Xenosaga Episode I was the first game developed by Monolith Soft, and the first of their acclaimed trilogy.
Xenosaga Episode I: Der Will zur Macht was the first game to be developed by Monolith Soft, and the first in a trilogy that was going to be a six-part series before the staff were ordered to make the third its last. It released in North America in early 2003, never seeing the light of day in the PAL region. The game also contained a notable throwback to its predecessor Xenogears, in the form of a returning character taking on a minor role.
Xenosaga I followed Shion and her team as they worked at Vector Industries to create the ultimate weapon as part of project KOS-MOS. The weapon itself was an android, who they discovered upon her awakening could think and act independently – things she was not designed to do. KOS-MOS fought alongside Shion and her crew against the Gnosis; aliens which were attacking only humans. As they travelled and defeated Gnosis, the 14-year-old mystery of Old Miltia’s destruction dogged their steps, for it was around the time of that planet’s disappearance that the Gnosis began to appear. Shion, KOS-MOS and the rest of the party travelled between galaxies to unravel the secrets of the destruction of Miltia, and the cause of the genesis of the Gnosis. As they did so, they were relentlessly pursued by the U-TIC Organisation, who were investigating Old Miltia’s destruction in order to reach their own ends. The game’s plot featured a number of religious themes and references to the Bible, which I enjoyed; I’m quite fond of games that toy with real-world religions, which is something Xenosaga definitely does.
One of the first things you’ll note about Xenosaga is that, unlike most games on Sony consoles, the circle button denotes a positive action, and the cross button a negative one. This took me a little while to adjust to, and it made it difficult for me to play any other games for any of my Sony consoles while I was playing this one. I realise this was normal for Japanese versions of games, but they were often reversed for the Western release, so it threw me off.
Another thing you’ll find is the huge amount of cutscenes present in the game; they’re said to total seven hours, meaning they took up a full one-sixth of my forty-two hour playthrough. This didn’t bother me personally, as the story being conveyed made for irresistible watching. Those who aren’t fond of huge amounts of cutscenes, however, may find them tiresome.
The excellent story played out on a background that, in terms of graphics, has a typical PS2 appearance; the game looks good, but nothing particularly great. Accompanying it is an outstanding score from Yasunori Mitsuda, known for his work on stellar games such as Soma Bringer, Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Xenoblade Chronicles and a hell of a lot more.
The Elsa acted as your hub throughout the game, as you’d keep coming back to it to rest, get new equipment, play cards and all kinds of things. It’s also the ship that took you around the universe throughout the story. I found the onboard card game difficult to understand at first, but had a lot of fun with it after I played around with it more in the postgame. There were a few sidequests to pursue in Xenosaga, particularly in locating keys and matching them with their respective doors to find the treasure that lay behind them. These made a nice addition, and some of the rewards (especially towards the end of the game) made it worth my while.
Many characters in the Xenosaga universe were in possession of the Unus Mundus Network, or UMN for short. The UMN was a handheld device which contained a database that tracked important locations, people and terms you’d come across as you played, so you could always stop and check anything you were unsure about. You’d get emails throughout the game, some of which were just silly; you’d get a few from Namco, for example, telling you all about the latest games which, at the time, were actually coming out soon in the real world. You’d also receive a number of sidequests through email, which rewarded all kinds of goodies as you took action through your replies. A key part of the UMN is the Environmental Simulator (EVS). Certain save points allowed you to use it to go back to previous areas; their layout was the same as it was before you last left. This meant there were no permanently missable items in the game, as you could go back at any time to pick them up, and meant it was easy to find places to stop and grind when needed.
Xenosaga I lacked random encounters, with all enemies roaming the map in plain sight. There were also objects in the field which you could interact with to stall your foes. A yellow container, for example, released lightning when broken. If you lured an enemy into it, they would start the battle slowed, so they would take fewer actions than they normally would. It was a pretty nice touch, and it felt good starting a battle with a foe which was disadvantaged as a direct result of my actions.
Battle itself is turn-based, but with its own flavour. Each character starts with four AP (attack points). AP is consumed upon attacking, and four are recovered each turn; choosing not to attack would give you more AP to use next turn, though given it capped at six, it didn’t give as huge an advantage as you may think. Attacks which are coloured blue denote physical attacks, while pink ones are based on ether. Attacking (and taking damage) increases a red bar known as the ‘boost’ meter. When this fills, you (or your opponent) can have the character in question activate their boost and gain an extra turn, inserting themselves into the next slot in the turn order. Formation is important, as characters can be placed in either the front or back row; as you may have guessed, the back row is better suited for squishy mage-like characters who like to attack from afar.
The battle had a roulette which changed every time you or one of your opponents took a turn, and the symbol on display determined the bonuses you would get. One increased your chance of landing criticals, one increased the amount of boost gained that turn, one increased the amount of rewards gained from any foes killed that turn, and the final one did nothing. They always showed up in the same sequence, so when combined with the turn order indicator in the corner, you would generally know whose turn would fall on which symbol. It was a fun way to add a little bit more depth to the battling experience as you try to line up your attacks to match whichever boost you wanted to acquire.
Your party members have a lot of room for growth. And I mean a lot of room for growth; the large number of options may be overwhelming to an RPG novice. Characters gain EXP, EP, SP and TP after battle. Experience allows them to level up, as per every RPG ever. Ether points are consumed to learn new ether skills, gain new ones by evolving old ones, and transfer them to other characters. Skills are set out as a tree; in order to access the best ones, you have to level up the correct branch. Thankfully, the game allows you to see from the start all of the skills available to a character, so you can plan how you spend your points ahead of time. Transferring skills from one character to another uses up half the EP that was required to learn the skill in the first place, but stays with both characters permanently. There’s an additional bonus associated with levelling your characters as much as possible in that, when you start the sequel, you’ll have more skill points to start with. The higher your characters’ levels, the more skill points each character gets at the beginning of Xenosaga II.
Skills can be extracted from items using skill points, and then set to your characters. They cannot use a skill which has only been unlocked by someone else; everyone needs to unlock each skill individually if you want them to use it. Up to three skills can be set on each character, and each skill extracted will give the same bonus that you would get from wearing the item in question. The power brace, for example, prevents physical attack down from being inflicted on your character; rather than buy multiple copies of the same item and have everyone wear it, you can just purchase one and have everyone extract the skill. It’s a pretty great way to have more skills equipped on everyone, giving you space beyond the three possible slots for accessories on the equip screen (one or two of which you’re probably going to use for armour anyway).
Tech attacks are learned as your party levels up, and can be upgraded using TP, or tech points. Attributes which can be improved include tech, speed and wait. Tech increases the attack power of the move, speed lets you use it more times per turn, and wait reduces the wait time so your character can move again sooner. The attacks you want to use can then be set, so you can use your favourites in battle.
A few tech attacks, as well as some skills and ether, are aligned with a particular element. Elemental damage was important in a handful of boss fights, but not much else. One way in which I used it often was against machines, which were tremendously weak to thunder damage, but there were not many noticeable elemental bonuses in Xenosaga Episode I.
Each character has their own AGWS, or Anti-Gnosis Weapon Systems. These are mechs that are used, as you may have gathered, to better fight the Gnosis. You can also use them in regular battles, where they’re quite effective. AGWS have their own set of equipment, and you can put six pieces on them; three armour pieces, and three accessories. They have open slots on their arms, shoulders and back on the left and right side for armour. AGWS have their own set of moves that are based on the character piloting them, and cannot use ether. They fight in a similar way to the regular characters, with the same general attack layout; they were just generally more powerful. Your character’s HP and your AGWS’s HP are counted separately, so swapping from one to the other occasionally made for a handy way to avoid death.
Xenosaga Episode I made a compelling start to Monolith Soft’s trilogy. The strong plot was my main driver, accompanied by the exceptional soundtrack from a gaming great. I enjoyed the combat and the characters as well, and the sidequests – particularly the card game – were entertaining. There was a deep level of complexity to skill setting and acquisition that I loved, which left a lot of room for me to play around and create my own way to play. Some may dislike the huge amount of cutscenes, but personally, I loved them, as the plot was so excellent. I would recommend this game to any JRPG fan.