Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 5/28/2019 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
Xenosaga is the second game in the lengthy and fairly disjointed “Xeno” series after the PlayStation’s Xenogears. The first Xenosaga game, subtitled “Der Wille zur Macht,” is the first in the Xenosaga trilogy, each game in which is named after a book by German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche. “Der Wille zur Macht” translates to “The Will to Power,” a concept Nietzsche described as the driving force behind humanity, the drive in humans to do more than simply subsist. It’s clear that the game’s director was influenced by Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas, but the execution of translating those ideas into a video game is, like mankind itself, somewhat flawed.
The basic story of Xenosaga revolves around Shion, a brilliant young engineer with the Vector corporation, and her anti-Gnosis combat android, KOS-MOS. What are the Gnosis, you might ask? That’s a good question and one that the game never really answers. The best it tells you is that they’re creatures from another dimension that are made almost entirely of salt, normally have a non-corporeal existence in our dimension, and that either turn victims into piles of salt or into Gnosis upon contact. The Gnosis serve as the primary antagonists in the game, but they’re by no means the only antagonists. You’ll also fight the U-TIC organization (again, they’re not really explained very well), occasionally Galaxy Federation troops and mechs, and more bosses than you can shake a stick at. To clarify before I go further, the story here isn’t bad. It’s just badly told. The rule of thumb with good storytelling is “Show, don’t tell,” but Xenosaga tries to tell a whole lot and doesn’t even do it particularly well. It reminds me of my experience reading Joseph Conrad’s novella “The Heart of Darkness” back in high school. It’s not badly written, but it’s so dense that you have to pay close attention to have any hope of keeping track of what’s going on. Passive viewing here won’t cut it and will only leave you saying “Wait, what the hell is happening?”
Visually, the game is nice even if pretty standard for a 2003 release on the PlayStation 2. The PS2, in general, has some pretty garbage video output and is atrocious in my opinion over composite video, but using YPbPr component cables usually cleans that up pretty nicely, and while there’s still some text that can look a bit blurred, the game looks nice and clean over that superior A/V output. I actually found myself thinking “Man, I wish I had that early 2000s 480i skin.” When was the last time you saw a blemish or pimple on the face of a PS2 JRPG character? Like the game’s visuals, the game’s soundtrack is quite nice and probably the best aspect of the game. The sound effects are well done, and the music composition is actually superb. Given the nice but largely par-for-the-course visuals and the overly convoluted story, I was expecting the music to sit solidly in “Okay” territory, but I found myself pleasantly surprised.
What people will most remember about Xenosaga are the cutscenes. Seriously like a third of the game is cutscenes. I didn’t time it myself, but according to Reddit and GameFAQs, Xenosaga Episode I contains literally more than eight HOURS of cutscenes. I’m normally a big fan of cutscenes, but it just gets excessive here. I found myself seriously bored after a cutscene hit the ten-minute mark, and a LOT of them (if not the majority of them) went well past that. Fortunately, you can pause the cutscenes, so no worries about “Damn, I really have to poop, but I have another three hours in this cutscene,” but unfortunately, there’s no option to fast forward. You can just skip the cut scenes entirely, but since that’s how like 90% of the story is delivered, that’s not really an option for a first playthrough.
Xenosaga is definitely an interesting JRPG experience, and it’s one I would recommend fans of the genre play through at least once, but it’s definitely not one I can see myself replaying, and it’s not one back on which I’ll be looking particularly fondly down the line. It’s dense, it’s pedantic, it’s poorly paced, the storytelling is dry, and while the combat is fun even if a bit simple, it’s just a wholly average game all things considered. The pedantry and monolithic (no pun intended) cutscenes are the most memorable aspects of the game. It’s worth playing for the experience, but I don’t think it’s worth replaying.