Xenosaga: Der Wille Zur Artbook

It’s tough to think of another video game that polarizes opinions like the 1998 PlayStation RPG Xenogears, which players tend to either love for its elaborate story, intricate battles, and giant robots, or detest on account of its slow pace, crawling text, and rushed second disc. Xenosaga, the recent PlayStation2 quasi-prequel to Xenogears, is nearly as contentious with its emphasis on lengthy story sequences, linear progression, and plot twists that almost defy comprehension. But like the excellent Yasunori Mitsuda soundtracks that accompany the games, the supporting artwork for both Xenogears and Xenosaga is difficult to criticize.

With characters by Kunihiko Tanaka (Ruin Explorers, Key: The Metal Idol) and mecha from the mind of Junya Ishigaki (Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz), there’s undeniable quality to the games’ conceptual designs. And though you’d need to import the rather expensive Xenogears Perfect Works in order to own that title’s artwork, Namco and BradyGames decided to make things a little easier with Xenosaga by offering an art book (along with art prints and a T-shirt) to those who pre-ordered the game. They’re crafty, those promotions managers. They know that, at the depths of their bizarrely materialistic hearts, RPG geeks would treasure the shrink wrap from their games if it gave off the slightest hint of being collectible.

Similar to the excellent Final Fantasy IX art book that BradyGames released years ago, The Art of Xenosaga is a slimmer volume encompassing most, if not all, of the game’s design work. The character art section has both Tanaka’s original illustrations and the final renderings for the main cast, along with space for supporting folk like Captain Matthews (and his “Caution: I AM BOOZER” hat). Tanaka’s in top form for Xenosaga, and his art includes standard-issue anime archetypes like the magical-girl-show tribute Momo and the white-haired, unabashedly rotten Albedo as well as less conventional creations. A gray-tressed teenage boy goes by the capitalization-rejecting name of “chaos” and wears an odd mix of orange and black hues, while the scantily-clad android KOS-MOS has a look that’s both blatantly sexual and coldly unsettling, and she joins Kula from The King of Fighters in sharing the hair and eye colors of Evangelion’s Rei Ayanami.

Though well-designed, the mechanical art isn’t quite as interesting, since the robots, or “Anti-Gnosis Weapon Systems,” are somewhat generic constructions that wouldn’t be out of place in an anime space opera like Vandread or Dangaio. The A.G.W.S.es (which, a reader informs me, are only an anagram away from the A.W.G.S. units of Gungriffon Blaze) simply don’t show the same variety as the mecha of Xenogears, which paid tribute to every giant-‘bot cliché in the book and looked damn good doing it. Much like the robots in the game itself, the mech art of Xenosaga is an ancillary element that can be safely ignored. More noteworthy are the galleries of enemies and level layouts. The “Gnosis” aliens of Xenosaga are an intriguingly mixed bunch; some are humanoid grotesqueries, others could almost be machines, and a few bear more of a resemblance to tropical fish as drawn by H. R. Giger. Equally engrossing are the sketches of the game’s dungeons, even if some might spoil players who haven’t yet been through Xenosaga.

Of course, there’s a caveat (and my main reason for writing this piece). I’ve seen The Art of Xenosaga often clearing thirty bucks in eBay auctions, with one sale closing in excess of a hundred dollars. Not to judge another’s use of disposable income, but that’s just stupid. As nice of a bonus as this art book is, it’s far too slim and simple to be worth more than a strategy guide.

Perhaps if it were hardbound, nicely packaged, and twice as thick, like the Japanese Xenosaga Official Design Materials, one could justify spending so much. But in its current form, The Art of Xenosaga isn't worth it. If there’s any consolation, it may be that the price recently began dropping, as though buyers are starting to realize that there’s no shortage of the book. Of course, my take on this might be contaminated by the luxury of getting my copy of The Art of Xenosaga for free. If I hadn’t received it as a bonus, I might have guiltily sought one through some bidding-bloated auction. Such is the allure of a nice art book. So despite my cautions, I can at least admit that even if you pay three times its sensible cost, you’re at least getting something good in the deal.