Review: Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht

The Xeno series is heralded by JRPG fans as some of the best examples of the genre. But until the 2012 North American release of Xenoblade Chronicles, it was a series I had no experience with. When playing games from a specific franchise, I usually tend to play them in the order they were released. However, due to to various circumstances, I’ve somehow managed to experience the Xeno series in a completely chaotic fashion. I started with Xenoblade Chronicles (one of the last games in the series), moved on to Xenogears (the first game to bear the Xeno name), and now I’ve finally completed the first game in the Xenosaga sub-trilogy: Xenosaga Episode I – Der Wille zur Macht. Thankfully, unless otherwise noted, the Xeno games are not direct sequels to each other. So, there’s no real confusion in playing them out of order.

“Der Wille zur Macht” is a German phrase that translates to “the will to power”. If that phrase doesn’t make a lot of sense, it’s because it gets lost in translation. The term is a philosophical concept by Friedrich Nietzsche. It is a concept best explained as “the will to live” or “the driving force of mankind”. It may seem odd to subtitle a video game with such a highbrow phrase. But if you’ve spent any time with the Xeno series, you’ll know that concepts like philosophy, religion, and social commentary go hand-in-hand with the series. This game is no exception to that rule. As was the case with Xenogears, there’s plenty of deep philosophical undertones to the story in Xenosaga.

Before I get into the review, I want to take a moment to clear up something that might be a bit confusing. The Xenosaga series is split into three different games (all for the Playstation 2). Xenosaga Episode I was released in North America in 2003. Its sequel, Xenosaga Episode II followed in 2005, and finally Xenosaga Episode III was released in 2006. Pretty simple, right? Well, the confusion comes from another title that was released in Japan for the Nintendo DS; Xenosaga I & II. Often times, people who want to get into the series assume that Xenosaga I & II is somehow a remake or remaster of the first two games and begin looking for copies. That’s not the case. Xenosaga I & II is actually a Japanese-only release that combines the storyline of the first two games into 16-bit style RPG. Is it a good game? Sure. But it’s not at all the best way to experience the start of the Xenosaga story. Trust me on this, the Playstation 2 is the way to go.

Xenosaga is a sci-fi JRPG. Many people often joke that it is a playable anime. To be honest, that’s not too far from the truth. They storyline of the game is very reminiscent of a mecha-style/space opera anime. The game opens with a cutscene showing the discovery of an unusual artifact in Kenya. This discovery accelerates mankind’s advancement in science and ultimately results in humanity becoming a spacefaring race. Approximately four-thousand years after the discovery, the human race is scattered among the stars and the location of the planet Earth has been lost to antiquity. Now populating countless planets, the humans of various worlds have formed a Galactic Federation. However, in recent years the Federation has come under attack by a mysterious alien race called The Gnosis. Various corporations and scientific laboratories are hard at work developing weapons to defend against these creatures. One of the more popular options are humanoid mechs called A.G.W.S. (Anti Gnosis Weapon Systems). However, a corporation called Vector is currently developing a secret android capable of fighting the Gnosis in ways never seen before. When the game begins, you control the character of Shion, one of the chief developers of this new android. Shion is a passenger aboard a Federation starship when the ship suddenly encounters an artifact in deep space that resembles the one discovered on Earth thousands of years before. After bringing the artifact on board, the ship is attacked by Gnosis. This attack prompts a series of events that brings together an unlikely cast of characters. As the story progresses, the group finds themselves in the middle of conspiracy of epic proportions. One that leads them to uncover a number of untold secrets.

In many ways, Xenosaga is similar to other JRPGs that came before it. When the game starts, you are in control of a single character. But as the game progresses, a handful of new characters will join your roster. You can make a party of up to three characters, swapping them in and out as needed.  Characters can equip gear and each has their own unique set of abilities. Each character has their own strength and weaknesses and figuring out how to tailor your party to tackle different encounters is a big part of the gameplay strategy. The story is driven mostly by cutscenes. And there’s  A LOT of cutscenes in this game. In fact, one of the major complaints you’ll often hear about Xenosaga is that it sometimes feels more like a movie than a game. To put that into perspective, it took me just over fifty hours to complete the game. Out of those fifty hours, about ten hours were spent watching cutscenes. That’s a lot! In reality, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The quality of both the story and the cutscenes themselves is very high. At no time during the game did the large number of cutscenes feel like like it was detracting from the experience.

As I mentioned above, the gameplay will feel familiar to fans already acquainted with JRPGs. Characters level up by fighting, they equip weapons and armor, and they develop skills and abilities to aid them in battle. One thing that immediately feels a bit different in this game is amount of exploration compared to other games of this type. For the majority of the game, Xenosaga feels very much like an “on rails” experience. Explorable areas are somewhat small at first, and this change as the story progresses. Eventually you do reach a point where you can go back and forth between areas at will. Still, the overall amount of explorable space isn’t very big compared to other games of this type.

In keeping with the comparison to other JRPGs, the battle system in Xenosaga is pretty different than what’s been seen in other similar games. The exception to that is Xenogears. If you’ve played Xenogears then you might have a better grasp on what you’re about to experience in this game – but only slightly. One thing many players will notice right away is that there are no random encounters. Enemies are visible on the field and players can attempt to avoid them. Of course, combat is a key part of the game. The battle system here is not at all a copy of what is found in Xenogears. But it is equally as advanced. Each character in Xenosaga has a number of different ways to attack that are unique to that character. For starters, each character has both physical and ether-based attack options. Some monsters are weak to physical attacks, while others are weak to ether. Once you’ve determined the monster’s weakness, you typically attack them accordingly. Each character has a meter that measures the number of Action Points they have to spend in a round of combat. Typically, a single attack will consume 2 Action Points. Players can choose to either burn both action points in a single round or hold them over to the next round. This is important because some more advanced attacks require more Action Points to execute. The advanced attacks come in the form of either combos or something called Tech Attacks. Tech Attacks are special moves that are learned as the character levels up or they unlocked at various points in the game.

As characters continue to attack, they also raise a Boost Gauge. Once this gauge is full, that character is able to execute a “boost attack” if desired. A Boost Attack is just a fancy way to describe the act of cutting in line and attacking next, even if it’s not that character’s turn. This is actually an important element in the combat system for Xenosaga. Unlike most turn-based RPGs, rounds of combat in Xenosaga have special attributes associated with them called Event Slots. Whatever slot is active during a combat round can affect the battle in some way. The options are: increased chance of critical hits, boost gauge increase, or an increase in points earned. That final option is an important one. Smart players will do their best to try to end combat when the Points Up slot is active to ensure that they earn better rewards from the battle. With the Event Slot system in mind, you can see how mastering boost attacks can really turn the tide of battle.

Finally, some characters have the ability to summon A.G.W.S. mechs and pilot them during combat. These mechs have a much higher pool of hit points and usually stronger base attacks. However, they are somewhat limited in the variety of attacks they can perform. Also, if a character is knocked out when wearing an A.G.W.S., they are unable to be raised during combat. With this in mind, using A.G.W.S. isn’t always the best option. Still, using them in certain battles can defiantly turn the tide depending on the situation.

Both experience points and tech points are earned at the end of combat. As you might expect, experience points go towards leveling the character up, but tech points can be used for a variety of purposes. TP can spent on upgrading existing Tech Attacks, character stats, or increasing the speed for a specific attack. There’s really no right or wrong way to spend TP, it’s all about customizing the character’s attacks to match your playing style.

All of the characters in the game are interesting in their own way. I won’t get too much into the backstory of each character in this review, as I feel this is best experienced by actually enjoying the game. But I do want to take a moment to touch on two characters in particular, Shion and her android companion KOS-MOS. Shion is arguably the lead character. She the young scientist in charge of development for the KOS-MOS android prototype. She’s the first character you control in the game and also one of the most unique. Xenosaga contains a number of mini-games and interesting mechanics, and a handful of them are directly tied to Shion and her story. For starters, as a scientist, Shion has access to a special Galactic computer network. As a result, when controlling her character, the player will frequently receive emails alerts. The email system serves as a fun way to provide information on the game’s main story, but occasionally players will also be prompted to reply to messages. For example, Shion may receive a corporate email from her HR department asking if she wants to contribute some of her payroll into various investments. The investment you choose has an effect later in the game. Also, some emails come with attachments that Shion can “download” into the real world and use as items. This network also logs places Shion has already visited and VR versions of these locations can be visited at various points in the game. The point of this is to allow the player to go back to previous areas and unlock new secrets that were originally out of reach.

The second character I want to mention is KOS-MOS, the female android that was designed as a next-gen weapon against the Gnosis. KOS-MOS is an interesting character for a variety of reasons. For starters, she looks amazing. The visual design of the character is compelling and different from almost any other character in the game. Second, despite looking like an attractive young woman, KOS-MOS has a no-nonsense, machine-like personality. This makes the relationship between Shion and KOS-MOS one of the more interesting aspects of the game’s plot. One of the central plot points in the game is the existence of Realians – a semi-organic android. Realians are created for specific purposes (usually labor related), but since they are virtual lifeforms, the Galactic Federation has granted them rights. Shion is very sympathetic to the feelings and plights of Realians (even though their emotions are technically nothing more than advanced, artificial A.I.). KOS-MOS, on the other hand, seems very much indifferent and insists on following a logical solution to all problems.

The humanity debate about Realians is a big subplot to the game. I feel like it’s there to intentionally make players consider the philosophical aspects of A.I. versus the human condition.

Aside from the main story, there’s plenty of other distractions in Xenosaga as well. Throughout the game, players can unlock various key items that allow them to participate in a number of mini-games. These can range from things as mundane as casino-style slots and poker, all the way to the complicated deck-building card game, “Xenocards”. I found these activities to be a fun change of pace from time to time. But I was often so compelled by the game’s story that I didn’t spend a lot of time on the mini-games. Still, it’s nice that have some extras like these available.

It goes without saying that Xenosaga Episode I is a very deep and complex RPG. I daresay it could even be referred to as an “advanced rpg”. The storyline is fantastic and the game mechanics are rich and maybe just a tad overwhelming. Despite having a bit of a learning curve, I feel like the storyline offered up by this game is well done that it’s well worth your time. But be warned, this game doesn’t tie up any loose ends and it actually ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I’m very much looking forward to the next entry in the series to see what happens next.

Version Reviewed: PS2

Difficulty: Medium – The majority of this game is pretty linear so without a doubt the combat in this game poses the biggest challenge to the player. This is amplified slightly by the sheer complexity of the gameplay mechanics. Being a PS2 title, it is very much expected that people playing this game are going to read the instruction manual. (Which I did). But even then, there’s no doubt that things in this game can get a bit confusing. Putting aside the mechanics, certain encounters in the game do feel a bit overpowered. Unlike most JRPGs, it’s a bit tougher to grind levels here due to the linear design, but it’s still possible for the determined player. Still, mastery of the game mechanics is key to success. Once you take the time to figure everything out, Xenosaga gets much easier to play.

Multiplayer: No.

Story: This is the shining jewel and the whole reason the game exists. Xenosaga was originally envisioned to be a six-part story but eventually was condensed down to three games. Even so, the storyline in just this one chapter alone is fantastic. If you like mecha anime or space operas, this game is a must-play. On a side note, many people try to claim that Xenogears is a distant prequel to Xenosaga, but that’s not actually correct. The two games are unrelated, even if there are some spiritual links between the two.

Originality: Xenosaga feels very much like a natural evolution of the established JRPG genre. All of the basic elements are there, but this time with a number of new options and a new layer of complexity.

Soundtrack: Monolithsoft never seems to disappoint. The music in this game is stellar. Everything from the battle theme to the various scores that play throughout the game are just wonderful and fully orchestrated. This soundtrack rivals anything from the Final Fantasy series.

Fun: If you’re a hardcore JRPG fan, this game is going to be for you. But, if you’re a little more casual, the complexity of the both the combat and the character development system may be a bit overwhelming.

Graphics: The graphics are surprisingly good for an early PS2 title. This game was released during a time when developers were still trying to shift from a 2D to 3D mentality. As a result, many games of the era sometimes look a bit disjointed. This is not the case with Xenosaga. These days, thanks to emulation, Xenosaga can be upscaled to look as good as any PS3 title. But even on its native hardware, this game was still an impressive sight (even if it was a little jaggy).

Playcontrol: This is one of the earliest 3D console titles to really get things right. The character movement and control scheme feels very fluid and natural. No real issues to report.

Downloadable Content: N/A

Mature Content: Some violence and peril, religious themes.

Value:  Physical copies are scarce. They can usually be found online ranging from $25-$100+. depending on the condition. At the time of this writing, Xenosaga has never been release digitally so you’re going to have to pay collector’s prices. I bought this game years ago for around $15, but I was extremely lucky. Considering the quality of the game, I would happily pay around $50 today if I had to.

Overall score (1-100): 90Xenosaga Episode 1 is truly a fantastic game for fans of this genre. However, it may be a little hard to recommend to first time RPG players or for those who prefer games with fast pace. A large part of the game involves watching cutscenes and the rest of the gameplay is very combat heavy. There’s some exploration, but it’s not as open as other games of this type. Still, the graphics, storyline and even soundtrack make up for the few shortfalls.

Original System: PS2

Available today on:  Currently Unavailable   – (Updated as of Spring 2024)

Best Experience: PS2  – (Updated as of Spring 2024)

 

Other Reviews In This Series:

Xenosaga Episode I   –   Xenosaga Episode II   –   Xenosaga Episode III

Xenosaga Episode I & II

 

Old Game Hermit

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