Review: Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille Zur Macht (PS2)

Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht
Genre: Traditional Role Playing Game
Platform: Playstation 2
ESRB Rating: Teen (Blood and Gore, Violence)
Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Namco
Release Date: 2/25/03
Official Home Page: www.xenosaga.com

In 1998, Squaresoft released Xenogears, a game that many consider to be one of
the best games that the company ever released, and quite possibly one of the
greatest RPGs ever. With an incredibly intricate labyrinth of a story, battles
that were fought using both people and mechs called Gears, and characters that
are designed and written so well that they could easily be living people. But
despite all the praise that was given, the game felt like it was rushed. The
entire second disc (there were only 2) was presented very poorly. The majority
of the time had one of your party telling the story and then going directly into
a boss battle. There were only a few dungeons on the second disc, one of which was the last dungeon. Despite this, the game has become a classic of our time.

The makers of Xenogears later released a book titled Xenogears: Perfect Works
that serves a dual purpose. It could be considered an artbook, but it is best
known for having many production notes, especially information on the whole
Xenogears saga. In Perfect Works (as well as the end of Xenogears) it is
revealed that Xenogears is actually Episode 5 of a 6 part series. Perfect Works also gives a basic rundown on what happens in the Xenogears timeline, including what happens before the time in the game.

Flash forward several years to the present. Many of the makers of Xenogears have left Squaresoft to form Monolith Soft, and for their first major project, they decided to revisit, even reinvent the Xenogears universe. They renamed the project Xenosaga and decided to start from the beginning and make all 6 episodes of the game so that we greedy gamers can gorge ourselves on gaming goodness. In another odd twist, the game is being published by Namco, who have produced the popular Tales of Destiny series, but aren’t as well known for RPGs as Square and
Enix (I guess it would actually be Square Enix now). But will Namco become an
RPG powerhouse over in the states with this release and those which will follow?
They’ve committed to publishing all 6 episodes of Xenosaga, so only time will
tell how well the endeavor will be.

Before we begin the review, I’d like to mention something. Originally, I didn’t
have the greatest opinion of Xenogears. To be honest, the first time I played the game, I HATED it. So I put it away, and it took a few years and a new taste for games before I played it again, which was a good thing, because I grew very
fond of the game. With that said, I didn’t know how I’d feel about Xenosaga Episode I. So basically, I’m going into this game, treating it like it is its
very own game and not a prequel to Xenogears, which it really isn’t, because
once Xenosaga Episode 5 rolls around, we’ll have an entirely new game to play.
It may have a similar story, but it’s more likely that there will be a lot of
differences. So even though there will be some comparisons to Xenogears since
it has a similar battle system and is made by the same people, I will try to
keep comparisons to a minimum.

Story
As the game begins, we witness where it all began. In the 21st century,
archeologists in Africa have uncovered something magnificent. Found out in the
middle of the desert, they uncover a giant gold monolith. This monolith is
known as the Zohar.

4000 years later, the military vessel Woglinde is sent out to where the planet
Ariadne used to be, recover the Zohar and transport it to another location.
Apparently, people were doing research on the enigmatic artifact and suddenly,
the entire planet vanished, leaving only the Zohar where the planet once was.
Onboard the Woglinde is Shion Uzuki, chief scientist in Vector Industries’
Research and Development department. She was sent with the ship to field test
her project, called KOS-MOS, which is a female battle android designed to combat
the Gnosis, which are spectral beings who cannot be harmed with conventional
weapons. The reason the team was sent is because the Gnosis are strangely drawn to the Zohar for reasons unknown. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they were summoned to this dimension by the same man who caused quite a bit of trouble when he was also experimenting with the Zohar. That is purely speculation though.

KOS-MOS hasn’t even been completely activated yet, since her mind is active but
not her body, when she sends a warning to the bridge of the Woglinde. Moments
later, they understand what the warning was about; the Gnosis are attacking.
This sets off a chain of events that begins the Xenosaga. The title, “Der Wille zur Macht” means “The Will to Power” which is a common theme in the game. Different groups fighting over having the most power. Everyone wants to get their hands on the Zohar: the Gnosis, the Federation (the good guys?), the U-TIC organization (one of the bad guys?) and the Kukai Foundation (the mysterious guys?). But that leaves us with the question (as usual), what does the Zohar do and why does everybody want it so bad?

Just like with Xenogears, Xenosaga Episode I has a very complex, yet compelling storyline. It leaves you wondering who the good guys and the bad guys are, and even though the bad guys are bad, they have reason to be. There are surprises at every turn. Overall, this is the most interesting story I have ever encountered. It’s like a good book that you can’t put down. The type where you tell yourself you’ll finish this next chapter and go to bed, but when you do finish it, you continue on to the next anyway. In addition, the characters are extraordinarily varied and interesting, and the interactions between them are
fabulous. There is Shion, with her sense of duty, yet maternal worry for her “daughter” KOS-MOS, who has become independent against her “mother’s” wishes. However, KOS-MOS is being commanded by someone else in Vector Industries, and will follow her mission (to protect Vector Industries employees) even at the cost of military life. There is the cyborg Ziggy who was killed and brought back to life against his will (think Robocop) and wishes nothing more that to have all remainders of his humanity removed, and there’s MOMO, who Ziggy rescues. She looks like a 12 year old, but she’s actually a Realian, which is a synthetic human made out of nanomachines. The two of them have a
big-brother/little-sister type relationship that is real fun, as well as ironic how MOMO brings out the humanity in Ziggy (who again, doesn’t want to be human)
since she herself would like to be a full human. In addition to that, there is a lot of moral in the story since there are some characters who are racist towards the Realians since they are not full humans, and there is a lot of talk about the rights of the Realians. One thing I should note is that since this is the first of a 6 episode series, there are often more questions than answers, but it just makes me long for the next game in the series. In addition, there is also a decent amount of humor thrown in at various places that break up all the drama. Everything is done so well here that it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a game.

Gameplay
The gameplay is fairly straightforward, but complex as well. Like most traditional RPGs, you walk around talking to people and fighting battles. You can see enemies visually and can avoid them if possible, rather than completely random battles, but much of the game is done within ship corridors and hallways and such, so avoidance is done with stealth. This is explained very well in the beginning where you HAVE to avoid enemies, because they’re invincible.

The battles themselves are straightforward as well. You have two attacks, long-range and short-range. When done a certain way, you can pull off Tech Attacks, which are like Deathblows in Xenogears, except you learn new attacks by gaining additional levels. The battles are pretty standard turn based affairs, with the only real innovation being that as you fight, you can raise what’s called a boost meter by doing attacks. Once you get a boost point on a character, you can have them gain an extra turn after one of your other characters, or even after an enemy attack. Some characters can also use a mech (called A.G.W.S., pronounced EGGS, stands for Anti-Gnosis Weapons System) in battle that functions basically the same as the humans, except they stand up to attacks better and are stronger. The AGWS are not as important to this game as the Gears were in Xenogears, but they’re very useful in boss battles.

Defeating enemies in battle nets you standard Experience and Gold, as well as Tech Points, Ether Points, and Skill Points. Tech Points are used to improve the power and speed of your Tech Attacks, as well as letting you raise your stats like HP and Defense. Ether Points let you gain new Ether abilities, which
are like magic. This is done in a Tech Tree fashion, where you start out with
one Ether ability and that one branches out to two new ones, and two from each
of those, etc. Each character learns specific techniques, like Shion learns
primarily healing Ethers and KOS-MOS learns Ethers that raise her strength and
lowers her opponent’s defense. Skill points are used to extract certain skills
from Accessories you can equip. For example, if you have a ring that gives you
+2 to Dexterity, you can probably extract that skill from the ring and set the
skill (you can only set 3 skills) and you don’t have to wear the ring for the bonus. All these things to level up are a godsend for people like me who love
to level up everything in the world. Another nice thing is that you can pick up items that give you 10, 50 or even 100 points in any one of these categories.

Another nice addition is the UMN, a network that you can access to read email, check an enemy and keyword database, and access dungeons that you’ve been to before. You can receive mail that asks you to make investments into companies, which can give you a profit down the line. You can also get new weapons and techniques through email at times. Note: TALK TO EVERYONE, because there’s one guy that you have one chance to talk to, and if you don’t, you can miss out on some great email opportunities. The enemy database keeps track of the enemies
you’ve fought, including their stats if you’ve used Shion’s Analyze ether on
them. The keyword database keeps track of important information and functions like an encyclopedia. Beware though, because there is a lot of reading to be done there. And once you’ve played a dungeon the first time, you can’t go back except using a simulator, which is as good as the real thing because you get experience from fighting still, as well as any items you may have missed.

Overall, the gameplay is excellent. Everything flows together so well and is
very fun. But every game has its flaws, and this one is no different. Keep in
mind that these are things that don’t bother me, but could bother others. First
of all, the game is very linear. There is little to no exploration done, other than what you do in the ships and areas where you fight. This is a very cinematic game, which means that you watch A LOT of cutscenes. Like I said before, sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a game, it feels like you’re watching a movie. But that doesn’t bother me. There is still a good amount of running around and fighting enemies that break up the cutscenes, so it meshes together very well. Another very minor problem is the fact that you can’t move the camera where you want it to go, since it moves where IT wants to
go. They do a great job on this though, so you don’t miss anything. But it still can be hindering at times when it’s hard to see where you can go. The last problem I could see was the speed of loading. Sometimes it takes a long
time (10-20 seconds max) to load a scene or menu, and there is no loading meter to indicate how long it will take. Granted, everyone would like loading to be instantaneous, but I’d prefer a loading meter if there is loading more than 5 seconds to be done. As I said before, these things are minor to me, but I know
that some people won’t like them.

Graphics
Wow. That’s all I can say. The graphics for this game are simply fantastic. The only game that equals the graphics in this game on the PS2 is Final Fantasy X, but I think Xenosaga is much better. From the modeling of the characters, to
the colors used, to the environment design, all of it is virtually flawless. I
didn’t even think something like this was possible on the PS2 and that all the
images I had been seeing were doctored to make it look pretty. I played the game on a 14″ TV, which did it no justice, but it looks fabulous so it probably looks even better on a nice big HDTV. The battles are especially nice, with wonderful effects used for attacking and ether spells. Each person has
different looking attacks, and they’re all wonderful to look at.

There was obvious anime influence in the character designs and the people are all designed so well. Shion looks like a nerdy, yet fit woman. MOMO looks like
a cute 12 year old girl. And KOS-MOS looks like a badass. She has these two
guns that each actually have 3 separate chain guns on them, and when she shoots Gnosis with them and then flips over another, kicking it in midair, and then smacking a third with her gun, it just rocks. Err, umm, yea, she’s cool. The best part, to me, is the eyes, because they are so emotive, and you can really see the character expressed in their eyes alone. The only problem I have with the graphics at all is with the AGWS. The designs aren’t as varied as in Xenogears and in most anime, but then again, these characters aren’t tied to
their AGWS. The mechs are just tools to be used when necessary, and aren’t
really personalized like the ones in Xenogears. On a good note, many of them feature reflective surfaces that look really nice.

Sound
Monolith pulled out all the stops in this department as well. It just flat out doesn’t get any better than this. First off we have the actual sounds that are heard in the game. Everything is well done and fits exactly how it should. It
has some sci-fi sounding beeps and boops and such, but it sounds original, which is definitely better than the opening scene in Xenogears, where all the sound effects sound like they came from Star Trek, and they probably did.

Next we have the voice acting, which was done by the fantastic dub group
Animaze, who also did the voices for .hack//INFECTION as well as many popular anime series. Some of the voices sound somewhat odd at first, but that’s simply because I’m used to hearing these voices in different roles. For example, Shion’s voice actor, Lia Sargent, also plays the title character from Hand Maid May, who is always trying to please others, yet Shion is more independent and is a workaholic for her own benefit and enjoyment. KOS-MOS, who is as emotionless and methodical as they come, is played by Ruby Marlowe, who is best known for Belldandy from Oh! My Goddess, who is a kind, caring and soft spoken person. All of the voice actors do a magnificent job and all the voices fit well and
complement the story nicely.

Finally, we have the music. Yasunori Mitsuda returns as composer, having done the soundtrack for Xenogears, as well as Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. Mitsuda is one of the gods of game music and everything he does is nothing less than spectacular. He figured that nothing less than the London Philharmonic Orchestra would do the score justice, so that’s who performs it. The themes are very melodic, and even the battle theme is a very nice tune, and even though it doesn’t change through the game, even on bosses, it is still a good theme. There are even some melodies from Xenogears appearing here and there. Like I said, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Fun Factor
There are minigames galore to be played here. First off we have AGWS Battle
which plays much like Virtua On. You pilot an AGWS against an enemy AGWS over a large stage. The controls are very awkward and hard to get used to, and it isn’t that much fun in the long run. There is a two player version though, so some may enjoy it for that, but it just seems like a third-person perspective fighting game, and it doesn’t entertain me at all. Next we have the Drill game, which is set up like some sort of a game show. The minigame itself works like one of those cranes where you try to get a stuffed bear. In this game, you try to get prizes by drilling into boxes and such, and it’s pretty fun as well as useful. The only problem is that you have to spend 200G on each game, and that doesn’t guarantee you’ll get an item. Plus, even though you can switch between three different camera angles, you can still miss a lot, like the real thing. Next is the casino, which is a pretty standard RPG casino game. You can play slots or poker. In slots, you can earn items, as well as coins, and in poker you can only get coins, primarily from the standard High-Low game if you win. The prizes you can trade in coins for aren’t that great, since it’s not big weapons or anything, but you can get production art from the game, which is a nice extra. The last, and best minigame is Xenocard. Yep, another collectable card game minigame. This one reminds me a lot of the Digimon World 3 card minigame, in the fact that you can buy card packs and actually open them up.
But Xenocard works more like real CCGs, like Magic: The Gathering, since each 10 card pack contains one rare, 2 uncommon and 7 common cards. You can also get promo cards from tournaments, the casino and other places in the game. In addition to tournaments, you can just play exhibition games where you win regular booster packs. The game itself is set up similar to Magic and other card games, only simplified. You can only have 3 of any card at a time, and if you get more than 3 of a card, it’s automatically sold for 5G. The packs are 100G each, so it ends up being about half of what you paid for it, but at least it’s something. Playing the card games is free, so I suppose if you win, you can make money off of it. The card game is a boatload of fun, surpassing Digimon World 3 and even Triple Triad from Final Fantasy VIII as the best cardgame. The only problem is that unlike the aforementioned cardgames, Xenocard can only be played at specific save points (like the other minigames) and you’re actually playing a computer rather than playing another person. But you can play other people, since there is a 2 Player mode in the card game, interestingly enough.

Another part of fun factor is replayability. This is hard to judge, but I think I would definitely replay this game in the future, simply because it is interesting and fun, and the minigames are fun as well. The entire game is done
so well that it’d be hard not to play it again. I won’t pick it up right now and play again, but that’s the way it usually is after just winning a game. Not everyone will enjoy the game, but that’s the same with the original. It can be a little hard to really get into, but it’s a great game and a lot of fun, and is the best game I’ve played recently. The game is not perfect, but it’s the closest thing I’ve played to perfect in a long time, and I’m really looking forward to Episode II.

Ratings
Gameplay: 9
Graphics: 10
Sound: 10
Fun Factor: 9.5

Short Attention Span Summary
Xenosaga Episode I is not for everybody. Fans of Xenogears and hardcore RPG owners need to buy this game right now, but I don’t know if casual gamers or even casual RPG fans will be able to get into it. The story is VERY deep and complicated, and it’s not a light game. It plays like an interactive anime, and is very linear, but that doesn’t detract from the game as a whole. The game is a masterpiece, and some (myself included) may think it has a good shot at game of the year, so what the hey, give it a rent, because it’s definitely worth that much, at least. At least if you don’t like it, you know to stay clear of the rest of the series.