I don’t remember much about any part of this trilogy – the last time I played these games they were newly released US imports, which would have been… about eighteen years ago now – but I do remember they were stuffed full of religious imagery, a memory Xenosaga: Episode I is eager to refresh over and over again until at one point, perhaps in a vain attempt to be the most religious RPG that ever religion’d, sexy killbot KOS-MOS is strung up by wires in a crucifixion-like manner and only released by her (surviving) scientist-creator Shion making the sign of the cross over her body while reciting her access password – which just so happens to be “You shall be as a God“.
There’s a lot you could say about a scene like that – but I’m not going to. While creatively reinterpreting heaven, hell, and all the mystical bells and whistles between is a lot of fun (just ask Dante – no, not that one) I’m going to treat these pilfered eleme-, sorry, clever references with extreme caution and try to avoid ascribing any more meaning than the in-game text explicitly bestows upon them – I want to focus on what Xenosaga really is rather than fall into the trap of either over-intellectualising some throwaway dialogue or – and I say this with kindness – spending more time justifying the presence of an[other] Old Testament name than developer Monolith Soft ever did. Sometimes fictional works include a religious reference because they’re trying to pass comment on the spiritual state of humanity and our need to find purpose within a vast and seemingly indifferent cosmos, and sometimes they do it because religion can be Mary Magdalene’s skull encased in a solid gold helmet with a glass viewing window and there’s nothing more to these echoes than copying a cool look. Xenosaga’s a bit of both, and that’s fine.
Besides, what’s in here is already far more interesting than the Xenosaga I thought I remembered, or perhaps the Xenosaga the internet had spent years telling me I remembered: I honestly expected to find myself sitting through cutscene after cutscene of too many people babbling made up words at each other in reference to portentous flashbacks that were probably badly explained, thirty hours previously. Maybe that all comes later, but in all honesty Episode I has been a densely packed sci-fi adventure that has only spent a lot of time showing me things simply because it had a lot of things worth showing. Xenosaga may be a living example of the phrase “bitten off more than they could chew” even in this introductory third of the eventual trilogy (it was originally envisioned as a six part epic) but I’m already genuinely invested in these events, I want to see more of this world and what’s going to happen in it. It’s fair to point out that the traditional story arc – the setup, the crisis, the shocking reveal, the sweet revenge against an impressive adversary – don’t occur in the usual sense, this opening title instead daring to do nothing more than lay down a solid foundation intended to be greatly expanded upon in the following entries – but it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s supposed to count, right? And out of all the RPGs I’ve played Xenosaga’s journey is one where, admittedly thanks to a not inconsiderable amount of “We’ll sort out the details later, promise!“, there were plenty of revelations in this lengthy prologue I honestly never saw coming, even if only because who honestly had something like “Everyone sucked into a digital recreation of a coincidentally shared past trauma and also a magical girl as well as another woman who knew we were there but not there and…” on their plot development bingo card?
Episode I’s intelligent and considered use of its imagined technology was another pleasant surprise, something I’d label more as science fantasy than science fiction: the gadgets of the future designed to help the story to go wherever it wants to rather than an apologetic chain intended to bind the more outlandish concepts to a thoroughly sensible slice of reality. One that stood out for me was a spectacular shot of the Durandal, Jr’s gigantic spear-like ship, “docking” with its home satellite-colony by appearing to pierce it from underneath before coming to rest as a central skyscraper-like monument in the middle of a lake, everyone on the ship’s bridge now stood vertically relative to their new horizon. This is a galaxy where space travel has gone far beyond being ordinary and can instead be considered comfortable and casual, ships of all sizes kitted out not only with gunmetal grey docking bays and awe-inspiring 360° displays wrapped around a central bridge platform but also pot plants, park benches, and vending machines too.
Even more mundane objects have been redesigned to suit their 61st century home: The PDA-like combination of physical handheld unit and holographic screen used by Shion and others to do everything from whatever the plot needs a take-everywhere computer to do in that scene to receiving plain text emails (including a rather quaint advert for Ace Combat 4) is immediately understandable and clearly practical in spite of its current technical impossibility, as is seeing her activate her glasses by touching the little metallic bridge sitting on her nose. Elsewhere firefly-like “environmental bugs” are featured as both pretty background detail and conversation point, described as a useful tool created to keep the interior of spaceships clean. The segment addresses – tantalising bright red doors hiding exclusive treasures and unlocked only via special decoders – are the result of a harmless error in some construction code. You don’t need to know or notice any of these things, but they all give Xenosaga a richer setting than it would have otherwise had if it focussed only on forging the most direct path through the playable cast’s story. It’s sci-fi as a springboard for something beautiful and imaginative, a place for these characters to inhabit rather than an excuse for the latest batch of RPG heroes to use laser swords instead of steel ones.
The gnosis are the dark organic side to this bright tech-filled future, the introduction of these inhuman and only semi-tangible lumps of violence on the battleship Woglinde sailing straight past traditional monster-based death and destruction and landing firmly in the realm of utter annihilation, the game making clear these beings from another dimension – unable to be bribed, begged, or pleaded with and appearing to operate on nothing more than instinct – don’t merely kill the living but will pummel corpses with an almost blindly mechanical repetition, fresh plumes of blood spraying into the air with every emotionless blow. Their presence is always overwhelming and deadly, to the point where along the way the cast are swallowed whole by one known as the Cathedral Ship, a gnosis so unbelievably large it’s both an explorable dungeon as well as the final resting place of the lost planet Ariadne, entire chunks of the doomed world still virtually uncorrupted even after years of residing within the belly of this unknowable beast.
And the only real solution the cast have to this issue is of course KOS-MOS – a wholly artificial lifeform that, as far as Episode I has shown us, may be at least as dangerous to anyone standing nearby as the creatures we believe she was created to eradicate. I was thrilled to see her physical introduction directed as if she was the starring monster in an old horror movie, this much-merchandised character framed as a red-eyed creature awakening from its coffin (officially her maintenance bed) – a single hand reaching out in the dark and all – rather than a heroine gearing up to save the day. Beyond this striking scene the story spends a lot of time reinforcing the idea that KOS-MOS is not a blue-haired metal woman but a dangerous weapon with a proven track record of killing people, with not one but two separate flashbacks to “the incident” (one via Shion, one through the eyes of Andrew Cherenkov; a man who, like more than a few of Xenosaga’s secondary antagonists/traitors/people caught on the wrong side of a messy history, is more broken than anything else) where in her previous prototype form KOS-MOS was not only completely unstoppable but clearly a killing machine dressed up in a lady-like skin, contorting her mechanical body in nightmarishly inhuman ways as she murders U-TIC operatives and harmless researchers alike with soulless efficiency. It’s an interesting twist on the usual “other” in the party – she’s not a traitor, nor evil, nor cruel, and to call her a murderer implies a level of consciousness and deviation away from a baseline morality this empty weapon didn’t have – but she’ still a weapon that will and does end lives without hesitation or remorse should she deem doing so necessary. The game rather spoils the tension later on by having her serving drinks like a flippin’ maid and then tries to recover some of the previously established uncertainty with an unexplained blue-eyed turn capable of more introspective thought – “Shion… will feeling pain make me complete?” (Shion humorously can’t quite hear her heartfelt question over the radio) – before wiping out more gnosis than you’ve ever seen in a single abdomen-located blast, but the murder-bot scenes themselves are disturbing enough to stay with you even when the plot’s trying to move past them.
Shion herself is a professional mess of contradictions and hypocrisy and refreshingly the script isn’t afraid to call her out on these points early and frequently. She’s vocal about treating Realians (think of them as mass manufactured… metahumans, I suppose? Thinking and feeling property created to serve and die) as equals… but, as is pointed out to her by a man who sees them as unwanted meat shields (and that’s at best), never to the point of releasing them from the secret control code that binds them to their manufacturer as living slaves, even though there is nothing stopping her other than protocol. She’s also simultaneously terrified of and obliviously obsessed with KOS-MOS, holding on to a happy idea the android would, with her help, emerge from her maintenance bed a well-rounded and fun science-project-robo-friend and yet within minutes of the two meeting the android’s shooting straight through people for combat efficiency’s sake and coldly reminding Shion that not only is she a weapon, but that Shion made her that way – it’s exactly the sort of spiritual slap the scientist needed and deserved, and one we needed to see. Sadly her terrible treatment of other humans is left unchallenged – she’s dismissive of Miyuki’s talents in spite of her unwavering support and barely remembers Allen exists, even though we see a scene of the poor man – a clearly a talented and capable scientist who’s only outdone on his team by Shion herself – stood in the pouring rain near her as she fondles the gravestone of her beloved dead boyfriend (killed by KOS-MOS Mk.1, if you were wondering). The writing seems to want to play their non-relationship as a comedy, but in truth it only serves to undermine them both. Allen absolutely deserves to be acknowledged by someone – anyone – for his compassion and his talents. And Shion… If Shion has spent this much time as the leader of a close-knit team of people day in and day out – and it’s shown she does – and still hasn’t learned how to communicate with them or even notice their strengths – their existence – let alone be aware and considerate of their feelings as individuals, especially when her literal job is to create an emotionally stable robo-lady capable of not killing everyone she sees just because she can, then she’s not clever at all. Shion – as far as Episode I depicts her – is not a maverick genius excelling in her field, she’s the manager who spends all their time suggesting crazy ideas everyone else has to work twice as hard to compensate for, and then congratulates herself and herself alone for her extraordinary vision at the end of it.
The immediately endearing Momo is treated badly by the story in a very different way; presented as an extremely talented and likeable young girl (well, special prototype Realian) who then, as some sort of “punishment” for being genuinely nice and possessing no hidden agenda or flaws, spends most of her time as Xenosaga’s emotional and physical punchbag (noticeably above and beyond even genetically modified child soldiers, “everyone I’ve ever loved was brutally murdered“, and people forced to live against their will); her sincere and simple love for her “parents” either simply not reciprocated (that’s her “mother”, who clearly views Momo as a tool rather than a person) or a source of shame, her long-dead “daddy” someone the rest of the galaxy considers an evil madman. The game rakes over both of these points again and again, just to make sure you know this thoroughly innocent and cheery girl has once again been made sad for reasons that aren’t her fault. Albedo’s easy-going mutilation of her “sisters” and invasive torment of her towards the end perhaps would’ve felt more horrific and less gratuitous if it hadn’t been just one more item on Momo’s misery list (it’s interesting to note the Japanese manga takes after the US cutscene there, him putting one hand over her face instead of burying it in her stomach). One intermittent ray of sunshine throughout her Episode I arc are her wholly successful attempts to bring formerly human and technically deceased cyborg Ziggy (a very obvious David Bowie reference I somehow missed until this time around) out of his mechanical shell. His introductory mission to rescue her immediately gifts him a protective fatherly role – a role he falls into easily and without resistance – and before long the two are a trusting team and he’s swiftly choosing to correct himself when giving his name (more accurately, model number) “Ziggurat 8”, cutting himself off midway through and switching to Momo’s suggested moniker for no reason other than perhaps this resurrected machine-man likes having emotions and memories more than he’s currently prepared to admit, even to himself.
Chaos and Jr. round out the cast, the white-haired wing-sprouting former an unreadable oasis of the mystical calm and currently unexplained anti-gnosis power quietly sitting at the centre of Xenosaga’s many unanswered questions and half-forgotten truths, the latter’s youthful looks and fondness for flamboyant gunplay an upbeat mask covering the horrors he’s seen (as well as how long he’s been around to see them), although Episode I has been relatively light on the specifics for them both (I found the game had a lot to say about the two of them but there was little meaning given to any of it, the assumption being this would all be elaborated on properly in a sequel).
Their stories and more are of course all told through a mix of real-time and FMV cutscenes so long they may be broken up by multiple save points and… I honestly didn’t mind. I almost feel like I should protest at their length but when ghost-monsters are materialising in the depths of space or you’re transfixed by neon lasers emanating from beautifully designed ships the size of a city it’s hard to lodge an honest complaint. Time and again I found myself with my hand on my chin, leaning in and trying to catch every last detail.
So if the cutscenes were no problem then my time with Episode I must’ve been smooth sailing, right? Well… It turns out the biggest roadblock to seeing the game through isn’t the story – it’s the battle system; dragging down an otherwise pleasurable experience in the same way a hungry flesh-eating horde does that nice but probably geeky guy in a zombie movie with two lines to his name, one of which is “Help, they’re eating me!“. The odd thing is when judged in a vacuum I do like Xenosaga’s battles: I like their use of range, knockback, the boost and action point systems, I like the way status effects are truly debilitating for enemies and allies alike. Outside of combat there’s a whole forest of skills trees to work through on top of cross-character ability swaps, individual stat tweaking, and plenty more besides – there’s a lot in here, and it’s all useful. The downside to this constant depth is that even the most unremarkable of battles take forever to conclude – a problem only exacerbated by their quantity, which appears to be unchanged from the old days of mashing “Attack” as quickly as possible and waiting for your party to whack the monsters neatly lined up on the other side until you inevitably win. It gets tiring, too many fights endlessly one more thing-ing you as if you’re trapped in a Columbo themed remix of Groundhog Day, too many fights full stop. I can tolerate the difficulty with battles stemming from either their complexity or their quantity, but making it both – on top of the not-quite-avoidable avoidable enemies (that you mustn’t dodge even if you can due to the way boss HP and damage has been tuned only for those who fought everything they saw along the way) and the game’s fondness for making its labyrinths slightly more puzzle-ish than I’ve got the patience for – it’s just too much to bear. I think the best way I can illustrate the sheer amount of bloat added by these sections is to compare it to the official three-part manga adaptation: When I reached the point where I’d really had enough of the game (the game, not the story) I had less than three chapters of the manga left until the end – and while not slavishly line-for-line accurate to the game (notably it reduces many dungeons to a page or two of “the cast hit things”) this equated to about seventy-five pages worth of major events, or a quick casual (and enjoyable) read with a mug of coffee that would still be warm by the time I reached the bottom. In the game – and assuming I didn’t struggle with another boss and had no trouble whatsoever throughout any of the upcoming dungeons – I was looking at about fifteen hours more RPG’ing at best. That’s almost two 9 to 5s. About one complete Neptunian day. Two hundred and twenty five four minute miles. Roughly the length of time it takes a teenager to do ten minutes of homework. The reward-to-effort ratio felt way off balance, especially knowing that after all that struggle all you’re getting is a brief pause in a much longer tale rather than a true conclusion to your adventure.
In spite of being worn down towards the end I am still looking forward to starting Episode II. I want to see where this story goes (I seem to remember Shion’s infinitely cooler brother Jin being fun and I want to say the words “space pope” for some reason), and I also want to see how the story reacts to suddenly not having the time or number of sequels they imagined it was going to have. And the battle system? I think I remember it being worse? Well, there’ s only one way to find out!