Zwei is a hidden gem in plain sight.
In a year packed with games like Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War, and Super Smash Bros. UItimate, it can be easy for hidden gems to slide under the radar. But Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection didn’t just slide under the radar. Its mere existence caused a mass malfunction in radars around the world that completely concealed its identity for all of 2018.
Okay, okay, no one’s discussing Zwei in 2018 because technically it released at the tail end of 2017. That said, 2018 did give us a mildly controversial Steam data leak, and Zwei‘s place in it was… not what I was expecting. I’m not going to say exactly how many people have played Zwei based on this data, but I will say that the total number is less than one percent of the people who played Bad Rats. I know this is strictly indicative of how many people played Zwei on Steam, but under no circumstances should a good game be a hundredfold outplayed by Bad Rats.
It’s a shame, because Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection isn’t just a good game. It’s a great game exuding the kind of charm that went out of vogue after 2010. And frankly, after the Klonoa series tragically undersold and fell off the map, I don’t want the same thing to happen here. So here’s why Zwei is absolutely worth your time – especially if this is your first time hearing about it.
What is Zwei?
Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is an action RPG created in 2008 by Falcom, best known for Ys and the Legend of Heroes series. It’s the second game in the Zwei series, though playing the first game isn’t necessary to enjoy the story. Xseed localized and released both Zwei titles in 2017 and 2018 on PC storefronts, complete with new features, tweaks, and an expansive English voice over. There’s actually more scenes voiced in English than there were in the original Japanese dub!
The game follows the story of treasure hunter Ragna and vampire princess Alwen. Together they’ll explore mines, temples, and even outer space in a wacky adventure that becomes deathly serious as the identities of their enemies are revealed.
First thing that makes Zwei great: its leveling system.
Here’s the thing about Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection. It honestly doesn’t do a mind-blowing great job at any one thing. Its strength is that it does everything well, which helps its quirkier features shine through.
Take, for instance, its signature food leveling system. Rather than accumulate EXP and stats by killing monsters, you actually get stronger by eating recovery items. On paper, I know it sounds weird. But in practice? It’s genius design. This experience system gives players extra strength when they’re getting the snot kicked out of them, or in other words, whenever you actually need that boost in strength. This makes Zwei one of the rare games that’s just as fun for casual gamers as it is for hardcore gamers. Whatever your skill level is, Zwei meets you where you’re at.
But wait! There’s another layer of genius at play here. To discourage exploiting the food system with a bunch of item spamming, Zwei cleverly introduces some risk and reward with the ability to trade your excess food. If you’re able to play well and stockpile a lot of food you don’t need, you can trade a stack of it in town for a better item that gives you comparatively less hp recovery, but more exp. In other words, if you’re able to handle playing at a harsher difficulty, you’ll be rewarded in the later sections of the game. This keeps Zwei engaging for even expert players, and trust me, you’ll be happy to have that extra strength under your belt if you try challenging some of the game’s bonus bosses.
It sounds crazy to spend so much time describing how you level up in a game, but Zwei‘s approach is just so effective that I’m amazed more games haven’t copied it. I could go on and on about how the dungeons are fun, there’s backtracking to uncover secrets in old areas with new items, and the puzzles bounce between creative and outright silly. But at the end of the day, all I want is more of that Zwei food.
The story is actually great.
Once again, I’m not going to argue that Zwei‘s narrative is super original or a spellbinding achievement for the medium. But I am going to argue that it handles its storytelling in a way I wish we’d see in more RPGs these days.
Zwei is split into two distinct acts. For its first act, Zwei is a zany adventure filled with jokes and lighthearted banter. Though its world is fairly small, its cast is colorful and diverse. Every NPC has a unique backstory you can uncover if you chat with them throughout your quest. Heck, even the cows have their own thoughts and observations after you get the ability to talk to them. It’s an impressive amount of world building for any game, let alone one that starts so silly.
Once you get to the second act, Zwei‘s tone takes a serious turn. It’s not a hidden horror game or anything, but things start getting “real” for lack of a better term. Suddenly, the optimistic characters we’ve come to rely on don’t want to keep fighting anymore. The bad guys seem to have the upper hand, and there’s no clear way to stop them. It’s not overwhelmingly depressing, but the player feels the weight of the story because of its contrast to the first act. But moreover, we get to see just how much this small cast of characters is willing to come together when the chips are down. Zwei is able to sell its drama because of how well we’ve gotten to know the characters by this point, instead of being relentlessly somber or serious from start to finish.
All of this is bolstered by an outstanding English script by Xseed. Each character comes to life in the English localization, and even the voice acting is top notch. Oh, and there’s a character that teaches you new abilities by making you perform choreographed exercise routines. I probably could have just said that and sold the game about as well as I did in the last three paragraphs
The music’s top notch.
If you’ve never played a Falcom game before, you’ve got to understand one thing: they make the most consistently amazing game soundtracks in the business. It doesn’t matter if it’s 80s metal, smooth jazz, j-pop, or drums and bass – everything their in-house band JDK touches is absolute gold. The first overworld theme from Ys VIII and the boss theme from Ys Seven are legitimately some of my favorite tracks in gaming history. And trust me, I prattle on a lot about video game music around here.
Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection adheres to the same level of quality, but it took me beating the game to realize it. Much of the game utilizes a whimsical, ethereal sound, which helps sell the mysticism of exploring an island floating in the middle of the sky. But more importantly, both the title theme and opening song establish the game’s leitmotif that is utilized brilliantly in the soundtrack. It’s not revisited often at first, but the tracks that use it are ones that play during the game’s most dramatic moments. It’s like a shot in the arm of adrenaline that lets you know that you have what it takes to win this thing, which becomes particularly impactful in the game’s second act. One track in the game even sets up the leitmotif and then withholds it deliberately, which disorients the player and subconsciously informs them that something bad is about to happen.
Aside from that, a lot of the tracks here are just dang good and amazingly underrated. The first dungeon theme is appropriately nonthreatening, yet still incorporates a really catchy hook to keep it from feeling monotonous. Conversely, the miniboss theme has that classic Falcom energy that stands in harsher contrast here to the rest of Zwei‘s songs. I’m going to stop myself here before this becomes a review of the Zwei Original Sound Track, but the fact that I’ve spent this long praising it should tell you how good it is.
It’s just fun, okay!?
I’ve written 1500 words and barely described what the gameplay of Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is like. Trust me, I planned to do it at some point. At the same time, this also highlights why I like this game so much.
Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection is a game that’s literally from a different time. It’s a game that evokes classic RPGs like Skies of Arcadia, Grandia, or Lunar. Games like these were never good because they had the most cutting edge production values or the world’s most innovative systems (though Grandia‘s battle system is still dang incredible). These games were good because they were clear passion projects from the developers, and that love shines through in the finished game.
I had to stop and remind myself over and over that I wasn’t 15 years old playing Zwei on the Dreamcast. I’m not here to say the games of yesteryear were wholesale better than the games of today, but they certainly were different. The opportunity to actually appreciate a genuinely classic game from a bygone era only comes once in a blue moon, which makes Xseed’s decision to localize Zwei all the more amazing. These games were huge gambles with niche audiences at best, yet they still got the red carpet treatment with excellently written scripts and great voice acting. When you contrast this to big name games that get half baked localizations, Xseed’s treatment of Zwei feels even more incredible.
Ys will always be my first recommendation when it comes to Falcom games, but Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection still deserves a look from gamers of all skill levels. Will it be your favorite game of the past two years? I’m not here to say one way or another. But can I confidently assert that it’s at least 100 times better than Bad Rats? Yes. Yes I can. That’s how much I’m willing to stake my reputation for this game.