Previously on Xenosaga: Everything. Everything happened. Let’s talk about that in vaguely listicle form.
What Happened Here?
I actually went back and re-read my introduction to this LP (written nearly five months ago now) before writing, and, to quote myself:
“Probably the best known feature of this trilogy was an inscrutable storyline full of religious imagery that could put Evangelion to shame…”
So let’s look at the plot first. Is it “inscrutable”? At this point, I’m going to say no. Yes, there is already an absurd amount of religious imagery (some of the first text in the game is directly quoting Genesis), but the base plot, as it currently stands, is still something you could explain to your deaf granny. To wit:
- Shion built a robo-person, and is very concerned about that person. Complete with the X-Buster, this plot, at its core, is practically Dr. Light and Mega Man, and the gnosis are Robot Masters. It’s sci-fi 101. KOS-MOS even gets a variation on the typical robot, “What is love?” with her “What is pain?” query when she decided to go all genocide on the gnosis.
- There’s a bad guy organization, U-TIC, and they menace the heroes in pursuit of some macguffin. Depending on the interpretation, they want a way back to (old, lost) Earth, and/or the Zohar, which is effectively the Holy Grail of space. Kidnap princess, get the treasure: typical villain motives.
- Speaking of villains, there’s Albedo, who appears to be a wildcard in the bad guy power structure, but is basically there to be the evil twin brother of one of the heroes. His entire job is trolling the universe. Three guesses on how this plot is going to resolve.
And that’s basically it. On paper, Xenosaga Episode 1 is pretty straightforward.
However, the devil’s in the details, and that’s where everything goes a little… Albedo. This game seems to delight in generating minor mystery after mystery. Who is sending KOS-MOS orders? Why are Shion and KOS-MOS part of the Y-Data? What are the gnosis? What is Wilhelm up to? chaos? Testaments? What does the Zohar do? What did Ziggy “see” when he died? Why is Junior ageless? Why is Albedo invincible? Does Allen have more than one onesie?
These are all relevant questions, and, I assure you, I spent roughly ten million hours on Gamefaqs and alike discussing these finer plot points back in the day. I’m sure I’m not the only one, but for me, Xenosaga was my Lost, a series that I spent days pouring over the faintest glimmer of an idea and expanding it into a grand unifying theory of everything. There might not be any polar bears in this story, but those unicorn gnosis have to mean something.
And, come to think of it, that Lost comparison is more apt than ever, because the real show in Xenosaga Episode 1 is the characters. This is something I’m only able to identify with full knowledge of what comes next and not a four year wait for the finale, but the story of Xenosaga Episode 1 really cares about its characters and their interactions. It’s not perfect (“Ziggy? You’re still here?”), but it became abundantly clear over this playthrough that the gnosis, yes, are important, but what’s really important is the relationship between Shion and KOS-MOS, or how MOMO feels about her absent parents. Once you separate out the chafe of all the mysteries that will eventually be solved with varying degrees of satisfaction (“chaos is… an apostle of Jesus Christ? Did anybody guess that?”), you realize this game is much more concerned with the emotional state of its characters than if they ever learn anything interesting. In a way, that makes perfect sense, in another, well, it would be nice if Shion asked why, say, the ship just got covered in angel wings. Does everyone just assume that’s a typical feature of the Elsa?
Shion, actually, is a fine example of how Xenosaga Episode 1’s story sucks sodium. Shion would actually be a pretty neat heroine in nearly any other medium… but she’s the star of a JRPG, and, thus, pretty much the player’s surrogate. She’s terrible for that role. She’s an interesting, independent character with concerns and baggage of her own, but part of her own issues is that she very rarely looks for information below the surface level (because, ultimately, she’s afraid of being hurt worse by the truth), which is awful when your audience wants some stinkin’ answers. The epitome of this would be when Shion is running constant diagnostics during the “beach episode” to see if KOS-MOS was experiencing something like emotions earlier, but she never even attempts to determine exactly where KOS-MOS’s mysterious orders are coming from (which, spoilers, would lead to her undead fiancée, and is not something the good doctor wants to deal with right now). You, the player, are expected to just go with the flow of Shion’s (and the entire party’s) lack of curiosity, and it’s frustrating when every third character is spewing a nonstop stream of mysteries.
On two different occasions, Shion distinctly states that she has no idea what’s going on… and she never does anything about it!
In the end, I feel this goes back to Xenosaga’s original concept, and how this was supposed to be game one in a more-than-three part series, and Xenosaga “Episode 1” was supposed to include a lot of plot from (what we eventually received as) Episode 2, but the team ran out of time, money, or over-highlighted Bibles before “finishing” Episode 1. XS1 is crap for answers, but you’re expected to just go with that (like Shion and co.) because answers will arrive eventually. We promise! Everyone is fine with a complete lack of resolution, right?
So, long story short, as of Episode 1, the “prelude game”, Xenosaga has not yet become “inscrutable”… depending on your interpretation. There are mysteries, but there’s also a story that’s very human, and we’re supposed to just take it on faith that the big mysteries will be solved later. We’ll see how that goes as we proceed.
Points for presentation?
What is wrong with your faaaaaace!?
Aside from featuring PS2 era anime faces, I really have to give high marks to Xenosaga Episode 1’s overall production. Yes, there are something like ten hours of cinema scenes, but the direction does everything it can to make those scenes actually interesting. It was mentioned earlier, but, compared to the modern age of non-Final Fantasy JRPGs, I am downright impressed with how many scenes are more than two heads and a series of text boxes. Once again using “working late” scene as an example…
Or when Shion is affectionately caressing KOS-MOS’s space coffin…
There’s a lot of incidental “acting” from the characters that adds to the story. Shion is downright giddy when she’s working late with her fiancée/boss. Shion tenderly touches KOS-MOS’s bed in the same way a mother might stroke the hair of her sleeping child. It adds something to the scenes without requiring (even more) talky talk.
And, just to be clear it’s not all sunshine and rainbows…
Every damn thing Albedo does is creepy. I’m literally disappointed when he’s strapped into his mech, because when he’s out prancing around…
You know you’re gonna have a fun time. Okay, maybe fun isn’t the right word.
Point is, for a game so lousy with “put down the controller, it’s time to watch a movie,” there’s a lot of reasons to actually enjoy that downtime. So another mark in Xenosaga Episode 1’s win column.
In the “boo” column, however, we have Xenosaga Episode I’s music.
XS1 has a lot of great music… unfortunately, it’s primarily relegated to cutscenes. I’ll admit there’s a number of XS1 tracks that I have had on my playlists for the last fifteen years because, frankly, they’re good tracks. Unfortunately, I just did an inventory, and I realized that only two of those tracks (Last Battle and UMN Mode) are from actual gameplay. Additionally, I saved Battle (the battle theme, duh) and Life or Death (the song that plays through a number of “danger is happening” areas) not because those songs are particularly good, but because they’re practically drilled into my brain thanks to repeated usage throughout the game (This is also the same reason I have Chrono Cross’s abhorrent battle theme on my playlist). Everything else I enjoy about the soundtrack plays almost exclusively during cutscenes, which is a pain because, well…
Click here to listen to the main theme of the Cathedral Ship dungeon
Oh, I’m sorry, does that link not work? That’s because there is no music in the Cathedral Ship. It’s a nearly three hour dungeon (more if you have a lousy sense of direction), and, aside from the battles and cinema scenes, there is no music. None. Just silence and footsteps, the whole stupid dungeon. Sometimes there’s the sound of a door opening. Woo.
This is inexcusable, and I have to mention this is probably a contribution to the “worst dungeon ever” issue of this and a few areas. Xenosaga Producers, did you forget? Was there supposed to be music, and, whoops, never made it in there? And, no, the silent parts are not deliberately moody areas any more than Final Fantasy’s Marsh Cave. I think we could handle a little accompaniment.
Though, to close this section on a positive note, I really appreciate the voice acting in this game, and, more importantly, that it’s all in English. This is a problem I’ve had with some modern JRPGs and Fighting Games, but I get really annoyed when everything is in English… but battle quotes and victory cheers are untranslated (and worse, not even subtitled) (and even worse, KOF-esque lengthy battle intros that are completely incomprehensible). Everything is in English here, right down to the grunts and “Spell Blade!” shouts. In fact, stuff like signange…
Is also wholly in English. This is actually really important, as certain scenes…
Lose something if you can’t read what’s going on in the background. This flashback takes place on the planet Ariadne, which is never mentioned, but there’s a literal sign as to the location in the background. Show don’t tell doesn’t work if you can’t read what’s being shown.
Isn’t this a video game?
So, the presentation is overall good, the plot is bearable (YMMV)… but should Xenosaga Episode 1 be a video game?
Honestly… I want to say no.
Don’t get me wrong, Xenosaga Episode 1 isn’t a bad JRPG. I have played much worse. Much… much worse. Video game consoles as magical girls! Why did that happen!? Why does that keep happening!?! How are there nearly ten of those games? HOW!?!
What I mean to say is that, while Xenosaga Episode 1 might not be a trailblazer in any amazing JRPG innovations (its battle system, when you get right down to it, is barely distinguishable from Final Fantasy 1, and its town/dungeon structure is the same as it’s ever been… Hell, I’d argue that Xenogears is more innovative than Xenosaga), it’s still perfectly competent. Despite some really difficult areas that primarily arise because a boss might not exactly be balanced with its surrounding dungeon, Xenosaga Episode 1 pretty much (emphasis on the qualifier) goes down smooth.
That said, being a JRPG doesn’t really add anything to Episode 1.
As an easy example, I cannot imagine Earthbound or Mother 3 working nearly as well as anything but JRPGs. The conventions used and abused in both of those games come from a place of understanding the genre as a whole, and like Watchmen did for comics, both of those games are practically impossible to imagine working as effectively in other mediums.
There is exactly one spot in Xenosaga Episode 1 that I feel is enhanced by being a video game, and it’s the destruction of the Woglinde. Here, thanks to your fear of death (or a Game Over), the gnosis are perceived as just as deadly to “you” as they are to the common humans of the Xenosaga Universe. You’re panicked, fleeing from terrible, unknown creatures just like every other resident of this ship, and it does a lot to drive home the threat to everyone that is the gnosis.
… And then you spend the rest of the game slaughtering gnosis wholesale. But! In general, the threat of the gnosis going forward is their menace to the common man (like the Kukai Foundation town invasion), so, while you may become empowered, you understand why it’s up to you to rescue survivors.
Other than that, though? I just played through this whole game, and I can barely remember a moment that had to be in a video game. Say what you will about ridiculous minigames in Final Fantasy 7, but slapping around Scarlet did feel good, “resisting” Sephiroth did feel futile, and vrooming out of Midgar did feel appropriately tense. Here, we’ve got a (near) final boss that barely flinches after a heated battle, and it’s back to cutscenes, like nothing ever happened. No omnislash for you, Junior.
And, yes, I’m kinda downplaying the fact that you’re spending a minimum of twenty hours with these guys, so of course you’re going to be more attached to The Realian Justice Warriors and their various and sundry issues than you would with the cast of a 26-episode, 12 hour “passive” television series. But aside from the general attachment one gains through playing a video game, there’s not much cause for the “game” here.
Which circles back to…
Xenosaga Episode 1 and Me (Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb)
As I’ve randomly alluded to, I adored Xenosaga Episode 1 at its release. No, I didn’t play the game through any more than once, but I did strive for 100% completion in the “post game”. All segment doors unlocked, all (non missable) equipment collected, and all techs leveled up. I also heavily analyzed the game, not from a “character” perspective, but in an effort to “figure out” all the mysteries of the story, and somehow generate answers before the next release. I truly believed there was some Xenosaga Master Plan at work here, and, with my friends from THE INTERNET, we all mined the game and minutia of random conversations and UMN database entries to attempt to grasp the whole picture.
It… was pointless. But, hey, I want to say this was my first “unknown” fandom. I was already a giant nerd for “complete” works like Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, and any given Final Fantasy game, but this was my first fandom for something that was ongoing and still a mystery. This wasn’t like the previously mentioned Sailor Moon where the series was already over in its native land, and it was just a matter of talking to some wizened old 30 something about that time he played the SNES RPG, no, we were all in the same pot for this one, with holy wars starting over whether Xenosaga would directly tie to Xenogears, chaos’s true motivations, or whether or not Great Joe was supposed to mean something. In retrospect, it all seems so very, very worthless, but in its time, it was like the most important thing on my mind.
Which brings me to that clear data save. Literally no one knew the purpose of that clear save. Like everything else with Xenosaga Episode 1, there was rampant speculation, but no one could say for sure. Some believed everything would carry over, others, nothing. I wasn’t taking any chances, and I already liked the game, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to revisit it by the time Episode 2 was released (and, in my fantasies, apparently Episode 2 would just drop randomly from the heavens, and I wouldn’t be privy to weeks and months of advertising touting its incoming release). So, in an effort to “be prepared”, I grinded that stupid card game to generate as much in-game cash as possible, bought every last item in every shop, and made sure everyone was leveled up to at least 50 to be ready for the challenges of Episode 2. Whatever that clear save transferred, whether it be items, weapons, or levels, I’d be prepared.
That clear data save… unlocks a pair of swimsuits in Episode 2. That’s it. Finish XS1 at level 1 or level 50, and you get the same, trivial thing.
That would likely be the exact moment I stopped 100%’ing games.
Next time on Xenosaga: The real, final post on Xenosaga Episode 1. For everyone curious about the plot minutia, I’ll analyze all the major players, where they started, where they are now, and what they seem to want. This will serve as a review of what happened that also doubles as a handy guide to anyone coming into Xenosaga Episode 2 without reading everything else, because, what, you don’t have hours to pour over XS1? Weirdo.
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Hmm. This synopsis, especially where the characters are concerned, is rather interesting when compared to my experience, and reaffirms one of my beliefs about opinions in general. Basically, there’s a major difference between your opinion when directly experiencing something, and your opinion once you step back and analyze it (a belief I got thanks to Final Fantasy XIII-2: a game I enjoyed playing but still absolutely hate).
I’ve noticed this all throughout your Episode I posts (and will likely see more going forward). Playing through the games, while I certainly took in the plot points and revelations, I mostly did just take everything in stride like Episode I expects you to. It’s been quite interesting seeing you take an analytical view of the game, and dissecting things like Shion’s neuroses. Never really put much thought into those outside of the obvious aspects.
These days, I tend to experience this opinion difference all the time. I mean, just earlier today, I watched an MLP episode for a review, than pieced stuff together when writing the review that revealed the already assholish and abusive villain of the episode as a total sociopath that truly sees others as objects to serve at his beck and call.
I liked the in-depth look at Shion here. Shion as a character would work great as a book or tv protagonist, but she doesn’t work at all as a video game protagonist. And I think the reason for this is reflective of Xenosaga’s problems as a whole. There’s a break between Shion and the player in terms of how much Shion knows (or wants to know), and how much the player knows.
An easy example of this is the Miltian Conflict. The characters keep going on and on throughout the game about this event, which Shion evidently lived through. This is obviously done to pique the player’s interest. But alas, no one seems particularly interested in actually telling us what happened there. Even the entry for it in the database cryptically refers to “as for what happened there, that story will have to wait.” The problem is, Shion (and Jr.) knows what happened. She was there for most of it! She knows what happened, and simply doesn’t want to say. She knows what happened with the KOS-MOS start-up experiment, and doesn’t want to talk about it. Nephilim and Febronia talk about getting Shion to face her past, but this will fly over the heads of most first-time players because we don’t know what past Shion has to face. And Shion’s not like Fei; she’s not an amnesiac. She hasn’t forgotten her past. She’s simply actively trying to repress it. She doesn’t want to talk about these things, but the player wants to know about them. So there’s an immediate tension between the player and Shion that never goes away. Shion has information that the player wants, and she refuses to share it.
RPGs tend to put the player in the role of a humble village boy just starting out on a big quest to save the world. That way the character doesn’t know any more than the player knows, and the player can learn everything along with the character. Fei, in Xenogears, literally knows everything about the entire history of his planet dating back 10,000 years, but the writers gave him amnesia to start the game, and he doesn’t have conscious access to that information until the very end of the game, at which point he immediately reveals everything to the rest of the party (and by proxy the player, who has been waiting patiently for that information since the opening cutscene). In Xenosaga, Shion is actively withholding information from the player that the player would like to know. In later games she’ll even start throwing temper tantrums about it. This is completely reasonable behavior for a character, but it’s out of line for a video game protagonist.
The only other RPG I’ve ever seen do this is the first Baten Kaitos (another Monolith Soft RPG from the same time period), and that game uses this trick to much greater effect. Other than that, I can’t think of a single RPG I’ve played that did this… and I’ve probably played 100 of them over the years.
The author already mentioned other ways in which Shion’s goals and motivations are at cross-purposes with the player’s, and I have nothing to add.
And this, in a nutshell, is why Xenosaga doesn’t need to be a video game, and I’ll always maintain that Tetsuya Takahashi got into the wrong business when he chose to be a video game maker instead of an anime producer. At this point in his career, at least, he didn’t have the first clue about making a video game. But he sure knew what he wanted out of an anime!