Patrick Hope: ‘Xenosaga:’ German words are fun!
In a gaming climate populated by sequels and copycats, there’s always going to be something admirable about games that absolutely swing for the fences by trying something crazy. And that’s what “Xenosaga” tries, or tried to do.
Back in 1998, Square released a game called “Xenogears.” It was substantially different than most role-playing games of the time, featuring a unique battle system and a story that drew much more heavily from Jewish mysticism than your usual fantasy stories. It also had giant robots. Giant robots are the best. Anyway, much of the staff that created “Xenogears” left Square and formed their own company, Monolith Soft.
And in 2003, they released the first episode in what amounted to a spiritual successor to “Xenogears,” that being “Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht.” And I say first episode because there were supposed to be six of them. Yes, there were supposed to be six games in the series. There were also three spinoff games and an anime. This series was really involved. Sadly, due to poor sales, only three got released, with the third, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” cramming a TON of plot into it after the first couple games were really slow-paced. But we might as well talk about the three that actually got released, right?
So, “Xenosaga” is set in the very distant future, where Earth was abandoned a long time ago and humanity travels the stars. Unfortunately, there is a problem. Humans have been falling prey to a predatory alien race known as the Gnosis, which don’t exactly exist in our dimension but can kind of materialize and wreak havoc. So your protagonist, Dr. Shion Uzuki, is tasked with creating an anti-Gnosis superweapon android known as KOS-MOS.
This all happens in the opening cutscene, which might explain why the series was supposed to have six games. There are also various government entities, cults, shadowy corporations and philanthropic groups to deal with. There’s also a Realian (synthetic human) named MOMO who has something called the Y-data that everyone wants, including recurring villain Albedo, a total psychopath who has a creepy habit of calling young girls ma peche, because this game needs French in it, too. It’s understatement to say that “Xenosaga” is incredibly in-depth. And this leads to one of the chief complaints about the series — its pacing.
In order to understand what’s going on, you’re going to need some exposition. And “Xenosaga,” being an RPG and all, does this in the only way it knows how, which is through cutscenes. Long cutscenes. And I mean looooooong. Some of them are 45 minutes long. I’m not kidding. I timed them. Now imagine stretching this out over six games (which is compressed into three).
And these cutscenes aren’t just long, drawn-out conversations with no real purpose. Being a space opera, “Xenosaga” is chock full of terms of art, pseudo-scientific things, history, geography and culture that need to be explained. That’s not even including all the random Kabbalah references, the game subtitles taken from the German names for Nietzsche works, and the meandering main plot. You’re going to need a notebook to keep track of everything.
You may be wondering why I haven’t even bothered to talk about the gameplay. That’s because, for whatever reason, Monolith switched up the battle system from game to game, and to be completely honest, the story is the main reason to keep going because of its sheer magnitude. This is the closest we’ve ever seen to a video game actually trying to be a sci-fi movie — and it shows. It’s easy to get down on “Xenosaga.” I mean, it IS a failed experiment, but it’s an insanely ambitious one.
The only other game series I can think of which did the whole episodic thing as full-length games was “.Hack,” which was released somewhat contemporaneously with “Xenosaga.” The “Xenosaga” games are actually quite good, assuming you have the time and patience to try to figure out what’s going on and a fairly unique experience. You have to admire the ambition that went into a series like this, even if it didn’t work out. It’s the effort that counts. I think. Or maybe it’s the will to power that counts.
Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. He actually did take notes while playing the three “Xenosaga” games.