Review by Psycho Penguin
Eat your heart out, Xenogears!
One of the most common complaints that RPG fans have about the current state of the genre is that there's too much videos and storyline and not enough gameplay. While this does tend to be the rule nowadays, I as an RPG fan have no problem with this evolution, as role playing games have always focused on storyline and I am sure that if developers had the technology in the SNES/NES era, we'd have seen a lot more games like Xenogears and Final Fantasy X back then, too.
Perhaps the most damning game that the detractors point to is Xenosaga, the first game of an originally planned six game series that features a TON of cutscenes and storyline. This game has perhaps the most complex storyline and characters ever, and it only promised to get more complex as the series progressed into Episode 2 and 3. Now, this game has also been known as the spiritual prequel to Xenogears, a game I absolutely could not stand due to its reliance on boring story scenes.
Therefore, there's no way I could stand Xenosaga and its even heavier reliance on story scenes, right? Surprise! The reason behind me liking Xenosaga is simple, though. The storyline is actually interesting and makes you want to keep watching! I did not want the storyline to end, and I am definitely going to get Episode 2 as soon as possible to continue following the epic storyline that is slowly unfolding.
The story does start off really boring, as you run around a big ass spaceship doing stupid things and getting a lot of back story about the characters and the story that will soon unfold. However, a group of space enemies named the Gnosis suddenly attack your ship, your robot KOS-MOS kicks the living hell out of them, and the storyline really takes off into an epic space tale about dueling factions who want to control a mysterious artifact.
You can't really attach yourself to a storyline unless the characters are good, and fortunately Xenosaga has some of the best characters in a RPG I have ever seen. There's the main character, Shion Uzuki, who is the creator of KOS-MOS and chief engineer at Vector Industries. She's a bit of a whiner and I can't stand how she constantly fawns over KOS-MOS and worries about her like she's a human being, but I suppose I can see myself getting attached to something I spent years creating.
The aforementioned KOS-MOS is a robot created by Vector to defeat the Gnosis, and her lack of emotions and robotic dialogue are great and make her one of my favorite characters. Even if she does seem a little too unstoppable outside of battles, like a cutscene where she destroys literally hundreds of Gnosis in one swoop. The next characters are MOMO, a Realian who was created for mysterious purpose and now is wanted by pretty much everyone, and Jr., one of my favorite characters. Jr. is a real ass-kicking dude, with a funny personality and has one of the most interesting back stories in the game.
However, nobody's back story compares to Ziggurat 8's, better known as Ziggy. Ziggy was someone who was forcefully brought back to life after dying, as a cyborg, after he signed an organ donator card without thinking it over. Now he constantly lives with the pain of his previous life, and he wants nothing more than to have his memories erased. The concept of this is really thought provoking alone, and sadly the game doesn't really go into it much. The parts that do are really interesting, though. And finally there is chaos, and I am not going to waste a paragraph on him because the game doesn't, either.
Having a great storyline and characters is great, but does Xenosaga live up to the standards the story sets when it comes to gameplay? In a word, yes! This is actually one of the best battle systems I have seen in a RPG. Battles play out pretty simply at first. You have three characters, and a turn order. Battles are turn based, and on a character's turn, they can either attack, use an item, use an ether spell, defend, or board an AGWS if they have one.
AGWS are basically the Gears in this game. They're huge robots that can be boarded and then you can do things like rocket attacks, shooting the enemies with guns, etc. You can't guard with them, and I found them to be pretty useless, but some people might get a kick out of controlling these giant robots, with their large amounts of hit points and strong attacks. But like I said, I never really found much of a use for them, since you can't heal them unless you have a special technique which allows them to gain 10% of their max HP back if they guard, therefore wasting a turn. They also can't use items and are generally slower than a turtle.
Therefore, I mostly stuck to regular characters, who have a lot more options available to them. If you choose to attack, you can perform different moves depending on the buttons you press. Square performs a near attack, and triangle performs a far attack. You can then push square or triangle again to perform a second move. If you choose to guard, you get a third command, circle, after the first two, which allow you to perform a powerful tech attack on the enemy.
There are ways to abuse this system to make the game easy, though. After every battle, you get tech points, which allow you to level up a character's statistics. However, you can also use them to make techs stronger, and you can use them to make a tech go into a two-move slot. What I mean by this is, say, you upgrade a tech to a two-move slot and set it in the triangle slot. Now, when you push triangle in the first move, you can push circle in the second move and unleash the tech without having to waste a turn guarding! You can then level up the tech and really make the game a lot easier, with some patience and leveling up of course.
And yes, you will need to level up a bit in order to survive this game. It's not the easiest in the world, but some things are here to help you out. For one, you also get ether and skill points after battles. These help you do things like transfer ether spells to other characters (Ziggy with healing spells! chaos with Boost 1!), learn new ether spells, and learn new skills from accessories you find throughout the game. Traps are placed throughout the game, and help you gain advantages in battle like slowing down the enemies. And finally, every enemy in the game is seen on the map, and on the radar, so there's no surprises.
It's a good thing, too, since the dungeons are so ridiculously massive in this game it's not even funny. We're not talking Final Fantasy 12-like here, thank god, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that some of the later dungeons in the game take 2-3 hours just to get through. There's not too many dungeons in the game, but you'll definitely have your hands full with the ones that are in the game. Fortunately, you can return to the dungeons whenever you want after completing them, so you don't need to get everything in them at once.
Sadly, most of the dungeons, and other environments, look beautiful, but ultimately boring and plain. Most of the areas in the game take too many pages out of the book of space design cliches, so there's a lot of gray corridors, colorful but pointless neon things, and vast spaces of nothingness. There is one or two dungeons later on in the game that look great, like the Cathedral Ship, with its crazy floors and alien-like exterior, and the Song of Nephillim, a grayish area that at least has a unique design to it. The game looks awesome, but sadly it's just too plain.
The same can be said for its music, which is beautifully orchestrated but far too limited. There's simply not enough music in this game. There is only one battle theme until the final boss, which is simply inexcusable. How can a PS2 game that's trying to be so epic have the same battle theme for every battle and boss until the last one? I did not even know that half the battles in the game were bosses! Most of the time spent in dungeons will have you hearing the sounds of footsteps and not much else. Fortunately, the music that is here is brilliant, especially an escape theme and the final dungeon's theme, but there's simply not enough of it.
As mentioned earlier, this game provides a decent challenge, although it gets easier as you go along. Learning about skills like boost and techs are a must if you are to get anywhere, as some of the earlier bosses were just brutal to me as I did not know about these special ideas. Later on in the game, the potential to overpower your characters is too great to pass up, and way too easy. Getting the ultimate summon for Shion, that does 9999 damage to any enemy in the game, is as simple as finding six doors and six decoders. Getting the ultimate weapons is almost as easy. I killed the final two bosses without them touching me. There ARE some hard bosses in the game, and the Cathedral Ship dungeon is a nightmare, but otherwise the game is easy towards the end.
The game has immense replay value due to how much fun it is, and you can skip the story scenes on a repeated playthrough, which is awesome. There's a lot of side stuff to do, as well. There's an awesome casino where you can play slots or poker. You can fight some extra bosses which provide a decent challenge. You can play mini games like a card game or a drilling mini game. You can find all 18 doors and decoders to get a bunch of extra items. There's a lot to do outside of the main game, which is already fun enough, and I see myself going back to this game again in the future for sure.
Despite the fact I didn't get the 80 hours of gameplay the back of the box told me to expect (final clearing time was like 34 hours 21 minutes or so), I had an absolute blast playing this game. Despite my dislike of Xenogears, this game did everything so much better, and for the first time in a while, I was hoping the game wasn't going to end so soon. I was that much into it. The future of RPGs has finally arrived, and every fan of the genre owes it to themselves to try this wonderful masterpiece that has to go down as one of the greatest RPGs the PS2 console has ever seen.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
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