Previously on Xenosaga: The Brews sailed into the sunset. “Let’s go home, KOS-MOS,” Shion said, confident in a job well done. … Wait, what the hell did they actually do?
What Happened Here?
The answer is, unfortunately, not much.
A quick summary of the events that occur during Xenosaga Episode 2:
- Albedo steals the Y-Data from MOMO
- Old Miltia reappears
- Old Miltia explodes
- Albedo dies
And that’s about it. On the plus side, no one is going to claim the plot to this game is too complicated. On the other hand, I checked out my previous Xenosaga “In Review” post, and there’s this bit about “minor mysteries” in Xenosaga Episode 1:
“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?”
Xenosaga Episode 2’s answers, in order:
- Apparently Not
That’s a whole lot of plot that XS2 didn’t even bother to address. Complete with Wilhelm making direct reference to unexplained mysteries of the XS1 ending during the XS2 ending, it really feels like not a whole lot happened during this episode.
KOS-MOS and Shion are generally ignored, and everyone always makes the observation that Junior is the “real” main character of Xenosaga Episode 2, but that’s not completely true. Junior just gets the most screen time because the story decided to focus on his past and his relationship with Albedo. If anything, Albedo is the main character of this story, if only because he accomplishes the most (which is to say anything) and grows as a person (mutant). And he was assumed dead for half the game!
When a presumed corpse gets more dialogue than the covergirl of the game, the train has jumped the rails.
In a way, this was already a problem in Xenosaga Episode 1. XS1 had a habit of telling stories (like Junior and Shion’s past, or the prophecy that would never be) that had nothing to do with the actual gameplay. Heck, Cherenkov’s entire stupid history takes place in a fantastic concept for a dungeon (horrible dungeon, neat concept), but 90% of that “story” could have been relayed during, I dunno, a pub crawl rather than a mutant ghost planet. This thinking seems to be dialed up to eleven for Xenosaga Episode 2, though. Did MOMO’s not-so-enchanted forest have anything to do with the Albedo/Junior/Sakura flashbacks? Did the Omega System do anything, or was it just a place for the final boss to hang out? Did Ormus Stronghold have a point at all? Like Xenosaga Episode 1, the fact that this game is a game doesn’t enhance the experience one iota, but now someone forgot to actually tell the story.
Alright, sorry, I’m being a bit harsh here. Yes, there’s a story, and it’s basically two completely separate stories smooshed together. On one side, you have Albedo attempting to reconnect with U-DO, and hurting his brother and others along the way (anything to do with MOMO/Y-Data, the Yuriev Institute flashbacks, Albedo’s return [twice], and the Junior vs. Albedo finale). Ziggy and MOMO are basically the supporting cast for this story. On the other side, you have Shion and her issues with her lousy past (lunch with Jin, Old Miltia and Cecily/Cathe, and avenging Old Miltia through Patricide). KOS-MOS, Jin, and Allen are the supporting cast for this side. Arguably, the stories only truly intersect when Patriarch kills Albedo, thus giving both sides a reason to hate the guy (and, incidentally, Shion helping out with the MOMO dive is clearly a sweeps style crossover episode). So I guess Xenosaga Episode 2 is appropriately named, because there are two plots.
And that could have worked! You’re allowed to tell a tale that contains two stories running concurrently. It’s been done! It’s just not done well here at all. Right about the time you get used to the Junior show, it’s time to run around as exclusively Shion. And by the time Shion is trying to cool off after child murder, it’s time to pick up that Junior/Albedo thread that had been dropped hours ago. It’s confusing for the player, and, coupled with a game that is lousy at explaining why Threat X is actually a threat (what’s U-DO again? I know it’s bad…), you easily get the impression that you’re missing something the entire time, even when the game is congratulating itself on a “mission complete”. Which brings me to my next point…
Monolith Soft has no idea how to make a video game
Wait, no. I should come back to that statement. I should say something nice first…
Xenosaga Episode 2 has a lot of cool stuff going on. The animations seem a little more “canned” than in XS1 (probably something to do with the graphic style or engine or something else I don’t care to look up), but we’ve still got a number of little flourishes…
And on top of that we now have badass action sequences…
And the occasional scene that does its absolute best to emphasize “really important stuff is going down”…
It all looks great. I said it before, but 90% of Xenosaga Episode 1 feels like a stage play, with people talking at each other constantly and, yes, there are evil space ghosts around, but wouldn’t you rather be watching Shion and Allen discuss company protocol? Episode 2, meanwhile, takes full advantage of its sci-fi adventure universe, and features space battles, magic sword fights, and the occasional giant robot fighting time. Xenosaga is still a series that asks you to put down the controller and listen for the next ten minutes, but at least now it’s doing its best to keep you awake.
And there’s dramatic improvement on the music front, too. Not every track is the best (some are so terrible they’re currently being used to subdue terrorists), but at least there are tracks. Half of Xenosaga Episode 1 is scored by footsteps, so, while the last dungeon theme might be a little… off… at least it’s there. And when the score is doing well (mostly during cinemas), it’s doing really, really well. I happily listen to the XS2 soundtrack on occasion, and it’s a great collection of tunes. We even got more than one battle theme! Come to think of it, I should probably address…
Xenosaga learns to fight
Xenosaga Episode 2 features a battle system that is… going… somewhere?
There’s a neat idea here! At its core, the battle system of Xenosaga Episode 2 is basically a war on two fronts: you want to “break” or otherwise put your opponent in a position where they are vulnerable, and then use all your strongest attacks to pile on the damage. It’s basically a precursor to the realization of the “stagger” system of Final Fantasy 13, or (probably more deliberately) the “topple” system of Xenoblade Chronicles. It’s a new and different way to look at JRPG battles, and it’s set up in a way that you could “brute force it” if you’re not really in the groove.
In practice, however, it’s terrible. Defending to stock, buffing your characters, debuffing your opponent, and discovering weaknesses so you can layer on the elemental abilities is fun for a boss fight, but when you apply the same preparation to every single random battle… it gets tiresome fast. I’ve repeatedly complimented XS2’s habit of placing a save point about every twelve feet, but when you consider that a battle with a new random mob may take as long as ten minutes (stock, analyze the enemy, find the break zone, buff, finally start attacking the break zone), repeated save points are kind of a must. Yes, you’re rewarded for knowing the exact way to tackle an enemy every time, but if you don’t have a guide handy, you’re going to spend a lot of time finding that perfect solution.
Look, there’s a reason that, when this kind of system was revisited in later games, most of the minute-to-minute was automated.
But I can’t really get mad at the Xenosaga Episode 2 battle system, because, while it’s a mess, it’s an innovative mess. Like, they tried to do something here, and, honestly, in a franchise that you know is going to be (at least) a trilogy, may as well do something a little more interesting than Fight/Magic/Item. I mean, we can always get it right in the next game, right?
So, overall, I like what I see here. I like the presentation of the graphics and music, I tolerate the battle system, and, while the story feels very thin, it’s passable. So why am I saying things like…
Monolith Soft has no idea how to make a video game
Well… because it’s true. I brought examples!
Xenogears is legendary, right? Like, this was Squaresoft working with the team that would one day be Monolith Soft. Xenogears was, in its way, originally intended to be a Final Fantasy game. Square knows how to make Final Fantasy games! They’re pretty good at that! … But, somehow, Xenogears wound up becoming a very fractured game. Even if we didn’t have the designers recounting their troubles through entire books, we still have a final game that distinctly drops its unique world into the toilet for the second disc, and a plot that reads like the writers found out a final draft was due in five minutes. I’m not saying that Xenogears was a bad game for these flaws, simply that it was noticeably incomplete.
Then Monolith Soft broke off and started in on Xenosaga Episode 1. Once again, famously, we were told that Episode 1 was just the first half of what was intended, and the real, complete game would be Episode 1 + Episode 2. Okay, guys, fair enough, but that’s two games in a row now that were, in some way, incomplete. Luckily, if you forgive Xenosaga Episode 1’s obvious “to be continued” bend, XS1 feels like a complete game, albeit a lean one. “Bonus content” is barely a thing at all. You’re either advancing the main plot, mindlessly grinding, or playing another game.
And now we have Xenosaga Episode 2. Let’s be real here: there’s no reason the “lost” plot from XS1 couldn’t have been wedged into XS1. If you drop the backstory for Junior/Albedo (so the entire MOMO dive), Jin and Canaan (“Oh, the bad guys are the bad guys we’ve been fighting for two games? You don’t say.”), and areas that were clearly just filler (Ormus Stronghold), you’re left with Old Miltia (super important to everybody) and the Omega System (“the grand finale”). So, Xenosaga 1/2 hypothetical abridged version: Albedo steals the complete Y-Data on The Song during Episode 1, awakens Old Miltia right then and there, the party flies off to OM, bad stuff happens, and then everybody fights Albedo with Proto Omega instead of Proto Merkabah. There, one complete game, and we only needed one more dungeon.
But the directors of Xenosaga didn’t want to make that “rushed” version, and, really, fair enough. I’m clearly hindsight directing this franchise, and, yeah, the relationship between Junior and Albedo probably is enhanced by knowing where they come from. And I like Jin! I’m glad he’s in the franchise, and he would barely exist in the abbreviated version.
You’ll note that “my” version only dropped one dungeon from Xenosaga 1, but 85% of Xenosaga Episode 2. There’s a reason for that: the majority of Xenosaga Episode 2 is clearly unnecessary. As stated by the creators, there’s one complete story between XS1 and XS2, and, unfortunately, the most important parts of that story wound up in XS1. And it’s pretty clear that when the story isn’t driving the action, Monolith Soft has no idea what to do.
Or maybe I’m just bitter because I completed ten hours of sidequests that meant nothing. I completed three different dungeons that were pretty cool and well-designed dungeons and they weren’t really part of the game. It is abundantly obvious that “Factory” and “Desert” were areas intended for the “real” game, but never made the cut. Even Heaven’s Ruins could have made for a more interesting Encephalon Dive than a stupid generic forest. I spent 28 hours on this game, but completed the main story at the 17 hour mark. I want to say the count on cutscenes for the game is somewhere around 5 hours, so… some quick math here… 11 hours of sidequests, 12 hours of gameplay for the “real” game… yes, nearly a full half of my time spent on Xenosaga Episode 2 was separate from the main plot. And I don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of Albedo’s past to hang posters.
That has the potential to not be a bad thing. I’ve devoted entire weeks of my life to Pokémon, and roughly 10% of that count is spent on “the main game”. But this isn’t Pokémon, this is Xenosaga, and, as I’ve just recounted, all the good stuff, the amazing cutscenes and OST-worthy music, is part of that “main” game, and absolutely not part of any of the side content. To put it succinctly: Professor still doesn’t have a voice actor, and his quest was responsible for three whole dungeons. There are just as many optional dungeons on the second disc as mandatory ones!
So, yeah, at this point, Monolith Soft doesn’t have a clue how to make a complete video game. They made an interesting story with memorable characters, but fell very short of making a game that does that story justice. One day, Monolith Soft would make a game that played to its strengths, and plainly learned from the mistakes of XS2 (why, yes, if you received battle experience for completing sidequests and discovering unique areas, that would make things better), but, for now, we’ve got 10% of a story padded out to an entire game.
If Xenosaga Episode 2 feels slight, it’s because it is. Shion, MOMO, and Junior got closure, and everybody else in this labyrinthine plot got to tread water. A villain was introduced and quickly dispatched. And the guy that should have been defeated last episode got to die three or four extra times.
For the record
I don’t think Xenosaga Episode 2 is bad, just fairly unnecessary. It’s the Ormus Stronghold of the Xenosaga Trilogy: it’s technically mandatory, but after it’s done, you realize it was kind of pointless. I actually enjoyed playing Xenosaga Episode 2 more than Xenosaga Episode 1… and I want to say that applies to when I played the games for the LP and originally years ago. But there’s a reason I spent months pouring over the minutia of XS1 at its completion, and barely gave XS2 another glance until the release of Xenosaga Episode 3. XS2 hits the ground running and doesn’t let up until Albedo gets some new clothes, but, once it’s over, you realize there isn’t much there there. It’s an end to a story that isn’t that different from the “half” ending of the last game.
Really, the ideal Xenosaga game would be the characterization and measured pacing of Xenosaga Episode 1 combined with the adrenaline and action of Xenosaga Episode 2. Dare we hope that that recipe led to the final chapter in the trilogy? Guess we’ll find out…
Next time on Xenosaga: But before we get to that, it’s time for the plot review of Xenosaga Episode 2. If the breakneck speed of Xenosaga Episode 2 was too much for you, this will be an ideal way to catch up on our cast and what they’ve been up to. The entry for KOS-MOS… will be surprisingly lacking.