I completely missed playing Xenosaga Episode 1: Der Wille Zur Macht back in 2003. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about it. Heck, I was fascinated by the idea that references from Aristotle to Wagner could all be stuffed together in one place. Here’s the thing: I got distracted by bigger budgeted games. Fast forward nine years, and I finally picked up the first episode, feeling that it’s time to learn about the game. There’s a reason why the series is considered pretentious and it starts here.
The plot seems rather simple: A young scientist named Shion is trying to “resurrect” a dismantled battle android, KOS-MOS, for research while simultaneously investigating the reasons for a vanished planet. Her company, Vector, is interested in understanding how this ancient relic works and how she can be used to battle the mysteriously organic Gnosis. Just as Shion finishes the latest test, the Gnosis appear out of nowhere on the spaceship and all heck breaks loose. This begins the first episode in a three-part game.
Let’s be perfectly honest: This not an easy game to get into on any level. Yes, there are all sorts of insane and subtle references that initially make no sense on first view. So much is going on that it is mystery why there aren’t any Cliff Notes on the game. You might want to read a story FAQ after playing because the game moves slowly — as in Jane Austin slow. Typically, you’ll do more watching than playing. While this means that each and every plot scene has a purpose, the game moves so slowly that it’s easier to focus on something else entirely while playing (like watching “Daily Grace” or “The Professionals” or catching up on your favorite blogs). In fact, it takes more than 10 hours for the game to get interesting. Then it took another eight hours to truly hold my attention and even then I could only stand it for an hour at a time.
This doesn’t mean that the gameplay is bad. In fact, it’s a solid traditional role-playing game system: Shion and her party explore towns/space stations, explore space ships, a small artificial beach and kill tons of enemies. All of the enemies are seen on the field (though it can be tough to avoid them) and there are even chances to tip the battle in your favor by exploding barrels upon them before combat. Combat is, as previously mentioned, traditional in focus. Each character gets four action points (AP) per turn and each character can “hold” a maximum of six. Ether (the game’s equivalent of magic) uses four AP per turn while attacks use two per choice. If you follow a character’s physical attacks all the way to the finish (which usually requires six AP), then you can have a character perform a tech attack that typically inflicts a lot of damage.
From there, combat rewards the party with experience points, ether points, tech points and skill points. Money doesn’t factor in unless the opponent is human. Anyway, this means that there is a whole lot to play with for each character. Tech points are needed to improve tech attacks and status points (HP, EP, strength, vitality, dexterity, ether attack, ether defense and evasion). EP are needed to access new “spells” and teaching certain ethers to other characters while the character can only bring so many of them into combat at a time. And skill points are needed to “absorb” skills from accessories and then equip up to three of those skills.
There’s a major problem with this system: Enemies don’t award characters with a lot of those much-needed points. It even becomes more complicated that tech points share two jobs together (is it better to boost stats or increase skill damage? I still haven’t figured that problem out). It doesn’t help that the game is inconsistent in its difficulty as it quickly shifts from easy to brutal. That means hours of grinding in order to get anywhere. It also doesn’t help that all of this delicious information is hidden beneath layer upon layer of menus. Rotating through characters is a pain and unintuitive. It’s odd that such an archaic design is used when it was solved at the end of the 16-bit era.
At least the music isn’t painful. In fact, it’s a joy to listen to as each of the tracks reflects what is happening in the space (pun not intended) you’re observing. The downside is that you’ll rarely hear it. Most of the time, you’ll hear Shion’s footsteps on screen. The only way you’ll hear each of the tracks is if you have the official soundtrack CD, which is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This gives the music a timeless feel that could be considered at odds with the futuristic setting. At least the tense string-based battle music is heard on a regular basis. The voice acting is ... a bit mixed. On the one hand, each of the actors fit their respective characters. However, some of the dialogue isn’t perfectly translated (this game was released back in 2001), which makes some of the acting a bit off. It slightly disrupts the flow, yet the game is so cinematic focused that it doesn’t matter in the end.
Graphically, Xenosaga still looks great after 11 years. The entire Sci-Fi setting is done well with the various ship settings that will be explored. The Gnosis all look like fallen creatures — even the unicorn looks corrupted with handles for a mane and scales. Selling the point even more is how sterile the environments look due to the industrial nature. The other major problem is that there are clipping issues where characters or objects will “go through” certain parts of the environment or even articles of clothing. Considering that this was one of the major budgeted games of yesteryear, it’s somewhat surprising that it occurred, especially as the technology was almost mastered at the time.
That’s what makes Xenosaga Episode 1 so disjointed. There is this wonderful, clever plot that references so many sources with its existential quest that it is just plain intriguing to watch. And then there’s the slow-moving gameplay that makes it difficult to slog through the game. It’s like there are different personalities fighting for dominance and they’re so perfectly matched that it often makes the game feel like it’s at a standstill. It’s been highly reflected in how sporadically I’ve been playing it for the past few months. There have been moments where it has completely absorbed me, and there have been moments where my mind wanders. Due to its slow and exact pacing, it’s rather easy to get absorbed into other games that are faster paced.
I found the game almost a year ago for only $5. It’s a steal at that price. There’s tons of customization, a rich and vibrant plot, unique characters and solid gameplay. Here’s the thing: For a game that is focused on humanity’s existential crisis, it’s boring. Only the hardcore player base or someone who majored in English is going to get slog through each of the plot points. That’s the problem with the game at the end of the day. An existential crisis should never be boring because it should force the player to reflect on life and do something. The game isn’t in crisis, it’s a reflective stroll through a park. How much fun that could be depends entirely on your perspective of a mellow park.