March 18th, 2003 | PlayStation 2 | Review
Xenosaga Episode I (the Cut-scenes)
Just how do you review one of the most talked-about and controversial games of the year? Easy: twice!

BY NAMCO & MONOLITH SOFT, 2003

25 WORDS OR LESS:
Shion Uzuki and friends save the world amidst the cries of the out of work pseudo- intellectuals who oppose them.

Blow it back to God

The big question when reviewing Xenosaga as a movie or animated series is: what’s different? Why does Xenosaga, the spiritual successor and defacto prequel to Xenogears, seem so dull in comparison to Xenogears, which seemed revolutionary for the time? What’s changed in the 4+ years since Xenogears’ release: is it the game movie, or is it the audience?

Xenosaga’s not officially a prequel to the earlier work for legal reasons, but produced by the same company and possessed of enough parallels that it makes no difference. The major characters here are Shion Uzuki, the stereotypical young-but-brilliant-researcher with a tragic past, and her greatest achievement, the scantily clad and generously endowed KOS-MOS, a combat android. The biggest threat to Shion, KOS-MOS, and the whole of the human race (at least in the beginning of the game) are the Gnosis, monsters who manage the neat trick of attacking while being intangible to any counter-attacks.

Providing support to Shion and KOS-MOS are cyborg-with-a-heart-of-gold Ziggy, the wondrous MOMO, who looks 12 but acts 6, Tom Sawyer-meets-Columbine kid Jr., who looks 12 and acts 30, assorted soldiers, scientists, corporate officers, political leaders, bridge bunnies, and of course Allan, the designated eunuch of the story. Shion and company bounce from location to location, uncovering both their own pasts and the mechanizations of the various villains in the story.

Sadly, that’s all that can be said about the plot without ruining half the fun, which doesn’t speak well of Xenosaga as a story. There’s not much heft to Xenosaga; unlike other, better epics that where things happen in a realistic, believable fashion, much of Xenosaga is tied up in the relentless barrage of meaningless plot twists, character back story and mindless banter. The audience can follow what’s happening without too much trouble, but there’s simply no reason to care… stuff happens because the writers will it to. End of story.

To be fair, however, it’s hard to overstate how much of Xenosaga’s plot is setup for the larger, multi-millennia long series that Xenosaga’s supposed to kick off. Xenosaga’s not nearly so much a coherent plot arc as the RPG equivalent of The Phantom Menace: lots of establishment of the basic characters and foreshadowing of a larger conflict mixed up with a who-cares immediate threat. Will the actions that occur here be echoed back in future volumes to amplify and provide counterpoint to the ongoing drama? One might hope so, but merely being told about the various tragedies enacted here doesn’t count for much.

So what does work in Xenosaga? First and most notably, production values are up all across the board, both in graphics and in presentation: translation, vocals, scene direction and narrative flow are all way, way better than in Xenogears. The Xenosaga-as-movie pretense of this review isn’t actually all that far off: a lot of Xenosaga looks and feels like any half-decent anime, and there’s nothing all that objectionable about the straightforward workmanship used to present the game. Characters speak in a dub that doesn’t make the audience’s ears bleed, scenes flow from one to another with reasonable clarity, and attempts to humanize the characters feel less like attempts and more like successes.

Another thing that Xenosaga does well is to provide lots and lots of overwrought symbolism and foreshadowing, although it’s more laid back and therefore less enjoyable than the over-the-top stuff found in Xenosaga… or most Japanese anime, for that matter. Whether that’s a good thing or not likely depends entirely on the audience’s point of view, however.

But what does work is nearly negated by oddities in the narrative presentation. Most grating is character presentation: the jury may still be out on translating big-eyed, big-head 2D anime design to three dimensional computer models, but it certainly doesn’t work in Xenosaga. It’s simply too much of a stretch to believe these kupie-doll characters are capable of struggling with great drama and pathos. Still odder are certain character design quirks: every woman in the series has visible cleavage, a miniskirt, or both. It’s odd to write that in a review, true, but it’s even odder to watch it unfold on screen: what works as "fan service" in regular anime simply feels very, very dumb and silly here.

Thus, we end this review back where we started it; looking at Xenosaga and wondering why it doesn’t quite click the way Xenogears did, once upon a time. Part of the answer may be that merely alluding to various Western religious and philosophical ideals doesn’t cut it the way it used to, but surely another part of the answer is that there’s not that much going on in Xenosaga, comparatively speaking. When all’s said and done there’s not much more here than a plain vanilla space opera that ends in the middle of nowhere… and it’s hard to honestly say that it’ll be worth returning to. –Chris Jones

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