In my opinion, Xenosaga is the best series of games in the conventional jrpg genre, although it definitely has its flaws and more importantly, it is not well known among modern players, let alone fans of the genre. To overcome this annoying misunderstanding and find out why I think Xenosaga is the best, I invite you to take a trip down the rails of the entire trilogy in a convenient format of your choice: text or video. Be careful, the door is closing. The next station is the Plot.
Tetsuya Takahashi (the father of Xenosaga) is nowadays known for the blockbusters from the Xenoblade Chronicles. But for real olds like me, my first acquaintance with his work began with Xenogears, which was released on the first Playstation back in 1998.
Even then it became clear to both the players and the management of the company Square that this person is capable to do something previously unseen or unusual for the genre, which did not necessarily become a bestseller. So, while being a very mature sci-fi game steeped in religious references, Xenogears didn’t get the attention it deserved from management, but it did get the people’s love that Takahashi felt.
In ’99, he leaves Square and creates his own company called Monolith Soft, which first cooperates with the publisher Namco, and then when the story from Xenosaga ended – with Nintendo, under whose wing he is already publishing games from the Xenoblade series.
It is not difficult to imagine what happened with the rights to this or that work, but with this purely legal point, I want to put an end to the discussion of the relationship between Xenogears, Xenosaga, and Xenoblade. These are completely different games and even series in terms of the plot. And although in the first two, a similar spirit can be seen with the naked eye and they refer to common themes and images, purely legally Takahashi could not make them part of the same universe.
However, the universe and plot of Xenosaga turned out to be so large and rich that in the end it can be argued that this trilogy became what Xenogears was meant to be.
It all begins in the 21st century when an archaeological expedition in Kenya discovered a monolithic artifact called the Zohar. It will be the key to humanity’s next evolutionary step (as in “Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick), which will eventually provide the ability to travel beyond the solar system and cause a terrible cataclysm that will completely destroy our planet.
Four thousand years later, the colonization of space will reach an incredible scale, humanity will spread over thousands of planets and (as in Frank Herbert’s “Dune“) will encounter an extremely dangerous race of Gnosis whose roots go as deep into history as the history of the monolith.
This is where we enter the game as Shion Uzuki, a young programmer from Vector Industries who is developing a powerful weapon against Gnosis. As is often the case with the Japanese, this weapon turns out to be a more or less tolerably sexualized gynoid robot with the laconic name Kos-Mos.
Which one of them can be considered the main protagonist is a valid question, because, like any saga, Xenosaga has a large number of such characters. At different moments of all three episodes, a different set of characters comes to the player’s attention, immersing them in deeper and deeper layers of the story: from events that take place simultaneously in different parts of the universe to the past and even collective unconscious (as in Jung’s theory).
And this is not to mention how often the story takes us to the side of the antagonists. One of the pleasant features of Xenosaga is manifested in this: it seems that no other game in the genre in its entire history provides as much interesting and conditionally useful voice-over content.
Surprised at the time by the hype surrounding Tales Of Arise, I complained that its plot, in addition to other disadvantages, is very one-sided. What is happening on the side of the enemy was shown at least three times during the entire game – and this can be called a kind of disease in the genre.
In Final Fantasy 8 the situation was even worse and over time I got the impression, that the Japanese know only extremes: either to cause confusion by not fully revealing the plot or to pour out so many mysterious and meaningless manifestations of the antagonists that the former already seems better than the latter. By the way, Tetsuya Nomura overdid it too much with the last one in his iconic series Kingdom Hearts, which I absolutely adore.
Xenosaga, in its turn, shows how you can keep a balance between what is happening on each side of the conflict, successfully giving an advantage to the team under the control of the player. Thanks to the fact that there are several sides here, everything is perceived no worse than A Song of Ice and Fire by George Martin, and the player does not know until the end who will beat whom even among the villains.
Another nice feature of Xenosaga is its conditional “adulthood”. At the time of my first acquaintance with the trilogy, the sources that Takahashi was inspired by and cited were not too interesting to me, and even easily accessible. But I was still delighted with the story told and some spicy, but often brutal scenes, which you rarely find in the genre. And now, re-examining the game at the age of 35, when artistic, scientific, and musical works have accumulated in my head in much greater numbers – I saw everything that I had not seen before.
The names of all three episodes, which are directly borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche’s works of the same name used to seem well-chosen pathetic quotes to me: The Will to Power, Beyond Good and Evil, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Stick them on photos of Jason Statham – you will have ready content for boyish audiences.
But now, having a more or less decent idea of what Nietzsche wrote, I can claim that each of the episodes is one big homage to each of the philosopher’s books. It is interesting that the series of games, like Nietzsche’s magnum opus, suffered a similar fate: they were all mercilessly shortened. Of the six episodic games, Xenosaga was reduced to three, and the four books of The Will to Power were reduced to one, also with a different name – The Antichrist according to the plan of the philosopher.
But this does not mean that the Saga ends in mid-sentence – the author still puts a period in the big plot arc. And I’m sure that if the series had continued, other episodes would have continued to be inspired by Nietzsche’s ideas, as it once did, for example, Third Reich. The only difference is that the latter did it selectively, taking into account only the convenient and, so to speak, “dark side” of Nietzscheanism.
One of the main antagonists of the game, Colonel Margulis, serves as a kind of caricature of this. The image of a skilled swordsman with slicked-back hair and a big facial scar upon first meeting evokes persistent associations with German officers of the Second World War (in particular Otto Skorzeny). When he justifies the genocide of a planetary scale by a simple classification of humanity, there are no doubts left.
Same in all episodes: behind every plot twist, behind every hero and their name there are allusions that, at first glance, may seem too boring, but their unique and actually colossal harmony in a rather rare setting in the jrpg genre is one of the main attractive features of the series.
Xenosaga is a science fiction space opera where the myths of Christianity and Gnosticism, the teachings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Gustav Jung materialize, and the social and legal institutions try to keep up with all this. If your brain explodes from one such description, no problem, that’s how it should be.
Players should be prepared for at least an in-game encyclopedia, the volume of which will amaze the bravest of them. And in the end, the entire trilogy seems to have been created for someone who thinks that there is nothing for them to find in this genre. It’s not just about the plot, and you’ll see for yourself now, because we’re just arriving at the Gameplay station.
When the first episode of Xenosaga was released in 2002, theoretically the jrpg genre was already about 16 years old, but in fact, it was perceived as twice as old, that is, outdated. Not only were the vast majority of games in the genre set in an oversaturated sci-fi setting, but another feature of their battles was that they were initiated by random skirmishes.
This is what it mostly looked like before. When moving the avatar of the battle group on the map, the player did not see the corresponding enemy avatars. After every few steps, the battles would eventually start on their own and the player never knew at what step the next fight was waiting for them.
It’s not hard to imagine how all these tired most fans of the genre and we should be grateful that Takahashi supported the trend started by the cult Chrono Trigger in the development of which he also participated.
First it, then the re-releases of the Lunar games, and finally Xenosaga removed random initiation and made it the new standard. Thanks to this, players began to choose the battles in which they want to participate.
The difference is mostly that in Chrono Trigger the player saw all the monsters on the map and fought them right away on that map. Whereas in Xenosaga, one monster on the map is just an avatar of the conditional leader of the enemy group, for the battle with which the game loads a separate battlefield, with a separate interface.
In it, all the participants of the battle stand wall to wall, sometimes having a chance to start the battle with an advantage, and they implement each move without leaving their place. The most important element of the actual interface is the turn order panel. Thanks to the Boost mechanic, every combatant, even the enemy, can make a move before their turn, and this is the key to winning any serious battle: accumulate enough boosts and realize twice as many moves.
The action of the second most important panel of the interface also extends to both allies and enemies and whoever walks while displaying one or another icon on this panel receives one of three modifiers. Either increased critical damage chance, more boosts, or more skill points. The last mod cures the entire cycle of Xenosaga from the problem of the genre, which is complained about by everyone who gets to know it too superficially. It’s about the grind.
I came up with a transcription for it: Game Repetitive Irritating Not Delightful. Those who complain about this argue that jrpgs involve a lot of additional and monotonous battles to level up characters to the required level, otherwise, there is nothing to do in serious boss fights. So, this is usually not true, and Xenosaga is no exception in this regard.
All you have to do is land a death blow with the bonus skill points icon on the modifier bar and that’s it. With such an elegant solution, Takahashi turned simple battles with ordinary monsters into interesting tactical management: the player must not only effectively destroy the enemy, but also do it in a timely manner. Otherwise, they risk significantly increasing the number of necessary battles, and therefore the number of hours to complete the game.
According to statistics, players spend an average of 35 hours on each of the episodes, and personally, it turned out that way for me. But I must emphasize that I did not take part in any unnecessary battle. I did not have to stupidly farm experience points or skills at any stage of the game. I just used said modifier in every fight I encountered while exploring the levels, and in the case of backtracking, I avoided unwanted battles with ease (even in the third episode, where the bonus system was removed altogether).
I’ll talk about backtracking a little later, but the exploration of the game world is done at a level unattainable for any other jrpg. On the one hand, the lack of a map may seem like an inconvenience, but the design of the levels is actually so compact and interesting that the presence of a map would just kill all the thrill of exploration. In those days, there was no trend or technical possibility to make giant maps with a bunch of identical activities, so the world of Xenosaga is full of interesting puzzles, secrets, and nooks and crannies with valuable rewards.
Unfortunately, there are not so many of the latter in minigames, and the number of such extraneous entertainment at least commands respect, and at most – successfully distracts from the main tasks: a slot machine, poker, a collectible card game, something like a slot machine where you have to carefully select rewards, its counterpart to the iconic Lemmings, and even action duels on gigantic robots.
But the participation of robots is not limited to the minigame and we need to talk about it separately. Each named mech has its own equipment and sooner or later falls under the control of the player, which further tightens the screws of the uniqueness of Xenosaga during its popularity years. It’s hard for me to think of anyone other than Takahashi who regularly uses piloted robots in their jrpg projects, but that doesn’t mean he’s been successful every time. He had mechs back in Xenogears, but for some reason in the first episode of Xenosaga, they turned out to be so ineffective that 90% of my battles were spent without them.
Then he solved this problem no less elegantly than in the case of the grind: in the last two episodes, you can no longer summon mechs during the battle. Instead, separate fragments of the game were allocated for robots, where both in battle and during research, the player can use only them. It is interesting that later such fragments can be revisited with the help of the subconscious mind, but now as a pilot who, due to their size, can visit hard-to-reach places.
As you correctly understood, the subconscious mind plays one of the important roles not only in the plot but also in the gameplay. Unfortunately, Takahashi did not implement such backtracking normally either. To explore the old locations of the first episode, the player must use the few points of entry and exit from the subconscious. Few people liked such a useless and uninteresting waste of time, and starting from the second episode, the problem was solved: to plunge into the subconscious, you still had to look for the necessary point, and you could get out of it anywhere.
In the same second episode, Takahashi took a rather decisive and risky step: he gave up the currency. It’s simple: use everything that was taken from the enemy, and do it carefully. After all, you never know what and when you will need it. But for all the experimentalism of such an approach, for my taste, a better balance was maintained in the first episode, which is also rarely found in role-playing games in general, not only Japanese ones. Therefore, the loot in the first part of the trilogy looked the most plausible: money could be taken only from soldiers, and some metal scraps only from robots.
The changes also affected the upgrade system in the direction of simplification. It was most successful in the first episode, where you could learn exclusive skills built into things, then use them already after removing the equipment, or even transfer them between characters.
In general, such key differences between the episodes make it feel like you’re playing a different game, but not so different for everything to fall apart. But they differ most strikingly audiovisually, which we will consider at our next stop – Aesthetic.
Like our tourist train, the camera in Xenosaga moves on rails. Everything around looks as if it is three-dimensional, but the player cannot move the camera freely – they are allowed to view everything only from pre-programmed angles. Such a camera plays an important role in exploring the levels: at first glance, the player will not always notice something useful, but he can often be pleasantly surprised by the reward for his own curiosity.
In 2001, a year before the release of the first episode of Xenosaga, a similar camera in the genre was popularized by Final Fantasy X, and the exploration of the world in it was not nearly as interesting. There, the map was always available and the level design was significantly more modest. But to its credit, Xenosaga would reach its level of graphical beauty only five years later.
Only closer to the third episode does the series become like a real blockbuster of those times, but this does not mean that the previous two are too unattractive. They are simply rougher, and simpler, and elementary mistakes in them are visible more often. For example, during the exploration of the levels of the entire second episode, the avatar of the leader of the battle group does not cast a shadow.
Another unpleasant feature is the appearance and voices of the characters, or rather how they changed between episodes.
First, it would certainly look more harmonious if a significantly changed appearance awaited each hero, and not selectively, as it turned out in the end.
Secondly, I understand that when working with actors, situations are different and someone physically cannot voice the character they worked on in the last episode. But when it comes to technical quality, I’m running out of arguments.
A vivid example of the change in sound quality is the voice of one of my favorite characters – Momo. At this link, you will find examples of how she sounds in the battles of the first and second episodes, and I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the difference. In the second, she seems to have bitrate decreased and the recording was made in strange places under strange conditions.
But this problem will only affect those players who like Momo as much as I do. You can play the game with any team composition, but Momo was in my team for all three episodes and I, frankly, had to endure her battle lines in the second.
It is impossible to turn them off, it is also impossible to skip them, and by the way, it is good that starting from the second episode, the animation of special techniques was made twice as short. In the first one, they were too long for a game where you have to watch them at least a hundred times.
But the length of the next nuance, on the contrary, pleasantly surprised me both twenty years ago and now, considering all the blockbusters of the genre that were released during that time. In none of them I noticed as long cinematic cutscenes as in Xenosaga (the closest competitors are, of course, Xenoblade from the same Takahashi).
This was quite unusual then and remains so today. In our time, purely dialogue screensavers remain more numerous in the genre, in which the heroes mostly stand as if dug in and at least somehow animate text blocks. Xenosaga, in turn, is as close to a full-length movie as possible in the jrpg genre.
Only in the third episode, there are more dialogue screens, but the advantage, in general, remains in the cinematography. But don’t worry. No matter how long the screensaver is, you can always pause it or skip it altogether, but purely for the plot, I would definitely not advise you to do so.
And it’s good that you don’t have to read a lot in them and you can take everything by ear, because they are all voiced, but with all that, I have to warn everyone who doesn’t speak English very well. Xenosaga is not an easy game to understand, thanks to numerous scientific, technical, and legal terms. The language here is definitely not as difficult as in Disco Elysium, but in general, I would describe the level of English here as “above average” so exactly.
It’s good that music can speak to us without words, so everyone can understand it. Soundtrack for each of the episodes was written by different composers: the first – Yasunori Mitsuda. For the second – the duo of Shinji Hosoe and Yuki Kajiura, while only the latter remained to work on the third. They are all accomplished artists: the men are better known for their work in the gaming industry, while Ms. Kajiura is primarily known as an anime composer.
To form your own opinion about the soundtrack, you can use this link, and I have to note that the public opinion is almost unanimous that the soundtrack of the second episode is the worst. To some extent, I agree with the audience, because the cutscene music written by Kajiura and the gameplay music written by Hosoe simply do not fit each other. It is too different: if in the screensavers more orchestral and gloomy compositions are played, then during the gameplay the player hears simpler rhythmic techno with a much more positive mood.
Such a difference is not accidental. During the entire period of work, the composers never met and did not create a single track in collaboration. Be that as it may, it is the gameplay music of the second episode that I like the most and it is the music that springs to mind in the first place. Perhaps precisely because it is so pop and easily becomes an earworm.
One way or another, the soundtrack of the cycle has not aged in any way, which cannot be said about the previously mentioned movie screensavers. In Final Fantasy X at the time, they also did not have high resolution, but over time, when the remaster came out, the picture, like good old wine, only got better.
Unfortunately, according to the developers, Xenosaga remaster on this the moment is economically impractical, so no matter what emulator settings you use, you will only improve the graphics of the gameplay. While screensavers will remain almost unchanged.
By the way, not everything is so simple with emulation. I have clicked through every possible setting, read through every possible forum, and finally found a middle ground that makes all three episodes look their best and with the fewest bugs. At this link, you will find the necessary settings, as well as a walkthrough for solving the first episode’s important save-the-progress problem.
Progress is also relentlessly carrying our train towards the terminus of this review, which I would like to sum up briefly.
In my opinion, Xenosaga should be at the end of your jrpg sightseeing tour. Finally, decide which Final Fantasy or Persona you like the most and only then tackle the iconic work of Mr. Tetsuya Takahashi.
There was no other such work, only by the same author, and even then – it was more modest. For example, Xenogears, which can be considered a successful warm-up, which, due to legal nuances, is not directly related to the saga.
The latest trilogy by the same author – Xenoblade Chronicles is not related to it. And in the end, it adds sadly: there will be no other such work.
Hardly anyone, even Takahashi, would dare to do something as adult and violent in the genre, even with such a sprawling plot, which many modern TV series would envy.
This is a story about humanity’s survival in the face of an enemy created at the intersection of the collective subconscious and superman according to the teachings of Jung and Nietzsche, as well as the religious myths of Gnosticism or Christianity. And all this against the background of internecine wars, social crises, and scientific and technological progress, which not only led to these crises but also to much more dangerous consequences.
The space opera genre is hardly represented in games, the jrpg genre is not too saturated with a sci-fi setting, so given all the above, Xenosaga shines as a hidden diamond, the flaws of which are less important than the flaws of the genre it represents and corrects.
Compared to most jrpgs, there is many times more content about antagonists, even more cinematic screensavers, and many times less repetitive and delayed gameplay, if it can be called that here at all.
There are no random encounters with enemies, there is no grind either, the exploration of the world is done in the tradition of classic Resident Evil with a large number of puzzles and nooks and crannies, where not only pleasant loot is stored, but also story content. Battles are turn-based, their mechanics can be used equally by your opponents, and when you get bored with all this, you can always be distracted by a whole bunch of built-in minigames.
That’s all. This train is not going any further, please leave the carriages and do not leave my other reviews without attention.