Agarest: Generations of War 2 Review
Sony PlayStation 3
The Agarest series can be boiled down to one key feature that raises it above your standard JRPG - a story spanning multiple generations, with each spawning a playable character from the loins of their predecessor. Agarest Zero had two generations; this full sequel increases the lineage to three. The theme of heredity allows the story to stretch further than it could with one character (without resorting to time travel), while also governing your attitude in response to your party of merry followers for, as previously referenced, this is a JRPG with all the turn-based goodness those four letters signify. Of course, boiling Agarest 2 down to one generation-spanning gimmick does the game a disservice and neglects to include the other key features on offer: a battle system so complicated you’ll fail repeatedly before the inevitable difficulty spikes show up, a simultaneously deep yet waffly story and a hefty helping of fanservice for otaku of a certain persuasion (namely, those who like skimpy outfits and jiggly breasts).
Things begin in utter chaos - well, more accurately things begin with a sword literally in Chaos, a god with a fatal case of acupuncture courtesy of lead protagonist Weiss. Time has passed since the previous Agarest games, although there’s not much to link the three games besides a few names and overarching mythologies. Skewering Chaos causes a brilliant white light to erupt from his chest, causing immense destruction including the obliteration of an entire continent. Weiss, suffering from a nasty case of amnesia (that old chestnut of a plot device), reawakens later on, somehow in a faraway land. Recovered by Aina, a young healer, Weiss begins his quest to work out exactly what’s happened and put right what he made wrong. It’s a fairly typical story that’s found in many an RPG but it’s evident that there’s a background of established lore guiding events.
The meat of Agarest 2’s gameplay revolves around mind-boggling battles, relationship management and a whole lot of grinding. As soon as Weiss awakens it’s off to explore the continent, making use of one noticeable upgrade - the 2D overworld maps of previous games have been replaced by a 3D map similar to Final Fantasy VII’s world in miniature. A sprite of Weiss tramps about the map, triggering random battles as you work your way to the next ‘EVENT’ mark. For any gamer brought up on PlayStation one RPGs the mechanics on show will be second nature - that is, until you reach the battle system. Elements of Agarest Zero’s grid-based battles return, albeit with rejigged methods of attack. Whereas Agarest Zero would see certain combinations of character attack combine to form bigger and more powerful flurries, Agarest 2 places a heavier reliance on grid formations, available hit points and character class. A grid system remains but the battlefield is now divided in two - your team and opponents beginning on separate sides. Move into the opposite side and your defense is reduced, although some attacks will require movement nearer to the target. Place your team in a particular formation and attacks can be made by any member of the squad, giving the ability to chain long- and close-range moves together, each character mapped to a different arrow on the d-pad. Hit an attack at the right time and you build up points to use towards even more powerful moves which devastate the enemy. Pull off an overkill - inflicting enough damage on a foe that it would drain their energy bar twice over - and an Ultimate Attack can be made, scoring extra loot from the downed creature and causing immense damage. This only scratches the surface of the battle system but shows the extent of complexity behind mastering Agarest 2’s combat. Beginner’s luck will go a long way to getting through the first few hours. Mastery will only come through trial and error or close study of the manual to work out the intricacies of the interlocking battle components.
Battles are instigated in time-honoured random fashion and an escape function is available although this will severely lower your team rank, thereby lowering your attack skill. The overworld map also features a number of smaller, dungeon-like maps which require areas to be unlocked point-to-point. Each unlocked area will have its own set of enemies to defeat, opening up new pathways and adding support items to your inventory. It’s a play style focused on the grind - battlefields with a locale all look the same with only a token name to indicate a change of area. With a battle system so complex the grind is passable - it’ll take a long while to get accustomed to combat - but the reliance on fulfilling requirements to progress the story will deter any but the most hardcore. A few hours into the game the Hunter’s Guild becomes available, listing hundreds of challenges - usually things such as kill so many of this enemy or collect an amount of such-and-such item. Most other games would present these challenges as optional; Agarest 2 requires a set to be complete before the main quest can progress. It’s egregious filler, made worse by an obtuse lack of signposting as to what challenges need to be completed for the main quest to continue.
Dialogue scenes make up most of the time spent away from battles and exploration. Presented in the 2D talking heads style familiar from most Compile Heart titles, Agarest 2 largely plays out like a fantasy soap-opera. Yearning sighs, troubled hearts and sulky brooding are all present and correct, with every line of dialogue fully recorded in Japanese. Each character is subtly animated, although the effort put into making female character’s chests heave is distracting. It is during these dialogue scenes that you’ll occasionally be presented with a choice of responses. Choose wisely, for these answers will have ramifications - aspects of the game are tied to this rating. Playing the field will go towards achieving a ‘true ending’ and open up bathhouse mini-games that are best played without company (utilising the PlayStation Move to hit new heights of embarrassment.) What detracts from the whole experience is the dialogue that tiptoes around salient plot points or is outright padding. Oftentimes a few EVENT markers will show up and there is no way of telling which is the main questline as opposed to another extraneous bit of story to ignore. Of course, for hardcore enthusiasts these episodes are vital for completion and to add depth - the only qualm is that they are bland to the extreme (if bland can be extreme?) and feel unnecessary in terms of the overarching storyline.
Agarest 2 goes some way to correcting and improving on its forefathers. Like the theme of lineage, each game takes the best of the preceding title and refines it. Some cutscenes in Agarest 2 feature vignettes performed by the charming retro sprites, upgraded to HD, spicing up otherwise interminable tracts of dialogue. An Easy mode has been added, for those new to the franchise or looking for a reprieve from punishing difficulty. The opening character creation screen has also seen a facelift, moving it away from the obscure tarot card selection from Agarest Zero and making it a lot easier to create the character you want. The additions give Agarest 2 a fluidity not present in the previous games, inching the JRPG closer towards the feeling of a modern title rather than a semi-archaic throwback. Even the requisite CG intro movie felt appropriately zippy, despite the usual reliance on skimpily-clad women of questionable age. Again, the slightly pervy undertones reappear but anyone picking this title up will likely be well aware of the series’ reputation.
Unfortunately, despite several steps forward Agarest 2 still feels too old-fashioned to appeal to any mainstream audience. It’s not just the gameplay and graphical style - the game isn’t particularly well optimised, slowing everything down when you initially load it up. A string of long loading screens eventually allows you to play, wherein you’ll experience jerky animations and laggy controls for the first few minutes. While this is something that could be possibly fixed with a patch, players will become annoyed with the length of time it takes just to start a game.
Agarest 2 is another Compile Heart title that will appease fans looking for an in-depth, lengthy and competently constructed RPG that sticks to tried and tested gameplay. A few cosmetic changes spruce things up and make the lore feel more accessible but the main problem of overcoming the grind persists. Even time outside of battle feels like a chore, an endless stream of clicking on menu options to hear dry, leaden exposition. Still, despite a lack of originality Agarest has its merits. The Japanese voices add a layer of authenticity, with the voice acting perfectly acceptable. The localisation is well done - although there’s a lot of inconsequential dialogue, it’s made passable thanks to some unique turns of phrase; any game with an achievement named after Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcolm gets the thumbs up in my book. Agarest 2 doesn’t do anything particularly wrong, it just never seems to move beyond its predecessors. Taking a few tentative steps away from the shadow of its forefathers could move the series towards a more receptive audience, although it’s most devout fans would likely decry any major change. Perhaps, though, the next instalment in the franchise could fall a little further away from the ancient, wooden tree.