Shift into a new gear.
It's said that the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry. Now I don't know what those mice are planning, but it sure seems like things never go quite the way you intend. Take Pinocchio - that ungrateful little wooden snot. Gepetto just wanted a son, and Pinocchio goes out and makes an ass of himself. Literally.
Or how about KOS-MOS, the nigh-invincible battle android? Shion, the Chief Engineer behind KOS-MOS, has spent the better part of her life "mothering" the AI programming, attempting to not only grant KOS-MOS the strength to protect, but the heart to care. But when KOS-MOS is unleashed, she isn't quite what Shion expected.
The original Xenogears wasn't completely what the developers at Monolith Soft had in mind, either. Xenogears was meant as the fifth chapter in a larger epic. Given the chance by Namco to do their story right, Monolith has started anew with the first episode of Xenosaga.
Xenosaga begins with the destruction of Earth after the discovery of the mysterious artifact, the Zohar. Four thousand years later, Shion, KOS-MOS, and a host of other characters are drawn together in the battle against the Gnosis, an alien species out to purge mankind.
Oddly enough, humans look realistic in the destroyed present, but 4000 years later, we've "evolved" into anime characters with saucer-sized eyes. What a future to look forward to.
The world of Xenosaga takes ample license from the worlds of sci-fi and mech-driven stories such as Star Wars, Macross and Evangelion. It then finishes it off with a large cast of characters, philosophical debates and literary parallels, creating a unique backdrop for a role-playing game.
The story is told largely through cinematics that take up a great percentage of the game, sometimes a half-hour at a time. The cinematics and the actual gameplay are like oil and water. The yet-to-be-reached ideal for any game would be an emulsion of the two, where the sense of a movie and the sense of a game are indistinguishable. In Xenosaga, the movies and the game are separate entities.
Despite this, the cinematics are well-crafted affairs that propel the gameplay forward. The gaming parts, in turn, push more movies. Overall, the ratio of video to game feels equivalent to Metal Gear Solid 2, but because Xenosaga as a whole is longer, the cinematics feel more drawn out.
The gameplay rides high with an appreciated harder difficulty level than other recent console role-playing games. There are many ways to upgrade and customize your characters, from individual stat manipulation to evolving and developing new skills and ether (magic) moves.
These developed abilities are critical to combat, which focuses on effective micro-management of limited moves to minimize damage and maximize offense. Characters begin their turn with a limited number of action points to spend. By choosing to make only one attack or simply guarding, there will be enough action points to access stronger moves at the next turn. But playing conservatively also puts the characters at risk for damage. The strategy is to eliminate each individual enemy as quickly as possible, thus limiting chances for retaliation.
Each character has both short and long-range attacks that can be comboed. Some characters can also board battlemechs. These Anti-Gnosis Weapons Systems (AGWS) have beefed up strength, but are expensive to maintain and are generally used to complement the more basic battle moves.
When you select a character to heal, an arrow indicator will point to the recipient. Because the battle viewpoint is often isometric and there are two rows the characters can occupy, it isn't always quickly obvious at whom the arrow is pointing.
To solve this, an immobile green rectangle at the bottom left of the character data bar shows which character you're pointing to. I think it would be more helpful if this green bar moved underneath the character data bar as a highlight. An ideal interface should transmit information as quickly and effortlessly as possible, but in Xenosaga it gets muddled.
Before a battle commences, the characters have a limited ability to push the odds in their favor. With precise timing, explosive objects can be vaporized in range of the visible, non-randomly encountered enemies. This system is great for haters of random encounters, but it doesn't have quite the freedom of Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter's monster avoiding techniques.
The Japanese convention for Playstation games is that the O button is "Yes," and X equals "No." The bulk of U.S. games consistently reverse this trend. Xenosaga has left the controls in the original Japanese style. I don't know why, whether to be true to the original or just plain laziness, but this only poses a problem if you are playing multiple RPGs at once.
The game has a consistent space-age, brushed-metal gloss, with clever, emoting character designs (one character seems to be patterned after David Bowie, and is appropriately name Ziggy) and realistically designed environments (as real as interior layouts of spaceships can be, I imagine). Sometimes the explosions in some cinematics look a little too real, like superimposed stock footage over the game.
No music is played during exploration. Instead the atmospheric hums, such as the churn of a spacecraft engine and the metallic echoes of footsteps, whisper through the speakers. During the cutscenes, the music, as performed by the London Philharmonic, has an appropriately big symphonic feel. The individual voices and performances fit the characters well.
While Xenosaga doesn't reinvent the RPG genre, it really captures an epic scale and carries loads of potential. While I disagree that the future of RPGs entails such a separation between movie and game elements, the two still propel one another in the best interests of the story. The gameplay holds it own, and in all, there's a lot of promise for what lies ahead.
How this brainchild ultimately turn out still waits to be seen across the five upcoming installments, but Xenosaga Episode I is an appropriate bang to start things off. Hopefully, Episode 6 won't have a village of Jar-Jars.