Rengoku II: The Stairway to H.E.A.V.E.N. doesn't completely compensate for the murky pool of tedium that was the original Rengoku, but Hudson and Konami have undoubtedly started taking its concept of grim robot gladiatorial combat in the right direction. The tight focus on robot death and robot customization remains the same, but it's done more thoughtfully here, with a greater selection of weapons, more-interesting arenas, and better overall pacing. It's not hard to spend hours tweaking your android and then testing your configuration in battle, but even as the gear gets better, the action never really changes, and it can become a bit of a chore after a while.
Like its predecessor, Rengoku II puts you in the role of an A.D.A.M., a type of highly advanced battle android that proved so powerful in a past war that they ended all war as we know it. With no more wars to fight, the A.D.A.M.s have been sealed away inside a gigantic tower and used for gladiatorial entertainment. The plot revolves around the mystery of your A.D.A.M.'s past, which is intertwined with that of a scientist named Beatrice and involves a dead squad of human soldiers that have been imbued with the same "elixir skin" technology that powers the A.D.A.M.s. The story takes a long time to gain momentum or start making much sense, due partially to the fact that it's all conveyed through text that seems to oscillate between overly ornate and badly translated, but there's something kind of cool about the way your character slowly learns his true nature.
The drama definitely takes a backseat to the action, though. You start off on floor zero in your tower with the ultimate objective of fighting your way up to the top level, and each area is littered with antagonistic androids. While you don't need to destroy each and every robot to advance to the next floor, hidden in each floor is a series of sub-bosses that you'll need to ferret out before you're given access to that floor's main boss. Before you enter combat, you'll want to hit your current floor's terminal, where you can upgrade a suite of character stats and choose which weapons you want to equip. All of the gear you'll use in Rengoku II comes off of fallen enemies, and unlike in the original game, there's a great variety of weapons for you to find from the very first floor. You'll start off with simple blade and melee weapons, but it's not long before you're strapped with crazy energy weapons and heavy munitions. Your robotic chassis is divvied up into five sections--head, torso, left arm, right arm, and legs. Each piece of gear will work only on certain sections--though there's a lot of overlap between the head, arms, and torso--and there's also a limited number of uses and a heat rating to consider.
If one of your weapons runs out of energy while you're in combat, you have a few options. You can hoof it back to the terminal to recharge, you can find one of the several teleporters on each floor to get to the terminal instantly, or, to postpone the issue for a while, you can equip yourself with gear that will replenish your weapon energy a few times without going back to the terminal. Heat is also a big issue for your android, and high-impact weapons tend to overheat quickly. To make your choices even tougher, weapons improve with use, so you'll regularly have to decide whether you want to continue with your older, more experienced weapon, or move on to something weaker that has more future potential.
All of these factors force you to assemble a well-balanced combination of gear, and there's no doubt you'll spend hours tweaking your load-out. It's also hard not to let appearances play a factor in what you equip, since each body part takes on a completely different look depending on what's equipped, and a lot of the weaponry can appear quite brutal and menacing. Any weapons you pick up during combat that you don't want to use can be recycled back into elixir skin, the game's equivalent of cash. With this elixir skin you can increase your life bar, increase your resistance to physical and electrical attacks, and increase the number of slots on each of your sections, as well as each section's heat resistance. As tempting as it is to liquidate any weapons you don't currently have equipped, this can come back to haunt you, since, aside from boss fights, any time you die during combat, all your equipped gear is left where you died, and you're returned to floor zero.
It's easy to lose yourself in the customization, but unfortunately, the combat isn't quite so enthralling. You can lock on to nearby targets with the right shoulder button, and the four face buttons correspond to the weapons that you have equipped on your head, torso, left arm, and right arm. The action is inherently pretty speedy and can get hectic when the game starts throwing three or four enemies at you at once, but there's not much to it beyond monitoring your heat and energy levels while you circle-strafe enemies. Your life bar will automatically regenerate when you're standing still, so as long as you don't buy the farm during a fight, you'll be back in top condition for your next encounter.
Depending on how meticulous you are about customizing your android and how thoroughly you explore each floor, it can take from 30 minutes to two hours to advance to a new floor, but you'll probably be a bit bored with the combat before you reach the top. In addition to featuring a unique floor plan for you to explore, each floor comes with a different visual theme. The game is generally much more colorful and inventive than the first Rengoku, though a greater variety of Guyver-inspired enemies for you to fight would have been appreciated. The sound design seems to have remained untouched, which means you'll be treated to the same uneven sound effects and the same driven, industrial music.
As much as Rengoku II has improved upon its predecessor, the series still has a way to go, its biggest remaining issue being the lack of variety in combat. Still, the wealth of gear you can collect and the myriad of bizarre configurations you can come up with are quite compelling and tap into the same obsessive traits that draw people toward both toward dungeon crawlers like Diablo and mech simulations like Armored Core.