This is the most frustrating video game franchise in existence, for me. Rarely is there a series that so perfectly manages to marry a lot of really cool ideas with terrible execution.
Xenosaga is a sort of spiritual successor to the Square RPG Xenogears, and was originally planned to be a six game series that would tell one epic story across multiple platforms. Due to poor sales, it was forced to wrap things up with Episode III.
The series is set a few millenia in the future, where mankind is a space-faring race with artificial humans, robots, cyborgs and the like. Civilization is under threat by attacks from the Gnosis – weird, trans-dimensional aliens. Which leads me to Xenosaga’s first cool idea: it’s a space opera JRPG. I love the idea, and don’t know why they’re so few and far in number. And Xenosaga has one of the most fleshed-out video game worlds I’ve ever seen; there is a lot of impressive worldbuilding.
And then the ball gets dropped. The series is extremely linear, so you never get a chance to explore said world. Instead you’re just railroaded from dungeon to dungeon. The game is also very, uh, cinematic: for every hour of gameplay, there’s an hour of watching cutscenes. This sort of interactive movie approach would be easier to take if the movie aspect of it was well done. But the dialogue is so stilted, and the camera-work so amateurish, that a lot of the time it’s pretty cringe-worthy. The overall story is fairly interesting, if a bit unoriginal, but it just isn’t presented well.
Another good idea: instead of going for your usual Lara Croft sort of female video game protagonist, Shion Uzuki is actually a kinda dorky-looking scientist:
This is ruined by the fact that she is just an incredibly annoying, shrill and stupid character who spends most of her time pining over her dead boyfriend. We should have had someone like Twilight Sparkle; instead who we got was a little more closer to someone from the, er, other Twilight. In the third game, they give her a sexy makeover anyway, so the whole thing is just a wash.
The actual gameplay is pretty decent, bread and butter dungeon crawling. In Episode III in particular the giant robot fights are the highlight: there is a certain visceral oomph in being able to fire a volley of missiles at an enemy and then strike at them with a gigantic sword. I never actually played the middle entry, so I can’t comment about how fun it is – lots of people count it as the weak(er) link, though.
Religion is touched upon. If you thought the pretentious symbolism of Evangelion was bad…well, it was pretty bad, but Xenosaga is also up there when it comes to the nonsensical use of Judeo-Christian images. In the future, we’ll evidently have five different planets called Jerusalem, giant robots named after the twelve tribes of Israel, a monolith called the Zohar, etc. One of the villainous organizations in the game is Ormus, a religion which is clearly modeled after Catholicism, and which is up to all sorts of Da Vinci code nonsense (the Patriarch of whom evidently shows up as a boss fight in Episode II). Expect some weird revelations involving New Testament persons before the end. It might be offensive, if it wasn’t so ridiculously pedestrian.
The one aspect of the series that I can recommend without reservation is the soundtrack, which is mostly stellar, and features composers like Yasunori Mitsuda and Yuki Kaijura. Indeed, unless you happen to have a hankering for some serious JRPG bloat you’re likely better off just listening to the tunes and perhaps just reading a plot summary on wikipedia.