I'm surprised this page doesn't exist yet.

XenoSaga is a PlayStationTwo? game that is a prequel to XenoGears. XenoGears was one of the more popular CRPGs Square has released in the last couple of years, with justice (IMO). According to rumor, both XenoGears and XenoSaga are part of a larger series of games; rumor also places the number at six, with XenoGears Episode V and XenoSaga Episode I. Chief characteristics of the series are the tendency to include references to Judeo-Christian mythology and other random elements of Western culture (ala Wagner in XenoSaga) and unusually high plot density for CRPGs.

Is XenoSaga a worthy successor to XenoGears, as ChronoCross was not to ChronoTrigger? On the whole, I'd have to say, "Yes," but I have some reservations I will discuss at more length in my review. XenoSaga's most serious problem is that the game is not finished. As I noted in my review of XG, that game wasn't finished either, but it is XS's plot is not finished, as opposed to the game itself. Don't play the game if you don't like dangling plot threads, because they lie thick on the ground when XS ends.

I'll give XS a 4/5, for getting most things right, but having a few annoying problems and not being finished!

Plot: It's hard to discuss XS's plot without spoilers. I will confine myself to noting the starting points: the first cinematic occurs on Earth, and you get to see the Zohar, which figured in such an important way in XG, make its first appearance. Then you jump several thousand years into the future, and become concerned with one Shion Uzuki, who's working on a project to make a female battle android named KOS-MOS to fight the Gnosis, who appear to be mysterious aliens. Like XG, the early sections of the game's plot appear to be designed to confuse the player; things start clearing up sooner, but because the game stops "early," many plot points never become clear. AndrewSchoonmaker compared XS to XG, only the game stops at Kislev. In my opinion, the ending of XS is more open-ended than XG right after Kislev. But suffice to say, while you learn many things about what's going on, there are many other things the game never explains. The connections with XG, while present, are also obscure.

I should also note several things about the way the story is told. XenoGears played, in some ways, like a novel turned into a video game. XS, in contrast, does the lions'-share of its storytelling through (dubbed) cutscenes. You don't spend half as much time readin text in XS as XG. Is this good? I have mixed feelings about it.

Another important point is that XS's gameplay-to-plot ratio is much higher than XG's. In XG, particularly in the second disk, there were parts of the game where you, as the player, never did anything for long stretches. XS is the opposite: some of the dungeons are so long that I felt as if they interfered with the development of the plot. I personally prefer XG better (plot interfering with gameplay, rather than vice versa), but I would like better for a balance to be struck.

Characters: XG's characterization was good, at least by the standard of CRPGs, but rather uneven. Some characters (Fei, Elly, Citan) received a good deal of attention, others seemed more or less orphaned after their moments in the sun (Rico, Maria). XS does better at balancing characterization, and for the characters whom you get to know well, their psychology makes sense. However, XS's characters suffer from the unfinishedness of the game as well. I think that every single playable character ends the game with unexplained parts of their past; for some characters, almost nothing is explained, to the point that their motivations are black boxes. Many of your enemies (and dubious allies) also suffer from this.

For XS's characterization, what's there is good. But there's a lot that's not there.

Gameplay: As I noted in my review, XenoGears' gameplay had some rough edges. XenoSaga has much more polish.

XenoSaga's combat engine feels in some ways like a blend of XenoGears and ChronoCross. Fortunately, it betters both of those engines. The basic idea is that you receive a certain amount of AP in a turn (normally four). Actions take a certain number of AP: attacks two (you can attack twice), items three, ethers four, and defending two. You can store up to six AP, allowing you to use an item to affect all allies, or attack three times in a turn/use a deathblow. Deathblows are a little more balanced, so that it isn't appropriate just to plug away with the highest level deathblow you've learned in all circumstances (just most). There are also AGWS, XS's version of Gears, but I didn't use them much and had poor luck when I did, so I'll let someone else deal with them in detail: suffice to say that AGWS aren't nearly as powerful or as important as Gears.

Each character has a small skill tree of Ether abilities; some, but not all, abilities can also be transferred from character to character. You can upgrade deathblows in various ways. Finally, you can purchase skills from accessories (like Search Eyes, which gives you the ability to see your enemies' HP) and equip up to three.

Each of these systems is of course much more complex than I've mentioned here. This is one of the problems with the game: the systems are complex enough to be interesting, but are explained in detail nowhere. For instance, you might expect that you could save up skill points to get the good skills available from accessories you receive early, but you'd be wrong. You have to spend a certain number of points to increase your "skill level" before you can purchase higher level skills. In practice, this means that you will spend almost all of your skill points on worthless junk until the very end of the game. However, this hidden requirement is explicitly mentioned nowhere in the manual or in the game itself. This lack of information carries over to other aspects of the game, and I found it very aggravating. XS's gameplay certainly has the potential to be intriguing, but the absence of hard information tends to lose my interest. Another related problem: many of the abilities appear to be designed only for obsessive-compulsive players to acquire, but there's really no reason you'd ever need them.

One last comment, on the minigames. There are three primary ones: the casino, the card game, and drill game. The most annoying is the drill game, and of course it is the one which gives you the best items for playing the real game. The casino gives you a few items and can be used to scum for vast amounts of cash to use in the real game by playing the most broken version of video poker I've ever seen (a casino using that in the real world would go broke in a night). Xenocard is a card game that is almost totally orthogonal to the real game. I found it not too hard to assemble a deck that would consistently beat the computer.

Interface: All CRPG designers should be forced to internalize the beauty of ChronoTrigger's interface before they're allowed to design their own games. What's appalling is that some of these people worked on ChronoTrigger and still didn't get it right.

The menus you use to manage your skills, equipment, etc., have trees that are too deep. Abilities that should be quickly accessible (using healing ether abilities to patch up after combat) often require a multistep process involving several menus. Switching characters, which is something you want to do frequently, also is nothing like Chronotrigger, and has a particularly annoying confirmation dialog (hint: one basic tenet of usability is that you ''don't have confirmation dialogs unless the requested action is potentially harmful and irreversible'').

And there's also no text speed option. It's not as much of an issue as in XG, for a variety of reasons, but it still bugs me.

Graphics: The backgrounds maintain XenoGears' excellent level of detail, and I have no strong complaints about the character models. XenoSaga doesn't stand out as being exceptional in the graphics department, but it's no laggard either.

Music: Could be improved. One problem is that the most forgettable piece of music in any CRPG, the standard battle theme, is the only music present in many areas of Xenosaga. Some of the other music was good, but you don't hear it that often.

There were roughly four tracks from the game that I thought were memorably cool, and three of those were one-shot affairs. I wish they'd at least done a separate boss theme.

Secrets: XS has plenty of secrets, the problem is finding them.

That may seem like a strange criticism, but I felt that the game designers, rather designing and giving good clues that a player could pick up on, merely dumped stuff everywhere and assumed that with enough button-mashing and random wandering, you could find them all. That may be true. I don't find that a terribly rewarding way to play, though.

XenoSaga is more polished than XenoGears, which had more rough edges than you could shake a stick at. But the game has a number of annoying elements. I think my central criticism of XenoSaga can be summed up as: too little information. In storytelling and game design, giving your audience the right amount of information at the right times is crucial. XenoSaga tends to keep a little too much to itself a little too often, when it could have benefited by sharing more.

XenoSaga2? is out now, and as I am given to understand it picks up IMMEDIATELY where the previous one left off, I assume at least some unanswered questions get answered in it, though I haven't played it myself.

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Last edited March 22, 2005 0:55 (diff)