The game takes place in the year 2561 where humanity lives only among the stars, onboard massive space vessels and in artificial world-colonies, at war with a mysterious, trans-dimensional race known as the Gnosis. To combat this menace, the government contracts a civilian firm known as Vector Industries to produce a highly advanced android capable of defeating these, almost mythical, beings. You fill the shoes of Shion Uzuki, the head researcher of the KOS-MOS project. This game, the first of a promised six part series, follows the events after the ‘awakening’ of the android KOS-MOS and the ensuing war over the ‘Zohar’, a mythical monolith capable of shaping the future as the user wishes.
While many of you may not be familiar with the game’s legendary predecessor, Xenogears, it is not necessary to have played it to fully enjoy this offerings’ cortex-stimulating treatise on mankind and their fascination with subjecting "lesser beings" to their will. In fact, every facet of the story is directly concerned with philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory that the world of humans is nothing more than an ongoing power struggle. From the victims of genetic experimentation, to cyborg outcasts, to artificially created humans, the universe of Xenosaga is in a constant flux of power plays between organizations looking to control one another. While it may sound a bit out of place in 26th century space, these 19th century philosophies fit in very strange ways.
As I said earlier in the review, I’m having a hard time finding a game in this disc I purchased. I say this due to the sheer amount of cutscenes in the game. You play for a total of perhaps twenty minutes and are usually rewarded with forty minutes of what basically boils down to a movie. This wouldn’t have been too terrible if the gameplay was less linear, however the player ends up following along the predetermined path decided upon by the makers, not having very many chances to veer off. There are a few diversions such as a drilling game, a virtual casino and a fully realized collectible card game complete with two player action, however these don’t quite fit with the game as a whole, feel poorly developed and look like an 11th hour add-on.
To be honest with you, I believe that Tetsuya Takahashi, producer of Xenosaga as well as Xenogears, is very much in love with himself. As much as the second disc of Xenogears was painful as it consisted of hours of cutscene interrupted occasionally by a boss battle, Xenosaga just adds a little world exploration into the mix. It’s as if he has his vision and he’d be dammed if he didn’t veer from the course worrying about a little something called ‘gameplay’. Don’t get me wrong, the story is gripping and the characters are wonderfully realized, but one just has to wonder why they didn’t just produce a movie or anime instead.
One of Xenosaga’s major successes is its glorious soundtrack, brought to us by veteran composer Yasunori Mitsuda who also composed the Xenogears soundtrack. Varying from sweeping epic themes to jolly, upbeat jigs, and of course the one required vocal track, this master composer almost takes you on a journey of his own. Having formally produced music for Squaresoft in such titles as Chrono Cross, he relies heavily on Celtic influences and Japanese instruments to weave spell-like songs that truly leave you breathless.
As an RPG I feel that Xenosaga both succeeds and fails at what it’s meant to do. It succeeds by drawing us into a world of wonderful fantasy and providing a great battle system with tons of depth. However, at the same time it fails by alienating the player from the world with a linear plot and lengthy cutscenes. At least they allow you to pause and skip these cinematics if you so desire.
I give Xenosaga Episode I, a total of 4 out of 5 stars. It probably would have been less if I didn’t love the story and the music. At the end of the day, the game is still worth the $49.99 price tag, which is getting to be more of a rarity these days.