major moment of the story. Much like the latter series, this helps Zwei‘s world feel much more alive and lived-in, and following the mini stories of the NPCs is entertaining in its own right.
A Two-Person Job
Zwei is, at its heart, a dungeon crawler. You’ll be guiding Ragna and Alwen through a series of dungeons to find treasure, weapon upgrades, and Alwen’s lost magic, all the while fighting through hordes of creatures.
As the game’s name infers, you’ll be taking control of two characters at once. Ragna is a melee fighter, using his chain-like “Anchor Gear” weapon against enemies. Alwen is, of course, a magic user, gaining a selection of elemental-based magic as you progress through the story. Games that task you with controlling multiple characters can become unwieldy at times, but I never ran into that issue with here. Both Ragna and Alwen are assigned to their own attack button, and pressing it immediately switches to the corresponding character and launches their attack.
Much of the core gameplay felt very reminiscent of another Falcom title we reviewed around this time last year, Xanadu Next. However, while that one was much darker with a bit of a “hardcore” feel to it, Zwei streamlines the formula, seemingly targeting it at a wider audience. Dungeons are broken up into small segments with saves and warp points between them, and you’re not required to complete every segment of a dungeon to move on with the story. Also, rather than the Diablo-esque click-on-enemies combat, this game plays more like an Ys-style action RPG.
Dungeon gameplay doesn’t feel as difficult as the aforementioned Xanadu or some Ys entries, and I believe that’s partly due to the way the game handles healing and leveling. Health and experience points are both combined into one item: food. Enemies drop various kinds of food as you defeat them, and you can find others around dungeons. Consuming them both heals your characters and gives experience. However, the base food you find in dungeons isn’t the most effective at leveling you up. Back in the game’s hub town, you have the option to trade ten of any kind of food for a single new dish that gives you a much larger chunk of experience points.
Though this system, you have to balance whether you want to heal up immediately, or try to save your food and push through to the end of a dungeon so you can level up with it. Most of the time, though, I ended up with so much food from each dungeon segment that I never really had to worry about balance. The only times I’d opt to use food for health rather than levels was during boss fights.
Speaking of which, the boss fights in Zwei can be surprisingly challenging. That’s not very unusual to say when it comes to Falcom games, but in other series like Ys, the fights feel like a true test of skill. Here, though, it was more of a test of how much food I brought with me in to the battle. Boss attacks are often hard to read and even harder to dodge, and many attacks often feel like there is no way to dodge. By the game’s halfway point, boss fights felt more like battles of attrition than of any kind of skill.
Beauty in Age
Keeping in mind that this game was originally released in Japan in 2009, Zwei is a great looking game. Sure, the character and environment designs can be a bit block and polygonal, but there’s still a great amount of detail, especially in the character models. Characters are often surprisingly expressive, even during just standard NPC conversations. The environments are brightly colored and lively, feeling like a slightly more serious take on Gurumin 3D’s artstyle.
Even the more repetitive designs manage to avoid overstaying their welcome. Each dungeon has its own standard environment which, while unique between them, can become a bit repetitive within them. However, as I mentioned before, you never really have to spend a long time within a single dungeon, most only requiring you to complete three segments that last about ten minutes each. By the time a design starts feeling dull, you’re whisked off to somewhere brand new.
As for the soundtrack, Falcom manages to smash it out of the park once again. In this case, though, I was surprised by the style of music here. To be fair, I did judge this book by its cover – I was expecting the same kind of poppy, upbeat style of Gurumin. What I ended up getting was more akin to the Trails series and some hints of Ys – strong and bombastic orchestral arrangements with some legitimately stunning moments. The theme of the fire dungeon in particular is still stuck in my head.
Zwei also offers partial voice acting in English, and it’s another standout part of the game. In a recent blog post, XSeed mentioned how they went beyond the Japanese release when it came to their dub, adding voicing to most of the major story moments that was absent in original. I have to say that it was well worth it – the voicing in these moments is great, with performances that match their characters wonderfully and adding to both the humor and overall experience.
A Delicious Smorgasbord
Overall, despite some issues with the boss battles, Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is an excellent game, and I’m surprised it didn’t make its way west sooner. The game is easy to pick up and play in short bursts with its dungeon layout, but I still found myself marathoning the game in multi-hour chunks. The battle system is simple yet addictive, environments are constantly changing, and the game has both humor and charm that kept me interested in its characters.
Being such a mixed bag of styles from Falcom, I could easily recommend this game as an entry point to the developer’s library. There’s a little bit of everything I love about Falcom here, and I could see newcomers using this game to see if they like the developer’s style and discover other series to check out.
On its own, though, Zwei is still a beautifully crafted game and an addictive dungeon crawler. If you’re looking for something a bit more light-hearted to dive into after the more serious big releases coming out this time of year, this game would be right up your alley.
~ Final Score: 9/10 ~
Review copy provided by XSeed Games. Screenshots taken by reviewer.