Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
I’ll get this out of the way right now: Xenosaga is one of my favorite RPG series. Sure each PlayStation 2 installment of this epic had its flaws in both story and gameplay, but despite all those flaws, the series still had that intangible mojo that kept me coming back for more. It also gave me one of the most unique, original, fresh, and memorable RPG experiences ever.
Enter Xenosaga I•II. This cartridge contains a retelling of the events in Xenosaga Episodes I and II for the PlayStation 2. I do not know for certain what Tetsuya Takashi’s involvement was with this game, but I believe the creative team behind it are the same team responsible for the Xenosaga anime series. This is evident in the occasional cutscene stills depicting scenes from the anime. The character art in the anime cutscene stills is somewhat bland, lacking in the texture and detail found in the PlayStation 2 games’ character models. A few cutscenes here and there show some CG FMV, but it’s nothing to write home about. Most of the cutscenes use the in-game graphics, which consist of 2D sprites atop isometric environments. The sprites do not have many animations but still look alright (although some of the in-game cutscenes don’t quite have the necessary emotional impact when starring cute little, slightly deformed, big-headed sprites). The environments have no clipping or seams and though they don’t look bad, they look rather boring and lackluster. The battle environments have somewhat more detailing that the field graphics. Sometimes there are close-ups when characters perform special attacks, but those close-ups make the character and enemy sprites appear pixilated. Some of the icons shown on the battle screen could have been a tad larger. In short, the graphics get the job done, but that’s about it.
Xenosaga I•II begins its tale in the late 21st century, where a gigantic relic called the Zohar was excavated in Kenya. Unfortunately, the excavation of the Zohar spelt doom for poor old Earth. Cut to 4000 years in the future where colonies exist in space and on other planets. Earth, now referred to as Lost Jerusalem, is a place relegated to history. But the Zohar still exists. In fact, there are multiple Zohars out there. The Zohars house incredible power, and not only do humans in various religious, political, military, corporate, or scientific factions seek them, but a malevolent alien race called the Gnosis seeks them as well. The Gnosis are powerful and terrifying creatures who cannot be defeated by normal weaponry.
The star cruiser Woglinde is on an important journey to the planet of Second Miltia. The military and research personnel on this ship are not only there to ensure the well-being of the Zohar in the cargo hold, but also the research and well being of KOS-MOS- an android specially designed to fight the Gnosis. Enter our protagonist, Shion Uzuki- a researcher for the Vector Corporation and the chief of the KOS-MOS project. Shion is under pressure from the top brass to get KOS-MOS into a battle-ready form to take on the Gnosis threat. The Gnosis eventually do attack and take over the Woglinde. Although still asleep, KOS-MOS awakens on her own volition when she senses that Shion is in mortal danger. Despite a valiant fight from the combat personnel on board the Woglinde, there are just too many Gnosis. Luckily, Shion and a few lucky survivors escape before the Woglinde is completely destroyed. Our heroes are picked up by the passing space freighter Elsa and convince the captain and crew to take them to Second Miltia.
The first half of Xenosaga I•II chronicles Shion’s journey to Second Miltia. The various friends Shion meets along the way also have business on Second Miltia and the second half of the game starts off with Shion and company reaching Second Miltia and going about their business from there. As the story progresses, revelations are revealed that bring the cast of characters closer together and put the fate of life, the universe, and everything else into their hands. And lest we forget this is Xenosaga, giant robots and religious symbolism are present in the story, although the religious content is greatly downplayed compared to the PlayStation 2 games.
The story is good, but is not without its flaws. Although there is a lot of text to read in conversations, email messages, character sub stories, and the information found in the in-game database, the story still feels lacking. The game is akin to a movie based on a novel where some scenes are drastically shortened, altered, or even omitted. There are even some scenes present here that were never in the PlayStation 2 games. For example, the beginning scene of Episode II plays out differently here than it does in the PlayStation 2 game. Occasionally you’ll trigger opportunities to view pictorial summaries of various characters’ sub stories and can read various background information in the database, but it felt somewhat empty since some of these non-interactive sub stories were playable segments in the PlayStation 2 games. The game can be completed in 18-25 hours, which is about half the time it takes to finish any one of the PlayStation 2 Xenosaga games.
One complaint people had about the PlayStation 2 versions of Xenosaga I and II was the sometimes excessive dungeon crawling (people often wished the dungeons were smaller). Well, the dungeons in Xenosaga I•II are heavily downsized from the PlayStation 2 games and some are even omitted. The balance between dungeon exploration and story cutscenes is decent and even the longest story cutscenes are not oppressively long and manage to incorporate the important content needed to comprehend the storyline. Some nice aids for exploration include the option to have running as the default character speed (walking is really slow), the ability to save anywhere and any time you want outside of battle (a feature all handheld games should have), and the gold EVS plates scattered throughout the game where you can recover your HP and EP (ether points aka magic points) for free. EVS plates usually pop up at decent intervals and having one around for free recovery makes building levels less precarious. Another nice convenience is the U.M.N. (Unus Mundus Network) tab in the menu. Not only can you check the database and read emails with it, but you can access an “online” shop any time you want to buy stuff. Since inns and shops are few and far between in outer space, the U.M.N. shop and EVS plates are quite handy. The enemies in the game are not the most generous in doling out EXP or money, so you have to grind a bit to get enough money for goods and enough levels to effectively battle bosses. The boss battles themselves are also quite easy when compared to those of its PlayStation 2 counterparts.
Unlike the PlayStation 2 Xenosaga games where you could see your enemies on the field before engaging them in combat, the battles in Xenosaga I•II occur randomly. The encounter rate varies per dungeon with some having tolerable encounter rates and others having annoyingly high encounter rates. Battles are turn-based and start with your party on one side of a grid and the enemies on the other. When it’s a characters’ turn, said character can move anywhere s/he wants on the heroes’ side of the grid. This is helpful if you want to move a weaker character behind a stronger one for protection or move characters into one of the stat-boosting formations you learn. Once you’ve moved, you can then attack an enemy. You can choose either a physical or distance attack; to do the distance attack, you have to be lined up in front of the enemy whereas a physical attack can be exectuted from anywhere. This was rather counterintuitive.
You start battle with two out of a possible three AP points and you can either use those two in a one-two punch combination against an enemy, or just hit an enemy once, save an AP point, and get three total on your next turn. With three AP points, you can unleash a one-two punch and a powerful special attack called a Deathblow. Each character also has a boost meter that builds up as they land hits on enemies, and when prompted to boost, can take a turn ahead of the other characters. Besides attacking and defending, characters can use items, ether (magic) and other actions that people perform in RPG battles. One annoyance is that you cannot escape from battles unless you use an escape item or escape ether spell. Battles during segments where you pilot the giant E.S. robots utilize the same battle engine, albeit with simplified combo and Deathblow mechanics. They’re not as fun or dynamic as they could be.
As you win battles you not only gain EXP but SP (skill points) as well. Skill points can be redeemed to learn and strengthen various skills, ether spells and Deathblows. A Deathblow learned early in the game and beefed up can do more damage than a brand new Deathblow learned later in the game. Each character has his or her own idiosyncratic set of ether spells and Deathblows to learn. Three characters can fight in a battle party and the characters who do not fight earn half the EXP and SP of combatants.
Some of this might sound a bit complicated in writing, but when you play the game it’s intuitive for anyone familiar with the genre. In addition, the battle and skill systems work in much the same way as those in Xenosaga Episode I for PlayStation 2. The battles are reasonably fun, but stocking up AP for special attacks made early battles slow going. Being able to map level 7 Deathblows to a two button combo rather than a three button combo made battles faster and smoother. To offer a break every once in a while, Xenosaga I•II provides a few fun mini-games such as archery which is best described as a cross between Asteroids and Arkanoid. Others include a connect-the-dots style puzzle game, a button slammer where you shoot as many Gnosis on the screen as you can in a limited amount of time, and a few more.
One thing to note is that the game does not make use of the DS’ stylus at all, except for the mini-games. I personally prefer it this way, perhaps because I’m more used to interfacing with RPG menus via buttons given my history with console gaming. The menus themselves are pretty easy to navigate, although the use of greens and blues, particularly the powder blue text on the royal blue backgrounds, isn’t always easy on the eyes. Thankfully, the font used during conversations and cutscenes is clear and easy to read. Even multi-stroke kanji are not blurry. However, even the fastest text speed scrolls really slowly (thankfully, pressing the R1 button allows for rapid text skipping). In terms of play control, collision detection, and the like, I have no complaints.
The music in Xenosaga I•II is not very good. Despite there being many themes, including multiple battle and boss themes, the music in the game is simply awful. The melodies are either completely forgettable or completely disagreeable in Episode I and improve somewhat in Episode II. The sound quality is also not very good. The composer was going for epic classical style music, but what came out of the DS’ puny speakers and soundchip sounded like paper thin, overly compressed, tinny sounding MIDI. The sound effects do not fare too well either and sound really chintzy. There are occasional voice clips during battles where characters would yell battle cries, but those are barely audible under the lousy music and sound effects. The music and sound effects would have been acceptable in an older title, but for a game released in 2006, I expect better. Admittedly, everthing sounds fuller and richer with good quality headphones, but I still did not like the music or sound effects.
My conclusion regarding this game is: like a movie based on a novel, Xenosaga I•II offers a decent but somewhat stripped down alternative retelling of Xenosaga and Xenosaga II for PlayStation 2. For Xenosaga fans who want to adventure with Shion, KOS-MOS, and company on the go, Xenosaga I•II fits the bill. It’s not the most refined RPG for the DS, but it’s not a bad one either. I certainly had fun with it. However, for the true and definitive Xenosaga experience, you are better off playing the PlayStation 2 games.