There are some games that inspire great anticipation for their release. True, they might not have regular press reports or even a well-known name, but they still have people quite literally counting down the days until it arrives on our shores. Xenogears was one of those games, and its prequel, Xenosaga is following the proud tradition. Although many North Americans were expecting Xenogears to be a god among games, what they got instead was an enjoyable romp through a sci-fi world featuring an intriguing battle system and a gripping story. Fans can expect the same from Xenosaga - but this time around, maybe it will all just add up to greatness.
First things first. Xenosaga starts off in the same 21st century that we are all familiar with by now. Excavators in Africa discover a mysterious stone called the Zohar. Thousands of years later, humanity is a space-faring race at war with the Gnosis, a species seemingly capable of phasing in and out of the dimension. Shion Uzuki, our heroine, is the head of the KOS-MOS project that has just developed an android that could prove crucial in this conflict. So what's the deal with the Zohar? What is KOS-MOS going to turn out like? Just some of the many mysteries Xenosaga has to offer. Perhaps most confusing among these mysteries is how exactly this storyline fits in with Xenogears'. Although the previewer will not claim to be exempt from this confusion, from what he has gathered, Xenogears is episode five of an epic six-part storyline. It is this same storyline that Xenosaga is the first episode in. This seems a bit odd at first, since 'Saga looks much more like a high-tech space opera than 'Gears, but it will surely all fit in.
Besides Final Fantasy X, Xenosaga probably has the best graphics of any RPG on the PS2. The backgrounds are jaw dropping and the numerous special effects are just incredible. Anything along the lines of magic attacks or explosions is truly a sight to see. Namco is quick to tout the fact that it has incorporated anime style into the game - a common enough claim, but Xenosaga looks like the best example so far. All the characters are the result of great modeling, and (except perhaps on the field screen) they all have dynamic, expressive facial expressions. For that level of detail, it is easy to forgive any stiffness the character animation might have. If there is one real significant shortcoming with the visuals, it could be that the colors are bland and pale, and lacking in "wow" factor.
Battles, in principle, are very similar to those in Xenogears, or for that matter, Chrono Cross. That is, it is a turn-based system, and each character gets a certain amount of "action points" per turn. Once these action points are spent, then the turn is over. These points can be spent in a variety of different ways, or even saved for next turn. Pressing a button activates the regular attacks. The square button causes the character to execute a short-range physical attack, and triangle a long-range magic attack. For a greater expenditure of action points, these attacks can be combined into special abilities. Alternately, action points can be spent to give a character a "boost" in line, and attack earlier. All this makes for a fair amount of strategy. To make things even more interesting, Xenosaga has its own battle machines called Anti-Gnosis Weapon Systems, though they are quite different from the Gears. Players no longer have to worry about managing fuel, now the AGWS's ammunition is the only resource. AGWSs don't stay around for long, rather they are "summoned" into battle for a brief period of mayhem. Even so, there is still a lot of fun to be had equipping and preparing them.
The view on the travelling field is fixed this time around, so there will be no adjustable camera - another aspect of the dramatic storytelling of Xenosaga. At any rate, enemies can be seen on the field and avoided by clever means. For instance, obstacles can be cleared with a handy-dandy lasergun. This feature will probably be well received, as more and more RPGamers are tiring of random battles.
But nobody will ever tire of mini-games! Xenosaga has four distinct diversions: a trading card game (Yes!), a casino (sigh...), a virtual AGWS battle, and some drilling game. These should be welcome additions to Xenosaga's gameplay, because, frankly, there isn't too much of it. There is a lot of cinema and storytelling in this game. Those who can't stand long stretches of story, or at least don't like robot philosophizing to be part of that story, should stay far away from this game. This game's focus is first and foremost on story, and telling it takes up a significant part of the 80 hours it takes to complete the game.
Fans of Xenogears and the Chrono games will be pleased to learn that Yasunori Mitsuda is composing the music for Xenosaga. This time around, he has abandoned synthesizers in favor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The obvious result is music full of emotion and mood; the more surprising result is the impressive use of choral themes. The character voice actors is a more questionable case, however. The English voice actors seem to be having a bit of trouble with the translation, especially with all the technical lines.
All in all, Xenosaga is the most technically appealing RPG to come by in a while, but some may not enjoy being unable to use the controller for long stretches. For others, this title will be an experience they will long remember. Xenosaga comes out on the twenty-fifth of February, which, as of writing, is in 28 days, 7 hours, 31 (hey, at least they won't dare to delay this one) minutes and 5 seconds.