Xenogears in Retrospect

Xenogears NA coverXenogears is a Japanese-style roleplaying game released by Squaresoft (now Square Enix) in 1998 for the original PlayStation video game console. It has been hailed by fans of the genre as an underrated masterpiece of the form, eclipsed by others such as its company brethren, the Final Fantasy series. Despite purchasing the game used at a Funco Land during my initial exposure period to console RPGs in about 2000, it wasn’t until over a decade later that I would actually sit down and play the game in its entirety.

Conceived by Tetsuya Takahashi, penned by Masato Kato, and composed for by Yasunori Mitsuda, all of Chrono Trigger fame, (with Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy, executive producing to boot), the game had an impressive list of talent on its development team. Additionally, Koichi Mashimo, whose resume included Ghost in the Shell, animated the anime cut scenes interspersed throughout. Indeed,  this combined with its mecha designs makes Xenogears something of a weeaboo’s wet dream.

Xenogears was an ambitious concept to begin with. As detailed in the game’s Perfect Works book, it was to be part five of a six-part series of games. Unfortunately, this never came to fruition, though the story told in the game is self-contained. Xenogears, did, however, receive a spiritual successor/reboot in the form of the Xenosaga for the PS2, developed by Monolith Soft, who had about twenty members of the original team working on it. I say “spiritual successor,” because Xenosaga was not allowed to overtly reference its legacy since the rights to those names and likenesses were still owned by Square. Xenosaga, too, was to be a six-parter, but only got to three. After playing a portion of the first, I can frankly see why…

In terms of gameplay, Xenogears does not diverge greatly from the typical JRPG formula of its era. There is a world map to be openly explored, random battles, leveling up to learn abilities, multi-faceted equipment screens, and of course, turn-based battles. Combat in Xenogears utilizes the Active Time Battle system (ATB) seen in nearly every turn-based Final Fantasy after and including IV, as well as  Chrono Trigger, allowing for discrepancies in character to speed  to play a part in the turn order.

The similarities to traditional battle systems stop there, however. Instead of selecting commands from layers of menus and clicking a confirm button, Xenogears utilizes a combo system consisting of weak, moderate, and strong attacks (mapped to triangle, square, and X buttons, respectively) that can be strung together to perform powerful finishing moves called “deathblows.” Spell-like options, referred to as “Ether abilities” are also available as per normal conventions. Additionally, the battle HUD diverged from the standard bottom/top docked menus, and offered a d-pad interface something like that seen in Super Mario RPG.

What further set the game apart from its peers, and was the most enjoyable aspect of the gameplay for me, was a second mode of combat in giant humanoid war machines called Gears. Gears had their own set of equipment, and rather than level up, could have their frame, engine, and armor upgraded at shops. Combat was similar to its on-foot counterpart, but lacked the combo-chaining in favor of tiered attack levels and two-button deathblows.

Despite having overall interesting combat, there were a few options that seemed ill-conceived. For example, on foot, characters could save up excess ability points from turns where they did not expend their full capacity. This AP could later be spent to cue up consecutive deathblows contingent on the amount of AP said character had accrued (up to 28) in previous turns, resulting in the potential to perform more than one deathblow in a turn. In theory, it was nice to know unused AP was not going to waste, but in practice, you either ended up consistently using your strongest (read: most AP-consuming) d’blows or the battle only went on long enough to have enough AP saved for one worthwhile deathblow, which was as much as you could do through normal means. Similarly, while in gears, there was a state characters could go in called “hyper mode,” which allowed for cheap, powerful attacks and increased fuel recharging for three turns. The idea was somewhat analogous to a Final Fantasy limit break:  as HP got lower, the chance to enter hyper mode increased. Unfortunately, hyper mode could only be engaged after getting to power level three, which was immediately reset when a deathblow was executed. Forcing the player to either charge fuel or do non-d’blow attacks, combined with the extremely low chance to enter the mode at acceptable HP levels, made the ability practically useless except for the main character’s gear which always had a 99% chance to enter the mode.

Xenogear’s biggest accolade is its mature and sophisticated subject matter. Much of the dialog and plot revolves around philosophical, psychological, and religious concepts. The ideas of Freud, Carl Jung, and Friedrich Nietzsche are referenced many times, with overt homages such as characters named after said people (Sigmund) and concepts (Id).

Unfortunately, the storytelling and the points which attempted to be conveyed are marred by a number of factors. Though the translation is sufficient in the sense that it is not overtly “Engrish,” it is often rather verbose and wordy. Moreover, it feels as if something was lost in translation, often with surprise or vag
ue references to people, ideas, and places that leave the player scratching their head until they are expounded upon later. When the game hits its stride, it really hits on some philosophically deep and interesting ideas, but more often than not, its heavy-handed verbiage makes the narrative come off as pretentious and pseudo-intellectual.

 

The plot itself is often contrived and vague in the grandiose ideas it attempts to convey. As an example, the main character Fei was somewhere in the neighborhood of three different physical characters who existed in various timelines, with his current personality being fractured into a total of three or four disassociative identities. Further, the main thrust of the game wanders off in to some abstract direction rivaling the claims of even scientology, with talk of the physical manifestation of god, whose presence arrived on a spacecraft millennia ago, being born again out of the nanomachine-mutated planet dwellers.

Furthermore, despite Square’s reputation (even then) and a star-studded team, the game’s production values seemed lacking. Aesthetically, though it has worked for games such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Breath of Fire III, the sprite-based characters in a three-dimensional environment leaves something to be desired. Low-resolution sprites give off noticeable, aliased boundary lines (“jaggies”), and lack more than superficial detail, the likes of which could have probably been achieved by the previous 16-bit era technology. At the other end, the 3D gear models, while passable, were extremely low polygon count and often clipped in and out of themselves. Even the touted anime cut scenes were blatantly not edited to be completely synched with the English dialog ala some kind of Godzilla parody.

The lack of polish also extends to the user experience of the game. The minimalistic dialogs retained unnecessary limitations recalling the 8-bit era in the form of constrained text in some GUI panels, making you wonder what exactly certain cryptically-described items were supposed to do.  Labeling in general for some menu options was confusing at best. Why would the option to upgrade a gear would be listed under “tune up” rather than with the rest of the part buying options? Small refinements such as sorting in item menus, full health after major battles/plot points, the automatic unequipping of characters that get excised from the party temporarily or otherwise, and others suggest a lack of attention to detail.

The most prominent example of these issues was the game’s entire second disc. Roughly 80% of the game’s time is spent on disc one in traditional RPG fashion of some open-world exploring and plot-directed happenings. Then, the game abruptly changes to the paradigm of textual storytelling, with intermittent scenes of a “novel” being acted out by the player, usually in the form of a boss battle or short dungeon crawl. This occurs right up until the end game when play reverts back to normal for side quests and preparations. I don’t know if the reason for this was because of the media limitations of the compact disc and the lengthy ending cutscene or if development time and/or funds were simply running dry.

Speaking of side quests, the game has almost none to speak of. Aside from the two mini-games (a card game and stripped down arcade fighter), each disc has but a few trivial distractions, only one of which supplying further character depth or requiring much time investment. Despite this, I invested a substantial amount of time into Xenogears, clocking in around 75 hours; the bulk of the game’s consisting of the aforementioned belabored dialog.

Despite Xenogears’ superficial shortcomings, I found it to be an enjoyable game, if not the classic it is often heralded as. The diverse gameplay, particularly the gear battles, keeps the player interested and serves as a foil to the thick narrative. Despite its awkward execution, Xenogears addresses some intellectually deep and thought-provoking topics, the likes of which have not been replicated in any RPG since. As one of the last great RPGs to come out of Squaresoft before their untimely spiral into mediocrity, occurring sometime after their merging with Enix, you owe it to yourself to play this game.

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~ by Dux on January 26, 2011.

 
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