Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht
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When Xenogears saw its release in Japan and abroad in 1998, fans noticed that its ending credits said it was the fifth episode in a larger saga. A few years later, Monolith Soft, headed by former developers of Xenogears, developed, and Namco published, Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht, which many widely assumed was a long awaited prequel. Does it live up to the hype it received before and after its release?

Enemies are visible wandering the game’s various maps, with combat initiated by touching enemies, traps sometimes being present that the player can detonate to get an advantage in combat. In battle, the player’s party of up to three characters squares off against the enemy, with a turn order meter in the lower-right of the screen showing partial turn order. Partial, because some genius at Monolith Soft thought it would be cute to have this meter run out of icons and refill the following turn, with no indication of which character or enemy will take their turn when it’s down to one icon.

Each active character has a gauge that can hold up to six Action Points, which typically default at four, although they can guard with the cost of only two AP, with four AP granted whenever a character reaches their turn. Action Points allow characters to chain attacks against the enemy with the square and triangle buttons, and if a character has six AP, they can finish the combo with a more powerful Tech Attack, with players able to equip up to four, one for each different two-button combination of the square and triangle buttons.

Players can press the X button to switch between attack mode and menu mode, with the latter having several commands, among them being the use of Ether Point-consuming Ether spells. Outside battle, the player can set Ether spells, with each spell having a certain Weight and each set spell consuming a certain Weight, thus limiting the number of spells players can use in battle. Players can also board their AGWS (pronounced “eggs”) if they have them, which are basically giant robots that are useful against giant enemies and bosses, but generally not useful otherwise.

Characters can also use items from the battle menu, and in a good twist, if a character has six AP, they can extend a consumable’s effect to the entire party, effective with healing items, for instance. One Ether spell and a particular consumable item allow players to escape from battle if desired, with this function working most of the time in normal fights. Another twist is that when characters execute normal attacks, their boost gauges will gradually fill up to three levels, with the player able to use a boost level to give a character an extra turn if their icon is currently not on the turn order gauge.

Winning battles nets all participating characters occasional money and standard experience for occasional level-ups, alongside Tech Points that the player can use to increase a character’s individual stats or increase the power, speed, and recovery time of Tech Attacks. If a player increases a Tech Attack’s speed, then they can put it into one of two special slots, one for melee Techs and the other for ranged Techs, so that in battle, they can execute the chosen Techs after only one standard square or triangle button attack, with these slots being particularly useful for Techs that affect all enemies and can make battles go by much faster.

Winning fights also nets the three participating characters Ether Points that the player can use to “evolve” Ether spells to learn new spells to use in combat. In another nice twist, players can use half the EP required to learn new Ether spells to transfer a spell to another character for use in battle, useful, for instance, with healing magic. Furthermore, players earn Skill Points that the player can use in the menus to learn special passive skills that provide things such as stat increases and protection against status ailments, three of which the player can equip at one time. Each character has a Skill level that allows players only to learn Skills of their level, although learning enough Skills gradually increases an ally’s skill level so they can learn more Skills.

Finally, the player may occasionally gain items from battle, some of which they can sell at shops for a decent price, with money at times being somewhat scarce throughout the game, although there are some maps where the enemies drop more money than average. In the end, the battle system has plenty of good ideas, although their execution at some points leaves something to desire. For instance, enemies can boost to gain extra turns, although how and when they do this is often random and unpredictable. Battles can also drag out if players don’t have attack-all Techs with increased speed, and the last few bosses can be difficult without doing a certain sidequest. In the end, the battle system is at best slightly above average.

Control is one of Episode I’s weakest links, what with sluggish menus (and a need to go to the status menus to change equipment, for instance), an inexcusable lack of in-game maps, and the general uselessness of the radar, which just shows enemy locations without revealing any sort of layout of the current area. The general control scheme can also take some getting used to, with players accustomed to other PlayStation 2 games accustomed to X being confirming and O cancelling, whereas Episode I reverses the buttons, and this can lead to some moments where the player could accidentally forfeit an opportunity in the middle of a long cutscene to save the game, not to mention create a data file transferrable to Episode II. The placement of save points is also iffy, with some not coming right before certain boss fights. In the end, interaction could have been much better.

The story is one of the best parts of the game, with a mostly well-developed cast of characters and decent backstory, not to mention many philosophical references and a databank keeping track of terms and characters throughout the game, although there is some occasional derivation from 2001: A Space Odyssey with regards to the MacGuffin Zohar, along with occasional in-game advertising via Shion’s emails for Namco’s other titles. The translation, however, is largely spotless, and ultimately, the narrative is a definite boon to the game.

Xenogears composer Yasunori Mitsuda composes Episode I’s soundtrack, which is largely decent in spite of only two battle themes, one for normal and boss battles and another for the final boss, and no audio aside from whirring engines during most of the game exploration. There is, however, a central musical theme, and the voice acting is largely top-notch in spite of frequent mismatched lips, and in the end, the aurals do their work in spite of their flaws.

Episode I uses an anime-style that isn’t cel-shaded, which looks nice for the most part, in spite of some occasional blurry-textured scenery when seen up-close during some cutscenes, not to mention ever-present jaggies, although the visuals are one of the title’s top marks.

Finally, the first Episode takes somewhere from thirty to forty-five hours to finish, with some occasional sidequests boosting playing time, although there isn’t much lasting appeal otherwise.

Ultimately, Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht wasn’t exactly a mind-blowing title, what with things such as its clunky combat and control, although it does have plenty going for it such as its story, visuals, soundtrack, and voice acting. Series creator Tetsuya Takahashi would later confirm that no, Der Wille zur Macht doesn’t take place in the same universe as Xenogears, with its two sequels instead continuing the story of the first game’s characters and setting instead of remaining loyal to the timeline established in Xenogears Perfect Works.

The Good:
+Battle system has some decent ideas.
+Excellent story.
+Great music, voice acting, and graphics.

The Bad:
-Battles can be sluggish, with enemies sometimes cheating.
-Some interface issues such as lack of automaps.
-Many areas are without music.

The Bottom Line:
Okay first Episode.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 6/10
Controls: 5/10
Story: 9/10
Music/Sound: 7/10
Graphics: 9/10
Localization: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 4/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 30-45 Hours

Overall: 6.5/10

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