A chip off the old blockbuster

Across Age 2 has a lot to live up to.  Its predecessor is one of iOS’s earliest action-RPG success stories.  Despite a shaky start upon its 2010 release, subsequent updates and expansions—in the form of Across Age DX—improved the original’s controls and added an entirely new dungeon to the 10-hour+ adventure.  Its combination of character-switching, time-traveling, and 16-bit-era charm formed the basis for a series that would pride itself on nearly non-stop action interrupted only by the occasional switch puzzle or drunken pirate quest.

All of these features have returned to duty in Across Age 2, along with a number of upgrades that improve upon even Across Age DX.  The story is richer and less cut-and-paste “collect the items and stop the bad guy” linear; characters are deeper and not limited to Ceska, Ales, or one-off caricatures; and gameplay has been expanded through additional items, puzzles, and strategies.  While these enhancements technically make Across Age 2 the best entry in the series, they are minor changes in a game that relies heavily on its predecessor’s features, too intimidated by its success to fall far from the tree.  The result feels more like Across Age DX2 rather than a brand new game in an expanding series.

Across Age 2

The story of Across Age 2 picks up immediately after the end of the original: Prince Ales and Mage Ceska have thwarted Count Agrean and altered the course of time to save the future.  Because they changed history itself, no one remembers their heroic deeds save the two of them, and life returns to a peaceful normal.  Meanwhile, 25 years into the future, an evil king and queen have taken over Ales’s kingdom, openly killing subjects who defy them.  Lily, a member of the rebellion against the despotic rulers, uses the power of Across Age to travel to Ales’s and Ceska’s present, intending to kill the monarchs before they come to power.  She runs into our newly minted heroes and the three set out to save the future once again.

While the monarchs could easily have become the next Count Agrean, Across Age 2 utilizes a bait-and-switch technique that makes most dungeons and dangers feel of the utmost importance.  Instead of traveling around in search of clocks to prepare for the impending final battle, there are multiple “final battles” and big bosses throughout the journey, and the true danger to the world is often yet to be revealed.  This is a popular tactic in Super Nintendo-era RPGs like Final Fantasy VI—which requires a cataclysmic event to reveal the true big baddie—and it keeps Across Age 2 exciting and surprising.

Across Age 2

This excitement carries over to the gameplay, which is nearly identical to the system established in Across Age DX.  Ales and Ceska are the primary fighters and tackle most dungeons together.  Ales is the sword-wielding tank focused on close-range physical damage, while Ceska uses her magic spells to attack from a distance.  Ales’s run-into-enemies attack from Across Age has been done away with completely, favoring the manual attack button Ceska uses and which was perfected in Across Age DX.  The two characters can be switched between at will, so long as they’re near one another, or sent off on solo missions.  Each has a unique special ability required to solve puzzles: Ales can pick up and throw Ceska or other objects, while Ceska can use Across Age to time travel on specially-designated panels. 

Most battle features are carried over from the previous titles: monsters drop apples and mana potions that refill health and skill/magic points respectively, enemies take more damage and counter less when hit at an angle, and both Ales and Ceska learn new skills as the story progresses that expand their attack arsenal.  A few upgrades make dungeon exploration easier and more diverse, including random special enemies that drop rebirth stones and other items; treasure chests that provide temporary boosts to attack, defense, or speed; and a much-needed map that displays the current room in full. 

Across Age 2

Puzzles in Across Age 2 have also received a modest adjustment, focusing more on simplified brain teasers rather than time-traveling button-pushing.  Time-travel is utilized more heavily in the plot and world as a whole, sending all of the characters to the past (and future) as opposed to Ceska alone.  This makes one-off time travel sessions less common, allowing characters to stick together through most areas.  Along with tighter controls and more forgiving hazards—it’s actually difficult to fall in a pit by mistake—Across Age 2 is noticeably easier than its predecessor and death is an infrequent occurrence. 

The problem is that these changes, like many others in Across Age 2, are the exception rather than the rule.  Much of the game is Across Age DX, tweaked slightly and with new dungeons.  Ceska learns the same magic (save one exception) and most equippable items are hand-me-downs.  Many of the locations you’ll explore are taken from the original game with only small modifications.  Even the music and enemies in these areas are the same as their Across Age counterparts.  While this makes sense for the present-day period of the sequel, it feels uninspired to use the same soundtrack for different eras—especially considering they are run-down and occupied by evil forces, yet feature the same upbeat musical cues.

Across Age 2

One of the most anticipated changes—controlling new characters besides Ales and Ceska—is also secretly more of the same.  Lily is merely a stand-in for Ceska, controlling identically and utilizing the same (again, save one exception) magic spells.  Ales’s replacement is also basically Ales Jr., although as a character he is an admittedly delightful nod to the first game.  Both characters primarily exist to allow the plot to split up Ales and Ceska without frustrating players on solo-runs, and little more.

These not-so-different differences create a highly derivative sequel.  At the same time, Across Age DX was so enjoyable and mechanically polished that replaying it in a new coat is still extremely engrossing.  The small changes made, from the dungeon map to multiple towns, are all for the better, and players who exhausted their save slots in the first game will find more of the action-packed same here.  If an Across Age 2 DX is released later this year, we’ll simply hope for a little more variation, a little less replication.