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SummaryPseudo-philosophical space operas can be hazardous to gameplay
The GoodThis review is about the entire Xenosaga trilogy, not just the first game. The three games are very similar, so whatever I'm going to say here should be applied to the whole thing.
The series had some pretty big shoes to fill - fans of the extravagant, intensely plot-driven RPG Xenogears were impatiently waiting for a game that was supposed to be a prequel of sorts. Xenosaga succeeds in imitating the older game's reliance on cutscenes that present a highly complicated plot. Whether this is a good thing or not is another question.
The battle system of Xenosaga varies slightly from installment to installment; the most sophisticated version is probably found in the second game, but overall there are a lot of common features (boosting, etc.), some of which are quite interesting. Particularly in the second episode, even some regular enemies can be somewhat difficult to defeat, and you do need to think and make plans for the bosses. All three games also have functional, not overly simplified skill trees and a good variety of characters to put in your party.
Giant mech ("gear") combat is back. It is least interesting in the first game, but becomes much more prominent in the third. Needless to say that fighting in those huge, yet agile metallic beasts is fulfilling no matter what the actual battle system is. And the battle system is probably the least of Xenosaga's problems.
There are no random battles. A Japanese RPG that has no random battles can't be scored as an absolute zero by me even if it has no other redeeming qualities. And in Xenosaga you can even sneak past enemies! Another nice ability is the destruction of objects. Using the square button, you can destroy all kinds of objects for various reasons: find hidden items, secret passages, or as part of solving puzzles. Speaking of which, there are some simple, yet nicely designed puzzles in some of the dungeons in all the three games.
Xenosaga has what some people consider the most complex plot ever written for a video game. Xenogears looks like a sweet, simple fable compared to this monster. Unresolved mysteries and plot twists pile up until they are finally dealt with in the last episode. Surprisingly, the latter does a really good job at filling out all those plot holes, and in the end the story appears to make sense after all. Lovers of gratuitous references to Jewish-Christian themes may rejoice: if a character doesn't have a badly spelled German name he is probably based on a Biblical persona. On a regular day, you'll be fighting the Gnosis while avoiding the Testaments because Abel insisted you need that Zohar. Again, the good thing is that it's not all completely stupid and irrelevant. The Nietzschean quotes do have a meaning, and the whole thing is wrapped up nicely as you slip into the familiar role of a fighter for human free will against the oppressive forces of quasi-deities.
The BadDid you think the (in)famous second disc of Xenogears was a monumental achievement of exploration-based gameplay? Me neither. But apparently the designers of Xenosaga did, because that's what those three games resemble most.
The days of Final Fantasy VII, when players could explore a large world with optional areas and uncover secrets, are long gone. Ultra-linear design rules the Japanese RPG realm with an iron fist, and Xenosaga happily submits itself to it. It takes linearity to the extreme: you can't even travel properly in these games. Most of the time you are simply taken to the next location automatically, and all you can do is explore the confined areas the game throws at you, advancing the plot. This kind of suffocating, patronizing, lazy design effectively turns the games into a long string of cutscenes connected by isolated gameplay segments.
This hurts the game even more because it is supposed to be a space opera. Just think of those words, be mentally teleported to Star Control II and feel how pitiful Xenosaga feels in comparison. But why go outside of the genre boundaries if the Japanese RPG industry had Alshark? Look at the pompous, overgrown plot of Xenosaga and compare it to the actual size of playable areas. All the locations of all the three games can fit into one planet of Alshark! How can we speak of evolution in this genre if its games keep shrinking like this?
Say what you want about Xenogears, but at least it had beautiful, large cities to explore. The populated areas of Xenosaga are disastrously small and empty. There are few places to visit, few people to talk to, and very little to do. Add to this cold, inexpressive visuals and lack of any camera rotation despite the 3D graphics, and you'll have pitiful decorations instead of a supposedly gigantic space. You can't navigate a spaceship, you can't explore planets, you can only follow the prescribed plot.
But at least the plot is great, right? Well, no, not in my opinion. Real passion was felt behind the convoluted contraptions of Xenogears. The emotional presentation of its characters was convincing. Not so in Xenosaga, where much of the story is just an artificial construction overloaded with fake religious themes and annoying anime-esque figures ridden with cliches sometimes bordering on perversions (do Japanese game designers really enjoy looking at a little girl's underwear?). The writing is weak, sometimes very annoyingly so, with characters repeating the same words over and over again, and the dialogue fluctuating between "... ... ..." and "I'll adjust the S-2356GH circuit in order to produce the maximal temperature of the A-V3 series Hilbert Effect according to the information stored in my neuro-physical cerebral connection to UBT-37 port".
Abundance of cutscenes can be tolerated if they are good. The reason why some people managed to accept the cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid games was because they were actually pretty cool. The cutscenes in Xenosaga, on the other hand, are thoroughly unexciting: there is no direction and camera work worth mentioning, and very little drama or suspense. The voice acting is sub-par as well.
If you are still willing to endure all that for a great revelation in the fields of religions and philosophy, you should stop right now, because all you'll get are disjointed chunks of badly digested second-hand ideas ranging from apocryphal gospels to inflated psychoanalytical images. Just because a game has a character called Yeshua doesn't mean that it goes any further than Master and Margarita or Jesus Christ Superstar in denigrating a sacred name to suit the tastes of our disillusioned times.