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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

My Review: Xenosaga Episode 1: Der Wille Zur Macht

It’s no secret that I am a big fan of storytelling in videogames. Oftentimes, I have praised videogames for their ability to immerse me in a story, but it is important to recognize that when I review a game- discussing story, gameplay, and presentation- I am talking about three equal parts of a greater whole. If one of these aspects is lacking, then the whole is greatly weakened. The best games are ones where the gameplay, story, and presentation are of the highest quality, and this brief tangent brings us to the subject of what I hope will be a three-part review of the Xenosaga series.

With the Playstation classic Xenogears being one of my favorite games, I was certainly interested in Tetsuya Takahashi’s first project after departing from Square and forming Monolith Soft. Originally meant to serve as a six-part, multi-generational epic that would encompass the entire universe from beginning to end (and perhaps include a remake or reimagining of the tale told in Xenogears), Xenosaga would instead be remembered as a case of failed ambition, and was cut to only three games after seeing disappointing sales. Still, the question does remain whether Xenosaga was able to still provide something special and unique, even if it would never reach its full potential. So, let us discuss the first entry in this most troubled of sagas, Der Wille Zur Macht- The Will to Power. 


Thousands of years into the future, mankind only exists in deep space. Earth is remembered as an unattainable bastion called Lost Jerusalem, and the Galaxy Federation encompasses the remnants of our society. But not all is well, with an alien menace known as the Gnosis threatening mankind. In addition, mysterious artifacts known as Zohars (a term anyone who has played Xenogears will remember and immediately be intrigued by) are appearing, and various factions desire to control them. Enter Shion Uzuki, designer of an anti-Gnosis android called KOS-MOS, who must uncover the mystery of the Zohars, and the greater significance they have towards humankind.   

It is difficult to discuss Xenosaga without comparisons to its predecessor Xenogears, which told an incredibly complex story that delved into Jungian psychology and heavy religious themes. Xenosaga would follow suit, but the story present in Episode 1 is only the first part of many (well, of three as it turned out). Unfortunately, due in part to the episodic nature of the series, the story comes across as a mere prologue for events to come. Characters are introduced, several mysteries that will hopefully be resolved in later episodes manifest, and the basic conflicts and intrigues are established, but not a whole lot really gets resolved in Episode 1. It is the beginning of a story, not necessarily a complete one in its own right. At least what is there is well written and presented quite nicely- the characters are suitably well-rounded for this type of space-opera storyline, and the universe clearly had a lot of care and thought put into every detail, as the setting is very well realized in the context of the story. Things do start off kind of slow, but they pick up and become more interesting later on… just in time for Episode 2.


This is where the problems begin, unfortunately. Xenosaga Episode 1 feels more like a tech demo than a final product. It’s as if Monolith Soft and Namco threw together a bunch of unfinished gameplay concepts and rushed it out the door, and what we got was certainly a poor first impression of Takahashi’s planned epic. Episode 1 offers a lot of the things we’ve come to expect from console RPGS, including some minigames, sidequests, and optional boss, but there is still relatively little meat on the proverbial bone.

Episode 1 is a plot driven game, and as a result there is no overworld to explore. New areas are unlocked as the plot demands it, and it is only through plot convenience/a virtual reality system accessible from some save points that old areas may be explored, with few exceptions. Granted, this does still allow for some backtracking and exploration, making it different from a Final Fantasy XIII-esque plot railroad (from a gameplay perspective, at least), but it does make the expansive universe feel a little less cohesive, at least from my perspective.

Both the combat system and character progression suffer from a curious combination of being needlessly convoluted, yet strangely underdeveloped. The combat system in particular feels like a watered down version of the system from Xenogears, where different button combinations allow each character to perform different commands. The main foil to the combat system is the ability to Boost, which allows other party members to immediately take their turn ahead of when they normally would, by expending points from a gauge that slowly builds up over time. This adds a nice degree of strategy to combat, as enemies can Boost against your party as well, but it’s a quite simple ability that isn’t really explained properly in the game. Outside of the cursory infodump/tutorial at the games start, it is up to the player to figure out the ins and outs of combat, and when they do finally manage to slog through the needlessly complicated explanations and interface, they will find that there really isn’t a whole lot to it. At least the boss fights tend to be quite challenging and require a great deal of strategy when compared to normal enemy encounters, which grow repetitive very quickly.

Character progression is handled through a series of points that the party earns from battles. With three different kinds of points to spend (on Skills, Techniques, and Ether- the Xenoverse’s equivalent of magic), and multiple ways to use the accumulated points, there is once again a needless amount of convolution, particularly with something as simple as building up your characters. It doesn’t help that it requires cycling through three or four different menus in order to distribute points, nor that it’s not immediately apparent what your characters are gaining. It turns what should be one of the most exciting aspects of an RPG and makes it quite tedious. Also, like in Xenogears, some characters have access to giant mechs, known as A.G.W.S. (Anti-Gnosis Weapons System), which are very customizable and powerful- however, unlike in Xenogears, they are completely unnecessary, serving only as a novelty rather than an integral feature of the game.

Which brings us to the real problem with Episode 1, which isn’t the combat system, character advancement systems, or even the plot progression (which are all functional if not all that exciting). It’s the glacial pacing. Everything in Episode 1, be it normal battles, earning new skills, navigating through new areas, etc., takes much more time than it really should. The much-lauded story doesn’t pick up fast enough before the slowness of the gameplay will start to wear on the player. Hopefully these concerns are addressed in future episodes, but with such weak gameplay in the opening chapter, it’s easy to see why Xenosaga didn’t immediately grab its audience.


So the story is pretty good, although it functions as a mere prologue, and the gameplay is average when it’s not downright boring. So how’s the presentation? Fortunately, it’s pretty darn good. While not on the level of something like Final Fantasy X or Kingdom Hearts, the visuals in Episode 1 are quite good, both on an aesthetic level (the art direction is excellent throughout) and in terms of animation quality. The few CG sequences sprinkled throughout are directed a bit better than the in-game cutscenes, but they still deliver the Hollywood-esque feel that Monolith Soft was going for. The game’s sound is also pretty good, with a great English dub and a soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda, the legendary composer who also scored Xenogears, backed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra of all things.

I do have a serious complaint when it comes to the soundtrack, and that is the absence of it for 90% of the game. Mitsuda is a talented composer, and the music in Episode 1 is really good, even if I couldn’t call it his best work. However, it seems to only ever exist in cutscenes, with the majority of gameplay lacking any background music. I am told that the silence was a purposeful design choice, meant to invoke a sense of drama akin to famous films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but if so, they failed. I’m all for dramatic silence, but such a thing requires that something dramatic be happening- the lack of music during long stretches of dungeon crawling or poking around towns only makes the monotony of the gameplay even worse, especially when the music is so good when it chooses to make itself heard.


It’s safe to say that Xenosaga did not start off on the right foot. Takahashi may have envisioned a grand epic of a storyline, which may or may not have been realized by the series’ premature conclusion, but Episode 1 on its own is kind of a poor game. Still, it is meant to serve as the beginning of something far greater- the story has the potential to become great, and the rest of the series may very well build on this troubled first installment to create something truly exciting. It’s just difficult to tell from Episode 1, which is a functional prologue and little else.

SCORE: C (Average)    

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