I’ve only ever known the Nihon Falcom name to be attached to two big game series; The Legend of Heroes, and Ys. I’ve got a lot of love for the Ys series, and I’ve spent a lot of time playing the latest Legend of Heroes games to come State-side. Beyond those, though, I never really made the effort to see what else the developers behind those franchises were responsible for. Thanks to some deep-pull localisation efforts by XSEED games, though, a nearly 20 year old video game I had never known about is finally revealing itself to a worldwide audience on Steam.
Nihon Falcom made Zwei!! back in 2001 for the good old personal computer, and it even got a sequel in 2008, as well as a PSP port in that same year. Oddly enough, XSEED localised the sequel back in October, but is releasing the localisation of the first Zwei game now. It might create a weird situation for people who aren’t aware of the original release order, because while Zwei: The Arges Adventure is the latest Zwei game to release on Steam, it looks and feels a lot older than the one we got in October.
The dated visuals, in all honestly, add to the charm of Zwei. Everything is rendered in a soft palette and squished style that evokes the design sensibilities of PlayStation/Saturn-era JRPGs. Character designs are extreme and unabashed, with giant spiky hair and boys with monkey tails or girls with giant cat paws. Even the grainy, low resolution CG cutscene you get when you start the game outplays the technical flaws with how damn nostalgic and classic it is. The entire visual package of this game is a time-capsule to the golden era of Japanese videogames, and it’s fascinating to see it be a product officially released for English audiences in 2018.
Even more charming than the visuals, though, are the characters and writing of the game. You play as Pokkle and Pipiro, a brother and sister living together in a quiet, serene village. While Pokkle is a pun-obsessed plucky would-be hero with a heart of gold, Pipiro is a lazy fashionista who refuses to get out of bed for anything unless there’s food and/or money waiting for her. After the two of them witness a mysterious masked man steal six sacred statuettes from the town’s ancient shrine, they’re tasked with tracking down the thief and recovering the idols, and hopefully getting a monetary reward for doing it.
The thing that makes the story of this game truly jump out is how unexpectedly hilarious the localised writing is. Characters use modern American slang here and there, or toss out risqué humor and modern references that are both tastefully done and absurdly hilarious in how out of place they are with this bright, peppy JRPG world. I nearly lost it when a character gave our heroes a task and Pipiro basically said “That sounds tough as shit. No thanks.”
I absolutely love when a localisation team goes above and beyond, and has a bunch of fun with adapting games into English. As long as they maintain the base spirit and story of the original Japanese story, reworking or adding references and jokes so that they hit home better for current English speaking players is always the sign of a perfect localisation to me. This is one of the things that Zwei hits a homerun on.
Unfortunately, a lot of other aspects of Zwei end up being a foul ball to the groin. The biggest faux-pas is the combat system. In Zwei, you dive into three-floor dungeons and fight enemies in real-time with Pokkle and Pipiro. Pokkle has a melee drill attack, while Pipiro fires magical blasts from afar. All of your character attacks, however, operate by homing in on a nearby enemy. Rather than tactfully aiming your blasts or strikes, you simply press the attack button and your attack homes in on something automatically.
This makes practically every normal combat encounter a task of simply mashing your attack button while your character auto-attacks, until you realize there’s a rapid-fire option in the pause menu that lets you simply double-tap to keep your character attacking faster than you ever could via manual button presses. It never felt like I had to employ any kind of strategy in combat beyond “heal if you hurt”. You can’t strafe around enemies or block attacks or roll, and you can only use one character at a time, with AI poorly controlling the one not in use. After experiencing the rich gameplay mechanics of Ys or Legend of Heroes, it really disappointed me to see Zwei lacking the crisp, satisfying combat systems I had come to know Nihon Falcom for.
Boss fights only serve to amplify these combat issues. While you might have to be smarter about where you stand or when you choose to attack in these battles, the shallow combat and busted attack-targeting continue to fester and rot the experience. Figuring out how to beat a boss doesn’t feel like you’ve learned the optimal combat strategy, it feels like you’ve learned how to trick the combat system into letting you kill the boss.
Of course, you might also need to simply be a higher level to effectively eliminate a boss or certain enemies. The way you gain experience in Zwei is different than a lot of other JRPGs, and it was one aspect of the game’s design choices that I thought was pretty interesting. You gain no experience by killing enemies. Instead, healing food items contain exp, so you’ve got to eat in order to grow! You can also save up ten duplicate food items and exchange them for one item worth even more exp. It’s a unique take on JRPG leveling, but it makes grinding for experience even more of a pain. Now, you’re not simply grinding enemy kills, you’re grinding those enemy kills and hoping they drop a food item that maybe has enough exp to level you up sometime soon.
A few other minor points of the game are hit, and also miss. I was happy to see how much work was put into adapting this game for a modern PC release, like including the bonus arranged version of the soundtrack as an audio option, or seamlessly crafting in the many minigames that were originally seperate .exe files when the game first released 17 years ago. Of course, those bonus touches don’t make up for things like having no easy way to exit a dungeon after you beat it or having to backtrack to specific floors of already-cleared dungeons, two design flaws that are ‘remedied’ by a single-use teleporting item you will rarely have enough money to stock up on.
I think it’s important to preserve old games for future audiences, or make them available for audiences that never knew they existed. Video games, like any other art form, have a long history behind them, and a longer history ahead of them. Releases like Zwei: The Arges Adventure serve as time-capsules to help keep old pieces of history from disappearing. It’s a game very much from its time. While I appreciate the effort put into making the writing stand proudly in a modern day, gameplay flaws and dated design choices make it a chore to truly get a satisfying experience out of the game.
Version Tested: PC