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Platform: PlayStation 2 Publisher: Namco
Genre: Turn-Based RPG Developer: Monolith Software
Format: DVD-ROM Released: 2/25/03


Review
2/25/03
Stephen Harris
Stephen Harris

Starting Examination.

In the 19th century, the German philosopher, Frederick Nietzche described "Der Wille zur Macht" (the Will to Power) as an intrinsic part of human existence. The concept was that every living being strives to exert its will onto others. This was based on Nietzche's belief that humans are selfish and egotistical creatures incapable of true altruism. Many believed that this was an early attempt at human psychology, as well as a profound criticism of Christianity during that period. Nietzche proposed that this "will" was not just limited to life forms, but was a basic aspect of the universe - the struggle for expansion through dominance. He stated that this was the drive that propelled culture and other feats of humanity through conflict and strife. Simply put, "Der Wille zur Macht" was the affirmation of life through the subjugation of others. When Monolith Software decided to name the first episode of the six-part epic after Nietzche's controversial concept, one had to wonder what Tetsuya Takahashi and his team had in store for their audience. What exactly does "Der Wille zur Macht" have to do with a dramatic space opera set millennia in the future? Is this the affirmation of life for Monolith's magnum opus or just another excuse for using the German language to dazzle ignorant gamers? Let's dive into the maelstrom and see what we find.

Omega.

In the beginning, there was Xenogears: Perfect Works - a simple art and production manual to some, a tomb of legend to others. Within its pages lay a tale that spanned thousands of years, chronicling the incarnations and reincarnations of souls bound to the eternal pursuit of absolute truth. The conflicts, assumptions and resolutions within its pages, while fiction, gave insight to the frailty of man's faith and the strength of human will. Many gamers familiar with Perfect Works know that part five of the six-part epic was none other than Square's Xenogears. When Takahashi and co. left Square Soft to form Monolith Software, their dream of bringing their story to fruition did not die. Monolith's plan was to take the heart of Perfect Works and sculpt six adventures that would capture the imaginations of gamers worldwide. Fans of Xenogears have been eagerly awaiting the resurrection of their beloved legend, but may be confused at what has truly risen. Xenosaga, in its entirety, will be based on themes central to Perfect Works, but will not be a retelling of the original story. The first chapter in the series is the aptly named, Der Wille zur Macht.

The events of Der Wille zur Macht revolve around an artifact excavated in the 20th century known as the Zohar. Four thousand years after the mysterious golden monolith is raised from Lake Turkana in Kenya, mankind has left the Earth and found a home among the stars. To unite the far-flung children of Adam and Eve, the Galaxy Federation is formed. This alliance of space and planetary colonies is kept in situ by an information and interstellar travel medium known as the Undus Mundus Network (UMN). In this age, humanity is floundering against a race of ethereal creatures known as the Gnosis. These lethal apparitions appeared fourteen years ago after the insane scientist, Joachim Mizrahi, conducted an unethical experiment on the planet Militia using the Zohar. The sudden appearance of the Gnosis, drawn to the resonance of the artifact, forced the Federation to seal Miltia and the Zohar away. Those who survived the catastrophe were settled on a new planet - Second Militia. While the war against the Gnosis has been fought with the aid of giant mecha known as AGWS (Anti-Gnosis Weapon Systems) and the bio-engineered humanoid Realians, Vector Industries has a new weapon: the android KOS-MOS.

When the Federation vessel Woglinde is sent to investigate the disappearance of the planet Ariadne, Vector sends KOS-MOS and her development team, headed by Shion Uzuki, along for the final stages of testing. When the Woglinde arrives in Ariadne space, only an object resembling the original Zohar is found. The retrieval of the artifact causes a seemingly benign disturbance in the psyche of KOS-MOS during a diagnostic examination. Ever optimistic, Shion dismisses the variance and pushes KOS-MOS' training into overdrive with dubious results. As a survivor of the horrors of Militia, Shion knows how important KOS-MOS is to the future of humanity, but also cares for the android like her own child. Torn between her amity for the machine and her duty to Vector, Shion is ill prepared for the journey ahead that would test her fortitude and her friendship. As the pair is thrust into a conflict that would affect the future of mankind, they will come across the soft-spoken chaos, the hotheaded Jr., the melancholy Ziggurat8 and the perky MOMO. Together they are inextricably bound to the horrific legacy of the Zohar and the dark secret of "Lost Jerusalem". To say any more would be sacrilege.

The tale within Der Wille zur Macht is akin to a chaotic vortex of intrigue, rife with double endendres and plot twists. Trying to quantify the richness of storytelling present in Episode I is challenging as this first adventure poses more questions than answers. On one hand, the plot is as riveting as it is multi-faced. The complex relationships between characters such as Shion and KOS-MOS and the interaction of factions like the U-TIC and the Kukai Foundation are amazingly palpable thanks to superb voice acting and masterful scripting. On the other hand, as enthralling as Shion and co.'s romp from Ariadne to Militia is, gamers will undoubtedly feel the weight of the road less traveled - don't expect any resolution from this installment.

While the scope and breadth that Monolith was aiming for with Xenosaga is evident in Der Wille zur Macht, this ambitious episode may be too confounding for its own good. Taken as an introduction to the series, the game's events are within context, but on its own, the plot is so bulbous that it threatens to crush the game under its own girth. In polar opposite to the piecemeal offering that was .hack//INFECTION, Der Wille zur Macht overflows with an intricately woven web of maladies, motives and melancholy. While there is a definitive objective to the menagerie of events in Der Wille zur Macht, its resolution brings more queries and tauntingly barrages you with glimpses of even greater mysteries. To say the game is a tease is an understatement. One can only hope that the next installment is only a few months away as the wait will undoubtedly be agonizing.

Awakening.

Visually, Der Wille zur Macht is remarkable, but at the same time, disappointingly sterile. Completely rendered in real-time, Episode I actually accomplished the tenacious goal of crafting anime characters in polygons properly, but sets a new standard in uninspiring locales. All of Kunihiko Tanaka's designs are painstakingly rendered, resulting in some of the most striking character models seen to date on the aging PS2. The android KOS-MOS herself is one of the most impressive of the cast with the clean and crisp symmetry of her drawn counterpart. The scantily clad android will raise more than a few eyebrows the first time she struts her stuff on screen. During combat, character animation is smooth and brisk, yet during many in-game cinemas, gesturing appears wooden. Outside of this small flaw, Der Wille zur Macht's character models easily surpass those of Final Fantasy X. The backgrounds, however, are another story. Sadly, the locales don't go much further than the aseptic halls of a space cruiser or orbital platform. While the Kukai Foundation sports some variety with locations like Gaignun's private beach and the San Francisco-style civilian quarter, most of the places Shion and co. will visit aren't very memorable. While the cast's close encounter with the Gnosis, Ziggy's infiltration of Pleroma and an impromptu Encephalon dive are events that stand out with unique settings, they are few and far between.

Thankfully, the bestiary has received adequate attention, with creatures ranging from the surreal to the bizarre. Some of the Gnosis designs seem to be influenced by art-deco sculpture while others are of the mutant insect variety. Enemy animation is easily on par with that of your party and combat is truly a sight for sore eyes. The lighting and particle effects present in the deathblows and ether techniques are simply gorgeous. From the feather fall of chaos' specials to the binary codes of KOS-MOS' deathblows, each character's signature moves are unique and devastating. Mecha designer, Junya Ishikagi (Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, Z.O.E.: Dolores i., Xenogears) returns to create the towering AGWS units and the impressive space cruisers found in Der Wille zur Macht. Gamers will gawk in collective awe the first time they see Jr.'s battleship, the Durandal, or one of Vector's Rhine Maiden-class cruisers. The several hours of rendered FMV cinemas found throughout the adventure are impressive and lengthy, though the characters are not quite as breathtaking as some of those we've seen from Square, suffering from the same stiffness that plague the in-game models. Many have argued that the sheer volume of cinema sequences in Der Wille zur Macht would have killed any chance of notoriety the RPG may have had. While the amount of passive storytelling present in this episode is staggering, isn't the tale the reason why we play? Despite these misgivings, the creative design team that was gathered for the creation of Monolith's epic, having already cut their teeth on Xenogears, shows just how much grander their vision can be on our current generation of hardware.

The Song of the Nephilim.

Yasunori Mitsuda reprises his role as composer for Xenosaga Episode I, bringing with him his recent influences with Gregorian chants and his signature Celtic tunes. The maestro responsible for Xenogears, Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross among others, has upped the ante for what is probably the most ambitious score imaginable. As an epic, Der Wille zur Macht needed an orchestra befitting the scope of such an adventure. Mitsuda required the very best musicians the world had to offer, and he got them in the form of the legendary London Philharmonic Orchestra. The end result is a collection of pieces that rival Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen". The OST has been a favorite of mine for some time and finally hearing these powerful anthems in context is nothing short of breathtaking. If there is one small flaw in the score is the fact that there's a lack of variety in the battle music. Outside of the final battle, which features a melody more gripping than "Liberi Fatali" from Final Fantasy VIII, the battle anthem never changes. Even though the tune is delightfully robust, after several hundred repetitions, it begins to grate on one's nerves. Following the example set in Xenogears, Der Wille zur Macht features songs by the lovely Irish singer, Joanne Hogg. "Kokoro" and "Pain" are wonderful melodies written by the game's producer that touch at the heart of Shion's relationship with KOS-MOS and the unimaginable events that surround her. Joanne's lilting lines backed by her strong mezzo-soprano bring out the gentle ferocity of Takahashi's lyrics.

To round out the already admirable score, Namco brought in some of the best voice talent in the anime dubbing business to give new life to the cast of Der Wille zur Macht. Under the direction of ZRO Limit Productions, famous for the superb translation and direction of the English dubs of Cowboy Bebop and Serial Experiments: Lain, the voice cast of Der Wille zur Macht captures the personality of each character perfectly. Though the script suffers from the occasionally stilted dialogue, most gamers will be too enthralled in the story to nit-pick. Audiophiles will be disappointed to note that Der Wille zur Macht does not support Dolby Digital. In a previous interview, Takahashi had stated that including the recording format would have increased the size of the game from a single dual-layered DVD to several. Thankfully, the next adventure in Xenosaga will include Dolby Digital.

Battle's End.

Combat in Der Wille zur Macht is an evolution of the system pioneered in Xenogears with the addition of battle order ala Grandia and a unique method of character customization. Each character begins battle with 4 Ability Points (AP) which are consumed with ether or attack techniques. The basic attacks are divided into long and short range blows while ether attacks can be used at any distance. AP that is not spent during a round is carried over and can be stored up to execute dramatic deathblows. While battle order is clearly displayed in the Group Turn Window (GTW) on the lower right side of the screen, these positions are not set in stone. Through a technique called "boosting", the player can have characters cut in line, staving off potentially crippling enemy attacks or just altering the traffic enough to land an emergency heal spell. Boosting a character consumes one level of that character's boost gauge. Unlike the AP counter, which renews itself each round, the boost gauge must be filled through landing successive combos - especially deathblows. To make skirmishes even more interesting, each combat round is affected by the Event Slot. Resembling a slot machine, every turn of the Event Slot can cause certain effects such as increasing the chance of a critical strike, increasing the % of your boost gauge, etc. Sadly, the order of the Event Slot never changes; meaning players will easily be able to take advantage of these bonuses with little practice. Though later in the game, when enemies begin learning how to effectively boost on their own, gamers may find that their own dirty tricks can be used against them with frightening frequency. To further refine the system, each enemy is classified as one of three types: biologic-type, Gnosis-type or machine-type. This is easily distinguishable as each icon in the GTW is clearly labeled. Logically, certain attacks are more effective than others based on the kind of opponent faced. Sadly, the concept doesn't get much more complex than using lightning on machines, physical attacks on biologics, ether on Gnosis and deathblows on everything. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but not many.

Improving the abilities of each character is a mixture of old-fashioned leveling and point allocation. Each successful fight earns valuable experience points (XP), talent points (TP), skill points (SP) and ether points (EP). Earning enough XP will increase a character's level, resulting in a default increase in statistics and the occasional deathblow. TP, SP and EP, however, have to be manually assigned. SP is used to draw abilities out of items for use at any time without having to wear said equipment. EP is used to learn new ether abilities as well as transfer these spells between characters. TP is the more expendable of the trio; as the currency for augmenting all base statistics as well as the basis for improving deathblows, there's never enough to go around. Unlike Xenogears, the AP given per combat round never increases. To compensate for that fact, deathblows can be improved to consume less AP, resulting in characters executing deathblows every round instead of storing up points to pull off these uber moves. These attacks can also have their damage increased and their execution and recharge times decreased provided you have enough TP for the task. The player will also have to assign deathblows to certain button combinations as each player will have an extensive repertoire before the game draws to a close. Ah, the joys of micro-management.

Sadly, the deathblow "learning" system that was such an enjoyable part of Xenogears has been entirely removed in Der Wille zur Macht. These special techniques are now automatically gained once certain levels are reached. With the added complexity of the character development in Episode I, I cannot fathom why this aspect was removed. The system encouraged players to experiment with button combinations in hopes of learning new deathblows. As experimental combos were used successively, a character would eventually learn to fully execute a deathblow using that particular button sequence. Now, players learn them without any real effort, which is a disappointment.

To add even more complexity to an already busy combat system, players can choose to fight in AGWS as well as on foot. AGWS combat is remarkably similar to Gear combat in Xenogears. Once called into battle, AGWS rely on a limited power supply that can only be recharged at an AGWS shop or through the use of certain equipment during battle. To add insult to injury, AGWS cannot be repaired during battle until much later in game. Gamers who choose to rely solely on using these giant robots will find themselves disappointed; as in most cases they are little more than an HP buffer for some of the harder bosses. Keeping an AGWS up to spec with weapons and accessories is more of a vogue in Der Wille zur Macht than the necessity it was in Xenogears. The machines are slow, frightfully weak and ludicrously expensive to upkeep. Outside of looking incredibly cool, they're not as well integrated into battle as they should have been. Hopefully Monolith will address the issue in the future episodes of Xenosaga.

Another important facet of Der Wille zur Macht is Shion's direct link to the UMN, providing the player with in-game email and an exhaustive glossary of Xenosaga terms, quotes and enemy statistics. While not integral to completing the game, Shion's monitoring and response to emails is vital to unlocking some of KOS-MOS' weaponry and getting a hold of some cutting edge AWGS gear. The extensive dictionary is a nice feature as most of the events and nomenclature that occur throughout the game can be overwhelming. Having a continually increasing database of information available at the touch of the button helps to keep the player's head above water during some of the more daunting stints of dialogue.

What epic RPG would be complete without a sordid assortment of mind-numbing mini-games? This time, Monolith has given us four distractions to enjoy when not knee deep in intrigue. While Der Wille zur Macht has a respectable casino in which many rare items and production artwork can be won, this adventure's claim to fame has to be in the card game: XenoCard! Unlike the simplistic card games of most other RPGs, XenoCard is an extremely in-depth and involving mini-game along the lines of Magic: The Gathering. There's even a two-player mode for card-battle enthusiasts. The complexity of this particular mini-game is refreshing, but the casual player may be better off enjoying one of the more simplistic diversions. Another remarkable mini-game is the AGWS Battler: a VR skirmish that bears a striking resemblance to VirtuaOn using mecha from the game. The AGWS Battler can also be played competitively via a split-screen view and is easily one of the most enjoyable of the quartet. Last, and very least, is the drilling game: a tedious exercise that was a necessary part of the plot that somehow became its own mini-game - be afraid. I honestly don't see gamers spending more than a few seconds scratching their heads over this one.

Aside from the mini-games there are several side-quests to be found outside of the immediate storyline. The Segment Address quest has the player scouring the locations found throughout Der Wille zur Macht for keys to unlock hidden doors with rare items. The end objective of this side quest is to find all the parts to Shion's most powerful ether ability: the invincible robot Erdekaiser. Fans of giant robot anime are sure to get a kick out of this particular spell. There are also the quests to find MOMO's magical-girl transformations and a special summon for Jr.

U-TIC Engine.

Der Wille zur Macht is fully compatible with the analog and vibration function of the Dual Shock 2 and controls quite smoothly. Controlling Shion on the field map is a snap and thanks to visible foes, enemy encounters are tolerable. To spruce up the exploration, Shion's PDA can be used to ignite barrels, shatter glass and blow stuff up. The pyrotechnics aren't just for show though, and is necessary to reveal items and passageways that might have otherwise been inaccessible. Careful combustion of certain color-coded containers in the vicinity of enemies can also give you a much needed edge in battle. Navigation through the multitude of menus is simplicity itself thanks to a fairly comprehensive tutorial at the beginning of the game. Deathblows can be executed easily as there is no timer for the input of commands, though boosting requires fairly quick reflexes, especially during the later stages of the game when enemies begin to counter-boost. The only fatal flaw is the fact that successive deathblows and ether attacks take an inordinate amount of time to execute. These sequences can range from several seconds to the three minute attack of Erdekaiser. During the late stages of the game when the more elaborate deathblows and ether abilities are used exclusively, characters chattering in mid-blitzkrieg needlessly prolong battles. An option to shorten these dramatic displays of special effects would have been nice, or at the very least turn the voices off. Oh well.

Unlike a traditional RPG, Der Wille zur Macht doesn't have an overworld in the classic sense. Instead, the entire adventure is a romp from space vessel to space vessel with several dungeon locations in between. The only recognizable "cities" in the game are aboard the Durandal and the massive space colony known as the Kukai Foundation. As a linear adventure, the only way to return to previous locations is through the use of the UMN. This "simulates" previous dungeons and areas for players to revisit for valuable TP and to complete the various subquests. While this is a functional way to increase the scope of the adventure, it only makes the game seem that much more limited. Also of note is that progress can only be saved at specific nodes found throughout the game instead of pro re nata.

Life or Death.

Monolith Software and Namco have much to be proud of with Der Wille zur Macht. As the first episode to the six-part epic of Xenosaga, the game sets a new standard for RPG storytelling. By embracing the Nietzche's concept of "the will to power" as a central theme, they've managed to drive a stake through the heart of cliche and create something gloriously original. The depth of characterization and the degree of intricacy found in Der Wille zur Macht is simply remarkable compared to other contemporary RPGs. Namco and ZRO Limit are to be applauded for preserving the integrity of the script as well as the dialog during the game's localization. Although the adventure is a brisk one, drawing to a conclusion after roughly 40 hours of play, the experience is memorable.

As the introduction to an enormous epic, Der Wille zur Macht does an impeccable job of setting the tone for great things to come. Without a doubt, the riveting adventure of Shion and KOS-MOS is simply captivating. While there are a few visual and technical pitfalls, Der Wille zur Macht will assuredly slake the thirst of RPG fans longing for an adventure much larger than life. The synergy of an outstanding plot, impressive graphics, a wicked soundtrack and complex gameplay is Der Wille zur Macht's recipe for success. RPG fans that complete this adventure will undoubtedly find themselves frothing at the mouth in anticipation of Monolith's next installment. To think that this is only the beginning...



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© 2001-2003 NAMCO Ltd., All Rights Reserved.
© 2001-2002 Monolth Software Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Graphics: 90%
Sound: 90%
Gameplay: 85%
Control: 85%
Story: 98%
Overall: 92%

Reviews Grading Scale

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KOS-MOS packing serious heat.
 
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Shion receives bad news.
 
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The fearful Commander Marguilis.
 
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The AGWS Battler mini-game!
 
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