A little look at… Tori no Hoshi: Aerial Planet

The Playstation hardware family has become something of a victim of its own success with so many good (and bad) titles available worldwide it’s very easy to lose sight of the smaller, off-beat games that have cropped up throughout Sony’s gaming history. One of those under-the-radar games is Tori no Hoshi: Aerial Planet for the Playstation 2, a game perhaps “best” described as a sci-fi hang gliding survival-adventure with alien spacebird photography.

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The setting for this unique title is a simple one – Hugo, with his AI partner Carl, is stranded on one side of the mostly aquatic alien planet Cornius Blue after some trouble aboard the orbiting research station where Hugo, his father, and the rest of the crew were living and researcher-ing on. With nothing more than an fancy futuristic glider designed for bird watching and an awful lot of youthful determination it’s up to the player to help Hugo survive alone on this alien world and reunite with the rest of the crew.

This means that the basic goal of the game is to not die. Now you could argue this is the goal of pretty much any game that has ever been created, but in Tori no Hoshi’s case things are a little different. Most of the wildlife you encounter is either disinterested or outright afraid of you as you gently glide past so there’s little in the way of traditional enemies to bother you while you play but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about - instead of typical adversaries to battle with the game instead offers the far more primal obstacles of finding enough food to eat and a safe place to rest before the night draws in. Hunger becomes a constant worry as you glide over the uncharted terrain of this unfamiliar world – will you find a new campsite? Will there be any food to forage there? Even if you do will you have enough time to dry out your provisions in the sun or will a storm sweep in and ruin everything? On more than a few occasions you’ll be forced to send an exhausted Hugo to sleep in the rain with an empty stomach and have little more than hope that the next day will fare better.

This might sound like a meandering exercise in unrelenting depression rather than an exciting adventure on an alien planet, so this is probably a good time to mention that at all times Tori no Hoshi has a laundry list of quests to keep you busy; some of these are vital to progressing the story while others are entirely optional but might offer some useful knowledge or simply test your skills. These varied quests mean there’s always something to think about other than the gnawing hunger in Hugo’s stomach because all your food supplies have rotted away, and they help to give some focus to what is otherwise a rather freeform experience.

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When playing the game is split in two distinct segments – camping and gliding. The camp is where you’ll sleep for the night, forage for food, dry out the food you find if the weather holds out (dried rations tend to last longer than their fresh counterparts), and where you’ll have the opportunity to observe the behaviour of any bird groups pecking around nearby. Gliding is all about exploring the islands around you and hopefully finding more safe campsites to rest at as well as photographing birds in flight (shots of new birds give a permanent HP bonus) and using the glider’s on-board research capabilities to record any bird calls Hugo hears. As gliding in a regular hang glider is a one-way trip, Hugo’s sci-fi variant comes with a limited boost function that allows him to generate lift even when there’s no thermal currents around.

But far and away the centrepiece of this game are of course the birds themselves – nameless and unknown, yet Hugo’s life depends on the player being able to interpret their behaviour and turn them into survival skills. Which foods do birds avoid? Which birds do birds avoid? Each species has a preferred terrain, meal, and place in the local ecosystem and by learning and then using the glider to play back different calls Hugo can scare dangerous birds away or have more sociable species them follow behind him in a beautiful formation. It can be daunting to read about here but the game eases each of these concepts on to the player at a reasonable pace, allowing each idea to become familiar and useful before layering further complications on top.

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Unfortunately this is where the issue arises for gamers without some grasp of written Japanese, as the game does do a very good job of explaining itself… but only if you can read the text. Visual clues are virtually nonexistent – great for the atmosphere, not so great for brave importers who’d like to try out one of the most memorable and unique games of its generation. With any luck though a fan translation for this game will arise at some unknown future date, and perhaps then Tori no Hoshi will finally get some of the attention it deserves.

Spooks in SPPAAAAAAACCCEEEEEE (Nebula: Echo Night)

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Considering just how many games are out there you’d think we’d have a few more ghost stories around by now other than Fatal Frame, Echo Night, Corpse Party and… and… umm… Ghostbusters on the C64? But even though the horror game market has relatively little competition on the ghost-game front From Software still felt the need to mix things up and instead of presenting Nebula players with a typical haunted house/school setting they went with the more unusual ghosts-in-space angle instead, casting the player as the last living human trapped on a remote moon base. It was this uncommon take on the genre that attracted me to the game when I bought it all those years ago, but it was Anne's #Frombruary that got me to finally dig the game out again and play it through.

Now then, wandering around a futuristic moon base in a giant spacesuit doesn’t exactly conjure up images of untold terror, but the unfamiliar setting coupled with some clever design make for a consistently off-kilter ambience that leaves players genuinely unsure as to what they’ll encounter next. Movement is slow and clunky (although not intolerably so) due to the unwieldy spacesuit you’re wearing and your visor’s restricted field of vision means everything feels just a little more claustrophobic and uncomfortable than it normally would. You can run (well, jog) if you want to speed things up a bit or if you need to escape from a ghost but this also slightly raises your heart rate which means it’s a bit easier for you to keel over and die because…

...because staying alive relies upon you keeping the main character’s heart rate at sub-heart attack levels. Nebula has no health bar (nor weapons or any means to defend yourself either, while I remember to mention it) and as dealing with ghosts is quite rightly a terrifying business having them chase you down a corridor  baying for your blood can kill your character from fright. Even better (“better”, she says!), as your heart rate becomes an audible thumping in your ears your vision narrows and grows darker too, which only adds to an already panic-inducing experience. The good news is your heart rate will recover completely if you find a safe room to duck in to or if you can stop the ghost attacking (more on that later), so while it’s easy enough to get yourself in a mess it’s also easily reversed too.

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There’s a good variety in the ghosts and the scares you’ll encounter, ranging from the supremely unsettling laughter of small (dead) children to violent (dead) priests that will chase you from the room and then can be heard (and seen, via the security camera) banging on the door separating you from their wrath. These encounters are genuinely scary when you first encounter them… although this is the part where we come to the problem with Nebula as towards the end when these things should perhaps be building to a crescendo it instead peters out – to the point where there are literally no ghosts left to deal with (and by that I mean “run in a blind panic from”) if you’ve been diligent in your ghost-saving.

You see, all the ghosts in Nebula have meaning and tie in to the plot in some way – there are no generic “grunts” to run from. While this sounds like a good idea on paper in Nebula’s case this also means that all the ghosts can be saved, and when you save them they happily trot off to the afterlife and stop scaring you with unearthly moans about being dead. Actually we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, because all you really need to do to stop the ghosts attacking is find the card-swipe panel on the wall in each area used to remove the mysterious fog that makes the ghosts aggressive – once this is done helping them shuffle off this mortal coil is for a lot of them an optional extra. Some ghosts are non-aggressive from the start and in those instances all you need to do stop your spacesuit-ed lead’s pulse from racing is find the ghost in question and start talking to them. So all-in-all having everything in the game have some significance is in some ways a problem, because the more involved you are in the mystery and the deeper you involve yourself in the ghosts (ex) lives, the safer you end up being.

It doesn’t help either that the story really doesn’t make a lick of sense, with plot holes (or if we’re feeling charitable, unexplained mysteries) so big you could fit a moon base of your very own in them without any difficulty. In fairness though this isn’t really a problem that rears its head until the very end of the game when you realise that the big reveal that’s going to tie all these loose threads together simply isn’t going to happen, leaving you feeling rather underwhelmed and baffled as you watch the credits roll.

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I’ve been a bit negative up there but overall Nebula was good fun and is well worth playing through once, as the first time through piecing everything together can be enthralling if you get caught up in the lives and the mysteries of the people on the base as told through the flashbacks, notes, and dialogue you encounter as you stumble around in the dark.  It was also nice to see a horror game where the character is scared as well as the player – something that’s often strangely absent from a genre that’s all about pitting reasonably ordinary people against the dead and/or foul monstrosities.

So my advice would be to play Nebula, just don’t think about it too much – unlike Konami’s Silent Hill 2, for example, there is no greater meaning to be scried here or dark mystery that can be unravelled on a more attentive second play through, making Nebula a very entertaining but ultimately disposable haunted house of space-based horrors.

If you’d like to give the game a go but don’t fancy playing through in Japanese you’ll be pleased to learn Nebula: Echo Night had both an NTSC-U and PAL release under the name Echo Night Beyond.

Awesome arrange albums

(Hooray for alliterative titles!)

I’ve loved videogame music for about as long as I’ve loved videogame, so long that I still remember taping the soundtrack to Alisia Dragoon from the sound test, but arrange albums didn’t always sit so well with me. It was mostly down to ignorance: “Who the heck are these people messing with my beloved music?!” I’d foolishly think to myself, but it was also due to a lack of accessibility too – it really wasn’t easy to find game albums of any description when I first started really listening to music, never mind arrangements of Dragon Quest III tunes or music from Sorcerian. Thankfully while I may be from the past I don’t live in it, and a combination of Youtube, Soundcloud, Twitter and the magical internet at large have made it easier than ever to buy, listen, and generally appreciate the professionals and extremely talented fans that take game music we’ve all heard a hundred times before and find a fresh twist for it. I still don’t think there’s an awful lot of general talk about this sort of videogame music though, which is why I’ve come up with this little selection of a few of my favourites.

Two quick warnings before we get on to the list below – this isn’t a “Top ten” list. There’s no order at all to the albums below, so don’t try to divine any intention from the places on this page they appear in. Secondly, and most importantly, I’m no musician and I lack any sort of musical vocabulary, so you’ll have to forgive my frankly ridiculous attempts to describe music using words best suited to describing things that are anything other than music.

Vana'diel traditional suite of minstrels.

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This is an unofficial fan arrangement by Kou Ogata that was released at Comiket 73 in 2007, and as far as I can tell it hasn’t been re-released since. Sadly it seems nigh-on impossible to buy these days, which is a shame because the warmth of the instruments used coupled with the choice to go for some of Final Fantasy XI’s more laid-back themes really does make it feel like you’re listening in on an impromptu campfire band like the one shown on the cover. Irritatingly, I’ve just discovered this talented individual also made a short Final Fantasy XIV arrange album back in 2013 that appears to be just as wonderful and equally difficult to buy.

Perfect Selection Dracula ~NEW CLASSIC~

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Another fantastic album that’s not actually all that difficult to buy, it just tends to be prohibitively expensive to do so as the album had one release in 1992 and absolutely nothing since. Unlike the other Perfect Selection Dracula albums that took familiar Castlevania tracks into rockin’ guitars territory, New Classic gives some of the series best tracks (up to that point, anyway) a classy synth-n-strings arrangement – perfect for listening to while drinking a chalice of red wine and staring thoughtfully at the moon.

Biohazard The Darkside Chronicles Original Soundtrack

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“But Kimimi, that’s not an arrange album! That’s a soundtrack!” Oh, hush you. While it’s technically (OK, not technically, actually) not an arrange album it also definitely is one too, being largely a best-of collection of tracks from Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil: Code Veronica all done up in much the same way that Darkside Chronicles itself is a best-of rail shooter remix of the aforementioned games. You might not think of horror music as particularly listenable, but this album combines two of the most melodic Resident Evil soundtracks and then polishes them until they shine, with a nice selection of atmospheric tracks as well as gloriously over-the-top boss themes cranked all the way up to eleven. This album is also the first and only on this list to not only be readily available but also to have had a proper official Western release that you can buy from normal-people places like Amazon.

Zelda Reorchestrated: The Wind Waker

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This album is also not technically an arrangement but a re-orchestration of the original tunes (the clue is in the title, Kimimi!). While the differences to the GameCube versions are largely (and intentionally) minimal here they’re also at the same time exactly what the original soundtrack needed and give them just that little extra “lift” that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. So this isn’t the album to rush to for an exciting reimagining of Zelda classics, but it does a fantastic job of the perhaps more difficult task of tricking you into thinking that the original tunes always sounded this good.

Genso Suikoden Music Collection ~Celtic Collection 3~

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There’s a lot to love about this short-but-punchy little album that takes a hodge-podge mix of tracks from the Suikoden trilogy (as it was at that point) and the spinoff Suikogaiden series and then gives them a good Celtic makeover, but far and away the highlight is the track linked to above: “Everyones Smiling Faces”. Suikoden III used this track as its end credits theme, but you probably won’t recognise it from the YouTube link as the piece that formed the inspiration for this arrangement takes up barely over a minute of the full nine minute original track. It’s not particularly representative of the entire album, which also holds a fair few melancholy tunes, but I do think it’s the perfect advertisement of just how much good a well done arrangement can do.

Chocobo no Fushigi na Dungeon Tokiwasure no Meikyuu Original Soundtrack

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Probably best known (and certainly less of a mouthful) as Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon, this is another soundtrack that’s actually an arrange album, as it’s composed entirely of old “forgotten” Final Fantasy tunes. This was a deliberate choice to be in keeping with the theme of the game’s plot, and the result is a fantastic set of tracks covering somewhere in the region of two decades of Final Fantasy music. Sadly the official OST release is woefully incomplete with a miserly single CD of just thirty one tracks (the full soundtrack is roughly double that number), making YouTube or if you’re more adventurous, creating your own rip, the best option to hear the complete set.

"zwei!!" SUPER ARRANGE VERSION

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This is an album I love for very much the same reasons as the Suikoden celtic album mentioned above, in that it takes a mostly unremarkable track (“Final Battle – Demon King Vesper”) and turns it in to something truly special. In fact I’d come to love this album before I’d gone anywhere near the game, so much so that it was a real disappointment to discover that the final boss music was nowhere near as vibrant as the track you’re hopefully listening to via the YouTube link above. The other arrangements on this CD don’t hit quite the same spot for me, but that doesn’t stop them being the perfect sort of thing to sit back and relax with on a warm summer’s day.

Guilty Gear XX Sound Alive

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As a reclusive nerd sat high upon my throne of Master System carts I don’t get much opportunity to hear music live – thankfully this album fixes all that! The Guilty Gear series has always been well known for having face-meltingly amazing guitar tracks, and this album is yet another in the same exciting vein. I suppose it’s also yet another album on this list that’s not really an arrangement, but on the other hand it has a fantastically “raw” edge that’s captured splendidly on the CD even if I’m terrible at putting it into words!

Symphonic Suite Shining Force II ~Ancient Sealing~

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The Shining Force series has been treated terribly in many ways, but perhaps none more so than somehow being one of Sega’s biggest RPGs and yet not a single game in the original trilogy had an official soundtrack released*. In spite of this strange shunning we somehow got this lush orchestral album of some of Shining Force II’s best tracks, although with the album being a touch expensive and rather hard to find for those not willing to use Japanese proxy shipping services this “apology” feels rather hollow. But in any case, this album is a shining (sorry!) light for a series that remains musically overlooked.

*Bar Shining Force III, which had a crummy thirteen track CD released to cover three games. For the record, the Shining Force III Premium Disc sound test has almost seventy tracks.

Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale

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I’m generally not much of a fan of Nobuo Uematsu’s work, and I’ve no huge love for Final Fantasy VI either, but I do like trying out mysterious new things and that’s how I came to own this album. It’s not caused me to re-evaluate my opinion on the game or its composer, but even a withered cynical husk of a gamer like myself can appreciate the delicate sounds and cracking lungs present on this interpretation of Celes’ famous opera performance.

So, at the top of this post I mentioned how difficult it used to be to buy arranged game music and looking at the music I’ve chosen… there really hasn’t been as much progress in the field as I’d like (not for older albums in any case). It’s definitely better than it’s ever been, but there’s still a long way to go before YouTube isn’t your best option to listen to a good chunk of this stuff. But it’s not all bad by a long shot – just make sure if you are going to splash out on an album you keep an eye out for fakes!

What do you think of my choices? More importantly, what would you recommend I listen to next? Leave a comment here or get in touch on Twitter!

(All album art bar Wind Waker pilfered from the wonderful VGMdb.net)

Kimimi’s Brief Guide to the Flora and Fauna and GIANT ALIEN MONSTERS of E.D.N. III

I’ve been playing a lot of Lost Planet 2 lately as well as its anime high school counterpart, E.X. Troopers, and even though I’ve been tweeting screenshots almost to the point of abuse I’ve feel I’ve been having a hard time getting across exactly how huge and plain old exciting fighting anything and everything in these games is, so one early morning and a surreal chat with a certain cat later here we are. This post will hopefully go some some way to rectifying that… although possibly not in the way you’d expect.

Meet Wesker. Wesker is 6ft3 (as of Resident Evil 5, but that’s another story) of pure sunglasses. I mean evil. Evil sunglasses? Anyway! He’s an unlockable character in Lost Planet 2 which makes his appearance here entirely justified and not at all superfluous shoe-horning. He’s also our baseline by which we’re going to measure the size of the various wildlife of E.D.N. III.

I'm so sorry but I adore this pose XD

But before we get on to giant Akrids with more teeth than a manufactured boy band we need to start with a references that’s a little more ordinary, so here’s Dr. Mr. Evil next to a selection of popular farmyard animals (animal heights garnered from some half-arsed Googling).

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As you can see, Wesker is taller than a Friesian cow, a Generic Wool Unit and the rooster found on a Certain Brand of Cereal. Great! “But Kimimi, how does that help me understand the colossal size of the various enemies in Lost Planet 2?”, you’re probably asking. Err… it doesn’t, I suppose. But that’s OK, because we haven’t finished yet!

Lost Planet 2 helpfully groups most of its Akrids into three different categories – S, M, (with me so far?) and G (Giant!). There’s also an Over-G, and well… we’ll get to that in a bit. For now, let’s start with the smallest and work our way up.

(Scale images shown are possibly not quite entirely 100% accurate and may have been hastily scribbled in five minutes)

Category S Akrids:

AKA: Target practise. These are the most common Akrids encountered and while they don’t take much to kill there’s always enough of them around to cause a problem if you think you can just ignore them and carry on your merry way. Note how we’re already dwarfed by these chaps – and things are only going to keep getting bigger!

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Category M Akrids:

“Medium” isn’t a word that normally conjures up much excitement, but with Lost Planet 2’s design philosophy being something along the lines of “Like a normal action game but BIGGER AND FUELLED BY ARTIFICIAL COLOURS AND FLAVOURINGS” M-size Akrids are more intelligent, dangerous, and better armoured than most and they require careful shooting of their glowing squishy parts to take down.

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Category G Akrids:

Now we’re talking! “Cat G’s”, as you’ll hear them called over frantic radio messages, are always boss battles and they’re always awe-inspiring. “Giant” in Lost Planet 2 terms means at least “A size that can be measured in football pitches” although sometimes “Twice the size of Scotland, and even more aggressive”. Akrids in this class need heavy-duty weaponry to take them down, up to and including a cannon the length of a blue whale mounted on top of a stolen high speed train.

"The train bit""That not-spider that needs shooting at with a giant laser"

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Over G:

There’s only one of these, and well… it’s HUGE. Like, “needs a massive space-laser firing at it from orbit to kill it” kind of huge. It’s so big it’s not really an enemy in the traditional sense, but an entire mission. A mission with checkpoints and dataposts and bosses inside bosses and… yeah, it’s big.

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So! What have we learned here? Umm… that’s a very good question! Err…. ah! Yes! We’ve learned that Lost Planet 2 is an incredible game that has throwaway miniboss battles of the sort of size and spectacle that most ordinary games would reserve for centerpiece end-of-game fights. Oh and everything is bigger than you and would like to eat you for lunch, or at the very least hoof your body 20ft into the air and then stomp on your puny human remains. Happy hunting!

Zwei 2, AKA How To Make Fans Of Your 2D Game Not Hate Your 3D Sequel

(Yes, the “AKA” titles are going to be a thing for a bit, sorry)

It’d been a long time since I’d loved 2D art as much as I loved Zwei!!'s, so after finishing that off it was with some trepidation that I picked up the Zwei 2 (yes, I do realise that means “Two 2” – please stop tweeting me about it) box I’ve had hanging around since forever and got this 3D sequel installed.

To get to the point: I’ve never loved 2D art so much and then been so happy to see its 3D replacement.

Zwei!! and Zwei 2 are different examples of the exact same design philosophy – that technical muscle always comes a distant second to plain old good design. The simplistic textures and chunky, low detail, character models in Zwei 2 are distinctive and bursting with character. The locations are breathtakingly beautiful while still being easy to read during play. Cutscenes have some incredible direction that allow for visual flair without locking players in an endless cycle of non-interactive sweeping camera angles. Basically the game is absolutely stunning while containing none of the things that a typically stunning PC game would be expected to contain, and it’s all the better for it.

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Of course they didn’t just give the graphics a once-over, Zwei 2 has been given just as much care and attention under the hood too. Combat is still broadly the same as before, with the new auto-aim behaviour making it a breeze for both characters to attack enemies without running head-first into them. The old magic system has been replaced with an automatically regenerating MP bar, allowing for more liberal use and experimentation with the elemental weakness system. The old (and tedious) inventory/equipment system from Zwei!! has been thrown out entirely and in its place is something that doesn’t require you to sacrifice healing items for equipment or faff around moving items between storage/your backpack/your hotbar just to get things where you need them to be. Perhaps the most welcome new addition is the ability to retry bosses with all the food items you had before the fight started, as opposed to Zwei!!’s method that had you restart with whatever you had left over when you died. Some of these changes probably sound like modern “easy mode” conveniences – the dreaded coddling of the incapable or the impatient – but this is not true. Streamlining these features makes for a more exciting and engaging game that allows to you concentrate on the parts that are actually fun rather than doing all the busywork that normally comes between the bits of fun in an RPG.

This combination of good balance and improved design meant that when I died to a boss my reaction was always “What did I do wrong?” not “Guess I need to grind for items!”. This approach actually worked too! Obviously you still need to be within a reasonable range of the expected level requirement (during a standard play through, anyway – New Game+ players have the tools to pull off some impressive low-level stunts if they want to), but playing well always outperformed slamming recovery items down Ragna and Alwen’s throats and hoping for the best.

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But even an action RPG needs a good plot to tie everything together, right? Just like the rest of the game Zwei 2 does a grand job of mixing the old with the new, in the same (well, mostly) nice and light and breezy style as the previous entry but with all the expertise Falcom gained in the years between the two. Falcom simply know (and you could rightly argue, have always known) how to write good characters and in particular how to write a male/female duo that gives both individuals agency and importance without coming across like it’s been forced or has some sort of “agenda”. This all adds up to a very pleasant and exciting adventure with enough drama to make the conclusion feel suitably epic without drowning everything in teenager-level tragic backstory or boring you with another emotionally broken character whining on about how they’re struggling with “deep” choices.

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So Zwei 2 is very different from Zwei!! while at the same time being exactly the same, and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who’s ever enjoyed Falcom’s Ys series or other similarly charming action-RPGs. Falcom may no longer produce native PC games, but at least with Zwei 2 we can say they definitely left their old flagship platform on a high.