Like the Final Fantasy games, Xenosaga is a heavily story/cinema-driven role-playing game (RPG). For those restless types, the first few hours of Xenosaga can be particularly excruciating, as it seems that every door walked through triggers a cutscene. Besides being numerous, some of those cutscenes are so long (getting well past the half-hour mark at times) that Monolith Soft decided to add a pause/skip feature. Gamers who really care about the story have the convenience of pausing a cutscene if they need a quick washroom break. Less enthused gamers can skip the scene entirely and move on. For the really long sequences, the game will provide an opportunity to save in the middle of a cutscene. Battles aren't quite so forgiving though. A few attack and spell animations can be skipped, but the majority will take a half-minute or more to execute, and all a player can do during that time is sit helplessly and wait for the next turn.
If Xenosaga is any indication, then Japanese game developers aren't yet ready to end their tawdry love affair with the cinematic effects pioneered in games like Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil. Rather, they seem to love these effects more than ever. Despite current consoles' ability to render detailed environments in real time, Capcom still uses fixed camera angles for its instalments of Resident Evil and Devil May Cry. Square still loves its panning camera that starts every battle in Final Fantasy. And as demonstrated by Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty, Hideo Kojima would probably be happier making movies. But for all the enthusiasm these developers have in wielding such cinematic effects, they have also been heavily criticized lately because these effects ultimately restrict a players experience. Their excessive use disempowers gamers.
Xenosaga posed an interesting dilemma however. Like it's predecessor Xenogears, Xenosaga's greatest asset is its story. And although I found the game's battle system to be one of the best since the Grandia series, it was the next cutscene I was after. Long bouts of not playing didn't seem to bother me. I was more than happy to sit through the discrete, thirty-minute chunks of story that I was rewarded with after navigating some of toughest RPG dungeons in recent memory.
Xenosaga spins one of the most engaging science fiction tales I've seen in recent years, tackling enormous themes and subjects. Just to give a sampler (and nothing more), one of my favourite characters is a cyborg that had committed suicide when he was human. Due to a piece of legislation known as the Life Recycling Act however, the government had the right to revive his dead body as a cyborg and use him for military purposes. And this happens to be just one small facet of a detailed, multi-layered story. Producer Tetsuya Takahashi's passion for this world and the characters that inhabit comes through in every moment of the game. The care and attention he and his team put into crafting the world of Xenosaga is astounding, and at times overwhelming. Indeed, there is so much detail a glossary was added to reference characters, important organizations/factions, terminology, and key historical events. Keeping up is difficult at first, but the lore, the history, the political intrigue and secret agendas are as impressive here as they are in a series as established as Star Trek (though Xenosaga is much, much darker).
Like Xenogears, Xenosaga features heavy theological and religious references that will probably put off some gamers. Most of these references will likely lead nowhere, and some of the more obscure ones (like double meaning of the word peche) will be missed entirely, but those who muddle through will find a highly provocative, plot driven narrative with long hooks. Seeing as this game is prophetically entitled Episode I, it should be obvious that the story here is merely a set up. Characters here will undergo only a little development, and indeed many will remain enigmatic even at the very end. The plot doesn't get resolved. But as a set up, Xenosaga does point to something big. It's hard to say at this point how good the story will be later on, but from what I've seen so far, this particular gamer will be expecting a lot from future instalments.
It's also interesting to see how much of the narrative material has been integrated into the visual and aural aspects of the game, giving Xenosaga a unique and consistent motif. The religious imagery in particular, has been used quite well. Though early levels are bland, later levels become quite imaginative. A memorable dungeon took place inside a Cathedral like space ship with Gregorian chanting in the background. Attack and spell animations also followed in the same vein, mixing arcane religious symbols, scrolling runes and Hebrew texts, with slick graphical effects. The clash between science and religion is a prevalent theme in Xenosaga, and it pervades down to the very aesthetics of game's environments, its soundtracks and character/monster designs.
The 'game' portions of Xenosaga are equally impressive, though as per the genre it is discrete and mostly detached experience from the narrative. Still, it's one of the very best battle systems I've played on a console RPG.
The game seems to take place on two different levels. Taking a page out of Grandia, there are no random battles in Xenosaga. All enemies are visible on the field. What makes Xenosaga interesting though, are the options and tactics offered before a player even initiates an enemy encounter. Players are provided with a radar system similar to the Metal Gear games, and they have limited abilities to sneak around enemies. If spotted, players can sometimes outrun or out manoeuvre an enemy. Other features include traps scattered about dungeons; players can gain various tactical advantages during battle if they are successful in luring an enemy into one of the traps.
A number of interesting options are also available to a player once an encounter is initiated—the most interesting of which is the Boost feature. Essentially, Boosting allows characters to 'interrupt' the turn of an enemy combatant. Boosting also works in conjunction with another feature known as the Event Slot, and through strategic use of the Boost and Event Slot, players can access a number of useful bonuses they can use for the duration of a turn. Against more powerful enemies, proper use of Boosts becomes essential, not just to set up combination attacks, but as a means of counterattacking. After a successful battle, a number of points will be awarded, and those points can be used at the player's discretion to unlock spells, new attacks and skills, or augment vital stats. It's even possible to use point for transferring spells between party members.
One of the few complaints I really have about Xenosaga's battles is how difficult they are. The game favours stringing together weaker attacks, and magic is mostly used for support purposes. Getting through some of the tougher bosses and even some of the dungeons requires good strategic planning, lots of boosting, and tenacity. While I preservered and managed to figure out the system, novices will probably get frustrated by most of the dungeons. Xenosaga also has one of the clumsiest menu systems I've played, and this will almost certainly add to the frustration as well.
Another problem are the mechs. Like Xenogears, players have the option of using a mech, but in Xenosaga the mechs are extraneous. It's possible to get through the entire game without using them, and it may even be preferable to do so. Mechs are cumbersome to use, expensive to maintain and upgrade, and in general more options are available during battle without the mechs. The designs are uninspiring and most of the mech attacks were dull.
Before I conclude, I wanted to mention something about the soundtrack, which was composed by Yasunori Mitsuda and performed by the London Philharmonic. I was impressed with Mitsuda's compositions, as usual, but I was also impressed with Namco and Monolith for using the London Philharmonic on this project. Though music in the game is rather sparse (most dungeons use ambient sounds for the background), the music that could be heard was full and luxurious. The biggest treat was the haunting closing track that played during the end credits.
Not every gamer is going to enjoy Xenosaga. The lengthy cinematic sequences and emphasis on telling the story is going alienate those who prefer to spend more time playing than watching. Still, I was able to enjoy the experience even though I generally prefer more interaction myself. Xenogears reminded a lot of an old game I still play on my cell phone, Memory. As you flip cards over in Memory, and match up the symbols hiding beneath, a picture is revealed. The picture doesn't have anything to do with the game of course. But if it's good, I'm going to enjoy it anyways. So it was the same with Xenosaga. Even though it was separate from the 'game,' I enjoyed the story anyway.