Inevitably, Xenosaga: Episode I will elicit numerous comparisons to Xenogears, Square’s epic masterpiece from 1998. After all, it is the “prequel” to Xenogears. Though published by another company, the game invariably includes tons of elements from Xenogears, and it has been said that there will be an ongoing series (Xenogears is apparently the fifth installment). The first installment, Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht proves to be an excellent RPG that will certainly satisfy both the casual RPG fan and the hardcore Xenogears fans.
Xenosaga takes places ten thousand and some odd years before Xenogears, so don’t expect many direct references. Mankind has left Earth and inhabited space. Unfortunately, an alien race known as the Gnosis hunt humanity and their ability to withstand most known attacks renders them near invincible. Gamers take control of Shion Uzuki, a distinguished scientist working for Vector Industries. She’s spent most of her time perfecting the only weapon humans have against the Gnosis: KOS MOS, a sophisticated android whose specific abilities and battle skills make her a walking Grim Reaper to the Gnosis. Much like Xenogears, the plot takes a rollercoaster ride complete with plot twists, conspiracies, and epic revelations. The game centers on the Zohar, an object that will remind movie buffs of the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey in its symbolism. What is the Zohar, and why is it calling out to Shion? Why are the Gnosis after it? Believe me when I say these questions are only the tip of the iceberg, and the plot becomes increasingly complex as the game progresses. This excellent storytelling comes with one downfall: Xenosaga will leave gamers wanting more after completion. The game fails to deliver a full-blown conclusion, and though it’s the first in a series, this is inexcusable. A game must provide a complete experience, whether or not it’s part of a series. Cliffhanger plot endings do not provide a sense of accomplishment or completion, and are almost the “cheap” way out.
The cast in Xenosaga is augmented by the excellent voice acting. The game features hours upon hours of spoken dialogue, and the intricate character development is certainly enhanced by the realistic audible experience. The main cast is slowly developed through series of flashbacks and character foiling (that is, development of one character due to another character’s presence). Minor characters become memorable, with their distinct voices and well-written lines. The dialogue is more than adequate, and the only detriment is the somewhat poor dubbing job.
Gameplay in Xenosaga is reminiscent of RPG’s such as Chrono Cross and Xenogears. Dungeons are somewhat straightforward, with relatively simple puzzles and obstacles. Thankfully, there are no random battles; enemies can be seen onscreen and avoided. Though avoiding battles is fun, eventually it has to happen, and Xenosaga provides a battle system extremely reminiscent of Xenogears. Attacks are combo based, and characters build up AP, which can be used to inflict devastating combos on enemies. There is also a standard magic system, and of course, the obligatory mechs – called A.G.W.S. (Anti-Gnosis-Weapon-Systems). Sadly, A.G.W.S. design is rather bland; they look like mechs out of a 1970s Gundam cartoon. In spite of this, they’re certainly fun to use in battle, and also utilize a combo system like regular party members do. Characters gain experience in battle and can distribute points in order to build up their skills, technical areas (HP, vitality, etc.), and combos.
The sound in Xenosaga is just short of brilliant. The soundtrack, composed by Yasonuri Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger/Cross, Xenogears) and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, features dozens of excellent classical pieces. Though not as stunning as his work for Xenogears, the soundtrack certainly provides a certain atmosphere for Xenosaga, and there are riffs and chords from Xenogears songs littered throughout the soundtrack. One minor complaint is the overuse of the battle theme; gamers will progress hours and hours and hours before the battle theme ever changes, and it becomes quite redundant and bland. Sound effects are crisp, and rarely involve anything more than an explosion, clanking of metal, or computer beeps. However, what’s there is well-recorded and appropriate. The voice acting, as mentioned earlier, is fantastic; nary is there a poor voice actor, and mostly every line is well-delivered. Audibly, Xenosaga is a treat.
Xenosaga is a fully 3-D polygonal world. Due to the nature of the game taking place mostly in space, most of the environments are dull spaceship interiors; this is actually quite appropriate, but it certainly isn’t appealing on the eyes. The graphics themselves are a mixed bag; the character models are well articulated and detailed. Environments are clean and animated, but there are plenty of instances of slowdown. Draw distance is impressive, and textures themselves look detailed up close. Environment interaction is well done, as the party can destroy objects in the environment to find items, gain access to new or secret areas, or even fight hidden enemies. Most of the game’s storytelling (and there is a lot of it, and the sequences are long) are rendered but played back in CG format. This makes these sequences noticeably blurrier than in-game rendering, and detracts from the scene with blurriness one would expect on a PlayStation, not a PS2. The graphics are good, but after seeing games like Final Fantasy X, Xenosaga takes a back seat.
It’s not really fair to continually compare Xenosaga to Xenogears, but I’ll look at it from both angles: in direct comparison to Xenogears, and as a stand alone title. Xenogears fans will adore Xenosaga; it functions and plays in the same fashion. The game is an interactive movie; story sequences can sometimes take over an hour before they’re completed and gamers can control the main character again. If that’s not appealing, then you won’t enjoy Xenosaga, no matter how in-depth the plot is. As a stand alone title, Xenosaga is excellent and doesn’t really have one specific deficient area. The gripes I had with Xenosaga are minor, and the game provided me with plenty of enjoyment. I may have enjoyed Xenogears a great deal more, but Xenosaga is certainly a worth prequel, and as a stand alone RPG, provides good gameplay and a wonderful story for gamers that have never played Xenogears. Don’t worry if you haven’t played Xenogears; you just won’t pick up on the small references that only serve to make the fans smile. Xenosaga is finally here, and it was worth the wait. Hopefully the sequel will improve on it (and be released soon)!