Even among Nihon Falcom's vast catalog of games, Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection (henceforth referred to as "Zwei II") has always been a bit of a black sheep. For one, it was the last PC exclusive title that the developer released, back in 2008. It bombed in Japan, and certainly helped push the company towards developing primarily for handhelds and home consoles ever since. It's an action RPG, much like some of Falcom's other titles like Ys, Gurumin, and Xanadu, but the way the game plays out is its own thing.
Players take control of the unlikely duo of Ragna Valentine the treasure hunter, and Alwen du Moonbria the vampire princess. On his way to deliver an item, Ragna is shot down above the continent of Ilvard, wrecking his plane and very nearly succumbing to an untimely death. At the same time, Alwen du Moonbria's ancestral castle has been stolen from under her nose, as well as most of her magical power. Spotting the courage that Ragna showcased before being shot down, she moves to forge a blood contract with him, saving his life. Her one condition? Help her find her magic and retake her castle. To say any more would veer into spoiler territory, but the story ends up taking some interesting turns along the way. While nothing got me as emotionally invested as anything from Falcom's Trails series, the story leaves off with a satisfying conclusion, while still leaving the door open to any sequels.
Zwei II is, of course, a sequel. In fact, the protagonists from the first game are very active members of the story this time around as well. You don't need to have played the first game (if you want to, it can easily be bought on DLsite, and there is a fan translation patch), but despite character's from the first game playing a role in the story, Zwei II is still very much its own tale. On a side note, much like the Trails series, NPCs will change their dialogue after every major story scene. While no character's stories are as deep as some of the ones in, say, Trails in the Sky, it's always a nice distraction from combat and the main story to see what characters have been up to. The best part of Zwei's world is definitely the characters, ranging from a certain masked gentleman obsessed with exercise to the wandering vagrant with birds in his hair and everyone in between.
Speaking of combat, Zwei II's basic gameplay is an isometric dungeon crawler, and most dungeons you tackle share a few common themes. You're tasked with clearing three floors of the dungeon before coming to a save point and a junction, splitting off into two paths. One will generally give you an upgrade for Ragna's weapon, while the other is the actual main path. Inside dungeons, players must defeat enemies, unlock switches, and blow up boulders while avoiding obstacles and finding their way to the exit. Combat is fairly simple. Each character attacks using one button, with Ragna performing combo melee attacks with his Anchor Gear and Alwen firing off magic spells. You can jump, which can sometimes help dodge attacks but is generally more useful while traversing the dungeon. Things get more interesting later in the game, when pits become a much more common occurrence, and stuff like wind and rolling boulders enter the mix.
At first, the combat is very barebones, but thankfully before long, more options become available to the player. After a few dungeons players will get access to more of Alwen's magic, such as her earth magic that shoots out in the 4 directions, or the freezing magic that, predictably freezes enemies. Ragna can upgrade his Anchor Gear into a Claw Gear, allowing him to grab on to enemies and fling them around. It never really gets deep, nor is it as engaging as Ys' combat, but the game forces you to use your different attacks just often enough to keep things entertaining. Boss battles, like in most Falcom titles, are the best parts of the game. I recommend using a controller when playing the game since the default KB/M controls maps jump to a fairly odd location, while in later boss fights you'll be jumping around quite a bit.
I suppose at this point it goes without saying, but Zwei II's soundtrack is fantastic. Its art style seems to take more than a few cues from Gurumin and is all the better for it. A good way to describe it would be if a major part of Gurumin's aesthetic was the characters almost looking like toys, then Zwei's would be it almost feeling like a cartoon or children's anime. It never gets as cutesy as Gurumin, but it certainly helps it stand out against Falcom's other recent releases. Zwei II, itself, isn't necessarily a looker. Not that Falcom titles ever have been. Despite that, it's never ugly, and the art style is probably to thank for that.
As for the voice acting, Zwei II is unfortunately sporting only an English dub. This might be disappointing for some folks, especially seeing as Ys VIII and Tokyo Xanadu both managed to have Japanese audio in their Western releases, but for the most part, XSEED has done an excellent job with the dub. Ragna especially does has a fantastic dub voice, and the voice direction felt more than appropriate for the subject matter. Apparently, they recorded 2000 more lines than the original Japanese release even came with, though I couldn't point them out if you asked me to.
Zwei has this unmistakable charm that kept me engaged to the very end, even if looking back it wasn't as interesting or captivating as some other Falcom games I've played. I can't say it's amazing, nor is it the best Falcom title I've gone through. Not by a longshot, and in these last few years I've been playing a lot of them. What it is, however, is a glimpse into a new idea, that if it could be given another look maybe could turn into something amazing. I've said in the past that I'm willing to love a game despite its faults as long as it knows what it wants to be, and Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection exemplifies this belief more than maybe anything else that I've played this year. It's a great game, I just wish and hope that the series can see a continuation. There's a lot more that Falcom could do with this series if they gave it another chance, as unlikely as that might be.
Our Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection review was conducted on PC via Steam with a review copy provided by the publisher.
Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection might not be amazing like some other Falcom games I've played, but it's still more than worth checking out.
- Fantastic Soundtrack
- Engaging Story
- Simplistic Combat