“Der Wille zur Macht” is a German phrase that literally means “the will to power” and is a reference to something that Nietzsche wrote about. What that was I have absolutely no idea. But it does make for an impressive subtitle to a game that does everything it can to win the hearts of those who play it. And sometimes it succeeds. Most of the time even. Xeno is a game that has some really nice elements, and some kind of broken ones. But thankfully it is also a great example of a game that is much better than the sum of it’s parts. In fact, I can honestly say that I’m kind of a Xeno lover. It just sort of won me over. And after my second play through this past winter, I thought it would be good to share some of my thoughts.
I remember first playing Xeno Episode 1 many years ago after its 2003 release date. And while this game isn’t retro with a capital R, it does bring me back to the good old days of jrpg goodness, particularly in the way it tells the story. While some individuals have criticized Xeno for its long cut scenes, I personally found them pretty entertaining. Particularly as they often revolve around the one character that keeps everyone playing Xenosaga: KOS-MOS. I know that the story is supposed to be about Shion, the main female protagonist who is a nerdy but lovable heroine, but everyone who has played Xeno knows why they keep playing. It’s absolutely KOS-MOS. Here’s a fun video showing some of her moves. Plus you know it’s been a while since you watched a compilation video featuring Evanescence, right?
KOS-MOS is a female android who was constructed by Shion for the purpose of defending the human race against the gnosis, which are basically aliens that look like whales and crabs. So anyway, its KOSMOS job to make New England Clam chowder out of the gnosis. And she is really really good at it. Her favorite method of dispatching gnosis seems to be dual mini-guns, at least in Episode 1. She gets even more interesting weapons in her arsenal later on. They should have included a scene at the end of the game where she says, “I’ll be back”. Sorry, that was funnier in my head…btw, while KOS-MOS in Episode 1 looks like a doll, the graphics in later games are more realistic, which I prefer. But we can’t talk about those games yet! (trying to save Episode 2 for a separate review)
So your basically going to get into Xenosaga because you enjoy sci-fi, and your going to stay with it to see what KOS-MOS is going to do next. And the cool thing is that it’s actually worth it. Even her battle skills are just so much cooler than everyone else. She basically makes the rest of your team look like a bunch of actors from Glee, which is saying something because a couple of them are kind of bad-ass.
In fact, the cast of Xenosaga are some of my all time favorite rpg characters. I actually really enjoy almost all of them. And each is fleshed out in very interesting ways. Ziggy is a human who has slowly been replacing his human body parts with mechanical ones. When you first meet him he only has one last job to finish before he exchanges the last part of his humanity: his brain. All so that he can finally forget the secret he holds. Jr. is an adult trapped in a young boys body who shoots holes in enemies with his dual pistols. He gets lots of spotlight in Xeno, and even more in Episode 2. MOMO is…well ok MOMO is kind of odd, creepy and useless in the first Xenosaga (she becomes my second favorite character in Episode 2 though) and then there is Chaos. Ok, so at first you will think Chaos is kind of cool. He is this very alien kind of guy, with white hair and loads of battle abilities that make him seem like some sort of cool “Seraphim Alien of the Gods” , but then after a while you will realize he’s just some weird dude in an awkward pair of tiny white shorts…seriously. Like SHORT shorts. I don’t know man, whoever created his costume should just leave game design all together. And then there is Shion, the lead character, who is likable and fun to follow, and pretty decent in battle. Especially when you get the Erde Kaiser attack towards the end of the game. (It’s like the Xenosaga version of a giant Megatron-like robot attack that will take you back to the days of Saturday morning Transformers. Oh and it also can defeat the final boss in one shot.)
So Xeno has a great cast, an enjoyable story told like a playable anime, fun atmospheric music, and a nice sci-fi feel. So where does it go wrong? The only thing that is really holding back Xeno from true greatness (aside from Chaos’ shorts) is the battle system. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it technically works, but I can’t say that I really loved it. Instead of ever feeling like I was really rolling with it, and utilizing the different mechanics in cool ways, I always felt like I was wrestling against it somehow. Like me and the battle system were never on the same page, and at times this became very frustrating.
The problem lies in a couple different factors. The first is the simple fact that unless you understand enemy “types” you will have a hard time dealing damage. The types are broken down into gnosis, mechanical, biological, and I think something else. And each character has the ability to do two of the three different kinds of damage. What this means is that often you will be using a strong character, only to do pitiful damage. Now I know that other games (such as FFX) have used a similar mechanic successfully, I just never was able to remember exactly which or who did what or when, and I ended up just sort of guessing all the time.
The second problem that I found frustrating was that the turn based battle system operates with a certain icon that cycles through different options for each turn. When the icon is on the critical phase, you can do extra damage. Other times you can enhance your spells or even earn extra skill points. When it works, it works great. But too often when you want to get a kill on the skill point turn, it was kind of annoying to plan your boosting (you earn boost, and then can jump a character into any turn by pressing a trigger) just to utilize the icon to your advantage. Again, this ended up in me basically just opting for randomness, rather than strategy. So when the battle system works well, it is a pretty interesting version of your normal turn based battle system. But most of the time you will be slightly annoyed. (At least I was). Here is a short video of one of the earlier fights. You can see the icon in the bottom right hand corner cycling through, as well as some of the other battle mechanics. While boosting is not used in this video it also adds a lot to the gameplay as you progress. Good music, and fun pace though!
OK, so lots of complaints, but it’s not all bad. There are several parts of the battle system that work quite well. For starters, many battles allow you to bust out your A.G.W.S unit, which is basically this sweet gigantic mech. Your mechs get all kinds of weapons and upgrades, and can produce some impressive damage. This also makes the boss fights nice and varied, as sometimes you fight huge enemies in your mechs, and other times you fight on foot. This, aside from a few casual references, is really the only link that Xenosaga shares with Xenogears, the psx title from the 90’s. (Another great game to do a retro review of!) Nevertheless, I did enjoy busting out a huge mech, weilding an axe, and chopping up other big mechs. Call me crazy, but it’s pretty fun!
Ok, I think it’s time for the final rundown…
Should I play Xenosaga Episode 1? Honestly? In my opinion yes. If you are a jrpg fan, and are looking for a great science fiction game that will introduce you to interesting characters and a wonderful story, this is a great game for you. While the battle system has it’s woes at times, the rest of the package makes it worth the ride.
How hard is Xenosaga Episode 1? Oddly enough, the first section of Xeno is some of the easiest. Later on, if you don’t quite understand the best ways to really put the hurt on a gnosis, it can be challenging. Of course, for my second playthrough the beginning was actually tougher because I already knew the system, and by the end game I was destroying everyone. But this is definitely not a hard game. It’s just tough enough to make you wake up after the long cut scenes.
How long is Xenosaga Episode 1? Both of my playthroughs were in the 30 hour range. But you could easily cut that by a chunk if you just played for the main story and didn’t bother with the side content.
Do I need an FAQ for this game? Not unless you like to really get into the sidequests. I love to find all the easter eggs in a game, and Xeno has some interesting stuff to watch for. You could easily beat this game without an FAQ but to experience everything you might want to keep a spoiler free walkthrough nearby.
Will I develop an odd crush on KOS-MOS if I play this game? Yes. Probably. Don’t tell anyone however. That is a conversation no one wants to have. And whatever you do, don’t order one of those Japanese pillows. Just too weird.
What is the best way to experience the world of Xenosaga? This is some weird advice, but you can actually experience the story through the anime that came out after the game was released. I own it and it’s decent. Good even. It also keeps pretty close to the game’s plot, so its a nice (and shorter) alternative to the full game. I still prefer to just play it for obvious reasons however.
What about the sequels? The Xenosaga games are all VERY interconnected. You play almost the exact same cast for all three episodes, and they all have great scenes of KOS-MOS destroying stuff. Plan on playing all three if you get into this series. Ok…fine…you can probably skip Episode 2. I’m playing it now and aside from some interesting team attacks in the battle system, the game is not as good as Episode 1. But Episode 3 is apparently fantastic. I can’t wait to pull it off my shelf. A review for Ep 2 is coming soon, as well as 3.
I leave you with a final trailer vid from a Xeno fan. It actually includes scenes from all three games but it really expresses the sentiment of what Xeno is in a pretty cool way. Enjoy. Then go destroy some gnosis.