Review: Zwei - The Arges Adventure (Computer)
- Release Date (NA): January 24, 2018
- Release Date (EU): January 24, 2018
- Publisher: XSEED Games, Marvelous USA, Inc.
- Developer: Nihon Falcom
- Genres: Japanese Action-RPG
Single playerLocal MultiplayerOnline MultiplayerCo-operative
Zwei - The Arges Adventure is a localization of a game known as Zwei!! which released in Japan for PC on December 30, 2001. The game had received ports to both the PS2 and PSP in 2004 and 2008 respectively, however this is its first appearance on western shores in English. This game is a prequel to Zwei II, which was also localized by XSEED and released on October 31st, 2017 on the PC as Zwei - The Ilvard Insurrection. Though this game was localized second, it's the first in the series.
How's the port-job?
Firstly, I must describe the technicals of how the game runs. As far as graphical options go, Zwei is locked to its original 854x480 resolution, with a set of pixel-perfect zoom options which were added in a patch. Unfortunately, the game runs at just 30fps, understandable for such an old game, but it also has rather terrible frame-pacing issues. Bringing the footage into a video editor, I saw that there would very frequently be 3 repeated frames (out of 60fps) in a row, as well as 3 unique frames displayed sequentially. Because of how quickly both you and the enemies move, this makes not only for an incredibly gross and choppy visual experience, but a rather painful one as well. Playing the game for more than 20 minutes at once caused me eye-strain and a dull headache just underneath my brow. Much more than this, though, is the drastic effect this has on gameplay, though that is to be elaborated on later. Though it's not at all the same phenomenon, it feels so very much like the old screen ghosting that the original gameboys developed as they aged, and it's downright painful.
Merely porting the game to modern PCs was not the entirety of the localization efforts, however. Since this game is making its first debut to western audiences, the localization team needed to translate the game as well. In stark contrast to the game's technical issues, though, it's this aspect of the localization which swept my heart so deftly from my chest. This. Game. PUNS. It doesn't pun a little, either, it puns with a downright impressive frequency, and in the most magnificent, groan-worthy ways. In a mere 30 minutes of playing, I had accrued a screenshot repository of no less than 13 glorious one-liners, and it only expanded exponentially from there. Nearly every utterance from the male MC, Pokkle's, flavor dialogue when investigating an object is a pun, and he frequently attacks the NPCs with his unquenchable wit.
(He sees the pot-tential for puns in the most urn-conventional of locations.)
Obviously, with so many puns being made, not every one of them lands perfectly, but I find mighty amusement in even the most terrible of japes. As a matter of truth, any true connoisseur of puns would understand that the worse they hurt, the better they are.
(Even when the puns crash and burn, it makes me grin.)
While I appreciate each and every chortle, some puns tend to stretch themselves far too thin to make the association work, and those are the only ones which are less than great. Even still, I cannot begin to express how glad I am for Pokkle's little trope, and how much I want to hug whomever wrote his lines. I have no idea if he was such a progenerating punster in the original Japanese text, but if not, I'm thrilled they made the change. If he was as much the generous jokester he is now back in the original Japanese release, then I must commend the localization team even more for a more than impressive job in keeping the spirit of Pokkle’s japes intact.
Unfortunately, not everything about this localization hits a home run the same as Pokkle’s beautiful buffoonery. Most lines of story dialogue, mostly those delivered by his sister, Pipiro, are laced with irreverent and sarcastic undertones. While entertaining within the microcosm of each individual conversation, the prevalence of these tart tones do drastically detract from the potential drama and gravity of the game's story. Not only that, but I feel this game's particular style of verbiage won't end up aging well at all.
Characters (again, particularly Pipiro, though it exists in every scene across many characters) will often use modern colloquialisms such as "whatevs", "totes", "O.M.G.", etc. in common conversation, and it very much gives the dialogue the mark of this specific time period. I worry that this style of speaking may just end up sounding to future generations the way phrases like "bodacious" and "tubular" sound to ours, but as of this moment specifically, it just sounds a touch trashy.
Don't get me wrong, there's mileage to be gained from using these phrases ironically, and the overall tone of the game is indeed markedly un-serious, but the frequency of the piss-taking this game employs causes the whole endeavor to begin to feel like one big joke. Not only that, but when it's the only beat to the dialogue you experience for an extended period of time, it can become exhausting.
The music has been remastered for this rerelease, and frankly, it’s just wonderful. It captures moments of wonder and mystery, dark shadowy melancholy, and bouncy adventure extremely competently, and the composition of just about every piece is well done. These songs aren’t “catchy”, per-se, and I didn’t find any of the songs lingering with me after each play session, but each one gives a very unique flavor to each area, and dungeon exploration was made much more pleasant by the soundtrack.
Tell me how I look, darling~
Visually, the backgrounds and environments are very detailed and smooth. The hand-drawn, pseudo-pastel imagery implants everything with smooth, rich color and a somewhat dappled texture, giving the sensation of warmth and homeliness even when the palette is using very cool colors. The somewhat exaggerated perspective work being employed with buildings and natural edifices, the frequent abstraction of the architecture, and the heavily pronounced shadows with high contrast give the world a very bright and fantastical element on top of it all. The warm familiarity and the abstract fantasy elements blend excellently together, and they produce a world that at once feels both welcoming and strange.
Unfortunately, the actual spritework for the human characters is something I just couldn't get behind. Characters have exactly one expression which never changes, and this resting visage is one of someone who has seen the end of days... and revels in it.
The skeleton beneath it all.
The inciting incident of this game's plot, that which calls the titular heroes to action, is the theft of 6 of their hometown's religious articles. This then goes on to define the skeleton of the gameplay loop, as you are now tasked with going to different areas around the small island of Arges to recover each statuette.
The gameplay loop of combat and exploration is extremely similar to the dungeon exploring aspect of the game Recettear, even down to the look of the doors you enter to progress to new levels of the dungeon. Each map consists of square rooms, wherein you usually fight enemies or solve a puzzle, connected by hallways. While the layouts for each square room are copy-pasted across each biome, the enemy layouts and puzzles are never exactly the same, forestalling a feeling of dry repetition which could have easily accompanied this type of design.
Unfortunately, this game lacks just about any sense of common conveyance necessary, and I found myself wandering around unsure of where to go almost immediately after the world opened up to me.
After progressing 3 rooms in the first level of what could possibly be the first dungeon (The Pavel Gardens), I came across a tiny dragon creature guarding the only door forward. Just one of its barely telegraphed projectiles took out more than 2/3 of my maximum HP. After dying and repeatedly coming back to it, I was able to lock it into several combo strings via stun. 15 straight hits from me wouldn't kill the beast, and it simply kept killing me until I gave up on what was obviously a pointless task. Just as I was convinced that I was in an area the game didn't intend for me to go, I suddenly was able to level up, after which my characters were doing triple their original damage, allowing me to kill the dragon without being hit once.
Now, this did indeed turn out to be exactly where I needed to go, but nothing about the map layout or the dungeon's design itself indicates that this is the case. The only reason I believe the Pavel Gardens to be the first dungeon is that the MCs mentioned it once in passing, but the same kind of vague direction doesn't exist for any other point in the game, nor is their any way to view your current objective. Other dungeons, to which you have access, also have areas for "level 01" access, but they all end in dead ends. There are separate entrances to higher level areas within these dungeons, sporadically interspersed in snaking directions at the beginning and midpoint of each dungeon, but these are all gated off to the player at the start. You gain access to these gated areas through the use of elemental spells you obtain, keys, and explosives, but trying to find that one gate you saw a while back in the first dungeon which required the wind spell is an exercise in futility, requiring the player to waste their time backtracking across every pathway to find the way to progress.
One tangentially related thing I should note is how the game handles experience points, which is something I think was actually done very well. Instead of gaining experience by defeating enemies, you can only level up from eating the healing food they drop. In addition, there's a pub in the starting town which will trade any 10 units of the same food for 1 piece of food which will give more experience than all of them combined.
This mechanic then requires the player to choose from one of two options, eat the food immediately to restore health in a pinch and gain experience, or save it all up until you can eventually trade it in for quicker level gains. You lose one piece of food and some of your money upon death, which provides the exact right amount of tension in dungeons. It also requiring the player to engage and make decisions about how far they're willing to proceed, but because it's just one piece of food of the 9 or 10 you're likely to gain in one run, overly defensive play is not encouraged. Additionally, there's a chest in Pokkle and Pipiro's house in which you can store food, which cannot be lost.
The real meat & potatoes of gameplay: The combat.
Combat actions consist of simply moving and attacking, with an additional button dedicated to either switching the controlled character between Pokkle and Pipiro, and one more to quick-consume items. In addition, there’s an oscillating "critical" gauge which moves rapidly from full to empty, adding one other small element to combat. If you attack when the bar is in the red section of the gauge, which grows larger the faster your character is moving, you'll initiate a critical attack.
I found it impractical to keep my eyes on the critical gauge while simultaneously trying to attack and evade enemies (much less focusing simply on the enemies with the aforementioned technical issues), so I found the critical mechanic to be functionally as good as random unless you spend the time to internalize the rhythm. Unfortunately, there is only a slight long-term reward to what is ostensibly a pure sacrifice to learn, so as a player, I found myself put off from making the effort to try and commit the frequency to muscle memory. Regardless of my neglect, critical hits appeared quite frequently, further lessening the apparent need to learn the rythym.
There is a real benefit to critical attacks, though, beyond merely the added damage. Criticals can stun enemies, ceasing all movement, and stunned enemies can be juggled in the air for exponentially higher damage potential. This mix of added damage and safety makes criticals, well, critical to the game's balance.
In contrast to the clear, static pictures above, in the actual heat of combat, everything's a jittery mess. This is mostly due to a combination of the enemies' rapid, sporadic movement patterns, the camera's less-than-functional range, and the terrible framerate issues. Your character's attacks will do their best to home in on the enemy the game thinks you want to hit, but sometimes your physical attacks will just cancel themselves repeatedly against the walls of a narrow hallway or target the wrong enemy, leaving you a sitting duck for enemies.
Enemy attacks attempt to telegraph themselves with a single twinkle effect, but with the screen so full of shining effects from attacks as well as the framerate making anything in motion appear to be a blurry mess, it's almost impossible to make out an attack before it's too late. All too often, enemies in each room will spawn right above you, falling on top of you without any chance to avoid them. I can't count the number of times I've died and thought "How? What happened? What hit me?"
Continuing on the topic of undeserved hits, it's incredibly easy to run directly into an enemy and take damage, merely by way of not being able to make out that there’s an enemy at all. The screen is somewhat uncomfortably zoomed into the controlled character, which does its part in creating the issue, but the screen also scrolls only when you're about 1/4 of the way between the edge and the midpoint. As a result, there's even less room to see obstacles and enemies coming, a problem which is only compounded in caves where the edges of the screen are darkened. Even without the screen darkening your day, projectiles can still be fired from nooks you cannot see, giving you literally no indication of imminent damage.
There's an ability you can acquire early on by sidetracking to a random dungeon, at the bottom of which you find an NPC which will give you the ability to see enemies on the minimap. This is something I found to be basically required for seeing what's ahead of you and even attempting to foresee damage. If there’s an enemy which can fire physical projectiles in a hallway, you’re going to be taking unavoidable damage. If an enemy spawns in on top of you, you’re going to taking that damage whether you made an error or not. If there’s a stage hazard you can’t see, either because it’s blocked by the foreground or literally invisible, then you’re going to take a dock to the HP.
Boss battles are a even more of a chore than dungeon-crawling, since it’s a struggle to even get the screen to show what the boss is doing. Many attacks can only be avoided by being far enough from the boss, but you can only see attacks coming by being close to the boss, creating a catch-22. In addition, cutscenes are unskippable, so every time you lose to a boss you lose not only money+food, but also the time it takes to mash your way through the cutscene.
If there’s one thing which can most firmly place a game in my “badly designed” camp, it’s unavoidable damage, or more generally speaking, causing a fail state regardless of player input. I strongly feel that this is a core tenet of game design, and all of these aspects of combat serve to violate exactly that.
Still, not all is grim in the realm of combat mechanics, as there are a number of clever ideas which deserved to blend together much more elegantly than they have. Firstly, some enemies are weak to Pokkle’s physical attacks, and some are more susceptible to Pipiro’s magic. While in the beginning, Pokkle seems the most effective for handling each and every baddie that appears, Pipiro quickly becomes incredibly useful once she starts gaining access to elemental spells, allowing for very safe combat at a distance against specific enemies. This encourages players to make the effort to learn each enemy's attacking pattern so as to pre-emtively counter them with Pokkle or Pipiro, which is in itself engaging.
Pokkle’s Katar can also absorb any magic projectile so long it makes contact with him from the front. Once this happens, the next attack he performs will unleash a small elemental shot in front of him, dealing magical damage to enemies. This is a really cool mechanic on paper, but often times enemies which shoot magic are also immune to magic. There’s no way to attack without firing off your stored magic power, so when this happens, Pokkle needs to waste time firing shots that may deal no damage until he can attack normally again. There is no enemy which is resistant to every element of magic, so quickly switching elements mid-battle can often circumvent this problem, though the act of switching itself more often than not gets you hit in the interim.
Closure, for the both of us.
Unfortunately, because the player has no agency in whether or not they take 60% of the damage they receive, the only means by which to keep yourself alive and moving forward is by using items to heal. As a result, all of the nuance and style possible in the combat through the implementation of these complementary mechanics is entirely nullified, and the game devolves into a mindless mess of button-mashing and heal tanking as the most efficient means of progressing. Any time taken to be careful will only result in less DPS dealt to enemies, meaning more time spent "fighting", which results in more damage dealt to you.
The painful framerate and poorly done frame-pacing combined with how quickly everything moves plays a massive role in detracting from this game's quality. Being that this game was originally made in 2001, though, I can't fault the localization team for these errors. As predicted, changing the resolution and framerate would have been downright impossible, regardless of time, effort, or budget. The bug report/feedback thread in the Steam Forums posted by XSEED says this on the matter:
"Do bear in mind, however, that this is a game from 2001 adapted to run on modern PCs, so certain things simply cannot be fixed, due to limitations in the game's core programming; the framerate and screen resolution, for example, are as high as they're going to get."
In that sense, it's unfair to expect more from them than they've already provided with this port. The textual translation is on the whole cute and entertaining, with Pokkle's glorious punning being the highlight, and with many more instances of humor and charm packed into just about every line in the game. Unfortunately, I'm reviewing the game as a whole and not specifically the localization efforts, and to be frank, it just doesn't hold up.
I can say without hesitation that there is a rather unique game trapped underneath all the grievous design mistakes and technical issues; one I wish I'd been able to play. What was needed here was a remaster, not a port, for the good ideas to actually surface, though I understand the astronomical discrepancy in resources that would have taken. I'm not saying it was ever a viable option, but it's what I think was needed. Fans asked for a localization of this game, and while I commend the localization team for acquiescing, I feel that the final product as a game just cannot hold itself up to critical inspection.
+ Puns, puns, puns, and PUNS.
+ Complementary gameplay mechanics which, while effectively nullified in the final product, give glimpses of a unique game underneath.
+ Very well arranged, remastered music which effectively conveys a range of feelings.
+ Environmental art looks very charming, so long as it's not in motion.
- Heavy-handed use of snide undertones in the dialogue wear thin very quickly.
- 30 fps and atrocious frame-pacing decimate gameplay as well as my frontal lobe. >.<
- An complete lack of sufficient conveyance in both level-design and the narrative.
- Lack of telegraphing for enemy attacks.
- Enemies being almost invisible against the background, in motion or at a standstill.
- Enemies spawning on top of the player.
Though the chibi characters in this game look more akin to porcelain dolls which consume the souls of the damned through their gigantic, glassy eyes, the hand-drawn environments' warm, smooth color palettes and the usage of exaggerated perspectives make for a very fantastical world which truly draws in the imagination. That's only when things can hold still, however, as the extreme technical issues cause all to become a cacophony of jittering color the instant you begin to move. The music is the only part of this section which is not butchered in some manner, and it's quite pleasant.
There are very good ideas layered beneath some frankly amateur design blunders, even for the year this game released, but the technical issues and sloppy implementation completely muddle the whole experience, resulting in most of the potential nuance of gameplay being effectively reduced to heal-tanking and button mashing.
Though this game does technically have a New Game +, a function I firmly believe from which every game with a distinct end-point could benefit, I cannot imagine wanting to scrape my way through this gameplay more than I needed to for this review. Still, there is indeed a NG+ and it does include additional items that cannot be gained in your first playthrough, so I won't hesitate to give points where good effort has been made.
out of 10
(not an average)
As far as the raw amount of "fun" I had with this game, it was markedly below average, however my appreciation for all the mechanics which I found clever, as well as the beautiful Puns of Pokkle, bump my score up to what I believe to be a relatively generous "middle of the road" 5/10.