Gamestyle Archive Intro: one of the games that topped PAL-owners most wanted for a release across the pond, Xenosaga was an epic, classic RPG. This review from February 2002 is the first into the archive from Garnett Lee. It might be incomplete but the sheer size matches the source material.
Regardless of preparation, sit down to watch a favourite anime and interruptions come as a given – watching the commercials, grabbing a snack, answering the phone when it rings right as the action gets to the best part, or any number of others.
In the case of Xenosaga, a new entry gets added to the list: playing a game. Story-propelled cut scenes, a staple of role-playing games over the past few years, play such a central role in the experience that it almost becomes unclear whether they support the game or vice versa. Either way, together the combination enables the telling of an elaborate tale that transcends either piece by itself. Better stock up on the popcorn – this one lasts longer than just a couple of hours. Judging from recent offerings, it appeared that ‘role-playing game’ had come to mean sword-wielding warrior and robe-wearing spellcaster defeating the big, bad evil of a fantasy world. Xenosaga eschews that rut in favour of a sci-fi setting thousand of years into the future where humanity feels as comfortable amongst the stars as standing on solid ground. However, the departure ends there as at first glance the game appears to follow some secret, official Final Fantasy-styled narrative.
Fortunately, refined execution of the gameplay aspects along with the strength of the story negates any feeling of it being a simple clone. Just enough underlying sense of familiarity remains to ensure that the game mechanics never become a distraction. First of a proposed six-game series, Xenosaga leaves little doubt of its intent to become the pre-eminent space saga of gaming. After barely enough introduction and tutorial to get comfortable, the game plunges into a battle on the front lines of humanity’s struggle to survive against the attacking Gnosis, a seemingly unstoppable alien race. This dramatic style continues throughout the game; events unfold offering glimpses of a struggle amongst powerful factions (the intent of which remains mostly unclear) manipulating the events of the day. Likewise, bits and pieces slowly reveal themselves about the six characters that eventually make up the group, inexorably intertwining each of them in some way in the complex web of intrigue playing out behind the scenes.
Without fail, each shard of acquired information only invites more questions; thus heightening the appeal of the enigmatic story. Epic production styling makes for some truly enjoyable sights and sounds throughout. Without question, Xenosaga sets a new standard for the use of cinematics in games. Professional voice acting compliments excellent animation and gives each segment production values capable of standing on its own as a video. In fact, with some stretching upwards of 20 minutes, it’s easy to get wrapped up in them and forget that they are not an episode of an anime series. Their success in capturing the imagination enables the delivery of this elaborate tale. Environments and battles alike deliver a wealth of eye-candy, as has come to be expected of modern role-playing games. A variety of special attacks, ether magic and even mech combat offers numerous visual treats; helping to keep combat fresh and avoiding the monotony of watching a few dominant specials repeated over and over. Not to be left out, an orchestral musical score completes the sensory experience in grand fashion.
Xenosaga’s beauty goes well beyond skin-deep. Multiple layers of character development provide the freedom to custom-tailor the party to fit different playing styles. Beyond the traditional gaining of experience to increase levels, characters earn points towards tech, ether and skill improvements. No fixed path of progression exists within each of these areas; instead, choosing how to spend the limited number of points earned amongst the various available options determines the specifics of how each character uses their strengths and in turn the role they fill within the party. This complex system may seem daunting at first, but it rewards perseverance with a sense of personal involvement in the characters’ growth that strengthens the bond with them.
Further adding to the mix, some of the party members possess the ability to pilot mechs, or AGWS (Anti-Gnosis Weapon Systems) as they are known. Outfitting them from the broad selection of available weaponry and equipment affords a similar degree of construction alternatives to match individual preferences. A substantially enhanced turn-based combat system provides the pay-off for the effort put into customising the party. New wrinkles – like variable bonuses that change each turn, action points that can be used immediately or saved to launch a more powerful attack in the next round, and a boost gauge that once filled allows characters to act out of turn – add the necessary depth. The ensuing challenge of matching the characters’ tactics with the strategic opportunities in battle keeps combat fresh for the duration of the game. Almost as valuable (in keeping combat fun) is the simple feature of making enemies visible while adventuring, and thus avoids the frustration of random battles which are far too common in role-playing games. Sadly, aside from the coolness factor, few battles actually warrant bringing in the AGWS. A few too many limitations when piloting them reduces their usefulness to that of a giant shield. With little incentive to focus upon their development, their potential to play a more involved role in the game goes unnoticed.
Taken as a whole, Xenosaga finds itself dangerously close to perishing under its own weight. The same mysterious style that fuels the intrigue of the story impedes connecting with the characters. Questions purposely left unanswered surround each of them to avoid giving away future plot twists. With no clear central character around which to rally, even those about whom something is known seem less significant with the uncertainty of their ultimate role. Fortunately, the ensemble strength of the group pulls it back from the brink; relationships develop between characters, which helps bridge the connection to really caring about what happens to them. An emotional tie feeds the continuing hunger to find out what lies around the next corner of this labyrinthine tale. But perhaps the best measure of its success comes with the profound disappointment and anticipation felt as the spectacular conclusion fades and the prompt screen asks for confirmation – to save your party for use in the next chapter.
Gamestyle Score: 8/10