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Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht (PlayStation 2) artwork

Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht (PlayStation 2) review

"Remember all those excellent PSone and SNES RPGs we were blessed with? When I think of my PS2 I wonder where the hell all the good RPGs are. Sure, we’ve had some solid games like Suikoden III and Final Fantasy X, but the PS2 has nowhere near the same amount of great titles as those two systems. Namco is trying to give disgruntled fans like myself what we want with their massive 5-game Xenosaga series. Rumors say that this sci-fi epic will span two to three different cons..."

Remember all those excellent PSone and SNES RPGs we were blessed with? When I think of my PS2 I wonder where the hell all the good RPGs are. Sure, we’ve had some solid games like Suikoden III and Final Fantasy X, but the PS2 has nowhere near the same amount of great titles as those two systems. Namco is trying to give disgruntled fans like myself what we want with their massive 5-game Xenosaga series. Rumors say that this sci-fi epic will span two to three different consoles and contain hundreds of hours of RPG goodness. The first installment is here and all I have to say is that “epic” doesn’t always mean “fun.”

If the name Xenosaga sounds familiar then you’ve probably heard of Xenogears made by Squaresoft. Namco decided to make an “unofficial” prequel to the game with many of the same developers that worked on the Squaresoft game. It doesn’t exactly sound legal, but there are only a couple very subtle connections between the games, aside from their titles. A lot of fans might be bothered at the lack of connections, but I think most fans are just happy there’s something closely resembling a prequel to Xenogears.

Here’s a quick warning to gamers who hate cutscenes: Steer clear of Xenosaga. The cutscenes are plentiful and lengthy- so lengthy that there are save points in-between cutscenes. That has to be some sort of record. You can skip the cutscenes whenever you want, so that’s one feather in Namco’s hat. Most people will have no problem with this although others may be less forgiving. With that warning out of the way, how’s the plot?

In the world of Xenosaga there are monsters called Gnosis constantly attacking humans. Barely anything is known about these deadly creatures except they can absorb other life forms. To combat this threat, humanoids called Realians are used to combat the Gnosis. The Realians look and act just like humans, except they are usually destined to sacrifice their lives to save “real” people. Many real humans hold these robots contempt due to an incident where Realians violently took over a planet. Sci-fi fans have seen countless movies dealing with the subject matter of humans and robots living in harmony, but this theme is handled well in Xenosaga…it’s just a lot of the other plot elements aren’t.

The star of the game is Shion, a cute scientist working on a research spaceship. She is the head of a team working on all-powerful Realian named KOS-MOS. The game kicks off interestingly enough with an intense Gnosis invasion, but things devolve from there. We’re introduced to new characters seemingly every five minutes and only a couple of them have any emotional resonance. KOS-MOS is probably the most interesting and she’s not even human! The plot eventually spins out of control with laughable Christological undertones at every turn. One character is apparently crucified on a cross, and then later in the game she quotes the bible. I burst out laughing at other inane biblical references, such as discussion of a promised land called Lost Jerusalem and twelve important items being named after the twelve disciples. It’s not that these biblical allusions are offensive or anything; it’s just that they are so random and poorly done.

Another downer is the clichés. There are countless boring flashbacks that slow down the pace and do little to flesh out the characters. Worst of all is the token white-haired villain who wants to destroy everything and laugh manically while doing so. *Yawn* To be fair there are some satisfying moments, such as the amazingly satisfying ending. I can almost overlook all the shortfalls of the rest of the plot with such a fine finale. Almost.

The battles aren’t really innovative, but for the most part the battles are are enjoyable enough. They’re turn-based with a combo system resembling the ones found Xenogears or Chrono Cross. The battles can sometimes get a tad drawn out, so shorter battles would have been nice. To make up for that is the always welcome ability to avoid enemies instead of battling them. This should be mandatory by law when other companies are designing an RPG. Not including visible enemies will be punishable by death! Or perhaps a low review score would teach them a lesson as well.

To spice up the battles a little are robots known as A.W.G.S. Certain characters can pilot these things mid-battle to help give you an edge over the enemies. They’re slow although they definitely pack a wallop with their attacks. The use of robots is nowhere near as prevalent as it was in Xenogears, but the layer of depth they provide is nice, even though it’s a fairly thin layer.

One of the strongest aspects in Xenosaga is the character customization. Each character has a skill tree for spells that allows you to pick what route you want to take when it comes to special moves. You also have the ability to increase specific stats to your own liking. Customization this deep is rarely seen in any games other than American PC RPGs, let alone a Japanese console RPG. It’s a great addition to this game and I hope more console games feature such customization in the future.

Unfortunately, the customization and tolerable battles weren’t enough to negate the extreme boredom I often experienced. There are a couple of intolerable moments that involve nothing but aimless wandering to find someone. The dullness isn’t limited to finding people though. More than half of the dungeons bored me to tears because of their time-consuming nature. I became so happy when I finished one lengthy dungeon, but then after a bunch of cutscenes I’d be back in another one. Some of the dungeons were of perfect length, although the long ones definitely outnumbered them.

When one of the mind numbing dungeons has you depressed, the plethora of minigames might temporarily take your mind off the boredom. There’s a deep card game, a cool action shooter that can be played with a friend and a few other simpler games. It’s fun to just relax and play these games for a while to break up the recurring monotony.

While the gameplay may be boring at times, the graphics definitely are not. It’s obvious Namco used high-production value in this game due to the grand environments and beautifully animated characters. Many of the game’s locales are simply enormous, and that certainly adds to the “epic” feel. Epic can also be used to describe some of the cutscenes, featuring impressive space battles and other special effects. The direction of the cutscenes is handled incredibly well as they are almost always interesting to look at, even if you find the plot to be a bore.

The back of the Xenosaga case boasts “music by the London Philharmonic Orchestra,” so a quality score can be expected. The only problem with the music is that it’s used sparingly and there aren’t a whole lot of tracks to begin with. There are quite a few moments that are awkward because of the lack of music, and some moments are ruined because there’s one particular tune that used over and over again. The battle theme is also played constantly, even during boss battles! There is an abundance of mostly quality voice acting to help pick up the slack. The voice actors are almost all established professionals in the field, although a couple dramatic scenes were hampered by lifeless line delivery. It’s just a shame that Namco advertises the music and there really isn’t enough of it to satisfy.

The back of the box advertised “over 80 hours of game play,” though by the time I completed Xenosaga I had forty hours clocked into it and I even completed nearly all the sidequests. I felt great when the game was finally over, though I began to look forward to the 2nd installment mainly because the ending set up the sequel so well. Despite all the faults and the constant battles with boredom, it’d be a good idea to give this a five day rental if you’re in dire need of an RPG. Otherwise you’d be much better off buying some groovy PSone or SNES RPGs. Those were always the best…

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Community review by djskittles (February 01, 2004)

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