Not For Everyone, But Amazing None The Less.
Xenosaga Episode I is sort of a spiritual successor and prequel to Xenogears, which debuted on the Playstation 1 back in 1998. If you remember Xenogears, you know it was a Squaresoft title, and Xenosaga is brough to us via Namco. The reason for this is the creators of Xenogears left Square in 1998, after the Xenogears project was completed, in order to make their own company so they could carry out the Xenosaga Project. Xenosaga consists of six episodes, the first four of which are everything leading up to Xenogears, which is the fifth episode, and is followed by the concluding sixth episode. Namco signed on as the publisher since this project was guaranteed to be a sure fire winner given Xenogears huge success.
Xenosaga Episode I: Dur Wille zur Macht is told from the perspective of Shion Uzuki. Shion is an extremely bright girl who is in charge of the KOS-MOS project. KOS-MOS is a battle android and the ultimate weapon against the Gnosis. The Gnosis are a mysterious race of phantom like creatures who appeared during an event called “The Militian Conflict,” which occurred fifteen years prior to the games opening. No one knows much about them other than they are hostile to humans, and have been erasing humanity from the cosmos at lightning speed since they appeared. There are many other characters in the cast as well, and while some can get on your nerves at times, over all the cast is very likeable and will grow on you.
Game play in Xenosaga is much the same as it was in Xenogears. You move around a series of environments blowing up stuff, collecting stuff, moving stuff, and killing stuff in order to advance in the games story. Combat is very similar to how it was Xenogears, but with a few new added features. Battles still operate as a sort of turn based “Street Fighter.” You have high, medium, and low range attacks and push the appropriate buttons for them in order to pull off combo moves, which are your primary damage dealers. However, unlike in Xenogears, when a new combo becomes available to you is determined by you characters level and not unlocking it by randomly punching in the button code at the desired level like in Xenogears. Also, the button codes for the combo’s are few, simple, and preset in Xenosaga, and what combo attack they do when input by the player is determined by what one of your unlocked combo attacks you choose to equip to that button code. This is a great addition since you no longer need to charge up forever and remember long strings of code in order to pull off a devastating attack. You also have Ether attacks, which serve as the games magic, at your disposal, along with items. Though these are mostly used for healing purposes and their damage output is no where near that of your attack combos. A bar to show attacking order, a la Grandia, has also been added so you can plan your strategy accordingly. A bonus slot has also been added, which changes every turn. Based on what you get determines what bonuses your party has for that turn. These bonuses work for enemies as well, and range from an increase in earned experience to increased damage output and a higher chance to get a critical hit. Overall it works as sort of a double edged sword, and is an unnecessary addition, but helps keep combat interesting.
The giant robots are back as well, although they are primarily an after thought. They are called A.G.W.S. (pronounced egg’s) this time around, and all you can really do with them is hop into them during combat. There are no giant robot specific dungeons, or sequences, in the game. Even the battles that are designed for them really have them as more a strong suggestion than anything else, because you can over come anything in the game by over leveling your characters. You can customize your robots, but not nearly to the extent you could in Xenogears, and combat for them is watered down and bland in comparison to fighting with your characters. All the A.G.W.S. are capable of is a few simple moves that are limited by your ammo supply. They can’t do any death blow combo’s or anything like they could in Xenogears. Still, it is nice to have them, because they do come in handy.
Xenosaga’s difficulty ranges from very easy to very hard. Most of your time between cinemas will actually be spent grinding levels in the environmental simulator. This device lets you replay all the events and environments you have already played through in the game. It’s a nice feature since there is very little free roaming in the game, and it comes in very handy if you missed getting an item you wanted during a previous level. Unfortunately, because there is such a high emphasis on this thing, the only way to get through the game is by power leveling, or over leveling your characters in it. This gets boring fast, and takes time, which detracts from the games excellent story.
It goes without saying that there has never been a game in the history of gaming with as much of an emphasis on story and narrative as Xenosaga has. Players familiar with Xenogears will immediately feel at home in the games story, as it is loaded with as much religious and philosophical thought as ever. However, if you don’t have much, or any, background experience in the material from which Xenosaga’s story is derived, you are probably going to find yourself in over your head very quickly, and won’t understand what is going on in the game. The story is the games main focus, and is told through a series of long winded cut scenes, and pre-rendered cinemas, which break up the periods of game play. They are all done using the games engine and look great; however, it would have been nice if they could have been a little shorter. The cinemas in Xenosaga are so long that there are save points within them, which is perfectly understandable since some of them run for up to a half hour or more. Aside from the cinemas, Xenosaga Episode I’s graphics range from very impressive for a Playstation 2 title to very unimpressive, especially for a Playstation 2 title. The character models and combat graphics are excellent. The space station and space ship environments are also very impressive. The planetary environments, sadly, are pretty ugly and look like something found in a Playstation 1 or N64 title. It’s obvious that planetary stuff isn’t the games main focus, and fortunately there are only a few of these types of environments in the game. Sadly, they are an eye sore and do detract from the overall experience when you are playing through them.
Xenosaga’s musical score was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and sounds great. Unfortunately, music is only present during the cut scene and cinema events and not when you are actually playing the game. That’s right. There is zero background music in Xenosaga Episode I’s environments. Instead the mood, tone, and feel for the environments is created by their graphics, sound effects and background music alone. This isn’t a bad thing the first time you are playing through the games locals, but does hurt the overall presentation and feel when you are going back to grind levels and collect things you missed later on. It should also be noted here that Xenosaga Episode I’s voice acting cast is excellent. They did a superior job, and if you are familiar with dubbed Anime, you will find that practically every great, and major, dub voice actor is lending his, or her, talents here. Even the narrator from “Outlaw Star” has a role in Xenosaga, and he is excellent in it.
It goes without saying that Xenosaga Episode I’s strength’s are also its weaknesses. Simply the fact that it is so focused on story and narrative isn’t going to make it for everyone. Make no mistake about it, after spending an hour or so with this game you will know that you either love it or hate it. Yet, all in all, Xenosaga Episode I is a real treat for anyone remotely interested in a game with a great story. The plot and events it unfolds are both interesting and thought provoking. It will make you think, keep you thinking, and make you laugh and cry. The overall production quality and value is superb, and it’s for these reasons Xenosaga Episode I falls into the category of “must play.” If you are a gamer with a love for games with a good narrative, you owe it to yourself to play Xenosaga, or check it out for a weekend rental at the very least.