There's probably no other RPG out there that is the target of as much speculation as this game, due to it being a 'spiritual prequel' to Xenogears, acclaimed by many to be the greatest RPG ever made, while also being the target of much criticism by others. So before we move onto the game itself, let's get one thing straight.
XENOSAGA IS NOT DIRECTLY RELATED TO XENOGEARS.
The director of the project has said as much, and while much of the basic premise of the games are similar, it is almost impossible to make a direct link between the two games unless we take familiar terms and names and made generalizations that'll span thousands of years into the future (in the game world, that is). Xenosaga does frequently pay homage to Xenogears, though, best evident in the name of the main character, Shion Uzuki, and her brother Jin Uzuki is like a spitting image of Citan from Xenogears.
The world of Xenosaga takes place thousands of years in the future, where humanity has spread out into the far reaches of space to form the UMN (Unus Mundus Network) with their capital now situated on the planet Second Miltia, due to an incident which occurred 14 years ago on their original home planet of Miltia.
It was 14 years ago that Joachim Mizrahi conducted an experiment on the planet of Miltia, triggering the mass influx of the seemingly non-sentient monsters known only as the Gnosis. The Gnosis seem to be attracted to the alien artifact known only as Zohar. The UMN, desperate to rid of themselves of the monsters, throw Miltia into the Abyss (a.k.a. Black Hole) and relocate their capital to a new planet.
It was during this dark time that the UTIC faction was born, a mysterious sect that seems to be after the original Zohar artifact that was situated on the planet Miltia and which is now lost in the Abyss along with the planet.
However, even though the Zohar artifact was gone, the Gnosis attacks continued, creating the need for Anti-Gnosis weapons to fight in this seemingly unending war. One of the first weapons that came forth was the AGWS (Anti-Gnosis Weapon Systems) units, giant robots that were to be piloted by human soldiers.
Meanwhile, the UMN began creating a new line of Realians. Realians are basically genetically created humans, further modified by various nanomachines to give them a man-machine nature. It is interesting to note that Realian soldiers are used as cannon fodder, and are not given AGWS units. The new Realians, called the Type 100s, can detect the presence of Gnosis when they are nearby.
Vector Industries is also working on a project to battle the Gnosis threat. Shion Uzuki is the current supervisor of Vector Industries' KOS-MOS project, the goal of which is to create a super android that can engage in anti-Gnosis activities. Though many are uncertain why there would be a need to create an android to engage in anti-Gnosis missions when androids have been superceded by Realians, one thing is for certain - there is more to KOS-MOS than what meets the eye. Even Shion herself isn't privy to all the information on KOS-MOS, given the fact that her promotion to supervisor was the result of an accident two years ago killing most of the original KOS-MOS staff... including the former head of the project.
Around the same time, the cyborg Ziggurat 8 is hired by the UMN Council to infiltrate a UTIC-held planet and rescue the prototype Type 100 Realian named Momo, who is believed to have stored secret data files of Joachim Mizrahi, and bring her back to Second Miltia. While Ziggurat 8 isn't allowed to decline the mission due to his sub-human status of being a cyborg, he does ask for compensation - the replacement of the remaining human parts left in his body by machinery.
In still another part of the galaxy is Jr. , who looks like an ordinary 12 year old boy on the outside but is actually the right hand of the Kookai Foundation, a privately owned business that has close ties with the UMN. Yet there are rumors of Jr. being older than he really is; and why is he engaging in battles against the UTIC and gathering the Zohar Emulators?
There is more to each of the characters in the game than meets the eye, and it is in trying to unlock these mysteries that the storyline of Xenosaga achieves its greatness. There is an epic feeling to the storyline, and that only makes it so much worse when you find out that Xenosaga Ep 1. doesn't finish the entire arc of the story. In fact, the mysteries that surround each character remains mostly intact by the end of the game, which makes waiting for Xenosaga Ep 2 seem almost like torture.
Oh and yes, this means that Xenosaga Ep. 2 WILL BE a direct sequel, and NOT a MMORPG like some sources are reporting.
One thing I was thankful for was that Xenosaga's story was much easier to follow and understand than its bastard counterpart, with very little in the way of religious references. Even when they did appear, they were mostly basic things that even I understood. This doesn't mean that the world of Xenosaga is easy to comprehend, though. You'll most likely have to make use of the electronic database function of the game often to make sense of all the names and terms that you'll encounter during the game. Many of the entries are quite interesting and helpful in understanding the world of Xenosaga, and I highly recommend all players of the game read the database carefully and check back whenever new 'key words' are unlocked.
Another thing that I was thankful for was the fact that Xenosaga takes itself much more seriously than its predecessor, with very little in the way of parodies making it into the game. That's not to say that they're non-existent though; there are a number of bad puns in Xenosaga relating to 'magical girl' shows, and in fact, Momo can even transform into a Sailor Moon-esque character. There is also a major side character who is a huge fan of Super Robots, and I'm sure most people will be dumbfounded when they find out what the most powerful spell in the game is. I personally thought the tribute to Gundam was nicely pulled off with its 'Type 100' moniker, though.
There are also a number of hints of Xenosaga Ep. 2 contained in the database as well, with the most major one being the fact that Jin Uzuki will play a major role in the game.
Of course, having to check the database whenever you're a bit confused as to what in the world the characters are talking about is a bit annoying, but it is hard to avoid such things, given the Sci-Fi nature of the game and the strict storytelling style the game takes.
This storytelling style takes place mostly in the form of FMVs, limiting the amount of freedom you have in the game. This was something that Final Fantasy X 'suffered' from as well, but Xenosaga pushes it a couple notches higher with the number of FMV sequences that are present in the game. Some sequences can last 20-30 minutes each, and in fact, I estimate about 25-30% of the game’s length is due to such sequences. It's not something I minded too much since I enjoyed the story, but for the people who do wish to skip such scenes there is a skip option available, so don't worry. Xenosaga also has a 'simulator' option that will allow you to revisit past 'dungeons' which I guess is the closest thing to freedom of exploration you'll get in the game.
As for the FMV and the graphics of Xenosaga, they're easy to describe as being impressive but not spectacular. You'll find that the amount of textures used for the models in Xenosaga to be slightly on the low side, possibly due to the amount of characters you'll see on the screen at once. Most FMV sequences use the game engine complemented by true FMV effects, which gives a sense of continuity even when the action stops and an FMV sequence starts?well, that and the voice acting, which I found to be quite competent.
The battle system of Xenosaga should be familiar to anyone who's played Xenogears. You are given 4 Action Points (AP) to start and you can press the Square button for close range/physical attacks and the Triangle for long-range/ether based attacks, which each use up 2AP, giving you 2 combo attacks per round. Magic, guarding, and item use works essentially the same way. You also have the option of storing up AP until the next round, which will allow you to use your special attacks on the enemy.
One thing that is worth mentioning is that you are not allowed to run away from battles. The only two ways to escape from battles are to use an item called 'Escape Ball' or to use Shion's ether spell 'Good Bye'. Oh, and the logic behind 'ether' magic spells in a sci-fi world? They're all nano-machines doing the performed actions... yep. Try not to linger too much on the details.
There are also new twists in the battle system with the addition of two features: 'Boosting' and 'Events'. Each character gets a boost gauge which fills up as he/she attacks or takes damage ('Counter Boosting'). When the boost gauge is filled, that character's boost gauge is raised by one... which gives them the ability to use that boost point and 'cut in' on the movement order to automatically be the next character to perform his or her actions. This gives you the ability to cut in when you know that it's the enemy's turn to attack and heal or counter attack. The enemies also have the ability to boost, though, so this ability is a double-edged sword, especially since some enemy units seem to counter boost every time you attack.
The 'Events' in battles play a much more minor role. There is basically a slot during battle which changes each turn between 4 events that could happen. The four are: No Change, Critical % Up, Boost Gauge % Up, and Points Earned Up. They're all pretty self explanatory and you rarely need to really pay attention to them because their effects are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, making me wonder why they added it in the first place.
You earn Talent Points (TP), Ether Points (EP), and Skill Points (SP) each time you win a battle. You use these points to learn new spells, draw skills from your equipment, or to power up your special attacks.
You are given full rein over which special attack is placed on the circle button during combination attacks, as long as the distance requirement is met. For example, triangle-triangle-circle can only be long distance attacks, so close range specials can't be set there. You can also spend TP to increase the speed of the special attack, which allows you to pull for a special attack every round and not when you've first stored up 6 AP in battle.
Skill points are used to 'draw' skills out of certain equipment and make it equippable under the skills slots (you get 3). However, you need to draw a certain number of level 1 skills (from low level equipment) before you're allowed to draw level 2 skills and so on, which creates a bit of a problem.
While I was playing, I ran out of level 2 equipment to draw skills from before hitting Skill level 3, which means that I couldn't draw any more skills. I'm sure I missed a couple of early pieces of equipment which caused this to happen, but it's still really annoying. I mean, I had 2000 SP by the end of the game that was just wasted because of this.
Ether (magic) works in a similar fashion. Each character gets his or her own set of Ether spells that he or she can learn, with an earlier spell giving access to more powerful ones. You can spend 1/2 the learning cost of an Ether spell that you've already learned to give that Ether spell to a different character, which is useful in spreading healing spells across all characters.
You have to be careful when setting which Ether spells each character equips though, because each character is only allowed 12 points worth of spells equipped at any one time. Since later spells use up 3 or 4 points, you have to make a conscious decision as to which spells the characters will have access to. In fact, there is one spell in the game that takes up all 12 points!
My biggest disappointment with the battle system was in A.G.W.S. battles. While I liked how the game made a conscious decision to only allow human (well, at least seemingly human) characters to pilot A.G.W.S units, promoting the class system between humans, Realians, and cyborgs that is evident in the world of Xenosaga, what I didn't like is that they're, well?awfully weak.
You need to spend a turn to 'summon' an A.G.W.S into battle and you need to invest in a lot of money to keep your A.G.W.S units as viable fighting units, which are both heavy blows against using them. Add in the fact that you attack slower, less often, can't boost (unless you equip a certain accessory) and can't use ethers or items while you're in an A.G.W.S., and we have a recipe for disaster. You do deal more damage and have a great deal more HP while you are in an A.G.W.S, but in my experience you're much better off keeping to battling without them.
The controls for Xenosaga are pretty standard fare, with a helpful radar function which greatly helps in avoiding battles. While you can't change the camera view in the game, I found that the default camera was more than sufficient for going through the dungeons, and there were only a few instances where you lose 'sight' of your character. The dual shock support was a nice touch as well.
The main thing that's the same about Xenogears and Xenosaga is the fact that the music is done by Yasunori Mitsuda. While the music in Xenosaga is good, I did wish that there was a bit more variation in the tracks, especially during battles. You have the same battle music even during most boss battles, which was a bit of a personal let down for me. The excellent vocal track, Kokoro, made up for all that though.
Given how Xenosaga Ep. 1 is almost completely focused on plot, it's hard to recommend this game to anyone who wants exploration in their games. Heck, the game's a bigger offender than FFX in that regard. And people who are looking for an enclosed story will surely be disappointed when they find that the story is nowhere close to being resolved by the end of the 30 some-odd hours you'll spend in beating it. Yet, it is this quality about the game that I like the most; the grand, epic scale of the story with none of those fetch quests that always drive me up the wall. So, while I think non-fluent importers got the short end of the stick in playing Xenosaga, I think all domestic gamers have a lot to look forward to when the game hits stateside (hopefully) this fall.