Xenosaga: Episode I—Der Wille zur Macht is a Japanese console role-playing game (RPG) in the truest sense of the genre. Woven through its sci-fi tapestry are a grandiose plot, battles that increase characters' strengths and skills, an assorted roster of odd companions and plenty of movies. Lately I've felt the Japanese RPG has stagnated, which is a difficult admission for this diehard fan of the genre. But I think Xenosaga stands out as one of the best PlayStation 2 (PS2) RPGs. Xenosaga made me truly care about its world, by being a good game that tells a great story well.
This game is heavy on the cinematic sequences. Square's Final Fantasy series has been the benchmark for RPG cinematics, and though they are always beautiful, they can feel out of place with the rest of the game. This was not the case with Xenosaga, where every scene felt like it belonged. Although cinematics are typically dribbled out as rewards between chapters of playtime, Xenosaga is the first RPG where they felt genuinely earned. Perhaps because these scenes are never about spectacle for spectacle's sake (such as the blitzball globe being filled in Final Fantasy X); rather they always heighten tension or reveal character detail. From the breathtakingly acrobatic introduction of KOS-MOS to the humorous takeover of a pirate ship, each scene gives a fragment of meaning to the gamer, whose job is to track these details and formulate the whole story.
The battle system in Xenosaga was very engaging, and I think Dan describes the flow of battle accurately. Boost adds a lot to battle strategy, and I usually found myself juggling characters in order to make boosts available. My other self-assisting strategy was to take advantage of the slot to get bonus points. Killing an enemy earns bonus points that can be applied to skills and abilities; killing an enemy with the bonus slot active means earning more points, which in turn means increased skill enhancement. Of course, waiting for a bonus or boost could mean taking more damage from an enemy than the player can affordknowing that another monster is waiting nearby.
This leads to the perennial problem with RPGs: one can always avoid battles, but then there is the risk of being too weak to continue the game. Xenosaga proved no different for me. Dan thought the battles in Xenosaga seemed brutal, and this definitely applies to some of the boss battles. But in general I thought most battles were fair and what I would expect for the genre—provided I engaged enough monsters to keep my characters' levels up. One thing that helped me finish the game was the construction of a near-mythical super robot, which provided the equivalent of a summoning attack in magic-based RPGs.
The mechs were useful at times (mostly certain boss battles) and I can't imagine playing without them at all. It's tough to regularly upgrade the mechs, because money is at a premium in the Xenosaga universe. I found it difficult to keep my entire party outfitted with the latest gear and weapons. And that's without an exorbitantly priced, optional mech!
There are several mini-games and quests, including a full-featured collectible card game. I didn't get into these, as I was more interested in following the main story. The card game seems fairly complex (in a good way), but my favorite was poker, a relaxing diversion that let me spend my winnings on in-game paraphernalia (such as healing items) or even artwork. And those items can be sold for cash, so an hour of poker can essentially help the player upgrade inventory.
What are Xenosaga's flaws? Some of the dungeons become repetitious due to minimal graphical representation. There isn't music playing for every minute of the game, although I think this break from tradition is fine in Xenosaga, especially given its glorious soundtrack. Gameplay purists may dislike the lengthy movies despite options to pause or skip them. I don't think any of these things hurt the game. Xenosaga: Episode I tells an epic story in a way to which George Lucas only wishes his recent Episode I could aspire. I wish it told the complete story in one go, because there are so many open questions I want answered. But that only sweetens the anticipation of Xenosaga: Epsisode II.