Xenosaga Updated Preview

We take a look at the localized version of Namco's epic PlayStation 2 role-playing game.

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Namco's upcoming PlayStation 2 role-playing game, Xenosaga, has been the focus of much anticipation for RPG fans, thanks to its loose ties to the amazing PlayStation RPG Xenogears. The game is being developed by Monolith Software, a fledgling developer whose employees include former SquareSoft employees that worked on that underappreciated PlayStation gem. Although Xenosaga's story has elements that are reminiscent of Xenogears, the game tells an all-new epic story. Originally released in Japan earlier this year, the game is finally coming to the US. We got hold of a previewable copy of the game and had a chance to check it out.

Xenosaga features an eccentric cast of colorful characters.
Xenosaga features an eccentric cast of colorful characters.

If there were a competition for the most-detailed story, Xenosaga would surely win the day with its very intricate tale. The game's basic plot revolves around humankind's investigation of the Zohar, a mysterious and powerful artifact that has allegedly existed since the dawn of time. The game's prologue opens on modern-day Earth and chronicles the discovery of the Zohar, at which point the action shifts 4000 years into the future, when humankind has abandoned Earth and taken to outer space. However, in spite of all the newfangled technology lying about, no one has been able to crack the mystery of the Zohar. You'll start the game in the role of Shion Uzuki, an engineer charged with working on the Zohar project and testing a new battle android known as KOS-MOS. Battle droids are a vital piece of technology in the future due to the appearance of the Gnosis, an aggressive alien race that is a serious threat. However, the investigation of the Zohar, the threat of the Gnosis, and KOS-MOS's development are just some of the story elements you'll be dealing with. The game's broad story involves a plethora of characters and events that definitely qualify as epic.

As far as its gameplay goes, Xenosaga is broken up into the RPG standard of exploration and combat. The exploration segments in the game will send you walking around areas and interacting with nonplayer characters. Combat, which definitely owes a tip of the hat to Xenogears, will be turn-based but somewhat more dynamic than similar combat systems seen in other RPGs. Your ability to fight will revolve around "action" points that you'll gain after every turn. You'll have the option to use all of them to perform various attacks or save some that will be added to your total in the next turn. You'll be able to perform several different types of attacks by combining the two main attack buttons. You'll use the square button to initiate a short-range physical attack and the triangle button to perform long-range attacks that use "ether," the game's form of magic. You'll also be able to perform "tech attacks" by stringing together button combos. The only catch to the battle system is that you're limited by the number of action points you have, which ultimately forces you to plan some form of strategy.

The game's art style has a strong manga influence.
The game's art style has a strong manga influence.

In addition to attacking with a party, you'll be able to throw an AGWS (anti-Gnosis weapon system), which is essentially a giant mech, into the mix for a bit of added firepower. Anyone familiar with the mech system in Xenogears should be pleased with Xenosaga's system and its streamlined approach to battling. Xenosaga lets you do a solid amount of customizing and lets you focus on fighting rather than obsess about the various meters you had to keep track of in Xenogears.

Graphically Xenosaga offers a sharp package overall. The character designs are firmly rooted in the anime archetypes gamers should be familiar with by now, such as the brainy, bespectacled heroine; the bland, studly hero; the gruff commander; and the female android. While the character models do have some facial animation, it would have been nice to see the characters have a wider range of facial expressions. The mech designs in the game are good, although they do seem to lack the flair of the mechs seen in Xenogears. The game's graphics engine renders everything in a very stylized high-polygon manner that manages to give everyone enough personality to get by. The stiff character animation in the game, however, which works fine on KOS-MOS, leaves quite a bit to be desired. Enemies also feature some odd, futuristic designs.

Humankind has left Earth and opted for a permanent address among the stars.
Humankind has left Earth and opted for a permanent address among the stars.

The environments you'll find yourself in fare a bit better. You'll find an interesting variety of places to explore as you go through the game, which run the gamut from a dilapidated warehouse district littered with debris, to the sleek, futuristic environs of your ship, but the best showcase for the graphics engine lies in the impressive battles, which make use of a broad platter of eye candy that includes slick lighting, particle effects, eerie transparencies, and an impressive color palette. The different attack animations keep things visually interesting, mixing standard physical and weapon animations with mystical flourishes such as translucent letters and symbols floating about.

The many cinemas that will tell the game's story alternate between real-time cutscenes and traditional CG. The real-time cutscenes we've seen so far do a fine job of moving the story along, although they are a bit bland in comparison to the CG, which is far more cinematic. While the CG isn't quite up to the standards of Namco's finest first-party work, it's still solid and, thanks to the strong soundtrack, very cool to watch.

The battles in the game feature some spectacular attacks.
The battles in the game feature some spectacular attacks.

Xenosaga's audio is shaping up to be a shaky marriage of solid sound effects and music with questionable voice acting. The ambient sound in the various areas you'll be exploring and the sound effects you'll hear are very well done. You'll hear machinery moving, Shion's footfalls, and satisfying explosions when you're exploring. In combat the sound effects for the various character attacks are equally good and definitely convey the power of each attack. The game's soundtrack is a very strong collection of grand tunes that give the battles and cutscenes in the game a bit more weight, which helps with the sense of scope the game's story is trying to convey. As mentioned, the weak link in the audio package lies in the voice acting. The early parts of the game subject you to emoting along the lines of the most recent batch of Old Navy commercials.

From what we've played so far, it's hard to say how Xenosaga is going to come together. The game's deliberate pacing may turn some people off--our endurance was certainly tested by the sixth cinematic--but the dense story is certainly engaging. The game has all the right ingredients in place right now--good graphics, a solid combat system, and the aforementioned story--to be a strong RPG, and there's enough to like about it to overlook its slow start. We'll be sticking with it and checking in again once we get further in the game. Xenosaga is currently slated to ship for the PlayStation 2 in late February 2003. Look for more on the game soon.

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