Xenosaga (Episode One: Der Wille Zur Macht)

Format: PlayStation 2
Developed by: Monolith
Published by: Namco
Based on: Someone's senior thesis on Nietsche meets Roger Corman

Genre: Pseudo-RPG
Media: DVD-Rom
Date: 28 February 2003

I hates Nietzsches to pieces

Someone once said that the greatest danger of science and technology is that the people making progress today are too detached from the process of discovery -- that is, modern scientists are building their own learning upon the progress of others. [1] As a result, this line of reasoning goes, there's a diminished sense of understanding (and moral responsibility) that accompanies the borrowed knowledge upon which they build.

Of course, such a frame of mind runs contrary to progress -- general advancement in any field would be impossible without the ability to draw upon the accomplishments of others. Nevertheless, there's some merit to the notion; consider the grim words of Oppenheimer as he watched the first nuclear bomb detonate in the deserts of New Mexico. And realize that the progress of the nuclear arms race marched relentlessly forward anyway -- under the guidance of others who lacked Oppenheimer's first-hand knowledge of its power. [2]

Xenosaga, then, would be the gaming equivalent of a neutron bomb -- a burning, destructive force unleashed by coddled, isolated amateurs who have an incomplete comprehension of the nature of their creation.

Games like Xenosaga are the result of developers who have grown up knowing nothing but anime and manga and videogames. Bored and inattentive during literature class, too lazy to seek film beyond the local cineplex, these self-absorbed young men have come of age in a self-inflicted artistic vacuum -- a cultural Wasteland where hackneyed pop-philosophy and superficial religious imagery have gone and slain the Fisher King. This emptiness is reflected in their work: devoid of structure, subtlety or cohesion, Xenosaga and its ilk are an ill-conceived regurgitation of the media with which their creators have surrounded themselves. Pale imitations of others' successes, designed amidst a murky ignorance of what made those sources of inspiration work. It's only fitting that the creators of this game chose for themselves the name "Monolith," for like a monolith, their work is flat, dull and ponderous. [3]

In Xenosaga, Monolith Software [4] has created a disjointed, convoluted mess that uses the Japanese console RPG genre of video games as an excuse to create a ponderous anime-esque space opera. This is much like using an 80-minute rock song to expound upon the tenets of zen buddhism -- it can be done, but the result is going to be pretty wretched, no matter how polished it is. Sadly enough, Xenosaga doesn't even have a decent coat of polish working its favor.

As the spiritual [5] successor and prequel to Xenogears, Episode One of Xenosaga had a great deal of baggage to overcome; the prior game was burdened by designs and ambitions which were perceived by some as genius and others as unabashed crap. But at the same time, Xenosaga had its predecessor's enormous potential to be exceptionally rad -- perks such as:

  • A huge, epic plot
  • Some of the savviest programmers in the industry
  • Giant robots, which are always great.

But like a dog returning to its vomit, Square's expatriate creators have turned out another game riddled with many of the same shortcomings as their previous work. And the problems which were corrected have, unfortunately, been replaced with an entirely new set of failures.

The stumbling blocks may be slightly different this time, but anyone who has suffered through 1998's catastrophically torpid warm-up for this game will recognize most of where Xenosaga goes wrong. The biggest problem is Xenosaga's approach to storytelling; nothing fits together; every disparate element of the game seems to have been thrown haphazardly into a giant virtual cauldron in the hope that it would boil down into something palatable. In the background is a huge, galaxy-spanning plot which presumes to reveal the very nature of god or whatever, but the flow of this overarching narrative is constantly derailed by "wacky" anime romance clichés, ham-handed character "development," anonymous talking heads making nonsensical yet important-sounding decisions, and even occasional moments of genuine weirdness -- all of which seem terribly out of place. Also, flashbacks. Lots and lots of flashbacks. It's a classic example of kitchen sink syndrome, and it's indicative of the game's primary failure. Namely, that Tetsuya Takahashi's ambitions as a storyteller far outstrip his abilities.

In playing Xenosaga, one is left with the impression that it was created by people who have played a lot of video games but failed to stop and ask themselves what it is that actually makes a good video game before trying to create one of their own. The shortcomings of Xenosaga could charitably be attributed to cultural differences between Japanese and American thinking. But aside from the unsavory arrogance inherent in such a way of thinking, there's also the not-insignificant fact that the game reportedly sold in rather disappointing quantities overseas, suggesting the Japanese aren't eager to buy into this crap, either. More likely is the possibility that the game's designers spent a lot of time thinking about the story they wanted to tell without giving a lot of consideration to how it should be told. Much like George Lucas or Hideo Kojima, Tetsuya Takahashi is a man with an agenda, a budget, and a grand, sweeping tale to tell, and no clue how to frame his tale in an interesting fashion. At its best, it's clunky exposition with a tin ear for dialogue; at its worst, it's a blatant misuse of a medium.

After all, this is ultimately a video game. For the direction of story scenes to bring an entire game to its knees indicates a basic conceptual failure on the part of the creators. But since gameplay actually represents so little of Xenosaga's playtime, it's almost inevitable that the quality of its cinematics weigh as heavily as the (theoretically) more important interactive bits. [6] Sadly enough, the game stretches on for nearly 15 hours before it actually casts gamers into a genuine explore-and-survive situation, the meat-and-potatoes of the RPG genre. Prior to landing in Cathedral Ship, gamers are coddled with just a few brief, desultory "gaming" sequences. The first is a short training mode in which the game's intricate battle system is explained in such a jumbled rush that it's practically useless; the second is a completely staged (and insultingly gimmicky) gauntlet of ridiculous deus ex machina contrivances and trial-and-error redundancy (featuring inescapable, indestructible enemies which instantly kill Shion in combat, but of course not in cinemas). The third introduces the game's only tolerable characters, Ziggy and Momo, but is bogged down by an unbelievably poor Metal Gear Solid-inspired "stealth action" mode and made deeply frustrating by the fact that it's entirely possible to become stuck without sufficient curative items to survive and be forced to restore from a previous save (or worse, start completely over). The final action bits are a brief extermination mission which can be cleared in about 15 minutes, and a push-the-button romp without a single trace of challenge to be found. Depending on one's playing style, these four sequences comprise about 3 hours of playing time -- at most, a mere fifth of the game time which contains them. The remaining 12 hours of that initial 15-hour period are spent walking through silent corridors talking to people, getting lost due to the boring, repetitive, illogically-designed ship environments, and most of all watching the excruciating polygon anime sequences, which appear to have been crafted by a novice filmmaker who studied at the feet of Roger Corman.

It's a shame the game takes so long to get into the whole "combat and skill building" aspects around which it was ostensibly built, because that's where Xenosaga shines. The battle interface is considerably more refined and interesting than Xenogears'; while it takes a little while to learn to read all the onscreen data and make the most of the Boost function, once they're in hand they make combat pleasantly strategic [7]. Furthermore, several characters possess proto-Gears (called AGWS) which are integrated into the regular battle system rather than playing out like some sort of misbegotten mini-game as in Xenogears. While the actual practicality of the AGWS is minimal, they can be exceptionally useful in certain situations, but are rarely mandatory (unlike in Xenogears' annoying Gear Dungeons). The skill systems are far and away superior to that of Xenogears -- or in fact of most RPGs -- and resemble both Final Fantasy IX's system (where skills were extracted from items) and Final Fantasy X's sphere board (where skills were learned through a branching "tree"). Lack of actual originality notwithstanding, there's a huge amount of customization available, and players can adjust their battle parties to suit their preferred style of playing. If only there were more opportunities to, you know, play.

In lieu of interactivity, Xenosaga tends to present gamers with something akin to an intensely pretentious multimedia storybook -- My First Nietzsche Reference. Talk to people, flip to the next page of passive cinematics, fight a few desultory battles and beat the boss to end the chapter and watch more passive cinematics. The sheer bulk of text and movie time in the game could probably be justified if there were any artistic merit to these elements, but Xenosaga is about as literary as an issue of The Fantastic Four, with enough macguffin devices to bring a tear to Reed Richards' eye. And banter every bit as rote and stale as the lamest Torch vs. Thing schtick ever to ooze from Tom DeFalco's talentless pen.

Cinematically, Xenosaga's deficiencies are practically too numerous to be listed. Every scene in the game is saturated with poor acting, insipid dialogue, and countless instances of the virtual camera being used as a blunt weapon. As a bonus, you can count the occurances of blatant fanservice! The poor acting is a mystery -- these are, after all, virtual actors. They can be made to act in whatever manner the director chooses. The fact that the director chose to make them act in a poor imitation of the worst anime clichés and stereotypes speaks poorly of his decision-making skills, and again calls into question whether or not he actually realizes this project is, in fact, a video game. What works in a hand-drawn anime does not translate well to the more naturalistic, solid 3D polygons with which Xenosaga is depicted; rather than coming off as symbolic or stylized, time-worn anime conventions like drawn-out moments of contemplation in the heat of combat feel like awkward pauses as the next line loads into RAM.

The game's overbearing sense of stupidity is due in part to the characters, most of whom seem roughly as savvy as a pet rock, and about half as charming. Main character Shion Uzuki is particularly grating; apparently a Xeno series rule is to have an utterly detestable lead. Ostensibly a genius who's just created the galaxy's most powerful weapon, Shion seems to possess barely enough intelligence to warn her not to shove her finger too far up her nose while she's picking it, and her maturity level leaves much to be desired as well. Although she initially seems less exacerbating than Xenogears protagonist Fei Fong Wong, don't be fooled; she's just a little slower making it from zero to "twit" than he was. Aside from Ziggy and Momo's almost familial bond, it's hard to believe any of these people are anything but empty-souled marionettes. The in-game text doesn't help; while it's well-translated and competently-acted, the source material is clearly lacking. Loaded with jargon and frequently consisting of forced, unnatural conversations, there's just no way to believe that human beings (even in THE FUTURE) actually interact this way. The characters talk at one another, not to. What a difference a preposition makes.

Still, as stiff as the dialogue is, the cinematography and direction of cutscenes are easily the most disastrous parts of Xenosaga's motion picture aspirations. The pacing of the movies is uneven, with some portions happening entirely too quickly and others seeming to drag for entirely too long. This becomes all the more evident when you factor in the constant flashbacks, without which the game would be nearly an hour shorter. Possibly more. The camera jumps around like a kangaroo on Pixie Stix, lacking both the sophisticated composition and the smooth transitions of, say, Vagrant Story or the original Metal Gear Solid.

Characters are frequently introduced without a word of explanation in rapid-fire succession, which is ultimately even more confusing than Xenogears' intentionally obtuse dialogues; here the auto-play movies have to be taken at the game's pace. At least in the previous game most introductory scenes were presented in the form of text boxes, which could be advanced and digested at the player's own speed. [7.1] The game does make a few small concessions to compensate for this issue; taking a cue from the Tactics' series active compendium feature, Xenosaga is decent enough to give gamers a constantly-updated database of keywords -- names, events, technology, etc. It's a pretty boring read, but does help overcome the wall of blank-eyed confusion which tends to smack gamers full in the face during some of the more inscrutible cinemas. It's a kludge, and an imperfect one at that (it would be far more helpful with images or portraits to help clarify the precise subject of a given entry), but it shows that someone at Monolith has gamers' best interests in mind. Pity it's just one person.

Another problem, and one entirely of the developers' own making, is Xenosaga's jarring lack of internal logic and consistency. For a game whose creators go to such pains to explain every damn detail (however irrelevant), there certainly are a lot of flubs. [8] With any other game, this would be nitpicking; Xenosaga, however, inficts constant chattering explanations upon the player about every last stupid bit of imaginary technology in the game. The developers go to painful lengths to impress you with the "plausibility" of their fictional technology and world, yet leave countless loose ends to be tied up. It's a lot like Metal Gear Solid, except that instead of being limited mainly to optional dialogues with endearingly sardonic Russian chain-smokers, it pops up all over the damn place. And just as frequently, the game drifts into nonsensical techno-babble territory [9], apparently expecting gamers to be riveted to the spot by people sitting at a glowing viewscreen and screaming about three-letter acroynms. Here's a clue, Japan: even if you shout opaque jargon with sincere dread in your tone, it's still not drama.

Maya: Sure, now you tell us.

Xenosaga's dopey inability to sort relevant information from extraneous background info is the hallmark of its exposition. It's reminiscent of Masamune Shirow's work, where characters will casually begin to explain detailed specs on weapons or equipment as part of regular conversations with people who already know such information. Worse, he'll frequently offer an apologetic sidenote about imaginary technology defying imaginary rules which have never even been explained, all the while expecting readers to follow events made utterly inscrutible as a result of his poor visual storyboarding abilities and inability to consistently illustrate a sequence of actions in comic format. Xenosaga has much in common with Ghost in the Shell: Man-Machine Interface, and not in a good way. All the jiggly girlflesh in the world can't make up for deficient pacing and narrative, no matter how much lonely developers and mangaka would like to believe otherwise. Time and again Xenosaga shifts into a completely passive mode in which players do nothing but watch stiff polypuppets jerk around for 20 minutes at a time. And time and again these passive sequences are laden with completely unnecessary scenes that do nothing but detract from the bigger story. Basic concepts go unexplained while unimportant ephemera is expounded upon in great detail. Do we need to see every last word of Ziggy's mission briefing? No. Do we need to see wacky banter on a scavenger craft? No. Do we need to see Bridge Bunny 3A whine about some psuedo-scientific nonsense that will eventually be countered by more nonsense when it becomes convenient to the plot? No! Do we need incessant flashbacks at the most inappropriate moments? No, no, no and no. As much as the creators would probably like to believe this is a deeply important story told with atmosphere and style, it's not. It's juvenile sci-fi, told poorly.

Like its predecessor, Xenosaga is doomed by the excesses of its own ambition -- the game was probably doomed from the moment someone decided to slap a Nazi-esque Nietzsche quote on the package as a subtitle. There's nothing wrong with trying something new with RPGs -- on the contrary, the genre desperately needs fresh ideas to pry itself out of the morass of cliché it's grown into over the past few years. But Xenosaga isn't new. It's gameplay taking a back seat to the furtive attempts of a frustrated aspiring movie director to prove his skills behind the camera. America suffered a spate of this exact sort of thing a decade ago when the Sega CD was released. Infamous names like Rocket Science and Digital Pictures tried to fuse movies and gaming in a series of poorly-designed FMV crapfests like Mad Dog McCree or Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. Japan, with its infamous habit of borrowing other culture's ideas and putting a new spin on them, seems to be following in the same path as these mercifully-dead publishers. And while the underlying game is undeniably better than that of, say, Night Trap, the movie bits are longer and just as poorly directed, and therefore even more interminable. And Shion in a bathing suit honestly isn't as appealing as Dana Plato in a nightgown, mainly because Plato looked like a human woman rather than a possessed Cabbage Patch Kid with boobs.

Speaking of breasts, Xenosaga and its story are clearly targeted toward a certain demographic of teenage male [10]: intelligent, nerdy, and eager to prove that their favorite forms of media are every bit as valid and substantive as "the classics." This group is the single audience most willing to latch on to even a slapdash exercise in creative self-indulgence as evidence that these things they like do indeed have merit and gravitas, so take that, world! Ten years ago, I probably would have been one of them. Now, however, I've read and seen enough genuinely excellent work to know that Xenosaga is many things, but "meaningful" and "artfully crafted" don't count among their numbers. As a wise policeman once said, I'm gettin' too old for this s***.

So what does the horrible stew in the Xenosaga cauldron ultimately boil down to? A 40-hour game with an intriguing plot foundation, solid RPG mechanics, atrocious story-pacing, relentlessly poor scripting and offensively bad direction. The actual game bits are far and away better than what was offered by Xenogears; there are more interesting battles, featuring a faster and more convincingly-integrated (though still deeply flawed) AGWS "gear" system. Frustrating random encounters are replaced by non-respawning [11] enemies. The game offers freedom to move through previous areas, ridiculous as the explanation may be. There are even a few genuinely likable characters, a vast improvement over Xenogears' none, and far less of the eye-rolling religious symbolism crap that infested Xenosaga's predecessor. It's just a shame that these good bits have the net effect of making the game's pervasive inconsistency and its crippling flaws all the more intolerable.

Tetsuya Takahashi's stated intention with Xenosaga was to retell the Xenogears saga, to put forth the effort necessary to give the story the complete treatment he believed it deserved -- the effort which budget and time constraints forbade. If Episode One was really what he had in mind all along, though, he really shouldn't have bothered. While it's clear Monolith is capable of developing a competent RPG, all the extra baggage drags down the entire package into a murky sewer of incompetence. The good parts of Xenosaga -- and there are a fair number of them -- are hopelessly lost amidst the poorly-conceived and amateurishly-executed nonsense that comprises three-quarters of this game's running time.

There's an above-average RPG here, and a fairly intriguing backstory to boot. If only these better qualities weren't trapped within horrible interstitial game ideas and a polygonal presentation of the worst anime I've seen since I accidentally rented Guy: Double Target. As much as I enjoyed Xenosaga The Game, I've found that it's an inoperable case -- there's more cancer here than healthy tissue. Here's hoping that Xenosaga Episode 2 manages to fix the flaws of Episode 1 without introducing even more new shortcomings to the mix. Unlikely as that may be.

Tetsuya Takahashi, like many Japanese developers, seems to have a personal grudge against God. But if he was out to prove that God doesn't exist, he didn't need to trot out the stale, pseudo-intellectual dialogue and goth teen poetess symbolism. The mere existence of Xenosaga makes an excellent case all on its own.

[1] I don't know who said this, but it sounds good. The greatest danger of this website is sloppy hearsay. [Return]

[2] And simpletons who failed to heed the grave words of Hideo Kojima! [Return]

[3] That was probably laying it on a bit too heavy. But, you know. Self-expression and all. [Return]

[4] Headed by their vile master, Tetsuya Takahashi. [Return]

[5] Spiritual only for legal reasons, since the first game and its delightful giant red X are owned by Squaresoft. [Return]

[6] Disclosure: I've only completed about 20 hours of Xenosaga, so the ratio of gameplay-to-other-crap may shift in the second half of the game. I'll eventually complete the game and see if that's the case. However, this will not have an impact on the final rating of the game. If the final half is entirely gameplay, it's just as lopsided a game as Xenogears, but in reverse; and any game that still isn't interesting after 20 hours is a waste. I'll walk out of a boring movie after 30 minutes, so Takahashi had better consider himself damn lucky that I gave him this much of my attention. [Return]

[7] Although there's potential for abuse; Shion's Boost-raising skills could theoretically blow the game's balance as badly as Final Fantasy VI's "Quick" spell. [Return]

[7.1] The reference to Xenogears' text pacing here is not to the painful, glacial speed of the text crawl, but rather the fact that text boxes advanced only when you pressed the X button. So when the game crapped out some new character you'd never seen before making grave proclamations about whatever, you could pause for a moment to try to make sense of the new face and his role. Not so with Xenosaga -- bit characters are introduced for three or four spoken lines in a scene and then vanish from the story for 10 hours, making it stupidly hard to remember them and what they were about. The Jedi Council, for instance, or the white-haired kid in the nice suit.

[8] For instance:

  • The game begins with a cinema transpiring on contemporary earth, featuring awkwardly-animated but otherwise realistic humans. Then the scene shifts 4,000 years forward, where humanity resembles porcelain dolls with saucer eyes and swollen skulls [8.1]. It's even more jarring than the transition from the smoothly-animated Elderidge opening of Xenogears to rustic, pixellated Fei painting away in his heavily dithered abode -- this time without the limits of technology to justify the discrepancy.
  • Several times, the game scene leaps from Shion and KOS-MOS to other characters whom she's never met. For absolutely no reason whatsoever, both Ziggy and Jr. somehow have access to Shion's cash stores and item stash.
  • On a related note, while the EVS is a decent enough way to ensure you never truly miss an important item, why is Shion given access to Jr.'s U-TIC Battleship sequence before she actually encounters the Durandal?
  • Come to think of it, the entire premise behind EVS is patently ridiculous. The interplanetary communication network UMN provides Shion with the ability to return to game environments she's already explored to acquire items she may have missed, such as the tediously fetch-quest-ish Segment Address doors. Items acquired within the simulation magically come to life in the real world for characters to use. So how is it that the computer can perfectly map even hidden areas of far-flung dungeons? And for that matter, why go to the trouble -- why can't the computer simply synthesize those items for Shion without forcing her to jump through such time-consuming hoops?
  • In-ship maps are terrible and illogical, particularly the one on the Woglinde -- it depicts Shion's cabin in big bold type, but doesn't actually give any indication as to the location of the bridge, AGWS hangar or secret cargo bay where terrible things are being hidden.
  • Ship designs are also terrible and illogical, with completely arbitrary layouts that force people to take unreasonably circuitous paths to get anywhere.
  • And are we really supposed to buy the notion that KOS-MOS happened to contain a superweapon in her stomach with the approximate mass of the rest of her body and the ability to disintegrate a solar system, yet her creator never noticed that someone else sneaked it in? Not even a "Gee, I wonder why there's this subsystem with sufficient power to annihilate a star here?" in two years of daily development and tests? Honestly.

These are but a few of the game's most nagging common-sense flaws and errors.

[8.1] While Xenogears' character designer returns to illustrate the cast of Xenosaga, her perfectly competent style works much less smoothly for high-res polygon models than it did with tiny pixel-people. Nowhere is this more evident than the bridge of the Durandal, where Jr. and his unappealling, candy-colored crew resemble nothing so much as forgettable, second-string bit villains from Outlaw Star or something. Which is a shame, since the Durandal's actually a pretty snazzy ship. [Return]

[9] As immortalized in the Voltaire song "U.S.S. Make Some S*** Up." [Return]

[10] Just in case there were any doubts about the game's intended audience, Monolith was thoughtful enough to include KOS-MOS, the posing D-cup android queen, and Shion, the hardbodied genius with a cleavage window in her uniform. [Return]

[11] "Non-respawning" is not entirely accurate. Enemies frequently and inconsistently regenerate when you leave a screen area. And, more annoyingly, monsters have a tendency to respawn immediately upon returning to the game after hitting one of the constant arbitrary cinematic event triggers in dungeons -- even if you fought and killed it seconds before activating the cinema. As if there weren't already enough reasons to hate the game's movies. [Return]