Xenosaga: Episode I
There is a mother load of role-playing games available for the Playstation 2. But a few in particular have stood out from the crowd as leaders: Final Fantasy X, Suikoden III, Dark Cloud are all examples. Xenosaga was expected to join this group. It shouldn’t. Not by a long shot. While there is a good deal to like about this game, its flaws are clear and severely damaging.
First, you must shed your misconceptions about this title. It is not the sequel, prequel or anything in between to the story in Xenogears. Now, don’t argue. Technically, it may turn out to be in the same story as ‘Gears, but if you wanted the same characters, or the same world, or really anything the same, you’re going to be disappointed.
A whole new cast of characters is introduced in Xenosaga, beginning with Shion Uzuki, a military engineer and programmer working on a starship with her sappy, romantically-challenged but predictably smitten underling Allen. They’re working on a kick-ass new android super-weapon, naturally built in the shape of a gorgeous woman–proven by science to be the most efficient form for your robot super soldier. As if the need for hot, barely clothed android women wasn’t reason enough, humanity is desperate for this “KOS-MOS” robot to combat a mysterious interstellar enemy called the Gnosis. They’re nasty looking little buggers, with gruesome flailing appendages and so on, and Xenosaga lets you look upon them in their full glory during your party’s many battles against them.
Combat, unfortunately, is pretty dull. Your characters have two basic attack types, Physical and Ether, along with typical magic and item options. Most significant, however, are the character’s finishing moves, or Tech Attacks, which do much greater damage than regular hits. Unfortunately, battles quickly become very repetitive, with characters performing the same tech attach every turn until the enemy falls, and having to sit through a long attack animation only adds to the boredom. This happens because all your commands are linked to only two buttons, strictly limiting your range of choices. When you finally get your “Gears,” called AGWS in this game, combat operates in nearly the same way, except now you will be spending half your turns guarding to build up energy. Frustrating to say the least.
As you learn more about this enemy, the Gnosis, you also discover that really, the Gnosis are more of a third party threat. The real danger comes from a cadre of guys set out to destroy humanity for all the you’ve-seen-this-a-thousand-times-before reasons. Nevertheless some of these villainous folk do have a certain flair, particularly the wildly-laughing, crazy-eyed Albedo. To counteract Albedo and his cohorts, your party will grow as well, as Shion attracts to her side MOMO, a young girl who is an artificial human, or Realian; her depressed cyborg protector, whom she affectionately calls Ziggy; and the child-like entertainment mogul known as “Jr.” You’ll also meet a teenager with a special gift for fighting the Gnosis, whose name is chaos. He has no capital letters in his name. Whoa, cool.
Their quest to combat the Gnosis, and later defeat Albedo, becomes simply a struggle to survive. It’s a good foundation for an entertaining space opera, and with the party traveling to numerous varied locations, there is ample opportunity to expand on this. A simple save-the-world plot could have been had here, and all could have been mightily entertained. But the story stalls at this point. Our characters, instead of advancing to new places, are stuck doing tedious story tasks. Take this plate of curry to Commander Cherenkov, Shion. Well, golly gee, I guess the Gnosis can wait a couple of hours! Wouldn’t want the Commander to miss dinner! Such menial jobs pop up far too frequently.
Even after getting through your daily chores, the game remains at an idle. We have no major twists, no character growth, and worst, no real ending to the story. If you want a save-the-universe space opera, it has to end, more or less, with the heroes saving the world and riding into the sunset with their newly-found true loves. I’ll tell you now, the ending to Xenosaga is nothing of the sort. That, I believe, may be the game’s unforgivable shortcoming. This is a story which, in the space of twenty hours, goes from sluggish to stalled.
Long, interesting dungeons and some pretty cool little puzzles are what salvage the gameplay. It’s never particularly tough to figure out what you must do to get through a level, but working your way around gaps, across ladders, and through labyrinthine hallways, while trying to avoid touching an enemy and initiating combat, is quite entertaining. The possibility of stealth is worked in, as you can avoid many enemies on the world map by being sneaky, and there are no random encounters. But that common flaw in this system is present–by being stealthy, you are missing out on vital experience and skill points, leaving you in a tough spot for the unavoidable boss battles.
I guess I must address the cutscenes. There are a lot of them, and to an extent they do disrupt the game; but it is not quite as bad as one might think. During an action sequence the breaks in the flow can be distracting, and you might be itching to skip the cinema, but most of these plot development scenes are wisely inserted into the lulls in the story’s pace. I was perfectly happy to sit and watch the plot unfold–there are some very lighthearted moments, and Shion’s many skin-of-her-teeth escapes are quite exhilarating. Too often, though, Xenosaga delves into the characters hurling moral judgments at one another, especially when our heroes come into contact with the enemy leaders. For God’s sake, get down to the boss battle, already–we can all see it coming.
Finally, to pad the game’s fairly short length up to the advertised eighty hours, there are some pretty lifeless minigames. The biggest and most time-consuming is Xenocard (think Magic: the Gathering), which is perhaps the deepest and most complex minigame I have ever seen. But its connection to the real game is tenuous–you buy cards at stores, and then you go play the game. There is no backflow of prizes; you don’t get great new weapons, armor, or accessories from winning card games. The other minigames are at the FFVII Golden Saucer level, and not in a good way: basically you reprise little minigames you played earlier in the story, which were easy and boring then, and, no surprise, remain so later. Finally, there is the Casino, where you’ll get the best odds on Poker you’ve ever seen. It’s a nice way to make very easy money to afford all those AGWS weapons, but it’s far from a thrilling experience.
A great deal was expected of Xenosaga. Maybe it is really unfair to judge this game alone, with numerous further episodes yet to come. If you are willing to wait years and years for this six-part saga to be finished, then the unfulfilling ending perhaps will not faze you. But even a single episode within a larger work should have some kind of falling action and resolution. However, that’s not the biggest problem. I have a bad, bad feeling that the plot formula which made Xenogears successful has simply lost a bit of its appeal.
Seemingly random references to various world religions just don’t cut it anymore. It’s great that the twelve Zohars have the same names as Jesus’ disciples, but why are you telling me this and WHAT IS IT SUPPOSED TO MEAN? There is nothing more annoying than elements which reek so strongly of symbolism, and yet serve no symbolic purpose whatsoever. If a video game wants to be filled with this kind of imagery, it needs to support that with real content, and Xenosaga fails to do this. The moral and philosophical discussions which were so cutting-edge and enthralling in Xenogears seem trite and pointless now. It’s too bad, because all that fluff gets in the way of what could have been a pretty entertaining game.