Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht - Reader Re-Retroview  

Eine Raumodyssee
by Jeremy, the Duke of Otterland

Easy to Medium
40-60 Hours


Rating definitions 

   Ever since the ending credits of Xenogears proclaimed it to be the fifth episode of a larger saga, fans have eagerly awaited a prequel. Early in 2001, Namco's subsidiary Monolith Soft, formed by developers who had worked on Xenogears, finally dropped the bombshell--a prequel, entitled Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht, was in development. In 2003, the game reached North American shores to rave reviews. Certainly, the game has a deep, epic storyline like Xenogears, but does solid gameplay back it up?

   Combat in Episode I takes a different direction than that in Xenogears. Enemies appear on-screen, with players approaching them to trigger battles. Occasionally, traps might be present in dungeons, which players can detonate to gain a slight advantage when the battle starts.

   Up to three playable characters can participate in battle, with fights being fully turn-based. Characters and enemies take turns depending on speed, with a turn order meter in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen showing turn order; however, in a rather baffling design decision, the gauge eventually shortens to one icon before refilling with more icons the following turn, with this process repeating throughout the battle. Whatever the reasoning behind this decision was, it was still fairly lazy and strange at best, and would unfortunately plague the next two Episodes of the series.

   Each character has three main stats: HP, which of course speaks for itself; EP, which allows characters to use Ether skills; and AP, which allows each character to use normal attacks, and maxes out at six points (in which case they can also use all AP to extend an item's effect to all characters). Each character typically starts a turn with four AP, although they can defend at a cost of two AP, with four AP recovering each turn. Each character has two types of normal attacks linked to the square and triangle buttons, and can chain them together in various combinations, with each attack requiring two AP and each character able to end their chains with the X button.

This hand on my shoulder has got to go, hey hey! *clap, clap* Ho ho! "No means no, Allen!"

   With six AP, after a character has chained two normal attacks, he or she can perform a Tech Attack, a powerful skill that either hits a single enemy or all enemies. Players can assign Tech Attacks to different two-attack chains in the game menus, with Tech Points gained after battle used to make them more powerful, reduce the wait time after use, and increase the speed, which consequently allows players to assign them as a shortcut to the square or triangle button, which, after use of one of those attacks, allows for instant use of the Tech Attack with the circle button.

   Another main feature of combat is the Boost system, with each character having a boost gauge that increases up to three levels as they attack. As long as a character isn't in the turn order gauge, he or she can consume a level to boost and gain an extra turn. Enemies can "boost," as well, many times unpredictably, although some typically do so in response to character attacks. The unpredictable nature of enemy boosts can be fairly annoying, and can needlessly drag out often-lengthy battles (as can the overly-flashy Tech Attack animations).

   Certain characters can also use AGWS units during battle, basically giant robots that have their own unique skills. Players can upgrade AGWS units outside of battle at special shops and equip them with various accessories, though odds are that they won't be using them for most of the game, and are at best an afterthought.

   There's also an event slot by the turn order gauge with four effects: nothing, critical damage, increased boost gauge filling with attacks, or multiplied Tech Points, Ether Points, and Skill Points after battle, taking effect when one of your characters attacks or, in the case of the last effect, kills an enemy.

And apparently they can create kickass patterns on the ground It's raining...lasers

   Also perhaps an afterthought are Ether skills, with each character gaining Ether Points after battle that players can use to "evolve" current Ether skills to gain additional spells across hierarchal trees. Each character can also "transfer" their Ether skills to other characters by using half the Ether Points needed to "evolve" them. However, equipping Ether skills requires a certain amount of Ether Weight, with a maximum of twelve EW per character. Unfortunately, most Ether skills, except for those with healing capabilities, are generally useless and hardly the difference between victory and defeat.

   A bit more useful, though, are Skills that each character can extract from accessories by using Skill Points gained after battle, and include innate effects such as status resistance and slightly-increased stats; each character is able to equip up to three Skills. Players can also permanently increase one of a character's many stats with Tech Points in addition to empowering Tech Attacks.

   Though the battle system works well in theory, it somewhat falters in practice. Many fights take longer than they need to, with players mostly depending on Tech Attacks to get through the game. Granted, increasing a Tech Attack's speed does allow for easier use, and can really be useful for Tech Attacks that hit all enemies, although admittedly, the latter can somewhat drain the alleged strategy of battle. The inability to switch active characters with reserves during battle also hampers strategy, even though certain enemies are weak against certain kinds of Tech Attacks. Still, most fights wind down to blasting away enemies with Tech Attacks and healing occasionally (being able to extend items effects to all characters can helps), which overall does not a fun battle system make.

   Gameplay outside of battle, unfortunately, isn't any more enjoyable. Flashy animations needlessly hamper menu navigation; add to that the need to go into status menus just to change equipment, and character management is at best a chore. Moreover, if you wish to upgrade a character's equipment, you need to memorize the stats of his or her gear before shopping (the game doesn't show by how much equipment increases or decreases a character's stats while players shop) in order to avoid wasting money. There are some mini-games as well, though none of them really held my interest. Mercifully, however, players can skip long cutscenes to avoid having to watch them again before major boss fights. Overall, though, the menus could've been more intuitive.

But it'! "I really gotta stop picking at this scab..."

   One thing Episode I does have going for it, though, is its creativity. The battle system, even while not fully enjoyable, is fairly inventive, as is the story, though it does contain mild Xenogears references and slight similarity to 2001: A Space Odyssey. All in all, Episode I stands out even today.

   The story is easily the best part of the game. Cutscenes are long and revealing, with plenty of backstory, character development, and the like, as well as a databank keeping track of all characters and organizations mentioned in the dialogue. And while Episode I doesn't answer every question it creates, that's what its sequels are for, no?

   Yasunori Mitsuda, with a little help from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, provides Episode I's soundtrack, which has a very cinematic feel and can really enhance the mood of many cutscenes. Unfortunately, Mitsuda and the sound team thought it would be cute to have most dungeons lack music and use the same battle theme for every fight except the last (I thought that went out of style in the 16-bit era). Granted, it is a good battle theme, albeit horribly overused. The voice acting, though, is fairly superb and partially redeems the aurals. Still, considering that the soundtrack allegedly has around forty tracks, there's absolutely no excuse for the frugal presentation of the music.

   The visual presentation, though, is a lot better. Character models are nice and realistic while still having a bit of an anime-esque look, and the scenery, despite having a bit of lousy texturing at times, looks decent and fits the futuristic setting, as well. Battle animations are also reasonably flash, even if they come at the expense of sluggish fights. Overall, Episode I's graphics hold up nicely even today.

   Finally, Episode I is a fairly length game, taking anywhere from forth to sixty hours to complete, depending upon time spent with sidequests, mainly finding Segment File doors and their Keys to gain special items. Overall, while Xenosaga Episode I has largely solid presentation values and a great plot, the gameplay unfortunately doesn't back it up well. Although Monolith Soft originally intended the series to span six episodes released yearly, lackluster series shortened it to three episodes within the same story arc released a few years apart. While the gameplay, in my opinion, doesn't really improve until Episode III, whether or not you're willing to endure all three episodes to experience the complete saga is your decision.

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