Thursday, September 9, 2021

Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht


Nietzsche im Weltraum

Those who beat Squaresoft (now Square-Enix’s) science-fiction RPG Xenogears noted that the ending credits proclaimed it as the fifth entry of a larger series, akin to the original Star Wars trilogy’s chronological placement as episodes four through six, and a Japan-only book called Xenogears Perfect Works covered a timeline detaining countless events that never made it into the game. A console generation later on the PlayStation 2, developer Monolith Soft produced and Namco published a spiritual successor/predecessor to XenogearsXenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht, which definitely retains the spirit of the original PlayStation game, but is this a good thing?

Episode I opens with archaeologists in Kenya, sometime during the twenty-first century, uncovering a relic that enables humanity to travel space beyond the Solar System, the monolithic Zohar. Over four millennia later, humans would leave Earth to colonize the galaxy after a cataclysmic event, with a human scientist named Shion Uzuki the caretaker of an android dubbed KOS-MOS, able to materialize and defeat alien beings known as the Gnosis. The narrative in general takes inspiration from philosophers such as Fredrich Nietzsche, and is very-well told, if forced down the player’s throat due to unskippable voiced dialogue, and slightly derivative of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Much of the dialogue is well-written, although there are occasional hiccups such as the tendency of much of the battle dialogue, particularly with regards to characters shouting the names of their Techs in battle, to sound somewhat unnatural, and most of the lip movement during voiced scenes to be way off at times and indicative of the title’s Japanese origin. Probably the biggest localization change that makes a huge difference is the ability to skip voiced scenes completely, and there is occasional humor in the dialogue. Regardless, the translation somewhat seems unrefined at many points, with a little censorship of a few scenes as well.

For a game that allegedly emphasizes the narrative above the gameplay, the general combat mechanics are surprisingly well-executed, even somewhat addictive. Models indicating enemy parties populate the game’s dungeons, with occasional traps that the on-screen character can detonate to gain an advantage in the encounter triggered when contacting a foe, such as one boost point for each of the three active participants in battle to start with. Combat has a turn-based structure similar to other roleplaying contemporaries such as Final Fantasy X, with commands immediately executed after input, and each ally starting with four action points (six the maximum for each fighter).

Each action consumes a certain number of action points, which refill in between character turns, with characters having four AP able to execute melee and ranged attacks against enemies, each consuming two AP. A character can also defend to conserve AP, and when they have six the following turn, they can chain two attacks and execute a powerful Tech at the end of the combination, the player able to set up to four after different square/triangle button combinations in the game menus. With enough Tech Points acquired from winning battles, player can allow characters to use Techs after executing only one square or triangle attack with just 4 AP, with a maximum of two of these “shortcuts” per character.

Players can also use Tech Points to empower character Techs or reduce the wait time after execution before their subsequent turns in combat. Additionally, the player can use TP to provide increases to character stats outside combat, with each stat having a max that slightly increases when a character levels through standard RPG experience acquisition. Characters can also equip a weapon and an ammunition cartridge when available, along with a piece of body armor and two accessories. Using Skill Points also acquired alongside Tech Points from victory in combat, players can also extract passive benefits from accessories that provide benefits such as defense against certain status ailments, each ally able to equip up to three of these.

Each playable character in Xenosaga also has a “level” with regards to the aforementioned passive skills, with the acquisition of new ones from accessories gradually increasing it, level five seeming to be the highest tier. Additionally from combat do characters receive Ether Points they can invest into ability trees that allow them to execute EP-consuming magical attacks, with a cap as to how many they can use in combat. There are also certain Ether abilities that the player can only acquire through special means, although these may require referencing the internet to find, but mercifully the game is still beatable without finding them.

Another interesting facet of combat is the ability of playable characters to “boost” when they’ve acquired enough stamina from attacking enemies, with each ally having a maximum of three stackable boosts in battle, and can only do so when one character’s icon doesn’t appear in the turn order gauge at the bottom-right of the screen. However, these boosts are “use it or lose it,” and reset to zero with each new battle, with enemies able to boost for extra turns as well, although these seem to be spontaneous, and adversaries don’t seem to have any limit as to how many additional turns they can get.

One the main issues of combat is the need at many times for foresight, especially since the developers made the unusual decision, one that would repeat itself through the game’s two sequels, to have the turn order meter only show for up to four turns who goes next, with the gauge eventually running out of icons before “refilling.” It’s not a game-breaking design issue, and combat is generally fun (although a turbo mode, given some drawn-out Tech animations, would have been nice), with the various parallel systems being nothing short of engrossing, and accounting for a solid gameplay experience.

Control, on the other hand, could have been better. Most notable is the total inability, during voiced cutscenes, to skip dialogue, definitely not accommodating towards audiences such as hearing-impaired gamers who could only read. There are other issues as well such as the glacial menus, among their problems being their needless depth at times, for instance, with players needing to go to a character’s stat screen to change equipment. Autosaving, given the length of many cutscenes and sometimes-inconsistent placement of save points, would have been welcome as well. There are positives such as the ability to pause and skip cutscenes, but Xenosaga could have been more user-friendly.

Xenogears composer Yasunori Mitsuda composes Episode I’s soundtrack, which definitely has its share of good tracks, with some good cutscene pieces and a central theme that ultimately has a vocal iteration during the ending credits. However, most exploration throughout the game is silent except for footsteps and maybe whirring engines, and there’s only one standard battle theme until the final boss. The voice acting is largely solid, with voices fitting their respective characters, although allies whining and crying when they die, and shouting the names of their commands, can get tiresome. The sound isn’t solid, but could have certainly been worse.

For a game that’s around a score old, however, the visuals look surprisingly good, with well-proportioned character models containing good animation, anime designs, and expressions, lips moving as they should during voiced cutscenes. The environments are believable and contain nice coloring, and the designs of enemies in combat are good as well, with some occasional solid CG scenes, although as with most three-dimensional graphics, there’s an occasional tendency of environs to have blurry and pixilated texturing. Even so, a decent-looking game.

Finally, one could possibly make it through the game, skipping all cutscenes, in as little as twenty-four hours, although a playthrough with all cutscenes viewed and grinding occasionally necessary at times can push playtime up to around forty-eight (which was my approximate ending time) or beyond if the player really wants to grind their characters excessively, although there really isn’t much motivation to go through the game again, with no New Game+, a dearth of sidequests aside from tedious minigames, and most players likely wanting to move on to the sequel after a single playthrough.

Overall, Xenosaga Episode I is a competent Japanese RPG that hits some good notes, especially with regards to its surprisingly-fun gameplay systems, developed narrative, and nice graphics, although there are significant issues with regards to its glacial pacing, the notable waste of composer Yasunori Mitsuda’s talent, and absence of lacking appeal. A remaster would ideally resolve whatever issues it has, although the latest news of the series indicated an enhanced port wasn’t in order despite rumors, and while the first entry of the series was better than I remember, it certainly isn’t worth breaking out an old PlayStation 2 just to experience the game.

The Good:
+Surprisingly-good game mechanics.
+Well-written narrative.
+Some good music.
+Graphics look good even today.

The Bad:
-Battles would have benefitted from turbo mode.
-Glacial menus and cutscenes.
-Yasunori Mitsuda’s talent somewhat wasted.
-No reason to go through again.

The Bottom Line:
A competent but average JRPG.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 8.5/10
Controls: 3.5/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 6.5/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 0.0/10
Difficulty: Relatively Easy
Playing Time: 24-72 Hours

Overall: 5.5/10

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