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A Vortex of Temptation and Obsession that Feeds the Wills
During their winter holiday blitz of 1998, Squaresoft released a little RPG called Xenogears. Unbeknownst to them, this 'little' RPG would eventually become one of the most controversial titles of all time; splitting the community between those who thought it an impotent philosophical digression and others who believed it to be the greatest RPG ever. Fortunately for members of the latter (and those who shy from the argument altogether and appreciate the game for what it is) this game just turned out to be part five of a massive opus envisioned by visionary Tetsuya Takashi; and Xenosaga: Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht (The Will to Power) is the first episode of this grand saga.
With that, there is no better place to begin a review on Episode I than with its story. It is magnificent; and if I can say so myself this series will be remembered as the 'Star Wars' of video games, and not just because of the awkward releases of episodes, either-it has that much breadth. The story just SCREAMS epic! Without spoiling anything, it explores man's tendency to exert his will over lesser beings to reach his own means and ends and the desire to grasp the truth of existence, all while battling an invisible, hostile antagonist. Like Xenogears there are numerous religious references but these mostly serve to offer insight into the philosophy of the game itself-a point likely to be missed by those who deem otherwise. As a matter of fact in this regard and many others this game draws several parallels with the great anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (which was obviously a heavy influence on this game).
Apparently to some, understanding this game is akin to one of the twelve labors of Hercules. Though admittedly there is much to digest the in-game database greatly facilitates matters, and knowledge of Xenogears is not crucial (I've not played that game...yet). However I also enjoyed the games spaceship-load of cutscenes (one of the select few who did, it seems, when reading other reviews), so I'm aware that not everyone shares my enthusiasm with the games' presentation. But in hindsight, would you really want to read all of what this game has to say in a text-box, sans the excellent voice acting?
Of course not, especially when a game is written and translated as well as this one, and looks as good, too. Der Wille zur Macht is one of the only RPG on the PS2 that can go head, heel, and toes with Final Fantasy X (a somewhat sad state of affairs, considering that game is almost three years old). Episode I has better character models but due to its space-age locales its environments don't lend themselves as much color or detail as FFX's. All in all, the anime inspired look really translates well for the game.
Both games also feature similar-structured battle systems: ample time can be taken to perform any action, and turns are listed strategically on the screen. Where they differ is in Episode I's ability to use A.G.W.S. (mecha, like Gears in Xenogears) in battle, and in the option for characters to store actions in order to prepare for a stronger multiple-act turn. This game is also gifted with the best REGULAR battle theme I've heard-it is the only regular battle theme that I've ever heard that I didn't get tired of throughout the course of the game. This distinction is especially grand, considering that this is the ONLY battle theme in the entire game, besides the final battle (which is even BETTER)!
Ahhh yes, let's dwell on the music for a little bit. First off, for those who don't know it is composed by Yasunori Mitsuda, the gifted composer behind other classics such as Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, and of course, Xenogears. With the aid of the London Philharmonic Mitsuda crafted several truly great, epic tracks. The unique thing about this game though (and something else that I enjoyed that most found to be a hindrance/annoyance) is the fact that besides two dungeons, there is no field music. I believe this was a great artistic and directorial decision because by utilizing music in the event scenes it greatly expounded the importance of them, and added tremendously to the cinematic nature of the game.
Episode I is a pretty hard game, not excessively, but especially when compared to the current crop. A few bosses may present hair-tearing challenges, but challenge is good and your brain will probably be operating at high output when playing this game anyways. The game is neither hindered by a poor interface-the only problems present include the ability to only equip three skills and the slight inefficiency of the A.G.W.S. menus, but these are just minor gripes, really. The back cover guarantees 80 hours, and that is an accurate number. My first playthrough clocked in at about 76 hours; my second well close to 100. The difference really lies in how much you play the minigames. Though self-contained, there are four unique ones: a drilling game, an A.G.W.S. fighting game (pretty neat), a casino outfitted with poker and slots, and XenoCard, a trading card battle game based on in-game characters, which is the absolute best minigame in an RPG EVER (besting Triple Triad and Blitzball)!
Der Wille zur Macht's ending will either disappoint or elate; much like The Fellowship of the Ring or The Phantom Menace, it is meant to be a foundation from which the later entries are to build upon; it is not its place to provide its own self-contained closure. Due to its expository nature we will have to wait until later entries in the saga to see how much it succeeds in this regard, and thus as a game on whole. Der Wille zur Macht proves to be a grand foray for this series, which is on the fast track to Final Fantasy-like status. I can't wait until Episode II.
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