A lot of words come to mind when playing Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht; amazing, beautiful, and unbelievable being the most recurring expressions. The team who developed the excellent Xenogears on the PS1 is the same party responsible for churning out this remarkable RPG, and from boot up to conclusion, their unique style is felt all the way through. Nothing in Monolith’s monstrous RPG is generic -- like Jurassic Park, no expense was spared in the creation of Xenosaga, it’s the best of everything and tons of it. I haven't seen battles (and relationships) this epic since the last few episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This game makes up for all the boring-ass games I've reviewed over the years. This one game makes it all worth it.
One of the best things about Xenosaga is its ability to tell a tale of epic proportions. In fact, the story in Xenosaga is so epic that some people may find its lengthy cinemas to be interminably drawn-out. But simply put, the cinemas are so full of incredible edge-of-your-seat excitement and intrigue that it feels like watching a top-quality anime production. And lets be straight here, who doesn’t like cinemas? They’re like the candy coating of an M&M – the reward at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box – or the puerile high from a dab of adrenochrome. The enormous amount of time that the game spends fleshing out the story allows you to get a full panoramic 360-degrees comprehension of the vast collection of characters. This truly is a digital masterpiece whose cohesiveness, despite its vastness, is rivaled only by that of the Russian literary work of art, War and Peace.
The story begins in present time as an ancient artifact known as the Zohar is discovered. Then suddenly you are thrown thousands of years into the future where mankind has abandoned Earth and now subsists only in deep space. As civilization is making leaps and bounds towards essentially unlocking the secret of the universe by studying the mysterious Zohar, which reputedly has existed since the dawn of time, a terrifying threat is lying in wait just beyond the horizon. This threat is known as the Gnosis, an ethereal alien race who is bent on destroying humanity and has more than the capability to do so. To help deal with the Gnosis, a young scientist by the name of Shion Uzuki has headed up an exceptionally talented team to create an extremely powerful android by the name of KOS-MOS. KOS-MOS may not look like much, having the appearance of a cute teenage girl, but her capabilities exceed anything anyone, even the team of scientists who created her, could imagine. As the story progresses, Shion and KOS-MOS will meet up with a eclectic cast of characters, all of whom help to fill in a vital piece of the story.
In total there are six controllable characters in Xenosaga (more if you include temporary party members) and every one of them radiates huge amounts of personality in their own unique way. To simply mention them in passing would be wrong since they are all such great additions to the game. So here I will do my best at describing each of them, with the exception of the aforementioned Shion and KOS-MOS:
Ziggurat-8 & MOMO: The first character you’ll be introduced to, after becoming intimately familiar with Shion and KOS-MOS, is a 100-Series combat cyborg whose codename is Ziggurat-8 (later known as Ziggy) and is charged with rescuing a prototype 100-Series Observational Realian who calls herself MOMO. The two make an excellent, albeit unlikely duo with Ziggy being a man whose body almost completely consists of artificial parts and takes a Zen-like approach with after-battle phrases like "the outcome was decided even before the battle began." MOMO, on the other hand, takes the form of a 12-year old girl and despite the fact that she is a manufactured robot (Realian), she is constantly overwhelmed with emotion and adolescent tribulation due to the fact that she feels abandoned by her “mommy and daddy.”
chaos: The melancholic, “otherworldly” chaos (no capitalization intended) looks like a 16-year old boy but his true origin is unknown (maybe he’s an annnngel). In any case, he has the unique power of being able to solidify and destroy ghostly Gnosis so his presence is always welcomed by whomever he surrounds himself with.
Jr. (Rubedo): Last but not least is Jr., He looks like he is about 12-years old but I think he has some kind of chemical imbalance, like Webster or something, because by my observations of the storyline he is around 32-years old. He heads up the Kukai Foundation and commands a legion of space captain, yet has a strange affinity for childish indulgences and at one point actually (and arguably) makes advances towards MOMO.
One of my first impressions of the game was "if they can manage to keep the amazement of the first few hours going throughout the duration of the game, then this may very well be one of the best games of 2003." And while towards the latter half of the experience things kind of simmered down a bit, I can still state with absolute confidence that Xenosaga should be at the top of every RPG gamer’s list.
This isn't your typical dungeon crawling/townsfolk chat-‘em-up. While all the elements that make a traditional RPG like Final Fantasy X so fun are present, the way the developers went about dividing up exploration, battle, and dialogue is decidedly unique and original, taking place mostly on spacecrafts, orbiting installations and so forth.
The battles in Xenosaga are epic and often require that you spend considerable time leveling up and tweaking your party for maximum efficiency. Xenosaga doesn’t utilize the traditional random-encounter style and instead opts for a more tangible method of approach wherein the enemies are shown on-screen and battle ensues only when you come in physical contact with them. This adds a bit of strategy to initiating battles since you can often avoid confrontation altogether by sneaking past enemies MGS2-style. Once a battle does commence, the action will shift into a turn-based style similar to Xenogears or FFX. Three party members can be in a fight at the same time and experience points are evenly distributed among them after the battle is over. Three of the six available characters have the ability to jump into A.G.W.S. mech armor, which limits their available options (can’t use items, or Ether attacks, etc) but greatly enhances their amount of hit points and greatly reduces the overall damage they take. Hitting different buttons will execute different attack combinations, and devastating combos can be initiated by saving battle points, either by guarding or delaying your actions for a turn. The style of combat in Xenosaga is easy to jump right into but also has so much depth that you’ll still be learning new strategies halfway through the game.
Save often, because you will die, I guarantee you. But it'll never graduate to full on frustration, you'll always feel undeniably compelled to get right back up and resolve to do better. The game is just so immaculately balanced in every way that it is next to impossible to put down. True RPG fans will be in heaven, no doubt about it.
The level of customization you have over every facet of your party is mind-blowing. I could fill a book on the various intricacies of customization in this game. And somehow, despite the immense amount of things that you need to juggle to keep your characters in tiptop shape, the developers made the whole process easy to manage. I won’t bore you with specifics, but suffice it to say that as you successfully defeat opponents you’ll earn three types of points aside from the standard experience points, all of which can be used to upgrade or enhance that character in some shape or form. New techniques are learned automatically as you level up. Those techniques can be further enhanced with tech points, etc. It’ll take you a while to fully get a grasp on all the ins and outs of the character development process but it’s all just gravy, you don’t need to know how to increase the overall capability of your robot’s left arm or slightly enhance the ability to perform critical attacks in order to complete the game. But you can do these things if you want to, and that is a factor in what makes Xenosaga such a pleasure to play for hardcore RPG enthusiasts.
The artistic direction of Xenosaga, with its meticulously sculpted environments and impressively high-polygon count character models, is astonishing. The fact that the game takes place thousands of years into the future gives the developers complete freedom in concocting futuristic architectural design. Nearly every area that you’ll explore is loaded with theoretically functional gadgets and devices. The battle sequences are fluid and fast with tons of awesome particle effects and other visual niceties thrown in for good measure. As you move around in the field, your character will turn his or her head in the direction of things that can be interacted with. The areas that you'll explore are immense, their size is only equaled by their unbelievable design style. The sheer attention to detail as you explore new areas is mind-blowing, every turn yields amazing nuances that give way to a world rife with wonder and thought-provoking stimulation.
You never know for certain when the cinemas are pre-rendered or whether they are being rendered in real-time. The whole cinematic experience is so seamless that it just fits together perfectly all the way through, and that’s not to say that there isn't tons of amazing visuals, because there is. It is simply a perfect culmination of technology and cinematography.
The audio in Xenosaga isn’t as notable as the rest of the experience since musical accompaniment is kept to a disappointing minimum. But the music that is present (with an exception or two) is beautifully orchestrated and there are even a few songs with full vocal lyrics. The voice actors represent their respective personalities perfectly. Just looking at the digitally rendered face of each character gives you the impression that they would actually have a voice exactly like the ones the voice actors have provided for them. Xenosaga is a testament to what a difference using professional voice actors make. The actual dialogue is sharp and often times surprisingly witty. The main personalities are extremely, extremely likeable.
The only competition in the RPG genre that even comes close to matching the sheer brilliance of Xenosaga is Final Fantasy X. Sure, games like Suikoden III can match Xenosaga’s epic storyline, but the amazing audio/visual presentation is unrivaled. Plus you have to consider that this is only the first part of an ambitious six-part series. The lengthy cinemas may not be for everybody (though I don't see why not) but for me, this is the perfect RPG. If you don't like the cinemas then skip'em and get straight to the action; there you go, problem solved.
A few times during my experience with Xenosaga, I found myself to some extent scared of booting it up and jumping into its fictitious universe. Scared of its immensity, scared of the inevitable and complete inability to go to the bathroom once I am suitably "sucked in", but most of all scared that once I hunker down and actually get all the way through the game, I’ll never be able to replicate the sheer enjoyment that was attained from playing it. And actually that fear was more warranted than I thought it would be because, despite the bullet-point list on the back of the case that declared “over 80 hours of game play”, I was watching the end-credits roll in half that time. And that includes considerable time spent performing optional tasks and playing the included mini-games for hours. I feel gypped. Nevertheless, 42 hours of game time isn’t too shabby and I was held captive in a state of utter and complete awe the entire time.
The RPG genre just got its magnum opus folks, it's right here for the taking. The question is whether people will recognize a good thing, no, a great thing, when they see it. If things go as they ought to, Xenosaga should be topping the best-sellers list by the end of next month. I wonder how many people had to die in order to make this game, how many souls were sacrificed so that we could enjoy this wonderful thing. Entire third-world countries I’d assume. There aren't enough adjectives in the English language to describe how I feel about Xenosaga so I’ll end this review with a simple yet heartfelt recommendation and leave the rest up to you.