Xenosaga Episode 1: Der Wille zur Macht
Game Info
Platform(s)
Playstation 2
Publisher
Namco
Developer
Monolith Soft
Genre
RPG
Official Website
ESRB Rating
Blood and Gore, Violence
 
Grade
The Good

• Immense story
• Fine battle system
• Lots of customization
• Xenocard and A.G.W.S. Battle are great diversions

The Bad

• Story may be too much for casual gamers
• Longer in-game loading than normal
• Inconsistent use of music

 
Grade
A-

Xenosaga is the spiritual prequel to Squaresoft's Xenogears - a hefty, epic RPG whose story was so deep and convoluted that it wore out even the hardiest of RPGers. Now with Namco, the development team has taken this "reimagined" universe and created a game similar in style and concept, while telling a new narrative which will lay the groundwork for forthcoming sequels.

Xenosaga's story is vast - on scale with watching an intensely deep anime series packed into the length of one videogame. Story sequences play out in lengthy cutscenes. Luckily, both the story and characters are interesting and you may find yourself drawn in and forgetting how long the story portions of the game are. Set a couple thousand years in the future, the story starts with a scientist, Shion, working on KOS-MOS, a devastating android built to fight the Gnosis (a terrorizing alien race in conflict with humanity). Before the creation of KOS-MOS, humanity was left with A.G.W.S. (Anti-Gnosis Weapons System, another name for mechanized battle robots or Gears) and Realians (artificially created humans developed for war) to defend themselves against the horrific brood. After the ship Shion and KOS-MOS are stationed on picks up the Zohar, a mysterious 2001-esque monolith, they're attacked by the Gnosis, forcing the crew to abandon the ship. From that point, they become entrenched in a story that grows deeper and more intriguing the further you get into it. Without spoiling too much, expect a lot of time being spent in exposition of the universe and political wrangling in the world of Xenosaga. You may end up needing a scorecard just to keep track of who is who and what their motives are.

When the story subsides, players are given free roam of their locales, where they can talk to other characters and interact with the environment to some degree. Once you acquire the Vaporizer, you can actually blast certain parts of each location for items and even hidden passages. And for those tired of random encounters, Xenosaga is a treat as all enemies are on-screen, which allows you to pick fights at your own choosing. There are often items in each area that act as traps when shot, so if you can get an enemy caught in one of these traps before combat, you'll be able to inflict status effects on them, giving you the needed edge.

Once battle does start, players will be treated to an AP-based system not unlike Xenogears. Each character starts with 4 AP (Action Points), which can be used in two-button combo attacks, using the Square and Triangle button. You can store up AP to a maximum of 6, which can be used to execute Subweapon attacks or a three-button combo that ends in some very flashy and powerful Tech attacks. Once you start gaining more Tech attacks, through the expenditure of Tech Points, you can customize each character's attack listing more to your tastes. By pressing the X button, you gain access to Items, Ether (magic spells), A.G.W.S. (where you take a turn to get into your mech), Defend or the ability to move on the field. Since your side is broken up into two rows of three (not counting where the A.G.W.S. come into play), you can place your team on the front or back rows and even behind each other (Ziggy has an Ether that gives him a bonus when in front of MOMO).

The use of the A.G.W.S. in combat is essential in a number of battles as your regular characters can be overpowered by some of the stronger opponents. Unlike in Xenogears, your mech's attacks aren't based on how your characters develop throughout the game. You can buy new weapons and swap out your armaments (much like Armored Core). Attacking with an A.G.W.S. is similar in that you still have AP to use attacks and can perform stronger combos with 6 AP. With the right equipment attached, you can perform W-Act attacks, like firing two guns at the same time.

Another aspect of the combat is Boosting, where the player can move their character's turn up in the rotation. To do so, they must build their boost gauge with attacks. Once the gauge fills to at least level one, you can press either the R1 or R2 buttons and select a character to move up their turn. While in short battles, this may not be useful, in the lengthier fights, it can allow you to jump ahead of enemies to polish them off before they get to attack. And, to throw in another curve into combat is the Event Slot, which randomly throws in effects, like an increase in the Critical Hit rate, Boost Gauge rate, or a bonus of any number of points (Skill, Tech, etc.) after the battle is over.

When it's all said and done, players gain experience, Tech Points, Ether Points, Skill Points, money and often an item or two. Through the use of Ether Points, Ether spells can be evolved into new spells and some can even be traded with other players, allowing a good bit of customization. Throw in a skill system that allows you to extract skills from accessories and equip on your characters.

While roaming around, you have access to what amounts to an all-purpose PDA that links up to an internet-like U.M.N. (Unus Mundus Network). This features allows access to a database of information and an email account, which comes into play as you can make investments to gain new items and equipment. Along with this, when you locate certain save points, you can access the U.M.N. to play some minigames that really help in taking a break from the main game. While the gambling and drilling minigames are all right, both the A.G.W.S. Battle and Xenocard games are quite exceptional. A.G.W.S. Battle plays a lot like tournament-style Armored Core, while Xenocard is a fully fleshed out CCG, with a set of detailed rules which rewards you for building strong, customized decks. Fans of Magic: The Gathering should enjoy the card game.

Visually, Xenosaga delivers an impressive package, even if it is a little dated. Considering that the Japanese version of the game came out in early 2002, the game does suffer from some low-res textures and some aliasing issues that newer titles seem to have resolved. Outside of that, though, the game looks great. Everything from locations to characters to monsters are designed well and use a fine palette of colors to shape the world around them. Even in the stark, mechanical halls of the Woglinde's interior there are splashes of color to keep a more organic feeling to a game heavy in machine-oriented interiors. During battle, you'll be treated to a lot of flashy colors and bright effects to accent the use of everything from the simplest attack to the most extreme Tech and Ether spells. Probably the best portion of the graphics are how they manage to give the cutscenes a lot of life. The characters show a lot of facial expressions and carry themselves in different manners in such a convincing way that you'll feel a certain life has been given to them. Considering the volume of story given to the player, this goes a long way towards making the game more enjoyable. While the lip synch may not be dead-on, the facial expressions do look and feel correct.

Musically, Xenosaga provides an excellent, sweeping soundtrack, most notably performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This, along with some of the more electronic themes really lends a good bit of weight to the story and mood. The only drawback to the music is how it's utilized - during cutscenes and dramatic incidents, you'll hear it in full swing, but during times where you're allowed to freely roam, there's no music at all, making the player feel like the free roaming portions aren't exactly finished.

Voice acting, which is always a contentious aspect in games like this, is handled well, especially considering the volume of lines being delivered. While not all of the cast delivers, most of the major players are done well enough not to distract from the massive story. I actually found a number of the characters more interesting because of the delivery of the voice acting. In all, Xenosaga provides a vocal performance akin to some of the better anime available to date.

Outside of the some previously noted comments, Xenosaga does have a few things I wish they had addressed. The game does have noticeable loading between areas and from cutscenes to gameplay. While not excessive, they become obvious if you've played other PS2 RPGs like Breath of Fire V or Final Fantasy X previously. Also, since the game is built in a polygonal world, I found it disappointing that you can't rotate the in-game camera like you could in Xenogears. You can live with the views of each location the game gives you, but there were times I wish I could have had a more customized look.

Probably the one thing that most gamers may find hard to swallow is the hearty story. Yes, the game has lengthy cutscenes, some running anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes, but if you find yourself needing to get a bite to eat or feel the need to visit the bathroom, you can pause the story. For those who just want to play the game, you can even skip the cutscenes altogether, which makes a second trip through Xenosaga far less daunting than it was in Xenogears. If you find yourself thinking that you'd rather play a game than watch it, this will probably be your biggest drawback.

If the point wasn't clear by now - Xenosaga is a story-heavy game that some casual gamers who dislike lengthy narrative in their games may want to pass on. But, those who enjoy a good story, which is accented by both a solid gameplay engine and a nice array of minigames, should definitely give Xenosaga a try. The depth of scope and execution is impressive and leads me to want for more.

- - Kinderfeld

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