Xenosaga PS2 Review
Roy Rossi / Aug 1st, 2003 No Comments
I recently reached the final frontier of geekdom when a friend got me hooked on anime. Unlike many American series/movies – animated or not – anime rarely skimps on expositing far-reaching plots and detailing the lives of deep often flawed characters. This usually results in some captivating stories that work something like a soap opera except with huge-eyed characters, mech robots, weird animals with supernatural powers, and/or oversized swords.
Like a good anime series, Xenosaga – Episode 1, the first of a planned six-part RPG opus from Monolith Software – spins a complicated sci-fi story stocked with complex characters, some of whom pilot mechs. In between some long, wonderfully rendered cut scenes, players take control for some console RPG style exploration and battles. While Xenosaga has everything RPG fans crave, others drawn in by the stunning cut scenes may find less than they expect from a game.
Story / Originality
Appropriate that Xenosaga begins with the discovery of an artifact that resembles the monolith from the movie 2001. Like the monolith, Xenosaga’s plot presents some pretty heady concepts that’ll give gamers a big hunk of chaw for their brains. As an example, the game’s subtitle, “Der Wille zur Macht,” is a reference to philosopher/dead superman Neitzsche. But that’s just the beginning. The Xenosaga story makes references to, among other things: the Bible, Kabbalah, Jungian psychology, and quantum physics. As many acronyms and sci-fi concepts as were in Metal Gear Solid 2 also fly around. A game index explains all of it pretty well, but fortunately understanding everything is not necessary.
Even if players can’t wrap their minds around the philosophical subtext, they’ll be able to understand the main plot, which involves Shion Uzuki, the head designer of a weapon that can combat a deadly new danger to humanity known as Gnosis. This weapon is a blue-haired android named KOS-MOS, who’s possessed with some nice curves and nicer weapons. The consummate cold but friendly killer robot, KOS-MOS steals the show, oozing coolness as she calculates probabilities involved in taking the fight to the Gnosis. Additional characters, each with their own subplots, get introduced later, usually in the context of other subplots such as the rights of manufactured humans, the aftermath of cybernetics, secret maneuverings of political officials, and the conflicting actions of two rogue organizations. There’s a lot going on in Xenosaga.
The story’s highly intellectual bent is unlike anything I’ve seen in a video game, such that even though it comes together pretty well by the end (well, for Episode 1 of an anime sci-fi story), it’ll leave plenty of questions for those so inclined to ponder or replay while waiting, well-hooked, for Episode 2. That’s good anime, people. The Monolith localization team certainly deserves to take a bow for their fine work in translating a script this complex and rounding up the vocal talent to have it told so well in English.
While combat in Xenosaga is turn-based fare with a new type of control scheme involving combos, its big welcome innovation for the genre is non-random combat during “dungeon” exploration.
The story plays out in fully-voiced cut scenes. When these are over, players explore dungeon environments collecting items, fighting monsters, gaining experience points, and progressing to the big boss fight. Unlike most other console RPGs, Xenosaga ditches random combats. Rather, creatures appear on the map and combat ensues when players bump into them. While not every combat can be avoided, the fact that a player can see the bad guys coming gives them the chance to properly prepare for a combat, or just run away and continue focusing on exploration. Speaking as a devoted console RPG fan, this is a godsend – in Xenosaga, I no longer had to cringe after moving the characters one step and thus being thrust into yet another repetitive 5 minute battle.
Combat has up to three of the characters lining up against their foes. While turn-based, Xenosaga has its own style, resulting in combat that’s a little more dynamic and tactical than just managing damage and hit points. The system relies on Action points, representing the number of moves a player can perform during their turn. If a character has full action points, they can execute a Tech Attack – a special move accompanied by generally awesome graphic effects. Managing these action points meshes with the RPG convention of finding the most effective attack type to create some interesting tactical situations. It is sometimes difficult to tell what quality the attack has though. For instance the cyborg character’s super-fast karate “Cyberkick” shoots fire. Maybe he has a flame thrower in his sole, but the only way to know an attack’s quality for sure is check an initially hidden sub-menu.
Magic aka Ether effects in the game work similar to other RPGs, although I found that Xenosaga battles rely less on “pumping” characters with status increases. It instead relies more on healing and pounding down the adversary. So, most of the strategy lies in managing the action points, something that is further fleshed out by an event slot and a character’s Boost meter. The event slot causes certain effects to occur in battle, such as an increased chance of critical attacks. Inflicting damage increases a character’s Boost meter which, when full, allows the character to take an additional turn. Carefully timing one’s moves to fall into the best event slot or fill the character’s boost create an interesting mix of the tactics to the otherwise familiar turn-based slugfest.
Certain characters can also bring their mechs, known as AGWS., into battle. These mechs bring less to the combat since they prevent the pilot from using Ether, but they are something else that players can develop. Along with the AGWS, Xenosaga’s character development involves three different categories: new tech attacks, new ether spells, and new skills. Characters earn points for each category after combat, and can spend quite a lot of time customizing the characters.
Once players reach the end of the well-designed dungeon levels, they’re rewarded with another cut scene. Whether that’s considered a reward or not depends on the player. Given my recent conversion to anime, I liked the story a lot, particularly in the beginning when it was genuinely suspenseful. Later, it started to get more complex than it needed (that’s anime, people), but the depth of the story kept my hooked. Even hooked, I still noticed that some cut scenes lasted for 20 minutes straight! That’s a lot of watching for a game. Monolith thoughtfully allows players to pause or skip the cut scenes (useful for phone or bladder calls), but skipping them really misses the point and results in far less game time.
Filling out the game play are four mini-games including a fully realized Xenosaga collectible card game playable entirely in the game. Players purchase card packs in game, construct decks, and play cards against the computer or vs. a friend. This alone is the best mini-game I’ve encountered in an RPG, and I admit spending a lot of time playing it and leaving the story on hold. The three other games include a complex arcade-type mech battle and gambling ala slot machines video poker.
Monolith Software is comprised of several ex-Square employees, and they helped craft Xenosaga into a graphic achievement that makes me wonder, given the length and quality of the fully-rendered cut scenes, whether it belongs on my shelf of DVDs with the Miyazaki flicks and that other Studio Ghibli movie. The graphics balance flash with substance. For flash, the game explodes its share of spectacular graphic effects in both battles and cut scenes, while the less flashy parts of the game include diverse dungeons, and little side details such as a pretty funny cap worn by the cargo ship’s commander. Xenosaga is not as colorful as Final Fantasy X, but that’s more the result of the setting than the quality. Characters are all fluidly animated in and out of combat.
Wonderful voice acting, heard throughout every cut scene, carries the whole story in Xenosaga. The acting lends a big portion of credibility to the situations and themes played out in the story. Music is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and though the combat music is the same every time, it’s all done well enough to keep from being stale.
While the case states that Xenosaga will last for 80 hours, that depends entirely on whether a player is patient with the cut scenes and takes time to play the mini-games. The game itself takes about half that time. The lack of random combat help the game feel less artificially extended, but those used to playing through 100 hours to reach that final boss battle may feel a little let down when Xenosaga ends without explaining everything. It is, after all, only Episode 1.
One lapse in longevity is the inability to rewatch cut scenes, play music, or even revisit the mini-games after completing the main game. A player must load an earlier save to access the goodies – a pretty big oversight. But because of the complex nature of the story, Xenosaga is one of the first console RPGs I feel compelled to replay, just to see if I can catch more of its nuances. If nuance, particularly anime nuance, is your thing, then Xenosaga is a great purchase.
The Final Word: A Steady Grip!
Buy: Hardcore console RPG fans; anime fans; Final Fantasy fans
Rent: Casual RPG fans; killer female robot fans