XENOSAGA EPISODE I / Namco / Playstation 2

When Hirohide Suguira and Tetsuya Takahashi left Square to form Monolith Software (with Namco's seed money), they couldn't take the IP rights to Takahashi's Xenogears with them. So instead they rebooted the whole concept as Xenosaga, making a rather samey universe in the core concepts, but not sharing enough with it to put themselves on the hook for a lawsuit. I can think of a small handful of times in gaming history that something like this has happened, and none of the "second coming" products really turned out all that great, they just seemed like a watered-down derivative of the original. I thought Xenosaga had some potential, though, because Xenogears was a fucking mess, just pure excruciating pain to sit through. My hope was that Takahashi - who had never written a game before Xenogears, being solely a graphics designer for Square's SNES RPGs prior - would have learned some important lessons from his first outing, and with a few years to absorb them and re-focus, maybe he could live up to the potential that Xenogears sometimes showed.


He not only seemingly didn't learn much of anything from criticism of Xenogears, he's now making new and even more tedious mistakes. Xenosaga merrily rattles along ripping off other people's concepts in hodgepodge style, arranging them in often incoherent ways, being generally self-indulgent and bloated, and giving zero fucks about how much of the gamer's time it is wasting with poor design decisions.

The first and most important thing to establish about Xenosaga is that, like Xenogears, it's going to make you watch a shit butt fuck-ton of non-interactive cutscenes, but even more so than Xenogears did. Plot and characters in a game can often fairly be said to be not that important, but not so in a game that's asking you to sit for a good 15 of its 40 hours of playtime and do nothing but watch cutscenes or dialogue sequences. In this case, the plot had better be goddamned absorbing. Unfortunately, like Xenogears, it's derivative, slapped together, and often either terminally boring or outright incoherent.

Right from the outset, it takes three hours of playtime for anything meaningful to happen. You'll get into a combat tutorial in a reasonable amount of time, but from there, it's two straight hours of watching main character Shion walk from her R&D lab on a giant spaceship to the spaceship's bridge to talk to the captain, and then back, interrupted by an absolutely insane amount of droning cutscenes en route. And those aren't exaggerations for effect, it literally takes 2 to 3 hours for the game to really even get out of introductory exposition/tutorial mode.

One of Xenogears' big problems was over-reliance on other people's ideas, to the point where it felt like an ill-assembled pastiche of anime and movie references rather than an actual original story. Xenosaga continues this theme to some degree, the biggest sources of inspiration this time being Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 and 2010. There's tons of little "shout out"/ripoffs to anime, probably more than I could ever recognize, but that's actually not one of the bigger problems this time. Much more of a problem is that not only has Takahashi seemingly regressed in terms of a sense for pacing, he's adopted one of Hideo Kojima's most awful tropes; when one character in the game delivers exposition by lecturing another awkwardly on a topic that the other character should already full well be familiar with (he's also newly fond of stopping battles for long periods so characters in your party can pontificate to one another whilst the enemies are apparently having a break to pick their noses and scratch themselves somewhere in the background.) He's also still doing that Evangelion thing where the plot cuts away to some Mysterious Circle Of Schemers at arbitrary times, but then they're forgotten about for hours on end, and to complicate things there's like three different ones in this one that still remain unexplained at 15 hours into the game. He FURTHER introduces buttloads of concepts that are completely unexplained, then forgets about them for hours, or forces you to read the in-game glossary when the cutscene ends to understand what the hell was just being talked about. The game often feels like it was written for someone who has played it already. Very po-mo, I guess? At least someone stepped in this time and stopped him from 'using single quotes in inappropriate places' in the middle of text.

Kojima often seems like he'd rather be directing a movie; Takahashi similarly seems like he'd rather just be directing an anime, and is a bit resentful he has to interrupt all the cinematics and exposition with actual interactive sequences now and again. Unlike Kojima, he has no sense nor care for innovative, tight and fun gameplay sequences, nor how to use them appropriately in a story-centered game. I've already mentioned that the game opens with a good two hours of simply walking back and forth through a giant ship talking to people. The action finally picks up when the ship gets attacked by the Gnosis, the primary antagonists of the game, a mysterious alien race who can take incorporeal form yet somehow physically attack and effect space around them. However, since you initially can't fight them due to their lack of permanence, this turns out to be yet another overlong sequence of walking back and forth through the ship, pressing obvious buttons to cause ship functions to either distract them, drop them off bridges or suck them through airlocks (as to why the latter two are effective but bullets and energy beams just go through them, search me.) It's a handholding sequence that climaxes with a "gimme" boss battle; and then it's off to another solid 30 minutes of cutscenes before you encounter the next gameplay sequence, and the first that offers any iota of actual challenge.

Unfortunately, it's because that next sequence is janky, a poorly implemented "stealth segment." It also teaches us an early and harsh lesson about Xenosaga's structure; while you're wandering about those labyrinthine giant spaceship segments, you need to be mildly psychic and use your very finite money to load up on appropriate healing items for upcoming segments, or you can find yourself trapped in an unwinnable situation.

If you got trapped in the stealth segment because your past self didn't know to invest heavily in heal potions (with the other character whose inventory should in no rational way be linked with the one you're currently controlling), got frustrated at the bullshit design, and gave up at the idea of having to sit through three hours of cutscenes and slow walking again, I don't blame you. I managed to have *just* enough to get through that part, which is the only reason I continued. Guess what you get to do next? You go on board another giant ship, slowly walk about it, and talk to people and watch cutscenes for another couple of hours. Rinse and repeat for the entire game? I gave up not much farther ahead than this.

I was concerned this would turn out like Xenogears (or worse), but my last refuge of hope was in Yasunori Mitsuda doing the soundtrack. He does contribute some good work, but ... there's an awful lot less music here than you'd expect. Most of the segments where you wander about giant ships and dungeon areas are completely silent except for a bit of ambient noise. There's a good battle and victory theme ... but I hope you REALLY like them as they're the only ones you ever hear in the game - no alternate battle themes, no new themes for bosses, it's apparently the same one every time up until the final boss.

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