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A Matter of Opinion
Xenosaga is a pretty hard game to review. The point of a review has always been to inform readers about whether they will like the game, regardless of the opinion of the reviewer himself. But there are some pieces of entertainment on which opinions span such a wide spectrum that such objectivity is basically impossible. Xenosaga is a perfect example. I'll try to assist you, the reader, in deciding whether Xenosaga is for you, but keep in mind that opinions about the game differ greatly from person to person.
Xenosaga is a cinematic experience. With 7.5 hours of completely non-interactive cutscenes, it's certainly not for those who can't stand to lose control for more than a few seconds. Few of these people play RPGs in the first place, but they still exist. Basically, if you're not willing to play the game for the story, you won't enjoy it.
With that settled, we can begin to explore the most controversial aspect of Xenosaga - the story. Tetsuya Takahashi, the writer/director of the famous RPG Xenogears, has now returned with his own company and a larger budget to tell what appears to be a heavily modified version of the original Xenogears timeline, spanning thousands of years, over the course of six games. It's certainly a huge project, and Xenosaga Episode 1 foreshadows a huge story. Yes, foreshadows, not tells. The truth is, Episode 1 is more like a prologue to an epic tale than the first episode of it. We don't get any monumental or religiously significant events as we did in Xenogears What we do get is mysteries, and lots of them. Rather than answering old questions, each new event in Xenosaga instead creates new ones. In fact, when you think about it, very little actually happens over the course of Xenosaga Eps. 1. It's made very clear that massive events will happen sometime, but Eps. 1 serves to set the stage for them rather than to depict them.
That's not to say that the plot is bad. Actually, it's pretty amazing. Anyone who likes complex science fiction is sure to enjoy it. It's not "deep" in the way Xenogears was - its supposed philosophical themes are little more than tacked-on, unrelated monologues scattered throughout the story - but it's certainly entertaining. Occasionally, the whole thing takes on too much of a pompous atmosphere, as characters spout pseudo-meaningful garbage about "waves" and "consciousness", but when Takahashi's not trying to show you how smart he is, his story is pretty damn cool.
But though Takahashi is a master of storywriting, he's woefully poor at storytelling. The most obvious example is the script, which is filled with uninspired dialogue, bizarre exchanges (Shion says:"I notice you eat very...neatly." Andrew responds: "It's...part of who I am."), and poor pacing. A bad script may sound like the kiss of death in a cinematic game, but it's actually less of a problem than it sounds like; I only really noticed the problems on my second playthrough. Takahashi also uses the same technique from Xenogears of constantly using lines and even entire conversations that the player will only understand long after they're shown. In moderation, this can work well, but Takahashi's use of it is, as in Xenogears, simply over-the-top. Whether that's a bad thing really depends on who you talk to - if you like being confused and having to pay lots of attention during cutscenes to even have a basic grasp on the story, you'll love it.
Another disputed aspect of the story is its originality. I found the story to be original enough for me, but many other reviewers have lamented the game's alleged rip-offs from other science fiction movies, books and games. Either I have not experienced enough famous science fiction to notice such steals, or the others reviewers I'm referring to worry a ridiculously excessive amount about innovation, but I think it's necessary to warn you that if you're a science fiction fan, you may find some moments cringe-inducing. Even though the story is the main focus of Xenosaga, you'll spend the majority of your time away from it. So how does the rest of the Xenosaga experience fare? In my opinion, quite well.
The battle system is turn-based, and as in most such systems, winning comes from careful contemplation of options rather than lightning-fast action. And those options are certainly numerous. Even when simply using normal attacks, you have the choice of using a physical- or ether-type attack, and you must also choose whether to attack twice or only once. Attacking once allows you to use a powerful tech attack in addition to two normal attacks on your next turn. Eventually, you can upgrade your techs so they can be used each turn. You also have ether spells, similar to magic in fantasy RPGs, which are primarily used for healing, as well as the odd but crucial "boost". Once a character has attacked a requisite number of times, you can "boost" that character at any time, inserting them at the front of the turn order. This adds a lot of strategy, especially when fighting foes that use different attacks depending on the character that moved directly before them.
Outside of battle, the game is fairly well-designed, but there are some flaws. The game's locations, both "towns" and "dungeons", are decidedly drab, mostly consisting of sterile spaceship interiors. Also, the designs of the ships can occasionally be irritating, especially when there are enemies around. Another, more story-related annoyance is the fact that many of the tasks the player is required to perform, like rescuing citizens during an attack on a city or delivering dinner to a shipmate, seem menial and unimportant to the overall tale. Some cool events obviously occur, but for the most part, the player is not part of them. In fact, for most of the game, the goals of the main characters are no more heroic or ambitious than than getting to a mutual destination.
Another general well-done but flawed aspect of the game is the music. Composed by the acclaimed Yasunori Mitsuda, the music is not always captivating, but when it's good, it's simply amazing. Especially of note are the tracks performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which make up about one-third of the soundtrack. However, almost all of the music is reserved for cutscenes. Until the last dungeons, you'll always find yourself wandering around the game's locations with either no music, or the enemy attack theme, "Life or Death". Music for combat is similarly spartan, consisting of only two tunes - one for the final boss and one for every other fight in the game. All of this was a conscious directorial decision, but whether it was a good one is debatable. Also, at times, the music seems to be much too powerful and dramatic for the events that are occurring, often even making them look dull in comparison. This certainly isn't a problem for the average player, but it is a disappointment for those who, like me, heard the soundtrack before playing the game. There were at least four scenes that used powerful music in which I remember thinking, "I was expecting a much more awe-inspiring event for this tune!".
Xenosaga is the first PS2 game I bought, so I obviously found the visuals impressive. Many more avid games, however, have said that the fact that the game is over a year old in Japan shows. While the lavish special effects were impressive, I did notice quite a bit of aliasing (jagged lines at the edges of objects). Also, probably because of Monolithsoft's limited animation staff and the vast amount of cutscene time, there are plenty of little errors spread throughout the game, like a characters' thumb going through a cup he's holding or another's arms passing through her hair. In addition, a lot of the animation is a bit too sparse and jerky for my liking. Basically, the graphics do a good job of telling the story, but they're not perfect, and if you've played a lot of recent PS2 games, they're not likely to blow you away.
The game's localization is great. Aside from a few silly errors (an optional email you can receive in the game refers to Francis Crick's theory of Panspermia, but it was translated as "Panspelmia"), everything is clear, correct, and natural. The game truly sounds like it was designed in English. That's not to say that the translation did anything to make the low points of the script any better, however. As for the replay value, it's hard for me to say, as I am someone who almost never replays RPGs. However, I can say that after finishing Xenosaga, I went back and replayed the game by "jumping" through my old save files (to avoid having to level up) so I could record the game's cutscenes on tape. You decide what that means.
Overall, I enjoyed Xenosaga. I only noticed many of the flaws I've discussed here on my second playthrough, and even then after reading many critical reviews of the game. But, as I've said before, everyone has a different opinion about it. While you really have to play the game to find out where you stand, I hope I've helped you get an idea of whether Xenosaga Eps. 1 is for you.
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