Love-Hate Relationship: Xenogears

Well, I had some minor surgery Thursday. Don’t worry, so far I’m sore, but fine! I started researching this article before the surgery, hoping I could get it done beforehand. Well, that didn’t happen. It must be the lingering . . . whatever they gave me for anesthesia that makes this article continue to sound like a good idea. I’m loopy and sore, I should probably pick a topic that doesn’t take a lot of mental horsepower.

So I picked Xenogears.

Yeah.

Xenogears was a game that came out for the PlayStation in 1998, February in Japan, October for North America. Originally pitched to be Final Fantasy VIII, the powers that were at Square decided the premise was “too dark and complicated for a fantasy,” but the game director was allowed to work on it as a separate project. At first it was to somehow be a sequel to Chrono Trigger, but as it developed the game came to be its own separate title.

Xenogears is . . . OK, I normally try to give you some non-spoiler summary of the premise when I talk about video games, but this one . . . whoo, boy. I don’t think I can in any concise or simple way. The TV Tropes website entry for Xenogears describes the game as having a “uniquely convoluted plot spanning ten thousand years; themes cooked out of Gnosticism, Jewish mysticism and Jungian psychology; and an atmosphere which was remarkably Anime-like for its time,” which I think sums it up pretty well. This game, for its time especially, was deep and complicated. Containing many psychological and religious themes, this game isn’t shy about violence, cruelty, the horrors of war, mental illness, slavery, mental conditioning/brainwashing, the effects of abuse on children . . .

Not that I’m trying to turn you off on the game, by the way! I would certainly say Xenogears is worth playing or watching. I, as the title might imply, have a love-hate relationship with this game, and I’ll tell you why.

First, the pros. Xenogears was a gorgeous game for its time, 2D sprites with 3D map designs. The developers apparently wanted the whole thing to be 3D, but the poor little PlayStation just didn’t have the horsepower to hack it.

The character design was like nothing I’d ever seen before, science fiction and fantasy blending with surprising grace. Apparently director Tetsuya Takahashi felt like he could have done better. According to the Characters of Xenogears entry on Wikipedia, “the world of Xenogears was originally designed as more ‘pastoral’ than the final result, and the village of Lahan (the main character Fei’s home village) was planned to have a ‘martial arts’ feel. As the game’s script was written this was changed, but the design of Fei, meant to fit in with the original conception, was not able to be revised in the time allotted and remained wearing a martial arts uniform. This led to director Tetsuya Takahashi feeling that his character design was out of place, especially in the latter half of the game.”

Honestly, that’s a detail that got by me. Fei Fong Wong– whose name is a reference to the legendary Wong Fei Hung, a Cantonese martial artist, physician, and folk hero– just looks like a distinctive person, certainly a martial artist, that lives in a podunk, rural village. All the characters have really interesting costumes and– for the most part– distinct, well-defined personalities that feel both natural and nuanced.

The pedigree of the staff was fantastic, and it shows in the game. The game was produced by Hiromichi Tanaka, who previously worked on Secret of Mana. Tetsuya Takahashi, the director of Xenogears, was the graphic director of Chrono Trigger. Masato Kato, one of the writers for Chrono Trigger, wrote for Xenogears and later Chrono Cross. The great composer Yasunori Mitsuda worked on all three games. And it’s certainly not a coincidence that the smooth, intuitive Active Time Battle System feels a lot like Chrono Trigger and the latter Final Fantasy games of the era when you’re fighting on foot and Chrono Cross when the characters are in their Gears (think giant metal robots or mechs).

The plot is incredibly confusing, I’m not going to lie. I was in my junior year in high school when this game came out, and the themes were not exactly lighthearted. It was intriguing. An world jam-packed with fascinating countries, political intrigue, ancient civilizations, fascinating mythology, prophecy, reincarnation . . . to be honest, I barely understood what was going on half the time. The first disc of that game is fantastic, ending on quite a cliffhanger. It would be a terrible place for the game to have ended . . .

. . . which was actually proposed. Now we get into the cons.

The rumor always was that Final Fantasy VIII, which came out in North America just about a year later in September 1999, had soaked up a lot of Xenogears’ budget, being a higher priority project, especially after the huge success of Final Fantasy VII. Disc two of Xenogears defied any other explanation, and Square wasn’t forthcoming–until recently– about what had happened. Some of the dungeons in disc one were a bit long or uninteresting, as I remember them, but the exciting turn-based battles, fascinating, fully explorable world, beautiful cut scenes, well-developed characters (especially Fei), and gripping storyline more than made up for that.

Disc two completely changes the pace, mostly just narrating the events that happen after disc one, finally handing control back to the player before the game’s finale. The male and female leads of the game sit in chairs against a black screen, delivering page after page of text, interspersed mostly with still pictures of what was happening. It was the antithesis of the first rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell. This was all tell. They even talked about dungeons they had to go in to get this certain thing to go do this other thing . . .

Why didn’t we get to play the dungeon? Why didn’t we get to move the characters and explore these places they talked about? When did this become a text based adventure game? It wasn’t even that for most of disc two, it was storytime, a slideshow. It had to be budget, right?

At E3 2017, Xenogears director Tetsuya Takahashi finally gave us an answer. Much of the staff of Xenogears was young and inexperienced, and more experienced members of the team had to devote a lot of time to training them up. In those days, all projects had a two-year deadline, period. And the 3D graphics they were working with were complex and new. It became apparent that they were not going to be able to deliver the game they wanted to deliver.

Square wanted to end the game after disc one, but Takahashi– rightly– believed that such an ending would not be satisfying, so he did what he had to do to get the story of Xenogears out in full, even if it was mostly sprites narrating events through a slideshow and an extremely grindy, unbalanced, half-finished set of boss runs and dungeons. Takahashi went on to found Monolith Soft, which made the Xenosaga and Xenoblade Chronicles games, spiritual successors to Xenogears, which I haven’t played.

I wanted to love Xenogears. I really did. There’s a lot to love, especially in disc one. I loved Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy, and while Xenogears does a few shout-outs to them (Lucca, Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar make cameos from Chrono Trigger, and Roni and Rene, royal ancestors of one of the party members, are the middle names of royal twins Edgar and Sabin from Final Fantasy VI, for example), it is absolutely its own game. It gave us something different. The sci-fi aspect was just delicious. Some countries and factions in the game were very high tech. Some were very fantasy and mystical. And it all blended together in a way that felt natural, somehow.

As I was entering young adulthood, Xenogears gave me the impression that it was taking my budding sense of self and intelligence seriously. It didn’t hold back or dumb anything down. These were complicated concepts it was exploring, deep emotional themes and scenarios, religion and philosophy. I loved that. It wasn’t just an awesome story. Xenogears was a game that made you think and explore new ideas, and most of them were not exactly candy-coated.

But it has some real, glaring flaws. As the game progressed, especially in disc two, there were definitely gameplay balance issues. I love to grind in video games for levels and loot, but I remember, after a certain point, never having money to upgrade my party’s Gears in spite of that. In addition, eventually in the game fighting in anything other than Gears is pointless, you only level up your characters’ techniques so you have access to those deathblows in your Gears. I really enjoyed the fighting on foot, Billy and his guns, Fei and Citan and their marital arts, etc, and was really sad that eventually there wasn’t really a reason to do that anymore.

The long narration and slideshow annoyed me greatly. It helps a little to know why, and to know it could have been worse, but it really detracted from what had been a well-paced, immersive game to that point.

The cutscenes have voice acting, but the sound quality is terrible, especially in the final cutscene. I could hardly hear what was being said. It was a real problem. What’s the point of beautifully animated cutscenes if you can’t hear the dialogue? And if I’m remembering correctly, there was no subtitles option.

I love this game. It did so much right and had so much to offer, it was groundbreaking and ambitious. I hate this game. I see its potential and it just fell on its face for the second half. No matter how good the story is, if the game is barely playable, it’s hard to keep playing.

In doing research for this article, I learned some interesting things. In February 2016, Square Enix announced a Xenogears crossover in a PC game called Figureheads. When Figureheads was coming onto the PS4, a Xenogears themed set of robot armor skins and Figurehead AIs was announced in February 2017, with a second crossover announcement in January 2018.

In October 2016, one of the new Mirages for World of Final Fantasy (one of the monsters you can add to your party), was called XG and looked an awful lot like Fei’s Gear Weltall. In July 2017, Square Enix announced a Xenogears action figure project, and there was an announcement for a 20th Anniversary Concert for Xenogears in December 2017. Finally, there was an announcement of a Xenogears Original Soundtrack Revival Disc in January 2018.

Now, of all the games that should ever have gotten a remake, I would think Xenogears would be at the top of the list. Yes, it probably made the Greatest Hits game list mostly through word of mouth and a devoted following, because it wasn’t nearly as lucrative as other Square games. It wasn’t part of a popular series, and it didn’t get much marketing, at least in the States. I know this year is the twentieth anniversary of the game, but why all the concerts and crossovers? Could a remake finally be in the works?

All I can say is if it is, call up Monolith Soft. Get as many of the original team as you can, Square Enix. I would love to see the game Xenogears was supposed to be. Then, if nothing else, it could get off my love-hate list of video games. I hope.

If you don’t have a PlayStation One, the game can be downloaded onto the PS3 and the PSP, the current price being $9.99. If you don’t have those systems, I can recommend an amazing written Let’s Play by The Dark Id. It’s well and hilariously written, including all the dialogue (including inserted dialogue in italics), and links to cutscenes and music as well as concept art. There’s some raunchiness and F bombs in there, which I don’t mind, but you might want to read it first before you give the thumbs up to your little gamers. Happy playing and/or reading!

PS: You know in Final Fantasy VII when Cloud is poisoned by the Lifestream, and he’s in Mideel murmuring some cryptic nonsense from his wheelchair? “A billion mirror fragments… small… light… taken… angel’s… singing… voices… zeno… gias…” He’s talking about Xenogears and the closing song Small Two of Pieces.

 

References:

Xenogears, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenogears

Chrono Trigger, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chrono_Trigger

Chrono Cross, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chrono_Cross

Characters of Xenogears, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Characters_of_Xenogears

Unfinished ‘Xenogears’ Disc 2 Finally Explained: Is It Time For A Remake?, Tech Times: http://www.techtimes.com/articles/210108/20170616/unfinished-xenogears-disc-2-finally-explained-is-it-time-for-a-remake.htm

As the Xenogears 20th Anniversary nears… could it be… happening?, Resetera.com: https://www.resetera.com/threads/as-the-xenogears-20th-anniversary-nears-could-it-be-happening.19010/

Looking Back On Xenogears, 20 Years Later, Gamespot.com: https://www.gamespot.com/articles/looking-back-on-xenogears-20-years-later/1100-6456814/Video Game /

Xenogears, TVTropes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/VideoGame/Xenogears

Xenogears, Xenosaga Wiki: http://xenosaga.wikia.com/wiki/Xenogears

Xenogears Let’s Play, The Dark ID: https://lparchive.org/Xenogears-(by-The-Dark-Id)/

Picture Credit: Xenogears by gyrfalcon65, DeviantArt: https://gyrfalcon65.deviantart.com/art/Xenogears-227578354

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