Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht is Part 1 of 3 in the Xenosaga series, making its debut on the PlayStation 2 in 2002 in Japan and 2003 for North America. I will be basing this review on my playthrough on the PlayStation 2.
Story and Characters
The story of Xenosaga Episode I is very heavily based in science fiction and takes place thousands of years in the future. Humanity is scattered across many different planets and star systems, with space travel being a common occurrence. During this process, humanity has left Earth and its whereabouts are unknown.
The plot revolves around Shion Uzuki, the chief scientist of Vector Industries’ First Division. Shion leads a team to develop KOS-MOS, an android who was designed to fight Gnosis; hostile aliens that exist in a different dimension, which renders normal weapons useless against them. Shion and KOS-MOS are pulled into a huge conflict between the Galaxy Federation—the government body overseeing all of the populated planets—and U-TIC, an evil terrorist organization. This conflict stems from a major event which occurred 14 years before the events of Xenosaga Episode I. What exactly happened 14 years ago? And how is everything connected? This game is only part of that story.
Xenosaga Episode I is very focused on worldbuilding and how the story is conveyed. There are a lot of cutscenes throughout the game, and some of them are really long. As in, long enough for the developers to put save points in the middle of cutscenes! Despite the length, the cutscenes presented the story in a very engaging manner, as well as hinting at bigger things to come. I was so engrossed in the story and cutscenes that they actually didn’t feel that long while I watched them. Additionally, there are small details sprinkled throughout the cutscenes and dialogue to give the player a sense of just how big the world and its history is. Sometimes certain aspects of the world, such as crucial laws that have been passed long before the game, are small details but provide a lot of context about what issues society faces and the technology present in the world. Some of these details are mentioned but never really explained, but there is a database which contains a glossary for all of the different terms you hear throughout the journey. I appreciated the inclusion of the feature, since it allowed me to dig more into the lore of the world and refresh my memory on things I may have forgotten.
The story of Xenosaga Episode I touches on a lot of different themes, but one of the most prevalent and most interesting themes was exploring what it means to be human and what makes you “you”. An example of when this theme is explored is when it comes to Realians. Realians are biological androids which are designed to be human-like, and can be considered as artificial humans. While Realians have the same rights as humans, not everyone agrees with this, and Realians tend to be discriminated against. Some people see them as being inferior humans, and others may feel threatened by their specialized set of skills in certain areas. It’s through these interactions with Realians and a lot of other events (which are a bit spoilery, so I won’t get into them here; but they are really interesting!) that got me thinking about what it means to be human. Is it just that we’re alive and conscious? Is it that we have personalities and emotions? Or is there something else that makes us human? I really appreciated how the game touched on this really deep theme, and I hope that this is explored even further in the next game.
I loved the story and the world in Xenosaga Episode I. It’s a grand space adventure that has both small and large worldbuilding details that are a joy to dig into. I also love the characters in the game. Shion and KOS-MOS meet many interesting people along their journey, and the ones that stick around are incredible. Each character in the main party has a lot of depth and they all have their own reasons for sticking together. The focus of the story seems to shift towards certain characters throughout the game, but nonetheless every character had their role to play in the story, and none of the characters felt tropey.
As much as I liked the story, the one thing I didn’t like was how the game ended. I won’t spoil the ending, but as for me, I felt unsatisfied when I finished the game. I knew there were two more games to play to get the whole picture of what is happening and I wouldn’t have all my questions answered in this game, but at the same time the ending felt incomplete. It was an odd place for the game to end story-wise for me, and I wish the ending of the game had more of an impact.
Combat and Gameplay
Despite Xenosaga Episode I being very story-focused, the gameplay and combat systems do not fall to the wayside, and instead introduce a unique take on the traditional turn-based combat seen in JRPGs.
The combat in Xenosaga Episode I has some of the standard features seen in other turn-based JRPGs, like ether (which is this game’s version of magic), items, and guarding. However, it does a lot to mix up the formula to provide a unique experience. These mechanics include the turn window, boosting, and the event slot.
In an encounter, there is a window which shows the next few turns taken by both the party members and the enemies, but will only show the next 1-4 turns. I found it sometimes frustrating that you could only see who is taking their current turn and not any future turns, which resulted in having to make some guesses on the turn order. And some of the guesses I made were wrong, which would result in taking damage I thought I could have avoided. However, this lack of seeing future turns is tied into the boosting mechanic, which offsets the issue in some circumstances.
Boosting allows you to be able to take a character’s turn earlier than planned by taking a turn after the current one. At the same time, enemies are also able to boost, meaning they can take turns earlier than you think. Boosting was a really interesting twist to traditional turn-based combat and opened up new strategies. It’s also really fun to take advantage of and pummel the enemy without fear of counter-attacks. Once I got this mechanic down, I was able to finish some enemy encounters without getting hit! However, enemies can do the same, so it’s a crucial mechanic to learn.
Another mechanic called the event slot gives a certain effect during a character’s turn, and the effect changes each turn. Some of the effects include increasing the chance of dealing a critical hit and increasing the number of different points earned when an enemy is defeated. What is interesting about the event slot is that it not only affects your party members’ turns, but also the enemy turn. For example, you can take advantage of the critical up effect to increase the damage you deal, but the enemy can also do the same! The event slot and the boosting mechanic play off one another to create a really unique turn-based combat system that feels fresh, even though the game is almost twenty years old. Do you choose to boost to take a critical up slot from an enemy? Or do you want to save it for an emergency? These are some of the trade-offs I had to consider during my playthrough.
I found the combat flow to be really interesting, and I really enjoyed how these mechanics work together. However, there was one thing I didn’t like about the combat: the speed. The animations for some attacks were a bit too long for my liking and were unskippable. Don’t get me wrong; some of the animations were really cool, but after seeing the same ones over and over again, I grew tired of them. It slowed down the pacing of battles to a crawl, and overall the combat was too slow to me.
During battles there is an option for a character to get in an A.G.W.S., which is a big, shiny mech. An A.G.W.S. can deliver some serious damage, but it can also cause you to lose a character for the remainder of battle when it runs out of health. I found the A.G.W.S. system cool at first, but ultimately felt it wasn’t integrated very well into the flow of combat. They did help me a lot in a couple boss battles to absorb damage, but I found them to be slow and extremely expensive to keep up-to-date. It’s an interesting feature, but one which needed more polish.
When it comes to character progression, there are a lot of decisions to be made. Besides experience points, characters gain various other points which can be used to learn skills from armor and accessories, learn new ethers, improve certain attacks, and more. Points allow for a lot of customization and experimentation, but it can be slow to gain points. Because of this slow progression, it felt necessary to kill enemies on the points up part of the event slot, which slowed down combat from a crawl to a drag.
This can’t be a review for a Xeno game without commenting on the tutorials the game provides, and I was mixed on them. I felt the tutorials did a good job explaining basic commands during combat, how to boost, and what the turn window and event slot are. However, the tutorials did a poor job explaining other aspects of gameplay like positioning, attack elements, and weaknesses. For example, I still have no idea what elements exist in the game, and what element is effective against what.
When I was reflecting on this review, a good friend of mine told me to check out the manual for the game when I raised these concerns about the tutorials. When I did, I found that the manual explained a lot of these mechanics in-depth, and I highly recommend anyone who is playing Xenosaga Episode I for the first time to read the manual after doing the tutorials. There are a lot of helpful tips that would have really aided me during my playthrough.
There were some minigames in Xenosaga Episode I. The two minigames I played were the card game and the casino. The card game is a full-on collectible mini-game with a deck and booster packs. I played this a few times and thought it was super interesting and had a lot of depth to it. The casino had a poker game unlike a traditional poker game and is highly addicting. Some of the prizes in the casino are really nice accessories, so this is definitely something that players should take a look at. Just remember that moderation is key; don’t gamble too much!
I loved the setting of the game, and at a certain point the game gives the player the ability to return to previous dungeons. This was cool, especially since some areas contained chests you cannot access until you find certain keys further on in the game, so there was some incentive to go back. However, I have mixed feelings about the exploration in the game. The movement in the overworld was slow, and some areas were really dark, making it really hard to navigate. But not every area was like that. A good example is the first spaceship Shion finds herself on, the Woglinde. The spaceship was bright and easy to navigate, and there were a lot of different points of interest that provided additional bits of info about the world or items, making it a joy to explore.
The graphics in Xenosaga Episode I are pretty good, and I felt they hold up even today. I liked the space setting, and the environments were really immersive as you explored. For example, the game features many different spaceships, and each one feels unique in terms of environment and atmosphere. However, as I mentioned before, some dungeons were too dark and difficult to navigate around. I understand the game takes place in space, but there should be a balance between being realistic with the colour versus being able to navigate to some degree.
The models for the characters are fantastic, and go for a more stylized and anime look over a more realistic approach and helps make the game not feel dated. The animations are smooth considering when the game came out. Additionally, throughout my playthrough I did not run into any bugs or performance issues that I can remember.
The cutscenes felt very cinematic to me, and it felt more like watching a movie than playing a game at some points. The production value, direction, and writing for the cutscenes were all splendid, and aided with the storytelling. I never felt they were too long because they were well executed and captivating. It was nice to see the cutscenes were high quality, since a lot of the game is spent watching them.
On the voice acting front, Xenosaga Episode I is pretty great. The voices suited the characters, and the voice actors did an excellent job conveying the right emotion at the right time. The sounds for the menus were also really neat. They fit the sci-fi setting perfectly.
I have mixed feelings when it comes to the music for the game. On one hand, the original soundtrack is amazing, and the music is wonderful. On the other hand, I feel like the music isn’t used to the fullest potential. An example of the music not being fully utilized is the battle themes used. The same battle theme is used for every battle except for one. I found the battle theme to be really good, but it did start to wear on me near the end of the game. When another theme was used for the final boss battle, I loved the new battle theme even more, and it was an exceptional theme. Another aspect of the original soundtrack not being fully utilized is the lack of music in a lot of areas. In a lot of the overworld and dungeons, white noise is used instead of background music. This did fit the setting, and the lack of music made me feel a little bit lonely and empty in the wide expanse of space. However, the lack of music in a lot of areas might bug some people, and it also emphasizes that the same few tracks are played for the majority of the game. A lot of tracks are only played once in very specific circumstances, and I wish the game varied the music more, so you can hear the breadth of the music the soundtrack has to offer.