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Review: Zwei: The Arges Adventure

4 Feb 2018

Time Hopping

In our review of Fate/Extella, I spoke a bit about localizing games out of order. There are many older and/or long-running franchises that have stayed exclusive to Japan, and when the time comes that a publisher decides to bring the games westward, they decide to bring over more recent titles rather than the original series starters.

As a developer creates games in a series, one would hope that each successive game would build on and improve on its predecessors. Iron out the kinks, make things more streamlined, introduce new ideas, expand the world and story – basically everything a sequel should be. Unfortunately, this can create a bit of a problem for gamers that jump into a series in its later installments.

Take, for example, the Persona series. The most recent entry, Persona 5, is seen by many to be the best and most streamlined game in the series. If you’re a gamer who’s decided to make 5 their first game in the series, though, you may find earlier entries a bit more clunky and uneven (and God help you if you play the first two games after playing 4 or 5).

In this case, though, newcomers to the series at least have the option to start from the origin, as every mainline Persona game is available in the west in some form. There are cases where this isn’t possible. Cases where publishers decide to localize the latest in a series, making that most up-to-date entry in a franchise the first experience most gamers in the west will have. This can end up hurting a bit should said publisher decide to later bring older entries westward, as many will be expecting a similar experience to the first game they had access to…and may find themselves disappointed.

Developed by Falcom and published in the west by XSeed Games, Zwei: The Arges Adventure was released on January 24th, 2018, for PC via Steam.

A Quest With Extra Sass

Zwei follows Pokkle and Pipiro, two young siblings living on the floating island of Arges. One day after their classes at the local church, they return home to find a strange masked man sneaking his way to the local shrine. Following him, they find him making off with six sacred idol statues housed in the shrine.

Pokkle, seeking adventure and glory, decides that he and Pipiro must set out to find and return the stolen idols. Pipiro, though, would rather just stay home and sleep…that is, until a hefty cash reward is offered for finding the idols. Thus, the adventure begins, with the teens setting out to earn glory and cold hard cash.

Much like the game’s sequel released here last year, Zwei is an incredibly light-hearted adventure that is thin on plot, but driven by its characters. Pokkle is somewhat air-headed and is a pun-spewing machine, while Pipiro lazy and very blunt with people, leading to some entertaining and genuinely funny conversations throughout the game. The NPCs are also surprisingly well written, which seems to be a staple in Falcom RPGs. The subtle bits of characterization hidden in the environment (like empty sake bottles littering the floor of the local nurse’s office), along with updating dialogue after major story events, go a long way towards making the people of this world more lifelike.

The actual core story, though, is rather dull and aimless. Aimless, really, being the key word, as it was nearly impossible to figure out where the hell I was supposed to go to push the story forward. Being a game originally released in Japan back in 2001, I wasn’t expecting the hand-holding so common in modern games, but even after talking to all the NPCs I could find for clues, I was rarely if ever given even the slightest hint on where to go. There were a few points I had to load up a walkthrough from the Japanese release just to figure out where I should be.

Two Steps and Seventeen Years Back

Zwei is a dungeon crawler; you’ll be spending the majority of your time exploring elemental-themed dungeons and levels to find items to progress the story. The general gameplay style is similar to last year’s Ilvard Insurrection: you control both Pokkle, who uses melee attacks, and Pipiro, who attacks with magic.

I played through using keyboard and mouse controls, like I did in Ilvard and found the control scheme here to be very unwieldy. I’ve been a fan of the mouse-controlled navigation in most Falcom games, like in Trails in the Sky, Xanadu Next, and Ilvard, never having trouble with accuracy or setting up attacks. Here, though, mouse navigation feels incredibly unrefined.

Setting up Pokkle’s melee attacks was a lesson in frustration against smaller creatures – he only attacks in a straight line in eight directions, and having to set up his facing before attacking meant spending time getting hit in the face by monsters before being able to counterattack. Using Pokkle’s attack seemed much easier while moving, but that also meant often running right into enemies and taking damage if he didn’t strike fast enough.

Pipiro’s magic attacks were much easier to use, especially once I started unlocking her various elemental magics through completing dungeons. Dealing with swapping through those is a whole different story, and brings me to one of my biggest complaints about the game: inventory management.

You have access to a twelve-slot item bar at the bottom of the screen which can hold health-restoring food and various equipment. These can be accessed one of two ways: right clicking on an item with the mouse, which takes too much time, or using the F1-F12 keys, which makes the items further right in the item bar harder to access. Unlike in Ilvard, items do not stack in this game: rather than being able to hold twenty or so of a specific food in one item slot, each one must be in its own spot here, meaning you have less food in quick access.

Even worse is equipment. If you want to use a piece of equipment, that item must be in your item bar. This includes all armor, various weapons for Pokkle, and all of Pipiro’s elemental magics. Between this and the lack of item stacking, you’re not going to have a lot of room to put imperative health-restoring food in quick access.

The issue is accentuated during boss fights. Most of these fights felt less about skill and more about having enough food to outlast your foe’s attacks, some of which can often feel like they’re undodgeable. During these battles, you are unable to access your inventory – the only items you’ll have access to are what’s set in your item bar when you walk in. Thus, it becomes a struggle: do you bring in a bunch of equipment to help stand up to the boss’ onslaught, or go in underequipped so you can carry more food?

Lastly, much like other older Falcom games such as Ys, levels are incredibly important here. A single level can mean the difference between a fast death and wrecking everything in your path. Each area of a dungeon has a recommended level labeling it, and unless you have a death wish, you best stick to them.

Just Keep Smiling

For being a game from 2001, Zwei has a surprisingly strong visual presentation at the surface level. The game is fully in 2D (aside from bosses), featuring large and decently detailed character sprites. The various areas of Arges are distinctly designed, with many dungeons looking great at first glance. However, look a bit closer, and cracks begin to form.

The issue with the dungeon designs is that they are incredibly repetitive. Most are just a series of hallways and square rooms, and while the various themes and designs look great at first, they begin to wear thin when you realize it’s the only design you’re going to get to see. The characters themselves, and Pokkle and Pipiro in particular, are just straight-up unexpressive. You could probably murder a cat in front of Pokkle’s eyes and and just keep on keepin’ on with the same dopey open-mouth smile on his face that he carries throughout the game’s run time.

The soundtrack is decent, but underwhelming by Falcom standards. The various songs do fit their dungeons and environments quite well, but there’s nothing that really stands out. The game also doesn’t have any voice acting, but that’s to be expected for a game from its era. Knowing that XSeed added extra voice acting in Ilvard, though, it would’ve been nice to have at least a couple key scenes voiced.

A Mediocre Look Back

Overall, Zwei: The Arges Adventure is an entertaining yet flawed adventure, with said flaws being further accentuated by the fact that its sequel came to the west first. All of the quality-of-life adjustments The Ilvard Insurrection made to the Zwei formula made going back to this initial outing often frustrating.

If anything, the characters are the best reason to play this game, and I have to give kudos to XSeed with their localization here. The interactions between Pokkle and Pipiro are just outright entertaining, groan-worthy puns and all. Also, despite the multitude of complaints I have with the systems and engines in the gameplay, once I figured out where the hell I was supposed to go, I did manage to have some fun cutting through the various dungeons.

Zwei: The Arges Adventure definitely wears its age on its sleeve, and it isn’t always a good thing. If this game is your first experience with the Zwei series, you may be able to overlook the flaws and have a good time. However, if you’re coming to this after playing last year’s Ilvard Insurrection, you’re in for a bit of a rough experience.

~ Final Score: 5/10 ~

Review copy provided by XSeed Games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.