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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse

The second episode of Xenosaga saw its design and the series as a whole undergo a number of change-ups, in no small part due to a major change in the development team and a shift in management at Namco. But does Xenosaga Episode II still manage to provide a good RPG experience, or was this the start of a decline in quality as well as sales? 

Episodic games are always a tough sell, even when they're well-done; after all, you're basically asking fans to pay for several games released at full cost or close to it right out of the gate, with no guarantee the full product will be any better than a single standalone game.  It's an even tougher sell in the RPG genre, where there have already been numerous highly acclaimed games with self-contained stories that span upwards of 30 hours in running time and more continue to be released on a regular basis, so cutting off your story partway through as a means to sell more content later is a very risky move.  The only company I can think of that saw any real success with the format was Telltale Games, but even they couldn't keep the momentum going; they ultimately spread themselves too thin with numerous licensing deals in a very short period, which led to poor worker morale and declining quality, culminating in a steady falloff in sales and a very abrupt shutdown and bankruptcy that left most of their employees out in the cold.

Xenosaga was unfortunately not an exception to the rule; while the first game in the series sold over one million copies and all three games did well critically, this wasn't enough to stave off declining sales with each entry.  Things probably also weren't aided by the fact that this was the only game in the trilogy to get a European release.  Yes, the second game, which drops you off right where the first game ended, with zero context given for who any of the characters are or what they're doing (and unlike 1 and 3, there is no in-game glossary or plot summary to get you caught up).  Alongside decreasing sales, changes in management at Namco led to the series being cut down from six episodes to three, Tetsuya Takahashi no longer being actively involved in the games' development (moving into a story writing and consultant role), and Soraya Saga leaving the project entirely, resulting in the later two games being considered inferior to the original by most fans.

The most immediately noticeable of these changes is in the presentation. Most of the characters have had their voice actors recast, and many of these changes are for the worse.  Shion in particular is often singled out as the worst change, now being voiced by Olivia Hack and far less expressive than Lia Sargent's take on the character.  The highlight of the new cast is definitely Joshua Seth, whose mellow voice fits chaos much more than Derek Prince (and the studio seemed to agree, as he was kept in the third game as well). The visual style has also seen a drastic revamp, going for a significantly more realistic feel rather than showing off the heavy anime inspiration the original had.

Combat has been heavily reworked from the original Xenosaga as well, attempting to incorporate more of both a puzzle element as well as a chain-combo system not unlike the latter two Shadow Hearts games.  Basically, each character now has one of three attack types (hit, pierce or slash) that deals more damage to certain enemies or less to others, and each enemy now has a sequence of buttons that will Break their guard; once broken, each following attack that turn will deal double damage. One can also knock down or pop an enemy into the air after a Break, which adds another bonus on top.  The Stock mechanic is built to take advantage of this too, letting you skip turns in order to save them up for later use - in this case, adding extra attacks onto your combos. It's a bit to get used to, but once you've mastered it, the game becomes too easy, letting you rack up thousands or even tens of thousands of points in damage per turn and even destroying bosses in very short order. This does achieve its goal of making many of XS1's underutilized characters more useful - Ziggy and MOMO are now virtual game breakers - but it does feel a bit one-track compared to most RPGs. 

I was also glad to see mech battles - a key element of Xenogears but relegated to a mostly-useless footnote in Xenosaga I - make a return here. In this game, you get a new type of mech in the E.S., which is essentially a separate set of playable characters - though the main cast pilots them (with the choice of pilot determining what abilities they may use), they gain levels and experience completely separate from their pilots and are only usable at certain areas in the story.  Combat is changed up for them too, letting you spend a pool of points each turn to chain together sequences of attacks, defend to reduce damage and build Stock, or (with MOMO) cast Ether spells.  Landing attacks also ties into another mechanic called "Interrupt Attack" - a chance to intercept an enemy's strike and counter with your own, which grows as the IA meter fills but empties if you sustain a critical hit.  One must also be careful not to let their ES units be defeated, as the player cannot revive them if they fall. 

Another strange changeup is the complete removal of both shops and money in favor of increased enemy drops. It's one thing to not have such a thing in your game, but to include it in the first game of the series and then leave it out of the second is just bizarre.  Even moreso considering you can still sell items as part of a sub quest to pay off Captain Matthews' debts. Even the developers seemed to think it was a bad decision, as Xenosaga III's box touts the return of shops as one of its defining features.

As in the first game, there are still numerous sidequests to complete - some filling in bits of story while others are mostly just for fun.  However, the rewards almost always leave something to be desired, often granting you a costly special move that does much less damage than a single good combo. I suppose you do at least get a cool animation out of them most of the time, but it's a little disheartening when your reward for a quest is something much more expensive (and much less effective) than a standard combo attack.

So, Xenosaga II, for both better and worse, is a drastically different experience from the first game. I actually liked a lot of the mechanical changes - the combat system is really fun and rewarding to master (maybe a little too much though, as mentioned) and seeing mech battles return to being a prominent element of the game was definitely welcome. Other changes are definitely for the worse, but even the devs realized they messed up, as they reinstated shops and nearly all of the original voice cast for the third game, and made sure to polish up and rebalance many of the changes this one made. Xenosaga II is a game I still enjoyed playing and recommend to anyone who asks, but its unquestionably the weakest of the trilogy.

Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Namco
Platform: Playstation 2
Released: 2005
Recommended Version:  N/A

Tags: JRPG, Science Fiction, Prefab Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Optional Minigames, Collection-Fest, Long Animations, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Missables

(There is a remake of the first two Xenosaga games on the Nintendo DS called "Xenosaga I & II", though it was only released in Japan.)

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Tiermaker Funtimes : The SaGa Series games (that I've played)

While SaGa never achieved anywhere near the level of popularity Final Fantasy had, it's been around almost as long, debuting only two years after its sister franchise's first appearance on the Famicom.  It was also the first SaGa game - not a Final Fantasy - that became Square's first title to sell over a million copies worldwide, so it definitely has its place in history.  Over the years it's remained a highly experimental series, with long-time director Akitoshi Kawazu mixing in various gameplay elements from other genres, from large-scale strategy battles to tabletop RPGs to open-ended adventures akin to something like an Ultima title, and the end result is a very diverse and fascinating series, if not always the most impressive in terms of fun factor or presentation.  Regardless, I'm going to look at every SaGa game I've played and give them a ranking.

Makai Toushi SaGa (1990)

The first game in the series, which was localized in the west as "The Final Fantasy Legend" despite being the origin of a totally different franchise.  Still, it was the first RPG on the Game Boy, which was a very hot property in 1989 owing to its affordable price and being packaged in with Tetris, which was (and still is) the height of classic puzzle gaming, so it sold like hotcakes.  It proved to be a pretty cool game for the time, though, letting you build a party out of Humans, Mutants or Monsters and undertake a grand adventure that spanned numerous worlds - a medieval world, a sea world, a futuristic city and more.  Each character type also has their own unique abilities - Humans only power up when you give them medicine, Mutants level up randomly and gain or lose various spells or traits (which would become a defining element of the franchise) and Monsters eat the meat of slain enemies and transform, gaining or losing power based on what you eat.  That's all fun to a point, but it also gives way to frustration - the random element is a constant plague, as your mutants tend to lose useful abilities at the worst possible time and unless you're really on the ball with monster data, you're probably going to end up with a dead weight character at a bad time more than once too.  Random encounters are extremely frequent and enemies get extremely strong in the late stages, so a surprise attack is usually just an instant game over.  Your weapons also degrade with use, requiring constant replacement, which just adds to the grindy nature of everything.  Still, the game had quite a lot of content for an early Game Boy title, as well as some great music by Nobuo Uematsu, so that kept me from quitting.  It's also the only game where you cut God in half with a chainsaw, which is both badass and hilarious.  I'll give it a B.

SaGa 2: Hihou Densetsu (1991)

The first game was got somewhat mixed reviews but was a big financial success for Square, so a sequel was inevitable.  Sure enough, a year after the first, we got SaGa 2 (localized as Final Fantasy Legend 2).  While not a lot has changed in terms of core gameplay, the presentation has seen a significant overhaul - there are virtually no "empty tiles" for graphics, characters have more frames of animation in general, and the translation is significantly more polished.  You're also clued in on goings-on with your characters - earning stats, moves changing and such are now displayed on screen after battle so you know what you're getting right away.  There is also a new playable race in Robots, who gain stats based on what they equip - this leads to them being very overpowered in the early stages, though their lack of magic and vulnerability to it makes them more of a liability later on.  This one is somehow even more blisteringly difficult than the original - enemies attack in absolutely huge groups (20+ enemies as you get closer to the end), which makes surviving most battles all but impossible unless you grind for days on end.  You can equip the Magi to your characters to offset this to a degree (giving them higher stats, resistance to elements or status effects, and so forth), but as you eventually lose all of them for story reasons and only one character can equip any given type, it's not something you can rely on too much.  It has quite a lot of content and nuance once again, but the punishing difficulty ensures it's a game I've only ever finished once and have no desire to replay again.  Still, it has a pretty kickass soundtrack by Kenji Ito and Nobuo Uematsu, which pushes it into C territory.  The DS remake also gets a C; while it does add some new content and tweaks from later games, it's still the same experience at its core and is, once again, even more bloody difficult, giving the final boss a ridiculously powerful new second form that I just barely squeaked past.

SaGa 3: Jikuu no Hasha (1993)

Released alongside Romancing SaGa on the Super Famicom, which Akitoshi Kawazu was working on at the time; hence, directing duties for this game were handed over to Kouzi Ide and the game took on a much more traditional style of design, with defined characters as our protagonists, proper experience points, levels and equipment that doesn't degrade with use.  Mutants, Monsters and Robots are still in the game, albeit in a slightly odder fashion - your characters all begin in a base form (Human or Mutant) and transform after battle if they choose to eat meat or install parts from enemies.  One meat turns them into a Beast (giving them some unique moves/traits based on their form), two meats turn them into a Monster (generally more powerful, but unable to use equipment), one part turns them into a Cyborg (similar to a Beast), and two parts turn them into a Robot (who only gain stats by purchasing upgrades at shops).  One can also undo the process at any time by eating meat as a cyborg/robot or installing parts as a beast/monster, which is kind of silly.  Late-game, one can also craft new types of magic via various stones they find throughout the world, allowing for some very powerful combinations.  The plot can also be considered a precursor to Chrono Trigger, as much of it centers on upgrading your time machine to give it more functionality - at first it can only hop back and forth, but later on you'll get to add shops, an inn, a magic combination chamber, and even the ability to fly, which is a pretty cool addition to simply powering up your characters.  Composition this time is handled by Ryuji Sasai (who also worked on Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest) and Chihiro Fujioka (who wrote music for a few obscure Japanese computer games but has since mostly worked as a producer or director).  It's a definite oddball in the series for its more traditional JRPG design, but at the same time, that probably makes it the most fun of the original SaGa trilogy.  I'll give it a B, albeit a higher B than the other two.  The DS remake gets a C; Akitoshi Kawazu directed it and reincorporated many of the traditional SaGa elements, which unfortunately reintroduces a lot of the frustration factor and grinding that make the first two games rather hard to revisit.  Kenji Ito's reworked soundtrack is excellent, though.

Romancing SaGa 2 (1993)

Romancing SaGa 2 attempts to add a new twist to the series norm - rather than playing as a single hero throughout the story, you instead play an entire lineage of emperors and empresses, changing after a number of years pass or your current character dies in battle.  Your successors inherit all the skills of their predecessors, though, so you gradually grow more and more powerful even as your characters constantly reset.  An interesting concept, and it works surprisingly well.  This was also the first game in the series to utilize the now-familiar Life Points system, as well as to introduce formations, letting you arrange your party to get various benefits like boosted attack or higher defense for certain characters (something that the Suikoden series' later entries would also copy).  This comes with a catch, though - if you get attacked from the side or enter a fight while running, your formation will be scrambled, potentially exposing your weaker characters to danger; if you're not confident that you can avoid an enemy, it's often better to just fight them.  You also get to gradually build up an empire, receiving money in taxes to research new weapons, armor and spells, which is pretty fun to see.  It does get a bit grindy and the dungeons rather monotonous, particularly as there are tons of enemies in each room and leaving and returning will cause them all to respawn.  Still, a pretty novel concept that's executed well, if not amazingly deep.  It gets a B. 

Romancing SaGa 3 (1995)

The third and final Super Famicom SaGa game, and it follows in the mold of the first, giving you a choice of eight characters to pick from whose stories gradually intertwine, as well as the ability to recruit numerous other characters along the way.  There's dozens of them to find, and many definitely fall into odd territory - a fairy, a superhero, a giant lobster, a snowman, and an elephant man are some of the crazier ones.  Like the original Romancing SaGa, the game is also largely open-ended - you'll have to do a lot of traveling, talking to NPCs and completing various subquests before the main storyline comes into focus.  There are also large-scale war battles, which is a pretty unique new element, though these are relatively simplistic and get to be tedious after the first few.  It doesn't do a whole lot new, but what's here is given a new level of refinement that probably makes it the most fun of the Super Famicom SaGa games.  This one gets an A.

SaGa Frontier (1998)

While I did play the whole trilogy on the Game Boy back when they were relatively new, SaGa Frontier on the PS1 was the game that really made me into a fan.  They took good everything about the Game Boy series and the Romancing titles, ditched nearly all of the stuff I disliked, and made a game that blew me away with its fun factor and design.  Weapons no longer degrade over time (though guns can run out of ammo mid-fight), you have a much greater degree of control over monster and mutant Mystic abilities, and Mecs actually get some unique abilities of their own, so they're not just big bulky tanks (though they are still vulnerable to magic, particularly water and electrical attacks).  One very fun element is the combo system - essentially, if your team uses several compatible moves on the same enemy back-to-back, you'll get a flashy animation where they all do their moves in quick succession, racking up a ton of damage and looking downright awesome in the process (and doing a variety of flashy combos with at least three people involved is actually necessary to defeat one boss).  Rather than one big, overarching story, this one goes for something of an anthology format - there are seven selectable characters, and while they all inhabit the same world and even meet many of the same characters on their journeys, each story is completely independent from the others, which lends quite a bit of variety and longevity.  I even really like the presentation - the excellent soundtrack (Kenji Ito once again), huge variety of characters and CGI backdrops that mesh elements of science fiction, colorful fantasy and even some modern settings like a massive hotel/casino give the world a bizarre charm that's a lot of fun to get lost in.  However, the game is hampered quite a bit by being rushed - several quests (particularly Blue and Asellus's) had large portions of planned plot cut out owing to time constraints, so encountering large leaps in difficulty and having to guess where to go next are both common occurrences.  Stories like T260, Red and Riki's are more complete and show off a ton of imagination, but it really is a shame that they couldn't get all that they wanted to do in there.  Still, when the game shines, it shines, and it remains one of my favorite PS1 RPGs to this day, so it gets an A.  That upcoming remaster that restores all the cut content, though?  That might just get an S.  I'll get back to you once it's released.

SaGa Frontier 2 (2000)

The title would seem to imply that this is a direct followup to the original Frontier in terms of style, but once you play it, you find that it's anything but.  In fact, it's the total opposite in almost every way.  The CGI backdrops and characters are replaced with sprites and hand-painted watercolor backgrounds.  The setting is a medieval fantasy rather than a science-fantasy world, putting emphasis on large-scale war battles and centering on the arcs of two main protagonists rather than a wider variety of characters.  The soundtrack this time is done by Masashi Hamauzu, who appropriately lends the game a more standard orchestral RPG flair.  But perhaps the largest changeup is the gameplay - while the combat system and random stat gains remain staples, the open world element is almost completely gone in favor of a structure that's almost entirely linear - you go from place to place at the whim of a strictly-enforced narrative, with the only real opportunity to explore coming in dungeons.  In fact, if the project weren't confirmably headed by Kawazu once again, I'd swear an entirely different team had taken over the series after seeing this one.  It's still a fun game, with a focus on story and character development rarely seen elsewhere in the series, but it barely fits in with the rest of the franchise in terms of design.  Still, it's worthy of a B.

Unlimited Saga (2003)

The first SaGa title released after the Enix buyout, and also one of their first games to get near-universal scathing reviews from critics and fans alike.  It isn't hard to see why after playing it for only a few minutes - the interface is unintuitive, the presentation as bare-bones as can be (SaGa has never been a big-budget production but this one feels especially cheap, with static maps and sprites and towns consisting mostly of text menus) and it really does a poor job explaining anything to you - the manual is about all you get, and even that fails to expand on some very important concepts like the crafting system or learning magic.  There isn't even a player's guide to bail you out, unlike every other Square Enix game on the PS2, so you were basically just on your own from square one.  It mostly plays like a tabletop game, albeit instead of dice rolls, you get slot machine reels - using attacks, casting spells, avoiding and disarming traps, and virtually every other action you can think of are all now dependent on spinning reels you can stop, though if your skills aren't up to snuff, they'll frequently wander and land you on a bad space anyway.  You can't even select what techniques you want to use, either - they just get placed on a slot on the reel and you have to land on it to use them, which is downright irritating (and makes them all but useless until you've gotten a lot of them).  Still, they were at least trying to make the most of this idea, as ill-concieved as it may have been - there are seven playable stories in the game that overlap at times, quite a few optional quests to undertake, a lot of interesting story and lore to uncover, and even some of the new mechanics are interesting - characters can be swapped in and out of battle mid-fight, and I thought the ability to customize them via the panel system was actually pretty interesting, if somewhat undercooked.  You can even place negative panels that give your character a severe disadvantage in exchange for a rather large stat boost, which is a pretty creative double-edged sword.  Hamauzu also provides the soundtrack again here and does a fantastic job, with some very strong orchestral tunes throughout.  So despite all its problems, Unlimited Saga isn't completely without merit - there are interesting ideas here, but it really needed some more time in the oven and a presentation worthy of the Square name to sell it to fans; an online tutorial or at the very least a Bradygames guide probably wouldn't have been a bad idea either.  I kind of enjoy the game for what it is, but I can't deny that it could have been much better, too.  So I'm giving it a D.

(And before someone asks: Yes, it's the only game in the series that doesn't use the uppercase "G" in the title.)

Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song (2005)

Released two years after the infamous Unlimited Saga, and as you'd expect, nobody really gave it a chance as a result.  They were missing out, though, as Minstrel Song not only learns from that game's mistakes, but provides a great remake of a game that draws a lot of cues from open-ended western RPGs like Ultima and Elder Scrolls.  While there are eight selectable characters in the game, this ultimately has little effect on much other than their opening quests.  Once you finish those, the game becomes almost entirely open-ended, having you travel the world, get quests and recruit allies, and generally just explore this massive fantasy world.  You do actually have to talk to townspeople quite a bit - not just to unlock quests, but to open new areas to travel to so that you can complete said quests.  They also do quite a good job balancing enemies to your level - I never felt overwhelmed upon entering a new area, and only on a couple occasions did I accidentally stumble into a boss monster that overwhelmed me and forced a reset.  Character customization is quite vast, working on an unconventional class system - you buy skills in package sets, then once you have enough, you can become a class, which grants you bonuses like being able to combine magic or gaining resistance to some types of status effects.  Once you have skills you can also purchase Proficiencies, which allow you to interact with the world in various ways - sneaking past enemies, gathering herbs and ore for crafting purposes, disarming traps, finding locked chests, climbing walls, and so forth.  You can change these up at any time in town, but get a limited number of actions per dungeon, so using them with some discretion is always wise.  This remake also incorporates a lot of elements from across the series, picking and choosing the best of all of them.  Weapons degrade with use, but do so more slowly as your skill with them increases (letting you use many of your techniques at little or no cost).  Combos return, as do more in-battle abilities like Reverses, Fulcrums and Surge Reverses that let you rack up the damage.  Kenji Ito also returns after a two game absence, bringing his hard-rocking sound to the game alongside the mellow tracks for towns and pubs, and it all sounds excellent.  Basically, it combines the western-style free roaming and gradual plot/lore revelations with a Japanese-style combat system, and it actually does a remarkably good job at both.  A very underrated SaGa game if ever there was one, it gets an A from me.

SaGa: Scarlet Grace Ambitions (2019)

The first new game in the series to see a western release in over fourteen years, so with that, you'd expect there to be a lot of confidence behind this one.  Well, it didn't sell great even in Japan (rather surprising for a SaGa game), but that doesn't mean it wasn't a good game.  On the contrary; Scarlet Grace is one of the best games in the series.  While it has a fairly mundane-looking flat map, battles are definitely very flashy, with large 3D characters duking it out.  Each turn you get a number of "BP" to spend, with more powerful attacks generally costing more, and each character is placed on a timeline and can be moved up or down it by using or being hit by certain moves.  Defeating a foe knocks a character off the timeline entirely, and if this causes two or more characters' turns to touch together on the timeline, they get a Unite Attack, which deals extra damage and makes their attacks cost less on the next turn.  This makes combat very dynamic and fun to watch and honestly ends up being one of the game's best components.  There are also quite a few optional quests to undertake, and upgrading weapons is handled by a crafting system (though thankfully, a much more straightforward and less grindy one than Unlimited).  There's quite a lot of land and lore to explore too, though oddly no dungeons to venture through (apparently cut for time constraints).  Still, the game is a lot of fun and has managed to get quite a few fans back on board with SaGa after they abandoned it in droves years ago, so it gets high marks from me.  An A for Ambitions.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht

 The first game created by several of the Xenogears alumni after their split from Square Enix, Xenosaga was planned to carry on the epic feel and planned episodic format of that game while pushing an original tale in a science fiction universe. But does Xenosaga's aiming for the stars pay off, or does it simply crash and burn on the launchpad?

Xenogears was a heavily divisive game on the PS1, with fans praising its dark storytelling, complex characters, philosophical themes and impressive production design while others criticized it heavily for its clunky game design, dragging pace and being released in a very unfinished state: the second disk of the game was infamously almost nothing but flat exposition peppered with boss battles.  It was also clear that Tetsuya Takahashi had much bigger plans for Xenogears than Square was willing to accommodate - according to the Xenogears Perfect Works book, it was planned as one part of a six-episode saga, with numerous branches into other media as well.

As a result of this, Tetsuya Takahashi was one of many Square alumni to split from Square and form his own studio - in his case, forming Monilith Soft under Namco's banner. His first project there alongside Soraya Saga (Co-writer of Xenogears and his wife) was Xenosaga - a spiritual successor indented to carry on Xenogears' legacy and realize many of the ideas he originally had in mind for that franchise, theoretically free of company meddling.  Things didn't quite pan out as originally planned, but that's a tale we'll get into once I visit the sequels.

It's clear right away that Xenosaga was built on the same model as its predecessor, becoming less of a game and more of an epic anime series with some gameplay sprinkled in.  Indeed, a common criticism of the series is its brutally long cutscenes, which can stretch upwards of 30 minutes at times (which is especially prominent in the first game, but somewhat better in the sequels). However, they do put in a lot of effort to make sure they're always worth watching - they're well-staged and shot, smartly written and even have some very high quality voice over for the time, featuring well known  talent like Lia Sargent, Richard Epcar and Derek Stephen Prince as key characters.  Certainly a nice contrast to many modern RPGs, which seem to mostly consist of dull incidental dialog warbled out by apathetic actors while their characters just stand around and the camera cuts spastically between 300 random angles to keep you from falling asleep; waste of good money if you ask me. 

The writing in Xenosaga also proves to be a stark contrast in another big regard.  Like it's predecessor it doesn't shy away from philosophical themes; hell, every game's title is a direct reference to one of Friedrich Nietzsche's works, all of which also get name-dropped (in English) in their respective games. However, its storytelling doesn't get swallowed up by its themes and become pretentious; the onscreen events are very much driven by the characters, and each one shows their own flaws, talents and motivations that lead them to do what they do.  Nobody fits into the mold of a cliché or becomes an overt Mary Sue, and even the villains are relatable on some level.  It really does highlight Takahashi and Saga's talents that made Final Fantasy 6 and Xenogears shine, and definitely lends Xenosaga a human element that few other RPGs I've ever played have matched. 

But while Xenosaga's primary focus is on its narrative and not its gameplay, that isn't to say what gameplay is there is lacking; far from it.  Combat operates on a somewhat similar principle to Xenogears, letting the player chain together moves into combination attacks; they will regenerate 4 AP a turn and can bank up to 6, which equals out to a three-hit combo from a full bar (two normal attacks and a more powerful "Tech Attack" which generally must be unlocked and equipped first).  In addition, dealing damage will fill up the "BG" bar; once full, the player can use a Boost to immediately grant one of their players a turn, superceding all turns following theirs; enemies can use this too, however, so one must be wary of that, particularly later in the game when they will abuse it liberally to give themselves several turns in a row.  It quickly proves to be integral to winning some fights, too - in particular, one boss fight features an enemy that will immediately heal themself back to full once their health drops below half, so building up BG to sneak in enough turns and deal enough damage to defeat them before they can heal is key to winning.  Some characters can also summon an AGWS - essentially, a mecha - to fight within, effectively replacing their normal moveset and giving them an HP buffer.  However, I found that these generally weren't very worthwhile - unlike Xenogears, their stats aren't a huge leap over your base characters, and they tend to do too little damage and die too quickly to be effective, even after several upgrades.  I usually just stuck to fighting on foot for the duration, save for a few story scenes where I was forced to use an AGWS.

Another somewhat odd element of combat is the "Event Slot".  At the bottom right of the screen you will see a small icon that shifts every turn, and depending on what icon it displays, you will earn various bonuses on that turn.  For example, you may get extra Boost gauge from attacks, have a higher chance of inflicting a critical, or get extra Tech, Ether and Skill points from an enemy you defeat that turn (with a 2x, 4x or even 10x multiplier).  Indeed, sometimes it's better to manipulate turns and try to get a bonus than to let a battle end too soon.  That said, enemies also benefit from higher critical chance or Boost gains, so spending a Boost to deny them those bonuses can also prove important.

Xenosaga also goes out of its way to avoid a lot of things that were criticized about Xenogears.  Cutscenes are now skippable, so you no longer have to view them all again if you die on a boss fight after a long sequence of them.  You are also given warning before you pass a point of no return - generally entering an area much tougher than the previous one, giving you chance to power up and restock if need be.  In addition, while the plot is a mostly linear one, one can use the EVS at specially-marked save points to revisit any area they've previously been to, allowing them to grind or pick up items they may have missed the first time through.

Of course, there is also no shortage of side-content in the game.  There are four prominent minigames to play; AGWS Battle is just for fun and plays like a simpler version of Armored Core or Virtual On (albeit with a surprisingly large number of playable AGWS).  The Drill Game is a simple claw machine style game that allows you to win prizes, with better ones generally inside smaller objects.  XenoCard is a collectible card game which is also just for fun, but surprisingly complex (and collecting all the cards proves to be quite a time investment).  And finally, my personal favorite, the Casino, where you can play Poker or Blackjack to collect coins, which in turn can be traded for some very powerful items if you have enough patience to rack up a large enough total.  Basically, you won't be hurting for content  if you're a die-hard completionist, but if you're not, all of these can also safely be skipped as you make your way through the story.

While not flawless, Xenosaga is a well executed experience; arguably the best yet seen from the Monolith camp.  Its gameplay ultimately takes a back seat to the story, but remains fun and engaging regardless, and its world building is excellent, effectively immersing the player in a well-realized science fiction universe with a lot of religious and philosophical themes, yet never feeling overdone or pretentious in doing so.  Characters are wonderfully realized, getting you fully immersed in their tale, and the voice acting is of very high quality for 2003; easily on par with any prominent big-name anime that was popular at the time (and utilizing several actors thereof).  It may be largely ignored nowadays by its publisher (save for KOS-MOS appearing in the odd crossover game like Project X Zone), but it's widely regarded as one of the best RPGs on the PS2 for good reason, and is a game that more than a few modern "cinematic RPGs" should take some cues from in its production design. 

Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Namco
Platform: Playstation 2
Released: 2003
Recommended Version:  N/A

Tags: JRPG, Science Fiction, Prefab Characters, Disturbing Themes, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Optional Minigames, Collection-Fest, Long Animations, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Cinematic Experience, Missables

(There is a remake of the first two Xenosaga games on the Nintendo DS called "Xenosaga I & II", though it was only released in Japan.)