Hands-onXenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht

Namco's highly anticipated role-playing game hits stores in Japan, and we have first impressions.

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Namco's highly anticipated role-playing game Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht recently hit stores in Japan. Tetsuya Takahashi--who was behind the creation of Xenogears for the PlayStation--led the development of the game, and while there are certain elements in Xenosaga that are similar to those found in Xenogears, the development team insists that Xenosaga is a brand-new series that's entirely separate from Xenogears.

The game opens with a prologue that depicts a group of archaeologists discovering an artifact in Kenya sometime during the 21st century. Four thousand years later, the story begins, placing you in the role of Shion Uzuki--the chief engineer of the Vector Corporation--who is on board the Woglinde, one of the battleships owned by the Galactic Federation. The battle system in Xenosaga is turn-based, and each character is given four action points (AP) at the start of every battle. The square, triangle, and circle buttons are mapped to different types of attacks, and the different attack types vary in range and damage depending on the type of enemies you're fighting. Each attack and secondary command--such as "use items" or "guard"--consumes two AP, while special attacks consume six AP, which is the maximum number of AP a character can have during a battle.

Each character's agility determines his or her attack order in a battle, which is shown in the "group turn" window in the lower-right corner of the screen. Each attack a character executes will charge a boost gauge, and when that gauge is full, you can use the boost command to make another character's turn follow immediately after yours--provided that the other character is not in the group turn window at that moment. Right beside the turn window, you'll see the event slot, which displays the "empty," "critical hit," "extra boost accumulation," and "extra bonus points" options. Characters and enemies can take advantage of the fact that these slots change for each turn, so, for example, if your turn comes and the slot is on "critical hit," you will likely induce critical hits when attacking enemies during. The same applies when "critical hit" is in the slot during an enemy's turn. In addition to the normal attacks, you can also use "ether," which is the equivalent of magic spells. The game also includes a summons system that features mechs called anti gnosis weapons systems (AGWS). If a character owns an AGWS, it can be summoned to replacing that character during that battle.

Characters earn experience points, talent points, ether points, and skill points by engaging in battle, and you'll need to allocate these points in order to learn new spells, special attacks, and skills. The different types of points can help boost different stats, so talent points can be used to help boost your stats such as hit points, strength, and agility, while ether points give your characters the ability to learn spells. Micromanaging these points often becomes quite a hassle, since unlike in other RPGs, you have to manually allocate these points and set the newly learned spells or special attacks to the characters.

When you're exploring dungeons, enemies are visible onscreen and will approach and attack you when you're in their visual range. Unfortunately, there is no default escape command, so you'll have to purchase an item or learn the escape skill to allow your party to escape. You can avoid some of these enemies by luring them into traps laid in the dungeon or by walking (performed by pressing the R2 button) instead of running, since enemies can also detect you based on sound.

While the game's environment is rendered entirely in 3D, it doesn't let you rotate or zoom in and out, which can be troublesome sometimes. The game also makes use of the hard drive for data caching and extra storage for saved games. In addition, the PlayStation 2 hard drive significantly cuts down on load times. The game's graphics and musical composition are solid, and there is plenty voice acting in the cutscenes. Xenosaga also has several minigames that give rewards based on how well you perform. The e-mail feature in the game grants access to side quests and occasionally provides a humorous message such as the one in which Namco advertises its PlayStation 2 shooter Ninja Assault.

After spending around four hours with the game, we've found that only a small fraction of it has actually involved any sort of gameplay, as lengthy cutscenes have consumed most of that time--though, it's possible to skip over them by pressing the start button. Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht is currently available in Japan. A North American release date has not been announced.

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