The Xeno Middle Child
Whenever you hear of Monolith Soft, one series usually comes to mind: Xenoblade Chronicles. Originally intended to not release in North America, the Xenoblade Chronicles series has since become popular around the world. The latest entry, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, sold over 1.7 million copies worldwide. A remake of the original game is on its way, and we cannot wait! Without Nintendo purchasing developer Monolith Soft, Xenoblade may never have existed. Monolith Soft as we know it might not even exist.
Aficionados of Monolith Soft’s past might recall Xenogears, a title that many key staff members worked on. Released on the original Sony PlayStation back in 1998, Xenogears threw 2D sprites into a fully 3D world. With a philosophical plot and religious themes, the game took the RPG world by storm. Over 20 years later, Xenogears is still heralded as a classic, receiving concerts and tie-in events with various games. Though it was created by Squaresoft, many of the game’s key staff made the migration from that company to Monolith Soft.
However, the years between Xenogears and Xenoblade Chronicles gave birth to another series: Xenosaga. This middle child graced the PlayStation 2 at the beginning of Monolith Soft’s life as a company. Planned as a six-part epic, the series was cut to three main titles in 2006. Though its life was short, Xenosaga was ambitious; the series received a manga, an anime, a Nintendo DS remake of the first two games, a cell phone game, and many more projects.
Recently, there is a slight resurgence of interest in the series. In 2014, Katsuhiro Harada, General Manager of Bandai Namco Entertainment Original IP Game Projects and producer of the Tekken series, made a statement in regards to a potential Xenosaga HD collection. This lead to fans campaigning for the collection, even going as far as setting up an online petition. Though Harada tried to push the series into the remaster program, Xenosaga failed to be profitable in a market analysis.
Nearly 20 years later, the games still linger in the form of KOS-MOS, a battle android who makes a cameo appearance in a variety of games from the Project X Zone series to Xenoblade Chronicles 2. On either side of Xenosaga lies the shadow of a legacy. However, what exactly makes Xenosaga special in its own right? Why are many fans chomping at the bit for an HD remake? Not quite Xenogears or Xenoblade, Xenosaga left behind its own footprint and a deeply engaging story while still sharing DNA with its spiritual predecessor and successor.
The Story Begins
In the year 20XX AD, a mysterious object known as the Zohar is discovered in Africa and changes the world forever. Four thousand years later, Earth (now known as Lost Jerusalem) is gone and humanity fights for existence against an alien nemesis known as the Gnosis. Xenosaga is a sweeping space opera that hits on the same themes and motifs as both Xenogears and Xenoblade Chronicles. Acceptance, the power of the individual to shape their own destiny, and more are covered in detail, thanks in part to the series’ excellent cast.
Not quite Xenogears or Xenoblade, Xenosaga left behind its own footprint and a deeply engaging story while still sharing DNA with its spiritual predecessor and successor.
In this universe, Ziggy is a cyborg brought back to life against his will after a devastating past. He slowly tries to remove every organic part of himself until he no longer exists as a person. MOMO is a prototype synthetic human who struggles with her own existence and her desire to be close with her distant mother. Jr. is a human weapon trying to escape both his fate and his bloody past. The protagonist, Shion Uzuki, is a young genius who helped create the battle android KOS-MOS, but behind her carefree facade is a young woman plagued by a gruesome past. Every character has layers to them which sometimes cause conflict but also enhance the overall story.
These characters are thrown into a plot that features an intergalactic war between various factions and giant robots, fueled by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, Jungian psychology, and heavy Christian symbolism. For those faint of heart or short on time, Xenosaga can be downright overwhelming. The first and third alone contain databases that keep track of the plethora of terminology and characters that pop up. Beyond that, several side projects, such as the mobile game Xenosaga: Pied Piper, the comedic visual novel XenoComi found in a game called Xenosaga Freaks, and a flash game called Xenosaga: A Missing Year, are not only canon to the story, but are missing official translations outside of the Japanese versions. However, thanks to the work of fans, many of these projects are available in English.
With the last game’s database, these side games aren’t 100% necessary to enjoy the main series, but the sheer scope of it all begs the question: Is it worth it? Yes. A thousand times yes. Like with Xenogears and to some extent Xenoblade, Xenosaga is a thousand-piece puzzle that hands you extra pieces in each game until you finally see the full picture. And by the time you see that holistic view, you won’t want it to end. And sadly, due to declining sales with each game, the ending is bittersweet.
I’ve only barely discussed Xenosaga’s poster girl: KOS-MOS. Created by Shion Uzuki and her fiancé Kevin Winnicot, KOS-MOS is an android designed to exterminate the Gnosis threat throughout the universe. Shion dotes on her and aspires for her to be more than just a weapon. KOS-MOS does a balancing act between human and weapon throughout the entire series. One minute, she kills anything in her path to accomplish a mission, and the next she protects Shion from harm at the price of her own safety. She is a character deserving of the legacy she left behind, but she deserves much more as well.
Her influence has long outlived her role in the series, making cameo appearances in several Monolith Soft and Bandai Namco games. Besides her most recent appearance in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, KOS-MOS has appeared in some shape or form in the Tales series (Judith has a costume of her in Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition), Baten Kaitos, Soul Calibur III, Super Robot Wars OG Saga: Endless Frontier and its Japan-only sequel, both Project X Zone games and more. Not only that, but many figurines of KOS-MOS are still produced to this day. A figurine of her appearance in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 releases this year! Whatever the state of Xenosaga is, the series still exists through KOS-MOS.
A Soundtrack Fit for a Space Opera
Surprisingly, there’s more to Xenosaga than its staggeringly layered story. As with Xenogears and Xenoblade Chronicles, the Xenosaga series includes a powerful soundtrack for each game. Yasunori Mitsuda — a fantastic composer who composed Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, the ending theme to Xenoblade Chronicles, and numerous songs in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 — created a sweeping score for Xenosaga Episode I that used the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the way only a space opera could. The problem: there just wasn’t enough music to go around. Towns in the game are devoid of music, instead leaving players to hear only their character’s dull footsteps.
However, after Xenosaga Episode I, the composer for the series switched to Yuki Kajiura (.hack//SIGN, Sword Art Online, Madoka Magica) and not for the worse. Her ethereal lyrics, techno beats, and heart-aching instrumental pieces helped shape the narrative. Though Shinji Hosoe (Zero Escape series) composed the gameplay soundtrack for Xenosaga Episode II and it didn’t quite match the tone of Kajiura’s work, the tracks were still fun. Even with the series switching composers partway through, each Xenosaga offers a sweeping score that fits with the scope of its narrative.
Prelude to Battle
Xenosaga is a video game after all, so the gameplay may seriously influence the experience. In comparison to its brethren, Xenosaga features a turn-based battle system more akin to Xenogears than Xenoblade Chronicles’ quasi-MMORPG system. In Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht (named after Nietzsche’s The Will to Power), a party of three battles through a series of button presses split between close-range and long-range attacks. The number of attacks you do in one turn is limited, but you can save points each turn to then perform flashy tech attacks that deal massive damage to your enemies. Not only that, but you can bring the giant robot AGWS (Anti-Gnosis Weapon System) into battle to turn the tide when combat is difficult. Lastly, a Boost meter allows players and the enemies to skip their turn and change the flow of battle. The game can be downright challenging at times, yet with great story and cutscenes as the reward, it’s more than worth it.
Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse (named after Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil) retains that same battle system with some fundamental changes. Each enemy now has specific weaknesses that can be exploited with the correct close- and long-range attack combination. Perhaps a precursor to Xenoblade’s Break system, exploiting these weaknesses allows the player to either knock enemies to the ground or launch them into the air for additional damage. Furthermore, with the return of the Boost system, you can deal a significant amount of damage during this phase. Lastly, building stock each turn allows for characters to unleash devastating double team attacks. Though the difficulty during normal battles can make them feel like a drag, the changes to the series’ battle system weren’t bad.
Lastly, Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra (named after, you guessed it, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra), features a more traditional battle system. Gone are close- and long-range attacks. Instead we have a quick attack option along with tech attacks and special attacks. Boost still remains but can also be used to perform special attacks. Mech battles are more fleshed out; each giant robot is given a certain amount of fuel each turn, limiting the amount of attacks that can be performed. Overall, the game sacrifices flash for fast. Animations are quick and to the point, and battles overall aren’t difficult. But the streamlined battle system is still enjoyable in the end.
Xenosaga is a series bursting with potential. I haven’t even gotten started on the minigames (I can easily see the card game as a mobile game). However, among many things, Xenosaga buckled under its own weight. With the popularity of Xenoblade Chronicles and the addition of KOS-MOS and T-elos to the series, now feels like the perfect time to bring Xenosaga back for a new generation to experience. However, with Bandai Namco’s decision, an HD port seems highly unlikely. If you can, dust off your PlayStation 2 and track down these wonderful games. The first two titles can usually be found for a reasonable price, but the third one, Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra, ranges from $70 to $80 USD. But if you can find all three games, searching for Lost Jerusalem is a space opera you will never forget.