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The Foundation to the Pinnacle of Storytelling
By: Phillipe Richer
Xenosaga is a game that needs no introduction. This distant prequel to the most epic, most ambitiously grand RPG ever, Xenogears, has finally arrived to North American soil. Now that Tetsuya Takahashi and his team, Monolith Soft, have secured a solid business relationship with Namco, Takahashi-san is now free to craft his phenomenal story as he see fits, and the world will be a better place because of this. Brace your soul, open your heart, and feed your mind with Xenosaga.
In the distant future, humanity exists solely in hyper-space where it strives for survival against the harshness of the universe and a mysterious alien force known as the Gnosis. Humankind faces its judgment daily, powerless against these fearsome and mysterious parasites. The game claims that it will relate a story where "humanity faces an uncertain destiny as it unlocks the secrets of the universe in search of the ultimate truth." If anyone other than Tetsuya Takahashi would have made that claim about his or her story, I would have regarded it as a mere pretentious and unfounded statement. In the case of Xenosaga, it's neither pompous arrogance nor disillusionment, it's the precise truth. Experience what is merely the beginning of the biggest story ever.
While it is the most narrative, story-driven game ever made, Xenosaga offers plenty of gameplay excitement driven by the same intensity as its story. Battles are non-random and can be avoided by walking silently past enemies or by disabling them using different field traps scattered about. An attack is initiated by pressing the square button for close range blows and triangle for long range shots. Each attack uses two AP (attack points), while items necessitate three AP, ether skills four AP, guarding two AP and so on. You have to assign your Techs (short for techniques) in the menu respecting their attributes (low/high speed, near/far range) in order to activate them in battle. Using your AP wisely in combat will prove rather complex as you progress through the game. Techs are learned at given levels and are unique to each character. Unlike in Xenogears, you cannot keep pulling-off Techs constantly, which adds quite a bit of strategy and difficulty to the battles, even more so with the presence of a boost gauge and an event slot, the later of which lets both sides increase their critical hit probability, double the boost gauge recovery speed, or augment the amount of skills points earned after conflicts. Battles are absolutely exhilarating and full of intensity thanks to the amazing acting, visuals, special effects, and Mitsuda-san's masterful and invigorating melody.
Ether skills on the other hand can be transferred between characters. To acquire better ether spells or to swap them between characters, you will have to dispense of your Ether points which only serve this purpose. However, you can only equip a certain number of Ether skills at one time, once again adding strategy to your battle preparations. You can equip your characters with various skills, such as Poison Guard or PDEF +4, by extracting them from your accessories using Skill Points. Technique points are used both to power-up your Techs and to improve your characters' parameters up to certain points depending on their level. Your party will receive Skill points, Ether points, and Technique points at the end of battles. Certain characters can also pilot A.G.W.S (Anti Gnosis Weapon System), or Gears for the nostalgic, which can be equipped with a plethora of different weapons and accessories. There are no predefined "A.G.W.S battles", so using those mechanical monstrosities will be left at your discretion. You cannot use items while in an A.G.W.S, but sometimes the extra toughness or increased resilience to status effect will prove quite useful. For those of you wondering about the actual quantity of gameplay, rest assured that you will more than have your fill once the initial five hours of the game go by.
Let's talk mini-games for a bit, shall we? The A.G.W.S battle simulator is quite fun and surprisingly well-done and enjoyable, going as far as allowing two players to duke it out. You can select your entire arsenal of weapons to do battle on several fields. The casino game provides you with virtual slot machines and poker tables. Certain powerful items and many beautiful pieces of artwork can only be found here, which provides a good incentive to playing this one. The card game is incredibly deep and very time consuming if one wishes to truly invests himself in it, though I don't think there are any rewards attached to the game. Lastly, the drilling game conceals some interesting rewards, but the game is almost impossible to play because of the poor camera angles.
The U.M.N. (Unus Mondus Network) plays a big passive part in Xenosaga. Through it, you can receive e-mails, check your enemy database (Gnosis adversaries only), and peruse through a huge glossary of terms (244 words) used in Xenosaga. This tool is excellent to help you keep track of all the technical mumbo-jumbo and the many characters involved in the story. To counter the game's linearity, you can also "virtually" access previous dungeons through the U.M.N. The menus look rather intimidating at first, but their use becomes very intuitive over time. Navigating through the spectacular locations is never problem because of the near-perfect camera. You will have a gun at your disposition to vaporize certain objects on the map, something that is just plain fun to do. Also noteworthy is the ability to skip ANY cut-scene you desire by simply pressing start followed by the triangle button. You should not, under any circumstance, skip any cut-scene, unless you got killed and have just seen it several minutes ago. That kind of stupidity is not acceptable people.
The God of music, Yasunori Mitsuda-san, has joined musical wit with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) to compose one of the best soundtracks to date. The seven tracks performed by the LPO are, as would be expected, an absolute delight to the ears, resonating with an incredible amount of energy and power. The battle composition is one of the most whimsical ever, while the emotional tracks created with piano, violin, and flute symphonies echo with a beauty that is indescribable. The lighthearted and cheerful piece entitled "daily" is just phenomenal to me, and the two vocal tracks, "Pain" and "Kokoro (heart)", are tearfully wondrous. After listening to this soundtrack, I find it purely amazing to witness how far a single man has pushed game music. There are two small disappointments with the music though. One, there is no boss battle theme and two, the presence of background music while roaming the Elsa, the Durandal, and the Kukai Foundation would have been greatly appreciated.
The battles are excessively energetic thanks to the amazing sound sampling. The numerous Techs, Ether skills, enemy attacks, and A.G.W.S actions sound fabulous. Sound effects on the field are equally impressive throughout, not to mention the stupendous audio phonic splendor of the cinematics. While I was very distressed with the absence of Japanese voice acting at first, a single hour of hearing the prodigious voice acting dissipated all my worries. It is the best English voice acting job ever seen in an RPG, or perhaps any game. Finally, a talented cast got directed by a competent director to produce an absolutely marvelous end result. Characters are expressive at will and each actor sound appropriate with their character. The script is equally impressive, with plenty of intense passages, casual conversions, and even several genuinely funny moments. Although it did take Namco quite a while to localize the game, the end result is something that was well worth waiting for. The lip-synching isn't always dead-on, but a good 70% of the voice-over is well timed with the characters. I doesn't take anything away from the game in my opinion.
Speaking of the plot in any detail would be blasphemous. From the very first movie frame to the last one, the presentation is unparalleled. The number of plot twists, of enigmatic characters and events, of jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, soul-wrenching moments never lets up. Unlike too many RPGs, every single one of your actions has meaning and purpose into the grand scheme of things. The atmosphere of the game is truly indescribable. The style, the flair, the movie-like presentation is done in a way never seen before in the realm of video games. Xenogears was notorious for the scope of its story, but Xenosaga takes a different approach, instead focusing on setting up all the elements of the series perfectly for the future episodes of the series to decorticate and delve into. As so, you will be left with a massive cliffhanger ending as many, many revelations in the plot have been set aside for the future installments. The many characters presented form what is to me the most memorable, deep, and involved cast of personas of any story. Albedo is without a doubt the most maniacal villain ever to have graced a fictional work, as his demented speeches and ways made me cringe in fear constantly.
As far as replay value goes, Xenosaga does not need any. A piece of work of this intensity and magnitude is meant to be relived over and over until one knows it by heart, even if it should take another 40-50 hours. Notwithstanding, for those who do not appreciate the glory of the most astounding cinematic presentation, the gameplay itself provides plenty of depth for subsequent playthroughs. Aside from the four mini-games, there are many secrets to be discovered in Xenosaga. And even with the superfluous games and treasure hunting put aside, developing your characters to their full potential could take a very long time. Getting every Ether skill and boosting your Techs to their maximum should keep you distracted (wrongfully so I might add) from the story for a very long time.
Xenosaga exhibits the most astounding visual presentation ever. Like many other aspects of the game, the visuals are simply unmatched. The character models are excessively beautiful, while the animations for cut-scenes, normal map navigation, and battles are equally out of this world. The special effects in battle blew me away every single time I saw them, while those in the cinematics are totally indescribable. The aliasing (the smoothness of the textures' edges), which has always been a problem with the PS2, is sometimes pretty apparent, while some Gnosis designs are somewhat skimpy, but such petty things devalue in no way the splendor of the game. In big ways and in small ways, Xenosaga represents the acme of visual presentation. KOS-MOS is simply a thing of beauty. And to my recollection, Xenosaga is also the only RPG to be set entirely in outer-space in the distant future. The artists did a spectacular job with the environments to create the atmosphere of a far-off fictional world.
Xenosaga surpasses every single one of my expectations. The anticipation surrounding the game was immense, yet Monolith Soft accomplished an unparalleled job to create this landmark in RPG-gaming. The quality, style, and intensity of every moment in Xenosaga is not relatable with words, and is something everyone should taste themselves. After so many years of anticipation, I can finally say this: my life is now 1/6th more complete than it ever was. I hope you will feel the same way as well.
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