The Western debut of Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is one of the most delightful surprises of the year. It’s a localisation of Zwei II, one of Nihon Falcom’s lesser-known titles and a game that, having originally released in Japan in 2008, is almost a decade old. I can’t imagine there was a groundswell of public demand guiding XSEED’s hand, but they saw enough value in the game to localise it and tidy it up for a Steam release. In so doing, they gave us one of 2017’s sleeper hits.
Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is a comedic action JRPG with a focus on a pair of unlikely heroes—hence the name “Zwei”. Ragna Valentine is a hotheaded treasure hunter who, after having his plane shot out of the sky, finds himself rescued by the sassy vampire Alwen du Moonbria. Despite her claims of being an incredibly powerful “Trueblood” vampire, Alwen’s had almost all of her magic stolen, along with her castle. In saving Ragna’s life, Alwen also ropes him into helping her get all her stuff back, setting their adventure in motion.
And what an adventure it is! Rather than the somewhat more serious tones of Falcom’s flagship series (Ys and The Legend of Heroes), Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is a decidedly humorous game. Everything, from the way characters talk to one another, to the enemy designs, to how you level up carries a quirky sense of humour. Ragna and Alwen repeatedly find themselves in odd situations—like being chewed out by a grumpy nun casually smoking in her church. The pair learn new special moves by finding a training with the muscle-obsessed Macho Man Gallandeau, “musclebound man both mirthful and macho!”. You level up by eating food, which means power-levelling involves liberally stuffing your face. In the course of my journey with the game, I think I spend more time laughing out loud than not.
In saying that, Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection isn’t just a comic variety show; it has a lot of heart, too, and the budding friendship between Ragna and Alwen is at the centre of that. Their’s is a buddy story as old as time: two people brought together by circumstance, building a deep friendship over the course of a wild adventure. It’s nothing revolutionary, but damn if it isn’t compelling and emotive stuff. They don’t start off from the mutually hostile place that buddy stories often do—they get along well enough right off the bat—but seeing them grow to trust and take comfort in one another is lovely.
Their journey takes Alwen and Ragna across Ilvard, an archipelago of floating islands dotted with dungeons, caves, shrines, and what have you. It’s in these places that Alwen’s lost magic can be found, so the pair has to fight their way through monsters, traps, other hunters, and Alwen’s oddball enemies in order to achieve their goal.
In keeping with the name and the partnership theme, combat puts a heavy focus on mixing up the unique abilities of each of the characters. Ragna is a melee fighter, armed with an Anchor Gear (a sort of chain whip with an anchor attached to it), while Alwen is your mage archtype, with a range of long-range spells at her disposal. You can switch between the two at the press of a button, and as the game goes on and each character’s abilities develop, timely character swaps become increasingly important–for instance, Alwen has a few spells that are good at grouping enemies together, ready to take a beating from Ragna’s powerful but limited-range attacks.
Zwei’s combat generally encourages an aggressive approach, but boss fights are good at putting you on the defensive. In typical action RPG fashion, each boss has a range of different attack patterns, and figuring it how to avoid them is key. The attacks and patterns never get too complex, but they’re creative enough that each fight is exciting and unique. In my experience, boss fights are generally well balanced. Assuming you’re appropriately leveled, bosses hit hard enough that you can’t get careless or just steamroll your way through, but they’re forgiving enough that you can make a few mistakes without being doomed. Given Falcom’s history of challenging bosses (especially in Ys), it’s refreshing to play a game that’s a bit more approachable.
The creative levelling system is at least partly to thank for that. Instead of earning experience points from slain foes or completed quests, you get it by eating food. Enemies drop food regularly, so you will get XP from them in an indirect way, but the added step gives you more options in how you approach levelling.
For one thing, you can opt to dial up the challenge by keeping reading at a minimum and keeping your level as low as possible. If you want an easier time, you can trade 10 of any food item for something much more profitable. Grinding levels still comes down to killing lots of enemies, but the rewards for it grow exponentially, if you want them to. You can also buy food the way you would buy any other item, so the money you collect from slain does can also feed your XP bar.
On top of all that, food is the main source of healing in Zwei, so you have to constantly juggle that with the need for XP. If you use all your food in the box of leveling up, you might find yourself unable to heal when you really need it. Conversely, if you hoard your healing items, you’re also sitting on unused experience points. At all builds up to a really unique and effective system.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is how well it holds up despite being almost a decade old. It’s been tidied up a bit for Steam and modern hardware, but it’s still fundamentally the same game as the 2008 original, yet it looks as good and plays as well as many a game from this year. Simple, effective game design and beautiful cartoony set direction are timeless.
XSEED’s localisation effort also has to be commended. The English script and voice acting are both in point, and come together to breathe life into each character. There’s plenty of room for things to go wrong in something at inherently comedic as Zwei, but the translated dialogue is incredibly funny, and the voice actors deliver that to perfection.
All of this comes together to create a game that, as I said before, is one of the most wonderful surprises of the year. Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is a game dripping with charm, personality, and humour. Clever combat and levelling systems make it a whole lot of fun to play, and Alwen and Ragna are fantastic heroes at the centre of an adorable, exciting adventure. This is one of 2017’s sleeper hits, and you don’t want to miss it.
Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is developed by Nihon Falcom and published by XSEED Games. It’s available now for PC.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.