Reviewed: March 21, 2003
Reviewed by: Mat Houghton
There was a little game released for the PS One that was called Xenogears. If none of you have played it, Iíd highly recommend picking that up. It had innovative play control (the only Final Fantasy style RPG Ė barring Mystic Quest Ė where you could jump), a huge story as well as gigantic levels, and a few tweaks on how the story progressed.
That having been said, no you donít need to play Xenogears to know anything about Xenosaga, or Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht to use the full title. There are similarities and parallels, but so far nothing plot related from the first game carries over. That might have something to do with the fact that Square Soft developed Xenogears but not Xenosaga. You heard me right, these two games are in the same series and made by two different companies. That alone is noteworthy, but let me give you a few more reasons to sit up and take a look.
Firstly weíll give you the basics, you know, itís a turn based RPG featuring amazing special effects, big robots, and a few other surprises. The originality comes from the fact that there is no outer world map to wander around. As far as Iíve seen into the game the story progresses from one city or dungeon map to the next. Whatís in between you ask? Why that cold empty place where no one can hear you scream. Thatís right ladies and gentle men, space. Thatís in game world terms, in actuality thereís movie time. Lots of movie time. The thing is I didnít notice that fact until about ten hours in. But Iím getting ahead of myself here; Iíll just set up the start for you and then dive in.
Humanity has flooded into space and we spend as much time on ships or stations as planets. There have been all sorts of technological advancements, but there is a big problem. The Gnosis. They seem to want us all dead and are fairly adept at doing so. Thatís because they are intangible, basically, unless a field is used to pull them the rest of the way into our world. Shion Uzuki (the main character, at least I think so) is the head of a team designing an android to seriously lay some smack down to the Gnosis. Now start, and try not to figure out why you can use virtual reality generators to get real objects.
Like all turn based RPG games you wander around the dungeons and get into fights trying to find the way out and the boss. The big difference in this game is that there are no random encounters. Every fight is one that you know you are going to get into (unless you get ambushed of course) because the creatures are on your radar and on the screen. If you want to avoid a combat you usually can, though in my opinion thatís a bad idea despite how long combat takes because then the boss is going to lay you out under a nice white sheet.
The other little twist they put in is that there are destructible items in the environment, some you blow up to find items while others are there for you to use against the monsters. No, you canít damage your opponents before you attack but you can stack the deck in your favor by slowing them down, negating poisonous effects and other such lovelies.
The controls may be a little different than what youíre used to, unless you played Xenogears and even then itís not quite the same. Instead of having the choice of attack, magic, special ability, or item this game gives you attack points; you get four per turn. You can use these attack points to execute different types of attack at the use of two per attack, or you can use only one attack and save the other two points for the next turn to perform a six-point combo, which allows you to use each characters special techniques. Some characters also have the ability to use weapons of excellent caliber (for example a giant sniper rifle, or a gatling gun with three barrels) and you need six points to use these as well.
This is the simple part. See, the characters that canít use big guns can use big robots, but basically the same rules apply, with a little modification. There are a few other additions to things, magic, earning skill points to extract skills from items, earning tech points to improve stats or your special techniques, and earning magic (ether in this world) points to learn more spells or to let other people learn your spells. There is a lot of depth to the play system as you can see, and while Iíve made it sound really complicated itís not especially, and the tutorials they include break things down well so itís easy to get into.
My beef with the controls has nothing to do with anything above, but more with the game as a whole. You get about fifteen to twenty minutes in control at a stretch and then about an equal length of video and dialogue for story development. While this is incredible considering the sheer amount of space this would all require on a CD there is something to be said when literally half of the game time youíve put in is watching plot development, not playing the game. You may think Iím exaggerating, but just start the game and youíll see what I mean.
Look at all the pretty colors. This is, fortunately, more than simply a snide comment. The most outstanding thing about the graphics in Xenosaga is all the swirling nebulae and translucent effects. The colors are brilliant, vivid, and well nigh upon the aurora borealis. This is of course aside from all of the mind-blowing movies and even the in-game graphics. They have finally managed to get the game graphics on a title to be as good as the cinematicsí though I suppose FFX was really the first one to do that. Everything is crisp and well defined with intricate textures, awesome lighting and more special effects than you could smuggle through Imperial security.
As far as the movies go, weíre not talking Square quality, but itís damn close, and one of the most notable things is the movement of all the characters. Thereís a scene in the opening where a character sidesteps around a bunch of debris and equipment and his steps as well as the rest of the motion of his body is completely fluid. All the scenes with the android Gnosis beater are flawless with fantastic hair movement and more beatings than Jet Li at Thugs R Us.
Far and away what will blow your mind the most are the special effects. As I said, there are tons of coruscating lights and rippling colors, not only in the movies (like every hyperspace jump) but also during combat sequences. The special attacks each character has vary greatly, from calling lightning out of the sky to transforming your arm into a cannon to flipping a coin and deflecting a bullet off it into the target, but what unifies them all is the high level of detail put into them. There are multiple camera angles for everything happening during combat, so even if youíve seen most of the attacks once or twice it still never really gets old.
Three words: London Philharmonic Orchestra. The music in this game is everything that an RPG should have: choirs and epic symphonies. While I havenít heard Dies Iriae or anything otherwise famous the score is flawless; that having been said, there is something to be desired in a lack of ambient sound. Usually in RPGís each dungeon and city has itís own ďtheme musicĒ so to speak, but not so here. In fact the music mostly comes in during story sequences and fights, otherwise the game is silent except for little sound effects here and there.
Voice acting is another realm where Namco didnít skimp Ė all the voices are excellent. In fact though Iím not sure of names Iím fairly certain that they used a few voice actors that regularly do dubbing for anime. This doesnít mean they got Haley Joel Osmet or anything, but the ones they did get fit the bill perfectly.
The box claims over 80 hours of gameplay, which if that bears out then there will be over 160 hours invested into the game because about half of your game time is watching movies. More likely is that there is about 40 hours of actual play with another 40 of movie. While this is really not that bothersome in some respects, there are a few things to consider, the biggest being a sense of getting nowhere unless you play for about five hours at a go, and even then youíve only progressed about half that actual time through the game. The movies are an excellent idea and itís kind of nice to dramatize the plot development rather than just scroll through a bunch of text boxes, but it only takes about half the time to scroll through the text as it does to have a bunch of actors say their lines. So there is a lot of time to be invested into the game, but not all of it is necessarily playing the game.
If all the quests and such of the main game arenít enough for you there are four mini-games built into Xenosaga as well. There is a drill game (think those claw games at arcades except with a drill destroying objects instead of picking them up), a casino with blackjack and slots, a fighting game using the giant robots, and a card game (a la Magic: The Gathering). All of these are very in-depth so thereís plenty of extra stuff to just come back and play around with.
This game is quite a step forward for RPGís of this nature. It places great emphasis on plot and story development while presenting a unique combat and improvement system. Admittedly, like all of these games are becoming there is so much to do that you feel crushed by trying to get all the really good stuff (which any gamer worth his salt is there for, anybody can beat a game, we want to crush it and make it cry for mommy).
Despite whatever quibbles I may have over a few points of the game, it does present an entertaining and in-depth play with great story (barring the usual Japanese and translation silliness) and marvelous visuals. I highly recommend it if you have nothing else to do for the next four or five months, like visit your girlfriend (wait a minute youíre all gamers what am I thinking?) or go to work.