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The Review I Thought I'd Never Have to Write
Xenosaga, in short, is disappointing. I very much enjoyed the original Xenogears and I am a fan of the cinematic, story-driven RPG sub-genre, so I was quick to purchase Xenosaga (in fact, I imported it from the US for no small sum of money) when it was released. This was a game which just had to be good - even with as much cutscenes as people said, Final Fantasy X was my favourite game ever so Xenosaga had to be good enough to buy on faith. I was wrong.
I feel that the requirements for a good story-driven RPG are to have a good, complete story and gameplay which does not present itself as a chore to work through in order to reach the next cutscene, and Xenosaga, for the most part, has neither.
The game is not entirely without its strengths - unlike many RPGs I've played, I was at least able to get through it. Perhaps its greatest gameplay aspect and the one advantage that it really has over Xenogears and even Final Fantasy X is the lack of random battles. Enemies appear on the field screen, and in Grandia style, will pursue you if they see or hear you. Most enemies can't see you very well, and you are usually able to sneak past them by walking slowly with the R2 button if you wish to avoid combat. What's more, there are various coloured canisters placed in the environment, and detonating one with an enemy in range will slow it down or stop it completely on the field screen and give you the upper hand if you decide to engage it in battle.
In fact, you can blow many things up on the field screen. You have a "vaporiser" which you can use to select and destroy many objects that you will come across to receive items and do one or two puzzles. People don't seem to mind you coming into their houses and destroying the furniture, but that's probably because the furniture magically reappears if you leave the screen and come back. So do most of the enemies, unfortunately, and if you end up having to backtrack in a dungeon you will probably end up running into enemies you've already fought several times, which can get irritating. However, escaping from battles is quick and easy.
The battle system in Xenosaga is standard fare. Characters can perform regular attacks or save power for a turn to perform a tech attack on the next (until the speed of the tech attack is upgraded, then it can be used every turn). You will be using these tech attacks very often in battle, and the fact that most have somewhat long animations doesn't help matters. A 10-15 second animation may not sound like much, but when you're seeing it 3-4 times every battle, you'll get sick of watching it in no time. Techs or ethers (the Xenosaga equivalent of magic) that include FMV may be skipped, but there aren't all that many of those in the game and I wish they'd made it possible to skip the real-time majority.
Those who played Xenogears will remember the Gears, giant robots the characters could fight in. In Xenogears, the Gears practically had a battle system of their own and they were an integral part of the plot and gameplay. In Xenosaga, your characters have (much smaller) robot suits called AGWS that may be boarded in combat. However, these AGWS seem more like a token nod towards Xenogears than anything else. All the AGWS are standard, generic robots with names like "VX-1000" or "AG-05" and they can be used by anyone except two of your characters. They're completely interchangeable and of little to no significance to the plot. Fighting in an AGWS is practically the same as fighting as a human, except you can only really attack or guard and can't heal yourself except by an accessory that restores 10% frame HP when guarding. Fighting in the AGWS quickly degenerates into a pattern of guard, W-ACT (uses the power you saved by guarding to do extra damage), guard, W-ACT, etc. and it's quite boring. The AGWS are much less useful near the end, and I was quite disappointed by how much less interesting they were than the Gears.
Another of the key points of Xenosaga's battle system is "boosting". As you attack or use a tech, your character's "boost gauge" increases (by a little if you attack, a lot if you use a tech). When the gauge fills up, you receive a "boost" which is shown next to the gauge and it goes back to zero. By holding down the R1 or R2 button, you can press a button to use any of your three characters' boosts. A boost, when used, will cause the character to have an extra turn immediately after the current turn is over. However, you cannot boost if your character is already shown on the turn order bar (which usually only shows around three turns ahead) which can be irritating. However, what is much more irritating is that while you can only use boosts when you've earned them, monsters boost whenever they like. It is unbelievably frustrating to deal several turns' worth of damage to a group of enemies and see them all boost in and heal themselves fully. Enemies' boosts even override your own, making the battles in Xenosaga often seem very cheap and annoying. I've seen much worse battle systems, but Xenosaga's tend to be a bit on the lengthly side especially later in the game, and you'll probably get quite sick of battles sooner or later.
The Xenosaga manual doesn't mince its words when it explicitly defines the game as consisting of field exploration, battles and cutscenes. I've talked enough about the battles - how about field exploration? As said above, the active enemy avoidance and destroyable objects could have given Xenosaga excellent field exploration and dungeons - if they weren't so boring otherwise. Dungeons have a handful of token puzzles, but none are particularly interesting. The most damning factor, however, is the sheer length and tedium of some of what you have to go through. I found that several single dungeons took me at least three hours to get through. That's three hours of trudging around the same area, fighting the same battles. By the end of one particularly long dungeon I was so sick of the game that I turned it off and didn't touch it again for several days - and wouldn't have even done so then, but I was making myself finish it first to reduce the risk of reading a spoiler in the meantime. A nice feature is the ability to revisit previous dungeons through the Environmental Simulator - although there are still things in the game that are permanently missable.
And when you're not in dungeons, it's even worse. Expect to run around bland spaceship interiors for half an hour doing all kinds of petty errands. Shion, take the commander his curry. Shion, check the catapult deck. Shion, find my Hazardous Area Map. Most of these were not in the slighest bit relevant to the storyline and after the third time all the way up and down the Elsa I wanted nothing more than to just get on with it. It's a chore, a mindless marathon you must run with the carrot of a revealed storyline dangling in front of your face. And when you reach the end, the carrot is yanked away.
That's right. Little to nothing gets resolved in the entire game. I don't CARE if it's "episode 1", I paid full price and I expect a full game. Xenogears was one game and it managed to fit in at least 3 times as much storyline as this. It's entirely possible to have a complete plotline and still be able to make a sequel - just look at Chrono Trigger or Kingdom Hearts (which leaves the door open for a direct sequel and still manages to be complete). None of the main characters are fully developed, and at least one gets absolutely no development at all (several intriguing references are made to him, but of course nothing is explained... I guess that's just to get you to rush out and buy episode 2, hmm?). There are little to no really good plot twists or revelations, and that above all else is what I want in a storyline. All this game does is promise to explain everything in the next game, and I don't appreciate it at all - and it is this, above all else, which led me to the final score. If the plotline had been as good as I was hoping, it would have received at least an 8 from me. Xenosaga does not end with "The End", it ends with "To Be Continued". Literally. How much money are you going to put in MSI's pocket with the promise of a complete storyline constantly held out of reach? You've got no guarantee they're even going to be able to make enough episodes to complete it, and that would be a problem. As far as I'm concerned, this is a story-driven game without a proper storyline. What's the point?
The disappointments don't stop there, either. I remember that when I first heard Yasunori Mitsuda (who composed what I feel is the best soundtrack of all time, the Xenogears OST) was returning to do the music in this game, I was rapt. When I heard it was to be performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, I couldn't wait to hear it. Well, when the game came out, it seemed like a cruel joke that I couldn't hear much of it. Firstly, most of the game is completely music-free. Why? Damned if I know. When you're busy jogging around the Woglinde, no music. When you're in most of the game's dungeons, no music. Just about all the field areas in the game have no music (I can think of about 3 exceptions). You won't realise how much you really appreciated background music in RPGs until you play Xenosaga... the tap-tap-tap of Shion's shoes and nothing else for hours is likely to drive anyone insane.
What perplexes me is that Xenogears and Xenosaga have about the same number of music tracks. But almost all of Xenosaga's are used in cutscenes, where they are promptly drowned out by the voice acting (and there's no way to adjust the relative volumes of each, either). Of the game's 45 tracks, I remember perhaps 5 or 6. Every battle in the game, even boss battles (excluding the very last boss battle) has the exact same music. When was the last RPG to do this, FF1? Xenosaga's music use, like a lot of other aspects of the game, is incredibly disappointing and a near-criminal waste of Mitsuda's work.
The game's graphics aren't as good as I'd been hoping for either, although they're not too bad. They're quite cleanly divided into the 'good' and 'bad' aspects, in fact. The 'good' would be the character models and especially the amazingly good hair physics. I've never seen its like in another game and it's definitely my favourite aspect of Xenosaga's graphics. The special effects, both in cutscenes and battle, are also fairly good although the battle ones tend to be a bit abstract sometimes (why does kicking someone result in a 'shattering' effect and scattered particles, again?) However, the real letdown are Xenosaga's field areas. They're relatively low polygon, to start with. Normally, low polygon areas can at least try to make up for it with good texturing, but Xenosaga's textures are hideous. A good deal of the game takes place in uninspired-looking spaceship interiors with horrid, blurry blue walls. Xenosaga's texturing needs to be seen to be believed, although after seeing it you'll probably wish you were blind. There's no artistry in the game's world either - Final Fantasy X created an original, stunning world and Xenosaga renders boring spaceship interiors and, for variety, boring space station interiors.
The "standard Xenosaga complaint" (there's one for every RPG) is that it's a "semi-interactive movie" with more cutscenes than gameplay. Shockingly, I will not make it here. Xenosaga's cutscenes are all skippable - just press Start then Triangle. If you don't like them, don't watch them, although then I'd have to question exactly what you were playing the game for. As I found the cutscenes to be the best part of the game, my complaint will be reversed - there is too much (boring) gameplay, and too little cutscenes. After all, you can always skip cutscenes - but where's my "Skip Gameplay" button, hmm?
In conclusion, I am surprised and saddened by how mediocre this game turned out to be. Before I'd played it, I was expecting it would be an excellent, 10/10 game. However, I cannot find enough redeeming features of this game to give it a higher score. It dug its grave with the mediocre gameplay, and jumped in headfirst when the storyline, the only thing really keeping me going, didn't really go anywhere at all. Therefore, while it pains me to do so, I cannot recommend you spend your money on this game. It's simply not worth it... and you can be certain I'm going to think twice about buying the next one.
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