"What we have here is a rare case; the only game I know capable of standing on a character and a setting. If the universe wasn’t so detailed and complete, if it wasn’t designed with such obvious care and forethought, if its plot wasn’t more gripping than many books or movies, and if KOS-MOS didn’t kick such ungodly amounts of ass, Xenosaga Episode I: Dur Wille Zer Macht would suck. Beyond those elements, there’s little to like."
Hot anime chicks are a staple in the RPG genre; it’s a given that every quest to save the world will include a scantily dressed, well endowed, fetish themed, supermodel stand-in at some point. The Tifas, the Millennias, the Lulus.
KOS-MOS is by no means ugly, but she’s by no means human, either, and she’s nothing like the above examples: She’s an android of extreme power, a beautiful weapon created to combat the Gnosis threat which plagues mankind.
In the future, in Xenosaga, mankind has reached far into the stars. We’ve mastered space travel, allowing huge ships, fleets, to travel light-years with relative ease. We’ve perfected weaponry, piloting powerful humanoid mecha, AGWS (Anti Gnosis Weapon Systems), summoning them to the battlefield with a mere word. We’ve even learned to tame life with the creation of Realians, a race of servile beings whose relation to humans borders between the academic and the spiritual.
But it’s not a perfect universe. The Gnosis appear out of nowhere from space, seemingly at random. Their variety is wide; some nearing the size of humans, some nearing the size of planets. Their purpose is mysterious; they never attempt to communicate, show no signs of feeling or fellowship, have no relent in their goals. Existing outside our dimension makes them immune to all physical attacks; we cannot touch them in normal circumstances. But they can touch us, and one touch is all it takes to kill. Usually.
That is why KOS-MOS, the ‘Special Humanoid Anti-Gnosis Annihilation Weapon’, was created. Her Hilbert Effect aligns the Gnosis into our reality, evens the field. And then, once touchable, she proceeds to shoot, burn, maim, slice, and generally annihilate them in every way that her functions allow.
KOS-MOS has a feel to her, a presence that few characters in few games can come close to. There’s grace when she fights, a furious angel with flowing moves. But there’s precision, too; every move she makes has a point, adds to the whole. She’s a logical being, rational as you would expect, but there’s also a vague humanity. When she does the things she does, you know there’s more to her than numbers and logarithms, you know she’s more than hardware.
Haunting, mystifying, magnificent.
It would be more accurate to call the whiny Shion Uzuki, KOS-MOS’s creator, the main protagonist of Xenosaga Episode I; you spend more time with her than anyone else, the game’s focus stays around her and her life and her sometimes ditzy actions more than the others. It’s even hard to say that KOS-MOS is ranks second focus-wise; many other characters have more screen time and more development. Jr., the wily, gun-toting, ten-year-old space-pimp with some seriously messed up memories. Ziggurat 8, a man who died, lived again as a cyborg, and strives to erase every trace of his previous existence down to the last shred of DNA. Even MOMO, the pink-haired, wand wielding Realian who’s way too damn sweet for her own good, boasts more attention.
But KOS-MOS is the game’s true star. The moment you start to grow tired of the hour-long cutscenes, the plot’s complexities get a little too complex for your tastes, when you swear that the next enigmatic and unexplained twist is the one that drives you insane…that’s the moment right before KOS-MOS strolls in and blows you away. The music blares, changes from a chaotic mess to a controlled crescendo, she appears, and, no matter how bleak the situation, she makes it right. I will not spoil. I will not tell. But, before the credits roll, she’ll make your eyes widen and your mouth gape at least five times. Guaranteed.
What we have here is a rare case; the only game I know capable of standing on a character and a setting. If the universe wasn’t so detailed and complete, if it wasn’t designed with such obvious care and forethought, if its plot wasn’t more gripping than many books or movies, and if KOS-MOS didn’t kick such ungodly amounts of ass, Xenosaga Episode I: Dur Wille Zer Macht would suck. Beyond those elements, there’s little to like.
It’s best to look at Episode I as two parts: The story and the gameplay. While the story and everything related to it are the utter echelon of awesome, it’s hard to fathom the gameplay being any more inane. The dungeons are all tired, drab crawls, linear. Running through a forest. Running through a ship. Running through the spacious innards of a colossal Gnosis. Dungeon crawling is rarely more than getting from Point A to Point, and the odd times that scenery manages to impress, you spend so long and see it so much that it sickens you halfway through. You just want to get out, you just want beat the boss, you just want to advance the story and see what happens next.
But there are obstacles. The puzzles are rarely a problem, most of them just consist of pressing this button, then pressing that button, and then going down that path and up that other path and switching that switch and hoping you did it all in the right order. Not very creative, but it doesn’t slow the dungeons down. That’s the battle system’s job.
If you’ve played Xenogears then you have an idea of what to expect from Episode I’s system. If you haven’t (lucky you-extremely inferior and overrated game, Xenogears is) then the breakdown is simply this: Certain buttons on the control pad correspond to certain actions; two or three give you access to attacks, one lets you pick items and other auxiliary options. You can work some combinations, access some different attacks, bide your strength for a few turns and unleash some heavy damage. The system itself is okay; nothing special, nothing dull. Passable.
The trouble comes when you take the actual battles in account, the enemies. Some of them heal constantly. Some of them attack in unrelenting patterns, killing characters from full health before you can hope to protect. Some of them are just damn hard to kill. They’ll all get repetitive, however, because Xenosaga’s dungeons require heavy backtracking. There’s much returning to past areas, much going to check out things you didn’t bother to check out before. There are no random battles and you encounter the enemies on-screen, but you rarely have enough space to avoid them and they’ll always come back once you leave the room. The enemies you face going in are the same ones you face going out. Again. And again. And again.
After a while, you tire of generic soldiers dying in an eruption of blood. Believe me.
The AGWS almost redeems the fights; giant robots are automatically kickass, and Episode I has some fine designs. But they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Going into an AGWS makes you slower, so fewer turns. They don’t take damage nearly as well as you’d think they would. You have to buy upgrades and weapons and armors to make them not suck, so you’ve got to raise lots of money and spend lots of time before they become even remotely useful. Even then, they have few attacks and never do anything spectacular. You never get to see any hot mech-on-mech action in the cutscenes, and you never do more than basic shooting and slashing in the battles. Save for some special occasions, there’s little reason to call them for anything.
Battles are just…boring, and it doesn’t help that the down-time is even more so. There are only a few cities in Episode I, a handful of places for you to walk around and not have to worry about getting ambushed. They’re all rather small, too, restricting you to a handful of areas. This wouldn’t be so bad in other RPGs, but here it’s a sin, because Xenosaga has this great, grand, detailed RPG universe, and you can barely interact with it at all. You’ll always hear the characters talking about these big cities and these amazing technologies and this rich world they live in, but the game never takes you to any of those places; the best you can hope for is a glimpse during a cutscene. The game taunts you, deliberately makes you thirst to see more, gives you a piece of the picture and saves the rest for future installments.
And that leads to Episode I’s biggest problem: It’s only Episode I. This is the first in a series, and there’s no effort to hide that. The game has its own rises and plots and climaxes, but you can tell that it’s a big piece of a much bigger puzzle. Many, many questions are asked, but precious few are answered.
Does that mean you can’t enjoy it? No, it’s still a great experience. Xenosaga’s cutscenes and story take up most of the game, which makes it a mostly enjoyable romp. You’ll dig the story, you’ll tolerate the battle system, and you’ll want to play again…after a year or so, anyway. Just be aware that when you start Xenosaga, you’re walking down a road that’s not yet complete.
But it will be, someday. And damn, does it look promising.
Staff review by Zack Little (March 16, 2006)
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