I’ve put reviewing this trilogy off for a long time, so I decided I should finally give my thoughts on it (instead of doing something like finishing off the infinitely more popular other sci-fi RPG trilogy). To start: Xenosaga is a very interesting trilogy developed by MonolithSoft, the makers of the very highly praised Xenogears, as well as the soon-to-be-released hit, Xenoblade Chronicles. They also made the two Baten Kaitos games, and the DS game, Soma Bringer, which does not officially exist in English, but a fan-translation does exist. At any rate, Xenosaga is special for combining space opera with extensive Christian allusions and Nietzsche philosophy (and some Jungian psychology to boot). The series is also really infamous for excessive amounts of plot: hell, you can even call the series a trilogy of movies, and I wouldn’t disagree with you. Despite that, however, there is still enough content to call it a series of games, but whether the series is worth it or not is something you’ll discover in my review.
The story of the game is, well, complicated. While the prologue starts you off with a cutscene showing the digging up of a strange artifact, the Zohar (for now, you can think of it as something similar to the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey: it’s a rather fitting comparison, too, considering the developer’s name). Cut to about four and a half millennia in the future, and you find yourself in control of Shion Uzuki, a young engineer who is in charge of one of the design divisions of an extremely large corporation, Vector Industries. Her division is in charge of developing KOS-MOS, which is a really ridiculous, recursive acronym, so look it up at your own risk. At any rate, KOS-MOS is a female battle android, a description not made haphazardly. This division is currently staying on a Galaxy Federation vessel, the Woglinde, that is currently transporting an important artifact, a Zohar Emulator. Pretty soon, the ship gets attacked by Gnosis, creatures that are completely intangible, but are perfectly capable of murdering humans. Beyond that point, the story develops in a grand way perfectly befitting the genre “Space Opera.”
While the story beyond this point does develop into something like an epic, it’s got a lot of interesting, thought provoking content along the way. For instance, Nietzsche wasn’t chosen as a recurring parallel for any old reason: you’ll see a lot of ideas in this episode that follow Nietzche’s ideas quite nicely. For instance, one theme you’ll see quite often is individualism: the characters often struggle with the idea of being an individual in a vast universe. Additionally, many characters are defined by this will to power, a really apt name for this episode. I understand that many of Nietzche’s ideas are controversial, it’s rather great to see how well versed the creators are, and how the ideas don’t get in the way of the plot, but serve to strengthen it. The plot, itself, is very dramatic, and is oftentimes very touching. It’s hard not to be moved by some of the emotional scenes. Taking a step back, however, I was a bit disappointed by how straightforward the plot was. Sure, it comes to a close and all, it was entertaining, and it did well to set up and develop the characters, but I don’t feel like the first episode really touched upon the themes it established all that much. Additionally, as mentioned, there are a ton of cutscenes: you may go close to an hour without having any control of your characters, though this is more of a grievance than a serious flaw. Luckily, however, you can pause, and even skip, cutscenes, so you can essentially watch them at your own pace (not that I recommend skipping the plot, since it’s the main appeal). Still, these downsides don’t have much bearing on how great the plot is.
The characters are all really interesting. First, you have Shion Uzuki, a bright and cheerful engineer who is working on the battle android, KOS-MOS. Then you have Allen, her subordinate, also an engineer, who is also occasionally the silly comic relief, unfortunately for him. Next up, you have Ziggy, a cyborg who does oddjobs for the Federation government, and MOMO, a special Realian (something like an artificial human, but built entirely from the ground up) who also happens to be a little girl, Jr., a gunslinging kid who is also a very influential member of the Kukai Foundation (an organization that has a certain purpose), and chaos, a mysterious young man who has an unnaturally calming effect on people. You also have a variety of other characters, whether they be allies, villains, or anything inbetween. What’s interesting about this cast of characters is that they all have quite a few degrees of depth. They’re flawed individuals, and not stereotypical. They all have personal issues to deal with, and many have pasts that haunt them and those around them. Luckily, they’re all really likeable characters, and finding out what’s up with them and what makes them tick is always exciting. However, the game uses the characters to tackle the themes it raises, at the same time. For instance, going back to the theme of individuality, many characters are actually one of the masses, many of them come from a match of similar persons. However, while the main characters of these bunches are special, it’s interesting to note how they sometimes negatively react to being an individual among the masses, and how the masses treat the individual. While I won’t say anything further, you’ll see this pop up here and there, and I thought this sort of stuff was pretty thought provoking. Unfortunately, while it is a trilogy, you don’t get to see everything most of the characters have to offer in this episode. Still, what you do get is quite substantial.
The gameplay is really weird. While each Xenosaga game is a turn based JRPG, the actual battle systems differ greatly between games. The first game is somewhat reminiscent of Xenogears’ battle system. Each character has a “stock” bar, which dictates the number of actions they can take per turn. They have a maximum of six stock, and they regenerate four stock per turn. You can map attacks to square and triangle, and further map a couple of more attacks to square and triangle. How this works is that, in battle, you hit either square or triangle to unleash one of the two attacks you set up (takes up two stock), then you can follow up with one or two more, depending on how much stock you have left. If you have six stock at the beginning of a character’s turn, you can unleash a special move, depleting all your stock. These special moves are also assigned before battle, though I believe you can only have one. Additionally, you can also do things like guarding, casting ether (this series’ magic), and a few more options. Turn order is determined by speed, but it’s more like Final Fantasy X, in that , but each character gets a boost gauge: it fills up when attacking enemies, and when it fills up, you can one boost. Any character can only have a maximum of three boosts. A boost can be used to basically force a character to go next, without messing up the turn order afterwards, though characters can only boost if their portrait isn’t visible in the current turn order. Boosts are something you should take advantage of whenever possible. Finally, there is a roulette system of bonuses that have various different effects, depending on what’s the slot shows at the moment. One option might make all attacks critical hits, one might boost ether effects, and one might boost points gained from slain enemies during that turn (very important to take note of!). In battle, you can also board an A.G.W.S., which is basically a mech designed to fight off Gnosis. I personally did not like using them, and completely avoided them, but it’s up to you.
There are three different types of point systems to keep track of: Ether Points, Skill Points, and Tech Points. Ether points are used to learn new ethers for characters as well as to pass on ethers learned to other characters. Skill points are used to extract equippable skills from accessories. The most important one, tech points, are honestly quite a hassle to deal with. They’re for upgrading your different attack moves and your stats. What’s really annoying about tech points are that you practically need them, as your stats will fall behind if you don’t use tech points to increase them. Why is this so annoying? Well, characters outside of battle get experience, but they don’t get any sort of points. Fine for EP and SP, you can get them later. But you’re missing out on TP, and as a result, any character you neglect will start performing worse and worse once you use them again. That means that if you want everyone to be at least decent, you need to rotate which party members you use every so often. However, even with the point boosting slot, you’ll find yourself barely able to keep up. Honestly, I don’t know how I ever managed to keep characters’ stats up to date, and improve their abilities, as well. I feel like this is a really tedious design choice that could be avoided. After that, you have emails in the environment that have very specific prerequisites and steps to get, but they often reward you with important things (emails happen to be one of your only sources of revenue). Soon, you gain access to minigames, which offer another source of money, one you should take advantage of immediately (especially poker, that minigame is important).
For the most part, this system works pretty well. It’s a really nice alternative to the standard “pick everything from the menu” approach, and there are quite a few ways you can go about battles with this system, allowing for a somewhat greater degree of freedom. As I’ve mentioned before, I found it really tough to stay caught up in terms of stats and techs. Later on, however, enemies also start to become a lot harder: I struggled to win even normal fights (and even with the use of game breakers, the game can still be pretty tough), as enemies later on are extremely damaging, not giving you much time to set up for some point-boosted kills. Speaking of which, it can also be really hard to get point-boosted kills, as you can easily get yourself stuck in a loop that will never see the point-boosting slot wind up on one of your character’s turns, unless you boost. And if you don’t have boost? Well, you better hope you can get some more without killing the enemy/boss. However, I do have to say that I enjoyed the boss battles: they were challenging, but weren’t ridiculously tough. They tested your understanding of the battle system, and your tactical ability. As such, I feel boss battles were always pretty fun and engaging. In fact, most of the game is also pretty fun and engaging. Well, when you’re not grinding for tech points, at least.
I’ll get this out of the way immediately: I’m not a big fan of the graphics. The art style takes on a very anime-esque vibe, and while I would have no problem with that, it makes everything look awkward in the cutscenes. Many of the characters look extremely doll-like, and as such, invoke the uncanny valley almost liberally. Still worse, backgrounds are of an incredibly low quality, textures are noticeably low-resolution, and some things are pretty bland. Still, I did like the character, creature, and mechanical designs, and the animations are actually pretty good. I should also point out that a few parts of this game were censored, but I’d argue that the censoring actually made some parts more disturbing and brutal, somehow. Overall, while I don’t think the graphics deserve a high amount of praise, they work reasonably well.
Unlike graphics, I actually really enjoyed the sound. Yasunori Mitsuda composed the music of this game, and boy is his work fantastic. He’s great at conveying all sorts of emotion with his music, whether it be ambience, thrill, excitement, sorrow, you name it. While there are only two battle themes in the entire game (and one of them is the final boss theme), I never got too sick of it. The dungeon music is somewhat forgettable, unfortunately, and even nonexistent at times. However, cutscene music is incredible, and it fits what’s going on extremely well. Additionally, Mitsuda has a sort of Celtic theme in many of his songs, as can best be heard in the two ending songs. These two songs are incredible, and done by an actual Celtic singer of Irish descent. While I don’t think they fit the game all too well, I really enjoyed listening to them. Switching gears a bit, I thought the voice acting was pretty good. While one or two voices were a bit grating, I feel most of the main characters did a good job. However, I really enjoyed the main antagonist’s voice acting: it’s really great, and really conveys just how screwed up the antagonist is. Overall, I really enjoyed the sound.