When the mammoth project known collectively as Xenosaga was first announced in 2001, it sounded like a dream come true for RPG fans, at least on paper. Developer Monolith Soft promised a six episode epic that would redefine video game storytelling and wildly adjust expectations for the RPG genre. Unfortunately for the team, the first title in the series debuted to more modest sales than initially expected, and not without it’s fair share of criticisms.
The first, and most significant divider of opinion was the main selling point of the series to begin with: the story. Told over the course of a staggering 8 hours of cut scenes, Episode One‘s plot line accounted for roughly 1/3 of the entire game. This would become a major sticking point for each of the three games that made it to release, but was of particular note at the launch of the first title. While many would praise the amount of depth that this run time allowed, with some even comparing it to that of a novel, others thought it slowed the game to a crawl far too often, and wrestled control from the players with reckless abandon.
At this point you might be wondering what kind of tale could justify that manner of time spent. Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s a bit of a long story. Xenosaga was originally planned to exist in the same universe as the much beloved cult-classic, Xenogears, for PS1. In fact, the trajectory of the series was initially meant to incorporate a Xenogears remake as the 5th of the 6 parts. While the series does contain dozens of references to Xenogears, the remake would ultimately never come to fruition.
Instead Episode 1 told the story of a scientist named Shion, and her dangerous creation, KOS-MOS: a brutally violent weapon who belied her great strength with the blank look of innocence. Other plot threads focused on a man slowly replacing his body with machine parts as a means of suicide, his companion, a sweet little girl who happened to be a robot, a wealthy warrior forever trapped in the body of a child, and a magical outsider whose mystery was trumped only by his power. Together, along with a psychopathic sadist called Albedo, these characters were drawn into a wide-ranging intergalactic conspiracy that took inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Neon Genesis Evangelion and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.
The length and depth of the plot weren’t the only controversial elements of the game however. Much of the story’s content was seen as lurid, inappropriate, offensive, or simply disturbing, depending on who you asked. Take for example a scene where a robot is shown crucified amid a glowing white light or the notion of a little girl being stroked and coerced while she sits in the lap of a smirking, sinister man. With its bevy of loaded questions about existence, its constant religious symbolism, and its sexually charged subject matter, the only real surprise was that the game was released at all outside of Japan. This was after all in the wake of the biggest controversy in gaming history: the release of Grand Theft Auto III. It was a time where much of the public still viewed gaming as a hobby for children, and with that facade being slowly stripped away, an adult-themed game like Xenosaga only further pushed the bars for what was deemed acceptable during this era.
The final point of contention was, of course, the gameplay itself. While it was a bit stiff, and wore much of it’s influence on it’s sleeve (particularly in the battle system) it did offer some pretty inspired turns, like beasts that roamed the field and could be avoided entirely rather than being engaged at random. Unclear objectives and a lack of direction also became common criticisms but as this was the first title in a new series, much of this was deemed as forgivable, particularly by those engaged with the plot.
In the end, Xenosaga, Episode One: Der Wille Zur Macht would premiere as only a middling success financially-speaking, and due to it’s great cost and wide scope, this lead inevitably to publisher interference, and a radically overhauled sequel which will be explored in the next part of this three part series.