"Every now and then a title comes along that changes the way we think about video games – something so startlingly different, so revolutionary, so innovative that it redefines a genre or invents one entirely. Mario was one such; Final Fantasy was another. Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, the list goes on. Someday the Xenosaga series, too, might be added to it, but it’s not quite there yet. "
Every now and then a title comes along that changes the way we think about video games – something so startlingly different, so revolutionary, so innovative that it redefines a genre or invents one entirely. Mario was one such; Final Fantasy was another. Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, the list goes on. Someday the Xenosaga series, too, might be added to it, but it’s not quite there yet.
It’s certainly unique in the world of RPGs, however: with a deep, engaging, multi-tiered plot that will someday span an epic six-game series, it’s more than deserving of being called a saga. And as you might infer, it’s far more plot-heavy than most games out there. Xenosaga is not for the casual or action-oriented gamer, with a nearly overwhelming multitude of distinct story elements that require separate attention and recollection.
Xenosaga’s serial nature may one day be its biggest strength, but at the moment it’s its biggest flaw. One important (but expected) area the game falls drastically short is in its storyline’s completeness, which is nonexistent. It exists solely to set up the later games, and it’s very, very evident. “Episode I” is an all too appropriate moniker. Nowhere does the game offer closure of any sort; nowhere are the numerous questions it raises answered. Even the pace is set more to the series as a whole than Xenosaga on its own, with the entire first half of the game almost feeling like one huge sidequest. Despite all this, what it does it does very well, though not in the same way as Xenogears.
Namco has actually done a pretty good job of maintaining many of the themes that made Xenogears what it was. It’s not really that surprising, though; despite the fact that the two games were made by different companies, many of the same developers were involved with both projects. In Xenosaga, however, the inquiries into the nature of humanity are subtler, with the distinction between human and machine being blurred brilliantly. The references to Christian mythology and that of other religions are still present, and there are a few direct parallels, such as the A.G.W.S. (humanoid fighting robots that are essentially Gears), the presence of the Zohar, and not much else. It is not a retelling of Perfect Works, the book that outlined the original extensive background plot of Xenogears universe.
Taking place several thousand years before the first game, nearly three millennia after our own era, the setting has undergone a massive shift to hardcore deep-space science fiction. Die-hard sci-fi fans will rejoice at the amount of thought put into the incredibly rich milieu, from the history to the various factions to the technology, most notably the various humanoid artificial life forms. Despite the fact that you don’t visit more than a few areas during the course of the game, the extensive background gives the impression of a deep and believable world.
That impression aptly describes most aspects of Xenosaga, especially the cast members. Most of the characters have detailed pasts largely devoid of clichés, all interesting, relevant, and clearly distinct from one another. Even though some of them were largely left untouched, none are really neglected; all have that same impression of a story waiting to be told – if not in this game, maybe the next. Xenosaga does an excellent job with backstories, much better than most RPGs. Despite this, though, the characters’ personalities tend to be little on the flat side, usually being either slightly too gimmicky or flat-out irritating. Your protagonist in particular is guilty of the latter, although it’s refreshing to see a female lead.
Meet ditzy, absent-minded Shion Uzuki, chief engineer of the KOS-MOS Project, Vector Industries First R&D Division. She and her development team aboard the Federation fleet starship Woglinde are putting the finishing touches on a battle android, called KOS-MOS (derived from the Greek word “kosmos,” which means “order”), designed to combat the Gnosis (another Greek word, literally “knowledge”), dimension-traversing aliens at war with humanity. Meanwhile, the Woglinde is carrying out its highest-priority mission of recovering the Zohar in the area, a large golden object whose significance is a closely-guarded secret of the Federation government. You see, the Zohar has mysterious powers that, along with much else in the game, are never quite explained.
What plot Xenosaga does offer, though, is executed wonderfully via the game’s whopping eight hours of cutscenes – fully a fourth of the total length. It feels like much more, though, and this is definitely a good thing. Far from being excessive, they’re vital to the complex storyline, which is fascinating and engaging despite its multitude of loose ends; it simply could not have been conveyed as effectively through any other means.
Much loving care has been placed into the cutscenes, and indeed Xenosaga’s presentation everywhere in the game, and it shows. The characters are charmingly drawn in a bright, vivacious pseudo-anime style, complete with the characteristic large, luminous eyes. The same character models are used everywhere in the game, too, which makes everything very neat and consistent. In contrast with the beautifully detailed characters are the backgrounds, which generally follow the science fiction norm of being sleekly utilitarian, as most of the game takes place indoors.
Overall, Xenosaga is a very graphically impressive game, with only a few minor niggles worth mentioning. The total lack of CGIs is notable but usually not an issue, since the universal character models – used also during actual gameplay and in battles – in the cutscenes offer quite enough eye candy. The only time the in-game character models become a problem is when someone is, say, crying, because no tears will be visible; one instead must rely on other characters’ observations. These instances are few and far between, however. Much more noticeable is the lip synching being visibly off in places, but this is perfectly forgivable since it’s been sacrificed to ensure the caliber of the voice acting; unlike what frequently happens with dubbed anime, the voice actors don’t compromise the quality by forcing themselves to always or only be speaking when the lips are moving, so everything comes off naturally and very well-done.
The rest of the sound is similarly impressive. This game carries on the Xeno legacy of superb music, though not in quite the same way as its predecessor. Composed by the renowned Yasunori Mitsuda, whose work is also seen in games such as Xenogears and Chrono Cross, and performed flawlessly by the big-name London Symphony Orchestra, at times it more than lives up to the ambitious expectations created by the caliber of the first game’s soundtrack. Many of the pieces played during cutscenes are simply sublime, easily living up to the greatness of Mitsuda’s other work. Some tracks are fairly simple, some complex, but it’s all brilliantly written and brilliantly used, perfectly suited to the mood of every scene.
During actual gameplay, however, there’s rarely any music playing at all – merely ambient, convincing sound effects, such as your footsteps (which change timbre with the terrain), and explosions from your Vaporizer Plug-in tool (which does not change timbre with the medium; it all sounds like glass, albeit credible glass). On the rare occasions when music is present during dungeon exploration or some such, it’s completely dependent on a feeling of atmosphere, lending itself primarily to unremarkable and at times even repetitive melodies.
Everything outside the cutscenes is average, really, though with a handful of unusual, if not groundbreaking, features that add a little spice to an otherwise fairly mediocre experience. For example, the Vaporizer Plug-in, which resembles a ray gun and has much the same effect as one, allows you to blow away debris and other obstacles, revealing hidden items or new paths. While an interesting concept, it was botched by the automatic targeting that locks on whenever you come within range of a destroyable object, which almost defeats the point of having it in the first place.
A much more useful feature, and the only reason random battles are endurable, is the on-screen enemies à la Chrono Cross or Lunar. The majority can be avoided by sneaking around them, though there sometimes isn’t enough room in the corridor to do so. If you catch their attention, they chase you until you leave their set area of movement. This is frequently annoying, as they run considerably faster than you do, so you’ll get caught more often than not. Your escapes are, however, limited by the number of Escape Packs in your inventory, but this isn’t as bad as it sounds; the system is a blessing in disguise, as reliable fleeing forestalls frustration failed escape attempts invariably create.
Another one of the little perks is the tech attack system, which, while flawed, is the highlight of Xenosaga’s combat. Most of the damage you deal comes from techs, which are vicious attacks that can be executed after normal ones, accompanied by a voice clip and an impressive, and usually lengthy animation. Tech points, gained from battles along with experience points, can be used to upgrade techs’ speed, which determines whether you’re able to use them every turn or every other turn, as well as their strength. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve powered up a move, you get a new, better one and have to start over.
Techs are utterly indispensable in battle, and although the animations are very pretty, they usually can’t be skipped. This, coupled with the fact that the enemies have too much HP for their own good, drags the battle system out into a ponderous quagmire of an affair. In that it’s reminiscent of Final Fantasy X; another similarity is the window that shows the characters’ and opponents’ turn sequences. Naturally, it also resembles Xenogears, with the A.G.W.S. mech battling, and the action points system, which has undergone some changes. Characters start their turns with 4AP, although some actions require more or fewer, with unused points rolling over to the next turn.
Despite Xenosaga’s flaws, none are jarring enough to make it anything less than a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The series has the potential to someday make something truly great of itself, with a grand, sweeping plot that could easily find itself unparalleled in the world of RPGs and even novels. Those who take joy in elegantly crafted, beautifully executed storylines will find Xenosaga a worthy investment, but at this point, that’s really all it is. While certainly not for everyone, those willing to make that investment on the hope of similarly impressive sequels will find the money spent worthwhile.
Community review by viridian_moon (June 08, 2005)
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