Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection Review

I can’t think of any better game than Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection to get acquainted with Nihon Falcom’s brand of action JRPGs. Despite being a sequel of sorts, it really is a stand-alone game, set in the same world as Zwei! (never released outside Japan) but with new heroes and storyline. Bearing the developer’s usual setup of immediacy and user-friendliness and boasting lovely looks bathing in color and character, the game is like a perfect antidote to the gloom of most of the hit titles surfacing for the holiday season.

Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection was originally called Zwei II and it was the last game Nihon Falcom developed for PC back in 2008 as the home computer market took a deep dive in Japan. Having been PC developers ever since the early 80’s, Nihon Falcom reluctantly moved to make their games for consoles. Because of these circumstances, you can tell they were more inspired than usual and put all the heart and soul to their last PC title. Nine years later, XSEED Games gives their own special dedication to bring the best possible version of the game for its Western premiere on modern computers.

Ragna Valentine fancies himself a hotspot treasure hunter, flying proudly his beloved Tristan, a bi-plane as red as his flaming hair. Ragna is delivering a package to Artte village when he’s suddenly attacked by mysterious goons flying on dragons. The plane plummets to the ground and for all intents and purposes, Ragna should be as broken as Tristan. Instead, he wakes up in Artte inn with only minor bruises. How can it be possible? Intent on finding out what happened, Ragna visits his plane’s wreck when a voice beckons him. It belongs to Alwen du Moonbria, the vampire princess of Trueblood lineage.

It was she who revived Ragna, making a blood contract in the process. By exchanging part of their bloods, Ragna is now Alwen’s vassal, a blood knight under her command to help her claim back her castle which was captured fortnight by the mysterious assailants. Or so Alwen thinks as Ragna begs to differ. In order to help getting back Alwen’s castle and the magic abilities stolen from her, it must be under equal terms. Surprisingly, the dark princess doesn’t give much of a fight against the idea and the blood contract is renewed with another vampire’s kiss. Slurp! Of this starting position, Ragna and Alwen embark on an adventure throughout Ilvard, a floating continent cut off from its neighboring regions. Primarily, the dynamic duo seeks out Alwen’s lost magic as they reason the culprits behind their predicaments must be the same and the only. Oh, how right they were!

The theme of equality is embedded all over the game. You can switch between Ragna and Alwen on the fly, be it adventuring, socializing in the game world or in the middle of real-time battles. Bonded by blood, Ragna and Alwen also share the health pool and experience points. Ragna’s anchor gear is suited for melee while Alwen shoots ranged magic attacks. She starts off with poison missiles, all that’s left of her magic skills (not counting in her other superhuman abilities, making her, in her own words, “equal to lesser-demons”) but as the twosome adventures further, Alwen gains back her spells from all the primary element classes. Also, Ragna’s anchor gear can be upgraded with magical items scattered in the story dungeons.

As the fights ensue, both heroes are equally needed. Some enemies are more akin to punching bags while others are vulnerable to magic. The boss battles are tests of mettle. They’re classic encounters on closed arenas, the boss doing his/her/its thing while Ragna and Alwen mostly run around avoiding enemy attacks and kiting back with theirs. The battle is paused whenever you switch spell schools and melee types or consume and use items, like stuffing food to the heroes’ mouth. Emphasis on “stuffing the food” here. It plays a special role beyond replenishing lost health. You see, the felled foes will gain you only money and food but not experience points. I hear you coughing in disbelief and asking, if this is an RPG so how am I supposed to level up this odd couple then? Why, by eating of course!

I have a certain playstyle in role-playing games and action adventures. Or maybe it’s a vice. I tend to hoard support and healing items but not to use them until it’s absolutely necessary. Even then, I hesitate before drinking a potion. When the game is finished, I usually end up with the inventory full of items I didn’t consume. In Zwei, that approach simply won’t work. You can’t level up if you don’t eat. Whatever Ragna or Alwen gobbles up not only gives health but more importantly, experience points. I tell you, it was hard to get accustomed to this, as old habits die hard. There were times when the munchies begun to pile up in the quick-action bar while I started to take a beating in fights. “Eat! Eat at your heart’s content, you moron!”, my brother kept reminding politely.

A blood knight and Trueblood vampire must have a fast metabolism because even if they eat 10 cucumber rolls, 14 slices of cheese and 36 boiled eggs during a boss fight (and gain a level doing so), they look as slim as ever. There are two schools in eating for experience. In addition to eating when needed, ten pieces of any basic food can be traded in for special meals which won’t heal up but reward with heaps of experience for faster leveling. I learned to eat food only when needed. Even if it resulted Ragna and Alwen being a bit under-leveled for each area but as they thus took more damage, I had to consume more food items, so I kept up with the level requirements for dungeons anyway. Handy and yummy!

Eating for experience? If all that sounds like goofy, it’s because it really is. There’s a wacky sense of humor embracing the adventure throughout. Not only are the hero and the heroine targets for a fair share of buddy jokes (some inborn, some cast from outside) but Ilvard is populated with oddball NPCs. From a crude chain-smoking nun to a not-so-cool dad dabbling in physical exercise, there’s fun in every turn. It all makes you warm and fuzzy inside, if not laughing out loud. Wisely the humor doesn’t lean on some inbred self-parody but trusts its funny characters and situations.

The translation and localization are nothing short of amazing, something that can be expected from XSEED Games. The script is fluent and the dialogue smart, fitting every character’s persona spot on. Some purists may cry about the absence of Japanese voices as XSEED didn’t get the rights to use them (apparently some Japanese voice talent agencies can be a real trouble to negotiate with). No one can accuse XSEED from slacking though. The English dub adds some 2000 spoken lines more to the original’s measly 800. Usually the scenes before and after boss fights are voiced but certain other key moments are also acted. I liked the English dub so much that it was an effective incentive to keep on adventuring further to hear the heroes speak. Alwen’s VA has a cute lisp to her articulated speech and Ragna’s expressive dismay is delivered dead on, giving him casual depth.

Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is not riding high only upon the nostalgia waves. I’m not falling for the usual laments of how they don’t make games like these anymore (even though that’s true) because that would be underrating the game’s merits. Nine years later of its original release, Zwei is as competent an action RPG as ever. Much of the game might boil down to a dungeon crawler and I can imagine that being a drag in any other circumstances, but the positive attitude and joyful expressiveness override its perhaps somewhat repetitive nature. Nihon Falcom’s trademark easy-going gameplay is strongly present here. Fighting is fast and simple and traversing the world effortless. The save stands also work as fast travel points (also into and out of dungeons) and there are lots widgets to customize the UI with. Simply put, Zwei is so much fun to play.

I don’t need to appeal to old-school charm either what comes to the graphics. The modern age high-definition widescreen resolutions and several graphical enhancements make the game tickle with life. It’s so colorful, vivid, detailed and rounded up, like anime you can play. Ragna and especially Alwen look like super-cute super-deformed action figures with their smooth and bouncy animation. I’d just love to reach out and rub Alwen’s vampire wings and little pointy ears between my fingers! The monsters alike, all 137 of them, are an inspired bunch with nifty detailing. Just don’t stop to admire them but keep moving, bashing and blasting!

Sandwiched between the big-sellers of the season, Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection might just be the game you have been looking for - without even knowing it. There are so much going for it. The hero and the heroine are simply adorable, the world around them enchanting and the revised screenplay carefully crafted. Not to mention the accessible gameplay which doesn’t harass the players with incomprehensible rules or snobby attitude. You don’t even need to devote your whole life to the game. It takes about 30 hours to complete the adventure, give or take a few hours depending on your willingness to do the optional content (like treasure hunting and battling in G-Coliseum). As it stands, it would require quite a cold heart for not to fall in love with Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection.

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.