Import Preview: Xenosaga

August 10, 2002 7:25 PM PST


Chris's Take

Square's RPG opus Xenogears contained what is arguably the most ambitious story told in the genre. Spanning the 10,000 year history of the human race on the game's planet, the story touched on all manner of subjects, from god, to love, to gun control (Guns don't kill people, people kill people!!!) to even male prostitution. It was this ambition that eventually held the game back, plagued by budget constraints and strict deadlines, the games second disc contained almost nothing but textual narration punctuated by some actual dialogue scenes and dungeons that resembled the game's massive first disc in very little regard.

Perhaps it was dissatisfaction on the game's second half that led Tetsuya Takahashi (Xenogears game director and story conception) to the grand undertaking that is Xenosaga; Takahashi himself admitted in interviews the game did not turn out as he intended. Now, having founded his own developing house, Monolith inc., and backed by Namco, Takahashi intends to restart his original vision as Xenosaga. This time he will start from the beginning and will follow through on the complete Saga in six separate chapters (While Xenogears was chapter V of the original timeline, Takahashi has stated that Xenosaga episode V will not be a remake).

Released this past February in Japan, the game has not quite met Namco's expectations, selling under 400,000 units in it's first month, and still has not passed the expected 1 million mark. As it is, the only certain thing in the Saga's future is that episode II will be made, sales of episode II will determine whether or not it's financially viable to continue.

Leaving script writer Masato Kato behind (writer of Xenogears, Writer/Director/CG movie storyboard artist on Chrono Cross) and taking up the duty himself, Takahashi has scripted a game every bit as brooding, portentous and overly-wordy as it's predecessor. Scenes in the game can be up to 45 minutes long before a player resumes control, and even then it's usually a few steps more to trigger another lengthy scene. As it is, Xenosaga makes Metal Gear Solid 2 look restrained in cut-scene use. There are however, two things that make this fact tolerable. One is that the cut-scenes are of high quality, very well presented with great voice acting. Second is that cut-scenes can be both skipped and paused, which is a godsend when a cutscene lasts 10 minutes before a particularly difficult boss.

The gameplay itself is based off of Xenogears combo system, though instead of focusing on strength of attack it focuses on the range, short and long followed by a deathblow if you have enough AP (action points) left. A character can be assigned six deathblows at a time, which are learned by leveling up. And this time magic use is a much more involved affair. A sort of grid system is in place where gaining a certain technique will allow a path to open for the next one.

Random battles have been eliminated, though it is not as liberating as one would hope. The game employs a fixed camera system, meaning you'll be relying more on the games optional radar system to locate enemies than actual visual clues. On the plus side, there are traps that can be set for the enemies that will have varying effects, such as delaying their attacks, nullifying elemental effects etc.

Musically the game is of high production value, but this is only a fair composition by fan favorite Yasunori Mitsuda, when compared to earlier work. The London Philharmonic Symphony performed the music the entire game (save for a few dungeon tunes). But aside from a few standout tracks (particularly U-TIC, or as I call it, the operating Russian Drinking song) most are unremarkable. Joanne Hogg performs two songs for the game, which is either good or catastrophic news (as Brandon might suggest), depending on your tolerance for neo-Celtic inspirational ballads.

The game is graphically polished, but technically plain. The characters fare the best, with moving hair and expressive faces (though lip-synching isn't even attempted) but the environments are plain and textures blurry.

Takahashi said in an interview that he wished for the game to viewable as a movie if one were to remove the gameplay, and unfortunately that is just the case. There is a simple formula in place, one that is in place in all RPGs but so much more visible in this game. Cinema, explore, fight, cinema. Repeat. As it is, Xenosaga makes FFX look as non-linear as Fallout.


Brandon's Take

Playing this game (rather, watching the cut scenes, as that is the game), I was struck by the boring dialogue, and laughable direction. Gone was the emotional involvement with characters that one could feel with Xenogears. In fact, though some of the characters have expressive faces as Chris mentioned, several are set with one facial configuration throughout the game. Well constructed though these faces may be, they don't show the emotion that the voices do. I will say that the voice acting is powerful, but the techno babble and needless (and often non-sequitur) pontificating will put off the rational minded. If there are aliens bearing down on you literally a yard away, how do you have time to stand inert and discuss the ethics of killing for a full 10 minutes?

The script will be existential enough for most Xeno fans, but those who enjoy actually playing games should steer clear. Whereas a game like MGS2 had "too many cut scenes" but very interesting gameplay, Xenogears has (in my opinion) poorly scripted, sparsely directed cut scenes interspersed with a bit of walking. Several times in the game your task is to walk back and forth between two places talking to certain people. This is your taste of "play" between extremely long cut scenes. And while the Battle system is certainly flashier this time around, it's not nearly as engaging. This is not gameplay for gameplay's sake, it's used more as a vehicle to advance/return to the story. You'll notice that we included no movies of actual play. The reason is that playing the game is totally superfluous. It's as though Takahashi wanted to make a feature film, but was stuck with the game genre. It should be noted that I am incredibly critical of movies, and thus anything that attempts to be cinematic. So perhaps I'm judging Takahashi too harshly; perhaps you will find the dialogue inspiring where I find it trite. But heed my words; this game is only for those who appreciate representational rather than visual or functional art.

Chris Woodard / Brandon Sheffield

Thanks to William C. T. Van Hecke for several fixes...

 

Developer
Monolith

Publisher
Namco

Release Date
February 28, 2002

 


Note... lots and lots of spoilers await you in the movies below!

Happy

(2:05 - 12.5 MB)

Just The Beginning

(1:47 - 10.6 MB)

KOS-MOS

(1:00 - 7.98 MB)

More KOS-MOS

(0:44 - 1.97 MB)

Flashback

(2:46 - 14.5 MB)

Albedo (aka Spike)

(0:52 - 5.94 MB)

More Albedo

(5:23 - 24 MB)

KOS-MOS Kicking Ass

(5:97 - 30.9 MB)

KOS-MOS Kills

(2:44 - 20.3 MB)

Not Inside...

(1:10 - 6.66 MB)

Ending and Credits

(11:33 - 69.2 MB)