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CONSOLE: PlayStation 2 DEVELOPER: Monolith Soft PUBLISHER: Namco
RELEASE DATE (NA): February 26, 2003 GENRE: RPG
// review by SoyBomb

Goodbye, Earth; hello, fantastic space journey!

There's something to be said about all the positive feedback that the first Xenosaga game of the series had received when it was released in 2003 (or 2002, 362 days earlier to be exact, in Japan). Reviews from major gaming websites are giving this title final scores of 80% or higher in most cases, touting it as a great effort in RPG construction. I suppose developer Monolith Soft have done something right with their massive sci-fi RPG trilogy.

Now don't get me wrong; I very much enjoyed my experience with this game, and it's certainly of better quality than a lot of games I've played in my lifetime. However, there are a couple of aspects of Xenosaga that rubbed me the wrong way, and those will definitely be mentioned in this review. As a whole, the good outweighs the bad, but still, this game is not the perfect specimen for proper RPG development. But enough of my mindless rambling; let's get down to business!

Xenosaga Episode I is the first part of the Xenosaga trilogy of games for the PlayStation 2. Duh. It was initially expected to be part of a six-game series (a hexalogy, if you will, although I know the word does not exist), but was cut short for a variety of reasons, mainly due to constant staff changes in the development team. The series' subtitles seem to be taken from the works of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and their concepts are woven into the storyline somehow. Such is the case in Episode I, with the subtitle "Der Wille zur Macht" (The Will of Man). Anyway, the -- their concepts are woven into the storyline somehow. Anyway, the basic (if you can call it that) storyline is actually rather complex. Those not familiar with the inner workings of the science fiction genre, or those who just don't pay attention to intricate detail, may end up getting lost in the plot and all the backstories of the various characters, although the game is linear enough so that you will not be befuddled often as to where your next destination is. However, the storyline is too complicated for the average player to fully comprehend (myself included, thus making it rather difficult to summarize the fundamentals in this review); furthermore, all the plot details are not laid out for us, and instead, some are saved for Episodes II and III. Thus, eager gamers remained in the dark for a long while until the next installation of the series was released. This may also have been a good ploy to ensure sales of future episodes! But as far as I can tell, the storyline goes as follows: it has been several millenia since Earth was abandoned (global warming, perhaps?), but humans still exist and with amazing new technological advances, no less! But now, a race from another dimension, referred to as the Gnosis, is visiting our dimension in search of the Zohar, a presumably precious and powerful object whose reason for existence remains unknown. But they want it -- and humanity won't allow it! And so begins the tale of Xenosaga.

Although this particular chapter of that saga speaks plenty about those pesky Gnosis (often through direct encounters with their nasty brood), this episode is heavily focused on character development, resulting in the observation of many cutscenes involving backstory. This leads me to one of my key gripes with the game: the cutscenes. While stylishly executed with full voice acting that (usually) doesn't annoy me at all, the main problem comes with the length of these cinematic events. Storyline in a game such as this is crucial indeed, but cutscenes can stretch for long periods of time -- upwards of 45 minutes straight without any gameplay elements at all. Thankfully, I am able to turn off my PlayStation 3 controller during such events, or else I'd have had to recharge it several times during my playthrough. (This is not the fault of the developer; they didn't know Sony would go wireless in 2006!) The first part of the game is far too heavily bogged down with story scenes, and may force the casual gamer into thinking they're playing a movie. And they wouldn't be too far off. There are just far too many lengthy cutscenes; cut down on the cutscenes! Now that I've mentioned the word "cutscenes" often enough, let's move on.

The graphics, particularly the actual character models, are very polished. Most cutscenes (oh my, there's that word again) actually make full use of the detailed rendered surroundings and the in-game characters as opposed to pre-rendered computer-generated movies, although they do appear on occasion (and look nice as well; just a LITTLE nicer than the wonderful in-game personas!). All characters and surroundings are colourful and compliment each other well, without the characters standing out as though they've just been pasted into a scene. Wonderful! The art style is definitely Japanese, complete with those big eyes that people just can't get enough of. Even the NPCs (non-playable characters) are detailed well! There was apparently quite a lot of detail put into effective cleavage presentation on some female characters as well -- how odd! Plus there are a variety of special effects (including numerous explosions) that are the cherry to this already visually stunning eye-candy parfait!

One of the unfortunate aspects of this game is the soundtrack -- or rather, the lack of one. Besides during cutscenes, there is little music to speak of. What is heard during those scenes is very well orchestrated (with the London Philharmonic vigilantly at work), but the remainder of the game (that is, the actual gameplay sequences) often lacks any funky tunes to run amok to, with the exception of battles. What you may end up doing during time when you must level up your party (as in any good RPG) is just cranking up your own favourite tunes and using those as the primary soundtrack, save for cutscenes. The voice acting is a different story -- it is quite favourable and pleasant to listen to. For the most part, overacting is non-existent (although it's bound to happen in any game of this type), and the character's voices and vocal styles fit the moods of each situation admirably. There is also some minor voice acting at the end of every battle, with one character (likely the last one to act) spouting out a victory line, or something downright unusual, such as the cyborg KOS-MOS' awesome victory phrase: "My external appearance is down five percent. Shion, I need to be cleaned!"

But the primary focus should be upon the gameplay itself! When you're not watching all that cinematic jazz, you will either be wandering around various space-themed scenarios or fighting foes in battle mode. The "field" mode is very simple -- you just walk around until you arrive at your next destination: typical gaming style. Also, you can manipulate only specific things in your surroundings; it's not a free-for-all like the Grand Theft Auto series. I should also mention that save points are farther apart in the environments than I'd hoped; if you're looking for a quick 15-minute fix, think again. You'll be playing for at least an hour before reaching the next save point.

Then there are the battle sequences which may seem needlessly complicated at first, but once you get into them... well, they still end up being needlessly complicated. This isn't your old-school Final Fantasy battle system, folks. First off, you can see a chart at the bottom-right of the screen, telling you the order in which allies and enemies alike will fight, which can be useful for proper battle tactics! There are also a variety of additions, such as a Boost Meter which increases with successful hits to the enemy, allowing you to push ahead and get an extra turn at bat(tle). It's also important to mention the implementation of A.G.W.S., giant mechs that some characters can summon in battle. They have decent attack power, but unfortunately, you can't heal them, so when they go down, so do you. Use them wisely (and in my case, on rare occasions only). Ultimately, the A.G.W.S. feature is rather superfluous.

However, the most important thing you'll likely be observing is your Ability Point Meter. Depending on how many Ability Points you have (and you can have up to (and no more than) six in one turn), you will be able to perform certain attacks by spending those AP. You get four AP each turn, which adds on to your total of six (if you didn't use all your AP in the previous turn). Save up those AP so you can use six AP in one turn for a nice combo attack! *thumbs-up* The system works well as a whole; managing your AP is rarely tiresome, except during tough battles when you may spend too much time using up AP for healing instead of attacking, thus wasting time and possibly your own health. Battles also result in not only experience for your characters, but also a few different types of points that can be used to improve your character! (For example, "Tech Points" allows you to improve your Tech combo skills.)

There is much detail in this game that goes beyond the basics of just a standard RPG. Included here is a deep "Xenocard" mini-game that serves in sort of the same manner as Magic: The Gathering or any of those other wizardry card games. I didn't get into it much, as I'm not much of a card-captor, but it looked like it could be fun for those who understand it. There's also an e-mail system in the game (which will be systematically used), as well as a seemingly thorough database considering information about people, places, and important objects and ideas found within the game's plot.

As a whole, Xenosaga: Episode I is a very entertaining RPG, but before you begin to delve into this deep sci-fi thriller, be absolutely sure that you are prepared to be passive for lengthy periods of time. I should recommend making popcorn before coming to play this! And if you have a PlayStation 3, turn OFF your controller when a new cutscene begins -- save your battery power! Still, I will recommend this game. It is visually stunning (for its time in the PlayStation 2 lifespan and even now), the script is decently written, and it can provide a challenge for beginners and veterans of the genre alike! I have yet to play the second and third episode of the series (although I do have them...), but hopefully they'll be as fun as this game was.

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