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Xenosaga: Episode I - Der Wille zur Macht (PlayStation 2)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  Oleg Roschin (164813)
Written on  :  Apr 28, 2004
Rating  :  4.14 Stars4.14 Stars4.14 Stars4.14 Stars4.14 Stars

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Pseudo-philosophical space opera kicks in!

The Good

Der Wille zur Macht is the first of the episodic Xenosaga series.The first game had to attract attention in spite of heavy competition in the field, and it had really big shoes to fill - fans of Xenogears were impatiently waiting for a game that was supposed to have close connection to its universe.

The first Xenosaga an unfinished game, and, unlike Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, it absolutely requires a continuation. Like the first Shenmue, it starts telling a story and doesn't tell it until the end.

Even for a Japanese RPG, the game is very plot-driven; think of how the second part of Xenogears looked like and you are halfway there. But before you run away in fear, let me tell you that Xenosaga does manage to play well despite the abundance of cutscenes in it.

The battle system of Xenosaga is quite complicated, with a huge variety of tactics available, but it never degrades into choosing the most powerful attack and using it every time - a kind of gameplay that is unfortunately very typical for many Japanese RPGs. Even regular enemy encounters can get quite tricky if you can't figure out which kind of attack they are vulnerable to, and the bosses are simply ferocious. I have quite a lot of experience with this kind of games, but I really had to think before most boss battles. The battles get difficult not because your party is at a low level. It is the way you manage your party that brings you victory or defeat. Enemy AI is very impressive for this type of games, and you have to outsmart the foes, figure out better, more effective tactics, and upgrade your characters wisely.

The combat system is mainly based on that of Xenogears , with its combo attacks and giant robot battles. Unlike in Xenogears, you can choose freely when to mount a robot and when to fight on your own. Robots have more HP and better defense, but they can't use any spells or items, and are quite slow. There are many different kinds of attacks, close and long-range, each type having its advantages and disadvantages. There are also many spells, mostly of healing or supporting kinds. Different enemies are vulnerable to different attacks, and you can spend quite a lot of time selecting your techs (and the fitting characters to use them).

Xenosaga has plenty of interesting gameplay gimmicks. In addition to the usual experience- and money-gaining, you can collect and allocate three kinds of points: tech, ether, and skill. Skill points allow you to extract attributes from accessories and then "equip" yourself with the corresponding skill. Distributing ether points is the only way to learn new spells and transfer them to other characters. Tech points are used for two purposes: increasing attack power and speed of your special attacks (techs), and simply upgrading your stats. Like this you could gain more HP or better dexterity, or decide to invest everything in a particular tech attack and to make it most powerful.

Also, you have the ability to "boost", i.e. gain an additional turn for your character by letting this character attack and getting his boost gauge filled. You could either boost your character the moment it was possible, or save his boost and then unleash them the moment you really need it (for example, when you have to heal urgently). Another cool feature is the field status. By keeping your eye on a special icon in the lower right corner, you could see additional information about the current turn. One of the icons displayed means that if you manage to defeat an enemy during that turn, you randomly gain double, four, or even - rarely - ten times more points of all kinds than usual.

The innovations don't end there. Perhaps the most well-known aspect of the gameplay is the ability to sneak past enemies. All enemies are visible, they walk around the screen, and the battle begins once you come into contact; but unlike other Japanese RPGs with such type of enemies, Xenosaga allows you to sneak past them. You can silently walk near an enemy and in many cases it won't notice you. It is maybe not a very important feature, but it is certainly fun. Another nice ability is the destruction of objects. Using the square button, you can destroy all kinds of objects for various reasons: to find hidden items, secret passages, or as part of solving puzzles. Often you can cause explosions or electrify the enemies wandering around by destroying the appropriate objects nearby. You can paralyze the enemy and it won't be able to attack you; should you still come in contact with it, you'll have some bonuses in the battle.

The dungeons in Xenosaga are perfect in length, with some very entertaining puzzles spread across (my favorite one being the sounds puzzle in Song of Nephilim), and a balanced difficulty. While most of the gameplay sequences are fairly traditional in design and objectives involved (go to the end of the dungeon, beat the boss, etc.), some are quite original for this type of games.

Xenosaga is set entirely in a futuristic world. Medieval elements are totally omitted. Your headquarters is a space ship, dungeon-like areas are also either situated on ships or are just "hanging" in outer space, and except the Dock Colony and the Kukai Foundation, there is no location is the game that can be compared to a standard RPG town.

The graphics are technically very impressive, with character models that leave even those of Final Fantasy X behind, and full 3D backgrounds. The enemies are intimidating in their appearance and are fantastically animated during battles. Especially noticeable is the giant architecture of many locations: you can really feel how small your characters are compared to the huge robots and space ships. You often ride elevators when in dungeons, and gaze deep into the abyss that appears in front of you. There are many scenes like this in Xenosaga, which somewhat compensates for the fact you can't adjust the camera by yourself.

Like in the ancient Phantasy Star, the main protagonist in Xenosaga is a woman. That may seem unimportant, but how many other Japanese RPGs you know that have a heroine instead of a hero? It was a great change to finally be able to control a normal girl instead of some kind of a sword-wielding guy with an identity crisis. The supporting cast is quite colorful: beside the heroine Shion, you have a super-powerful sexy android girl, a mysterious, quiet teenager with silver hair, a Schwarzenegger-like cyborg with a tragic past, an obligatory cute little girl, and a cool hyper-active boy who loves guns. Each character has a complex background story (some of which are still not completely revealed in this first installment), catchy appearance, personality, and distinct combat style.

The story of the game is a true space opera with heavy anime influences. The sheer complexity of the plot is very impressive, and anyone who enjoyed the countless enigmas, mysterious characters, and plot twists of Xenogears will feel at home here. While some of those complicated matters are resolved near the end of the game (like the mystery surrounding Jr.), many will have to wait until the next episode.

To help the player to understand the story better, the game even provided a database (accessible through the menu), from where you can receive information about most characters and concepts of the game. If you have forgotten the difference between UMN and AGWS, or don't quite understand who Gaignun Kukai really is, you can always browse the database and find satisfying explanations (of course, only in case the game's plot has reached a certain point where this information becomes available). This database also does a great job in explaining the countless Hebrew and German words used in the game.

Like its predecessor, Xenosaga uses an enormous amount of Biblical words and names. Most of them are there just for show, but some reveal a certain level of acquaintance with Jewish and Christian mythology from the part of the designers.

The Bad

Xenosaga is a very linear game with minimal exploration. Gone are the days of Final Fantasy VII, when players could explore a large world with optional areas and uncover secrets. Xenosaga takes the linearity to the extreme: you can't even travel properly in this game. 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.

What is usually described as the biggest problem of Xenosaga - the abundance of cutscenes - is not what bothered me most. The problem is the quality of the cutscenes rather than their amount. While there was suspense and genuine cinematic atmosphere in some of them, others disappointed, being too vaguely presented, having too much unnecessary filler material, with lengthy and meaningless word exchanges. Camera work could have been better, as well as voice acting.

The writing is generally weak in that particular annoying Japanese way:

Jr.: Damn it! Albedo!
Shion: Albedo?
Jr.: He is one of the U.R.T.V!
Shion: U.R.T.V?
Jr.: A special unit created to fight UDO.
Shion: UDO?
Jr.: Nobody knows what it is. There seemed to be a disturbance in time-space continuum.
Shion: A disturbance in time-space continuum?..

There is clearly too much pseudo-technical slang in these conversations, phrases like "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" and so on. If there were less dialogues in Xenosaga, such stuff would probably disturb no one, but there are a lot of them, and they are unfortunately not good enough for such a cinematic game.

Despite the high technical quality of the graphics, I didn't like them so much. They felt cold, and many locations seemed too empty, square, and symmetrical. The great advantage of real-time 3D is the ability to immerse the player in the game world by viewing it from different camera angles. Sadly, Xenosaga doesn't allow the player to do so. Camera angles change automatically, mostly being top-down. Why can't RPGs learn from FPSs here?

Many characters in Xenosaga are disappointingly cliche. The character MOMO is a typical example of meaningless stereotype recycling. I've really had enough of those innocent little girls with secret powers who appear in every Japanese RPG. Of course, it reflects the perverse tastes of Japanese audience, who likes seeing innocent-looking faces coupled with enormous breasts. When will we stop receiving this stuff in video games? MOMO is not only too typical, she is really designed with some kind of a refined perverse idea in mind: she is supposed to be just a little girl, yet she wears such a short skirt that you can see her underwear. Geez... I guess those guys must be really lonely.

The central villain of the game is another walking cliche. Except surprising knowledge of French language, Albedo has absolutely nothing to impress the player. He is just another power-obsessed maniac, and his speech is marked by all possible attributes of a standard villain: he is spiteful, ironic, and laughs hysterically at every opportunity.

Xenosaga fails (at least until now) to connect its story to the Bible the way Xenogears did. In Xenogears, those fancy Biblical names weren't just a decoration: they bore some meaning for the central ideas of the narrative (the story of Kain and Abel, the myth of lost paradise, the Ethos religion, etc.). Sure, the connection was superficial, but at least it was there. In the story of Xenosaga's first episode, there are no true Biblical references; no part of its story is connected in any way to religion, creation of the world, origins of faith, etc. Perhaps I criticize the series too soon and all those things will appear in the next episodes, but I couldn't help feeling those Hebrew names were there just to make the game seem more exotic and "profound".

The Bottom Line

It is really hard to judge Der Wille Zur Macht as a stand-alone game, because its story doesn't end in it. One thing can be said, however: despite problems in writing, heavy linearity and other issues, the first Xenosaga manages to be an interesting game with a very ambitious, complex plot and a well-designed, satisfying gameplay system.