Xenogears is my favorite game of all-time, and I was also a huge fan of the spiritual successor on the PS2, Xenosaga. So when I heard that Monolith Soft was developing a DS port of the first two games, I was pretty excited. That enthusiasm was also mixed with a bit of confusion, because I didn’t understand how something so epic and cinematic could fit on a tiny DS cart.
Unfortunately, this game never left Japan, and doesn’t have an English translation, so I won’t be able to comment too much on the story. While I do have some basic knowledge of the Japanese language, it isn’t enough to fully understand what’s going on. However, based on what happens in the game and where, Episode I seems to closely follow its PS2 counterpart, although Episode II does change things up a bit.
Many portable RPGs of the era used 3D chibi characters over 3D backgrounds (Seriously, why does every handheld RPG have to be chibi-fied?) but Xenosaga opted for 2D sprites over isometric backgrounds instead. While the sprites do still have larger heads than normal, they aren’t as bad as other DS titles. For the cutscenes, the character portraits look similar to the Xenosaga animated series. Most of these look decent, although I didn’t care too much for Ziggy. Some of the FMV from the PS2 games is also present. Of course these are heavily compressed and last no longer than 10 seconds, but its still cool to see them here.
Thankfully, the combat in this game has more in common with Episode I’s battles rather than the atrocious break system introduced in the second game. Your party stands on one half of a 6×5 grid, while your enemies occupy the other side. During your turn, you can move your character anywhere you want on your side of the playing field. You can then hit your enemy with smaller attacks using the X and Y buttons, or guard for a turn and use the stored AP to unleash a Deathblow. If you want to perform a long range Deathblow, you have to be lined up with the enemy, close range Deathblows can be used from anywhere on the grid though. It seems kind of backwards, and does take a little getting used to. You’ll also start fighting some mech battles about midway through Episode II. I was initially disappointed that it took so long, but then I remembered that A.G.W.S. combat in the first PS2 game seemed like an afterthought, and wasn’t necessary outside of a couple of fights.
As you progress through the game, you will learn many different battle formations. These will grant you stat boosts by moving your characters to specific spots on the playing field. The best formation was the one that used Shion to give the party a Regen effect. It made the late game battles much easier.
Some of the dungeons are missing from this portable version, and were replaced with sub-story segments. You can choose to view these immediately, or watch them later via the U.M.N. section of the main menu. It is worth checking them out at least once, since many will give you new weapons. Fewer dungeons means that the game moves along at a much brisker pace than it’s PS2 counterparts, only taking 25 hours to complete, which is about a third of the time it would take to finish the first two PS2 games.
It’s too bad this never came to North America, as it is a pretty enjoyable version of the first two games in the series. There was a fan translation in the works, but that project seemed to stall about 2 or 3 years ago. If you can read Japanese or just want a new Xeno game to play, its worth checking out, and is pretty affordable as well.