Nearly two years ago, at the 2001 Spring Tokyo Game Show, Namco announced a title that was previously only referred to as ‘Project X’ for months – the Xenosaga series. Even though all that was shown was some text on a screen and what sounded like a remix of ‘The Beginning And The End’ from Xenogears playing in the background, the fact that it was created by the former Xenogears team was enough to stir up all kinds of debate and discussion among RPG fans everywhere, due to the series’ links to the Xenogears universe. Developer Monolith Soft, consisting of Xenogears director Tetsuya Takahashi and other ex-Square employees, has promised us a full six-episode series, given that the early installments sell well. For those of you who remember – and how can one not – the famous Xenogears ‘bible’, Perfect Works, Xenosaga will follow the timeline outlined in Perfect Works, though not explicitly. Rather, the team is following an altered, partially re-written version of this timeline for the Xenosaga series.
First up is Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille Zur Macht. The German subtitle, which translates to ‘the will to power’ was taken from the title of an 1800s book written by philosopher Fredrick Nietzche. While it’s been said many times before, Xenosaga Episode I would take place anywhere between 10 – 15,000 years before Xenogears’ time setting. Thus, there is no direct relation between the two games. The single link between the games is Zohar, and there are some references that may remind fans of Xenogears’ plot, but that’s the extent of it. An even more important thing to keep in mind, because of this, is to look at Xenosaga Episode I as its own game, and the beginning of a new series, rather than as a distant prequel to Xenogears.
As previously mentioned, the Xenosaga series follows an altered version of the Xenogears Perfect Works timeline, and takes on more of a space opera, science fiction setting rather than a fantasy one. Mankind has long left Earth/planetary life due to lack of resources to find habitat among the stars, this collection of life known as the Unus Mundus Network. The original Zohar relic, which seems to attract the alien, sometimes ghostlike Gnosis creatures in droves, has been sealed away into the abyss along with the planet Militia after Joachim Mizrahi’s strange, but deadly experiments fourteen years ago involving the relic. The Gnosis however, aren’t the only ones seeking out Zohar, as a faction known as the U-TIC Organization is also in pursuit of the mysterious monolith-like structure, and the protagonists can expect to butt heads with these guys more than once, and it’s no more of a good time than Gnosis encounters. To combat the endless attacks by the Gnosis, three main weapons are employed: Anti-Gnosis Weapon Systems (AGWS, or ‘giant mech’ take your pick); Realians, human-like beings created using nanotechnology to fight as soldiers; and KOS-MOS.
Enter Shion Uzuki, the young, smart Vector Industries employee who constantly works overtime on the project of which she has been appointed supervisor – KOS-MOS. This blue-haired android is an anti-Gnosis humanoid weapon with extraordinary powers and abilities that not even Shion is always aware of. A sudden Gnosis attack on their ship, the Woglinde, sets their path on a much more different route than was originally planned. Along the way they will meet several others with a tale to tell – or to hide. In another corner of the universe, Ziggurat8, a once-human cyborg who had committed suicide about 100 years ago, but was kept alive (due to a life recycling system), wishes to have the last of his human memories removed. In exchange, he is given the task of rescuing MOMO. This 100-series Realian, held captive on a U-TIC battleship, was a creation of Joachim Mizrahi himself, and longs to be considered human, with a pure heart of gold and a seemingly eternal desire to help people. Yet still, there is the high-strung Jr, a redheaded gunslinger around the age of 13, and a part of the mysterious, sometimes questionable Kukai Foundation. And let’s not forget chaos, a sixteen year old with interesting powers and an unspoken of origin, whose personality is more of a laid back, peaceful type. One thing that contributes well to Episode I’s grandiose plot is that the cast of key characters also consists of those who aren’t villains or playable characters. Relationships involving these non-playable characters prove to be just as complex and vital to the story, and there are many waiting to be introduced.
That said, character interactions and relationships are played out rather well in the game, much like an anime at times. While part of that is due to a near flawless translation, and a carefully chosen cast of voice actors, the effort put into the story itself is obvious. Episode I is a game that tends to take itself very seriously, with only a few lighthearted moments concentrated near the beginning. The story is what drives the game, and that could be a very good or bad thing, depending on your stance. The manner in which the cutscenes are executed makes the actual amount of them, in ratio to gameplay, much more tolerable, especially if the player is all for an epic tale. Patience is also a must, as the story, while not nearly as layered as Xenogears – is not only long winded at times, but also rather complex, so not the easiest to follow at all times. This is part of what brings up many questions in the player’s mind throughout the game, and whether any of these questions are answered before the game’s end is its major downfall – the majority of them are not. In Episode I’s defense, it’s just that – the first episode, and leaves fans all kinds of anxious for the arrival of Xenosaga’s second installment. Certainly, it makes sense to not resolve every issue as Episode II is planned to be a direct sequel, but even so, too few things come to a close before game’s end.
Not surprisingly, much of the gameplay resembles that of Xenogears, even in battle. Episode 1 does away with random battles, and instead enemies are seen onscreen, and a battle is initiated upon contact with the enemy. Deathblows (renamed to tech attacks) remain as the focal point and the key to winning a battle. Here, different buttons are used for different attack types: physical, usually close-range attacks; long range/Ether based attacks and tech attacks. New tech attacks are gained as characters level up, and only by gaining Tech Points from battles can one upgrade the attack power and availability of certain tech attacks. However, attacking, and especially the tech attacks, take a bit of time to execute, which slows the battle’s pace, even when the player may have an exact strategy down. Enemies here are no pushovers, and several bosses will leave you sore even after a few tries. Tech points can also be used to up character’s stats – extremely helpful if a player wants to focus on a character’s weak point. Ether spells however are usually indirect and supportive, and can only be learned by using gained Ether Points from battles, or by transferring learned Ether spells to another character. However, other than revive/HP restoring spells and a certain character’s final spell, Ether spells are not overly useful overall. What does come in useful though, is the Skill system. Once again, skill points are earned through – you guessed it – battles. Skills, such as poison guard, are gained by using the points to extract them from accessories unequipped and in your inventory.
One aspect of battle that has plenty of room for improvement in future Xenosaga installments is the AGWS. Let it be a warning now that, unlike the Xenogears and Evangelions of the world, these mechs don’t play a role in the game storywise. In fact, they don’t even play a huge role in battle. They merely serve as a backup, only necessary in a small handful of boss battles, as they are an absolute waste to use in any regular battle, except a few in final dungeon. Even so, the more a character levels up and boosts their tech attacks’ strength, the less useful that character’s AGWS becomes. To say that AGWS battles are lacking something is an understatement – one can only attack (with the choice of attacks depending on the weapons equipped), guard or exit the AGWS.
A very handy feature that was also seen in Final Fantasy X is a small grid on the battle screen that shows the order of characters’ and enemies’ turns. This is especially useful when taking advantage of the Boost system, which allows characters the chance to take a bonus turn if the Boost bar has been completely filled at least once. Enemies can use this option as well, and many will. Even if you beat them to the punch, an enemy can still boost and their turn will precede yours, whereas the reverse isn’t possible. Replacing the traditional RPG’s treasure chests are boxes and various other items that can be destroyed using a ‘vaporizer’; as well, since Episode I does not require a map, previous dungeons and fields are accessible by using an environmental simulator.
Episode I’s character models are only the first example of the game’s stunning visuals. Kunihiko Tanaka’s anime style designs are well retained in beautiful 3D models, with KOS-MOS being the most impressive by far. Perhaps one of the odd things about the game’s graphics are the sparkles that seem to flow out of KOS-MOS’ hair while the camera is behind her in battle, or the endless musical notes springing from the feet of MOMO, who can’t seem to keep still. While character movements are quite fluid, expressions and gestures in cinemas seem more wooden and stiff with few exceptions. Another fine example of the game’s impressive visuals is the tech attacks and spells – these are not your typical PlayStation 2 stock effects. Attacks such as Chaos’ Lunar Seal, and several other tech attacks, are often visually comprised of archaic symbols and elemental effects. Expect quite a few light shows here.
Unfortunately, one could only wish that such an effort was put into the backgrounds of many of the dungeons and fields as was put into the characters and spells. More often than not, the background designs come off as generic, and the color palette drab. Another department which lacks any sort of flair is the AGWS themselves. Perhaps one of the most impressive things about them is the shiny surfaces, which seem to have an actual reflection when in movement. Almost all of the AGWS have a bland, blocky build, while Albedo’s stands out with its own style, and bearing large wings not unlike its pilot.
No less than a spectacular soundtrack with an epic feel could be expected from composer Yasunori Mitsuda, and this is exactly the treatment he gives the game’s score. The soundtrack is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which definitely contributes to the already dramatic mood of many of the tracks. What the music will most remind one of, as far as Mitsuda’s works are concerned, is Xenogears, unsurprisingly. The haunting tracks match perfectly with the game’s dark, all-too serious theme. Very fitting is the fact that the two vocal songs are performed by Joanne Hogg, who also sang Xenogears’ two vocal themes, and all of said songs are beautifully written both in lyric and music. A lack of a boss battle theme is a bit of a disappointment though, as the regular battle theme is used in boss battles. The major letdown of the score is lack of background music throughout much of the game itself, outside of cinemas and the final two dungeons, one of which contains the (perhaps intentional) most irritating background music one can fathom.
Since its Japanese release, fans in North America have been very skeptical of the possible quality of the game’s English dub. Beyond much relief, Xenosaga’s English voice cast has pulled off what seems like the finest English dub heard in a video game. Each actor fits their character’s personality perfectly (with the exception being Nephilim), as did the original Japanese voice actors – in fact, the English VAs for the main characters sound scarily similar to their Japanese counterparts, especially in their battle cries, where they sound exactly alike at times, and even use the same taunts at the end of battle, though in their respective languages.
The most obvious difference between the domestic release of Xenosaga and its Japanese counterpart is the often talked about edited controversial scene. Rest assured that the scene still serves its original purpose, minus a lot of wincing. What wasn’t mentioned were a couple of other very minor edits, but like the first, they were just enough to avoid two more overly gruesome shots without hacking up the scene itself. Thankfully, the dialogue or story didn’t need to be altered from the Japanese version to fit any of these edits – or at all, for that matter. While the important aspects remain unchanged, the differences are in minor things – item names (which originally followed the Xenogears scheme of naming, ie Zeta-, Meta-, etc.), some attacks, and a few Ether spell names.
Certainly, Episode I is not an RPG without an interesting array of sidequests and minigames. The first introduced is the red segment doors, of which there are 18 scattered about the world, with 18 appropriate keys also scattered around the world. Two more are rather short, in which you seek out a certain opponent in a certain place, and gain a special Ether or tech attack by defeating them. Accessible via passports are a drill game – think of a crane game, and replace the claw with a drill that breaks open boxes, and you gets what’s inside; a casino with your standard slots and poker games; and a collectible card game. Even still, there is an AGWS battling arena similar to the Xenogears arena. The CCG (surprisingly) and AGWS battling (not so surprisingly) have two-player modes, and all of them have the possibility of stumbling upon rare items. No, this is not the most original collection of minigames out there, but that doesn’t make them much less addicting, and it sure beats near-impossible chocobo races in some aspects.
‘Being the first title from Monolith Soft, Episode I, which takes anywhere between 35-50 hours to complete on average (a far cry from the 80 hours seen reported), is definitely a formidable effort and a possible contender for the best RPG of 2003. The emphasis story-wise seems to focus more on being ‘part of a series’ than a game on its own, leaving fans with quite a disappointment at the lack of resolve in the end, and one would hope that the wait for Episode II isn’t too long. Still, the first threads of this six-part tale have been woven, and this is just the beginning of what we can expect of the Xenosaga series.