Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht Review
During the past 5 years, since Final Fantasy VII made RPGs a worldwide obsession, we've seen countless games try to replicate the success of the legendary series from Square. Very few, if any, were of the same caliber as Final Fantasy, however. In fact, some were so frighteningly terrible they left scars on all of us. I'm still seeing a psychiatrist to cope with the trauma I suffered while playing Summoner. However, with the Final Fantasy series rapidly falling from grace in the eyes of many, an opening has been created for other developers to step up and grab a piece of the high profile action. Monolith has done just that with their latest effort, Xenosaga: Episode 1. Bolding going where no RPG has gone before, Xenosaga is both fresh and fun, taking players on an 80 hour adventure the likes of which we've never seen before. Set thousands of years in the future, where man no longer lives on Earth, humans have just discovered an artifact called the Zohar that has the potential to unlock all the secrets of existence. However, an alien race known as the Gnosis also have their eyes on the Zohar, and will stop at nothing to acquire it, sparking a fierce war between man and alien. However, this setting is just the tip of the iceberg. The meat of Xenosaga's story is largely philosophical, exploring the meaning of life and confronting the darker aspects of human nature.
Xenosaga is an incredibly good-looking game with a visual aesthetic all its own. All the characters in the game are very detailed, with plenty of smooth textures. There's a heavy anime influence in the character styles, and it's done very nicely without looking too cheesy. The backgrounds are also very sharp, with lots of nice touches, but there are some slight problems with aliasing whenever the camera is moving. However, it's nothing drastic and doesn't really hurt the overall look at all. Even more breathtaking are some of the visual effects in the game. Seeing the Gnosis blow up an entire ship in a hail of unearthly weapons has to be one of the most stunning things I have ever witnessed. What makes Xenosaga so brilliant visually, though, is the style. There's a really nice blend of various graphical elements in the game that give it an unreal look that, somehow, feels perfectly natural. The fact is that there really is no way to adequately describe the visual masterpiece that is Xenosaga. It is something you have to see for you to believe.
Matching the awe-inspiring graphics of Xenosaga is a story that is equally rich and compelling. In order to combat the threat of the Gnosis, an enemy that exists mostly in an alternate dimension and is therefore untouchable, a branch of the military called Vector R & D (for research and development) creates a powerful android known only as KOS-MOS. What makes KOS-MOS so vital to mankind is its ability to draw the Gnosis completely into their dimension. In addition, KOS-MOS is incredibly, ridiculously, and amazingly powerful, far surpassing anything ever created. However, her inability to conceive of life as having any value creates serious problems for KOS-MOS' creator, Shion. This questioning the value of life is one of the core philosophical elements of the game, and is explored on many different fronts.
Since Xenosaga is so visually impressive, it only made sense for Monolith to deliver the story via hours of cut scenes. Most of the game is watched rather than actually played, but with such an engaging story, that's actually a good thing. There is a totally different feel to Xenosaga compared to most RPGs, and you're sucked into the game not by the gameplay but by the story. I found myself almost disappointed when the cut scenes ended, forcing me to pick my controller up off the desk and actually play the game. Therefore, anyone who feels that too many cut scenes is a bad thing will most definitely have problems with Xenosaga. It is not played so much as it is experienced.
When you do finally get to play the game, you're greeted by an incredibly complex but fundamentally simple battle system. Instead of simply choosing between physical or magical attacks, each character has different moves that can be used by pressing the square and triangle buttons. Each action takes 2 Action Points (AP), and each player gets 4 AP per turn, allowing up to two attacks per turn. However, you can also choose to end a players turn after using only 2 AP, saving the extra 2 for the next turn. When this happens, you can perform special combo attacks that require 6 AP, but are much more damaging. There are also a lot of unique features in the system, such as being able to 'boost' characters, allowing them to take basically cut in front of other characters and take a turn before they are normally able to. The most amazing feature by far, though, is the use of AGWS, or Anti Gnosis Weapons Systems. In certain circumstances, players can summon and control their own personal mech, which is far more powerful than anything else in their repertoire. Usually, AGWS can only be used in boss fights or other special battles, though, so it's hard to really abuse this feature. You can also upgrade your AGWS just as you would your player, which makes them all the more useful. Of course there are traditional elements of the battle system that are far from unique, such as gaining experience points to level up, and the fact that magic attacks require magic points, though they're called Ether Points in the game. All in all, the battle system in Xenosaga, while not exactly revolutionary, is still very balanced and rewarding.
The one big snag in Xenosaga's gameplay is navigation. Huge environments and no map: not good. Okay, there IS a map in Xenosaga, but for all the good it does it may as well not exist. It doesn't pinpoint anything you can't already see on the screen, and since it is just a grid with nothing on it but icons of characters and enemies, it's about as useful to you as the truth is to a politician. At one point, I found myself running around the same set of corridors for an hour, looking for a particular door, driving myself mad with questions like "Why am I lost if I have a map!?" Basically, it feels like something that was thrown in at the last minute with no real thought put into it.
As any audio junkie would tell you, sound is the most important part of any game. Even if a game has the greatest story ever told and the best graphics ever seen, it's simply going to suck if the voice acting isn't up to par. With dozens of hours of voice acted cut scenes, this holds even more true for Xenosaga. Thankfully, the voice acting in Xenosaga is superb, with a cast of veteran actors who do a more than adequate job throughout. The only place where it is more of a curse than a blessing is during and after battle. If I have to hear KOS-MOS say, "My exterior appearance has deteriorated by 5%. Shion, I need to be cleaned" one more time, I'm going to throw a brick through my TV. Other than that, however, there is nothing wrong with the acting in Xenosaga. Even better than the voice acting is the soundtrack, which is impressive to say the least. With a fully orchestrated soundtrack that almost perfectly compliments the mood of the game in every situation, Xenosaga's music is top notch, ranking up there with the best works of famed game composer Nobuo Uematsu. Or as Silent Bob's hetero life mate Jay would say, Xenosaga's soundtrack "is the mad notes!" Well said, Jay.
Overall, Xenosaga is nothing short of fabulous. With breathtaking visuals and sound complimenting a compelling story of human nature in all its forms, this is one game that should definitely not be missed, especially by those looking for something different. While the lengthy cut scenes may be a turnoff for some, anyone who puts just a little bit of time into this game will most likely be hooked by the amazing presentation. It's rare these days to see a game that is better than the sum of its parts, but Xenosaga manages to take all the different aspects of the game and combine them into something completely amazing. In fact, the best thing about Xenosaga is that there will be five more installments.
3/11/2003 Ryan Hartmann