I’m ambivalent about Xenogears.

I am quite ambivalent about Square’s 1998 video game Xenogears. There are times when I think it’s the most beautiful and profound thing on the planet. At others, I find it an infuriating mess of ill-conceived plot twists that insults the intelligence of the player.

The opening scenes of the game feature an animated movie in which the viewer will have no idea what is going on. I mean it, it’s confusing as all get out. And absolutely none of it will be referenced again until near the end of the game, some ~60 hours later. This gives you an idea of the massive scale of Xenogears’ ambitious storyline.

Giant robots with wings and crap sticking out of them? And Nietzsche? Take my money, Squaresoft!

The supercomputer weapon Deus is a strange thing. The ship in which it resided crashed on the planet in the game’s confusing intro, all of its crew except one killed. In order to repair itself, it had to restart humanity until enough millennia passed for them to redevelop the technology necessary to fix it. I found that to be a fascinating motivation for a villain. Unfortunately, Deus appears little in the game; the stage is set by lesser stepping-stone villains like Krelian, Ramsus, Grahf, Miang, and an evil religion that is an obvious jab at the real-life Catholic Church. (Criticism of mainstream Christianity was a popular theme in Japanese RPGs in the 90s for reasons I can’t discern.)

The love story between Fei and Elly is one of the rare romances that I find believable. It is a tragedy repeated throughout the reincarnations of both characters: The incarnation of Elly sacrifices herself to save the incarnation of Fei, who then spends the rest of his life bitter and often turning violent. This theme appears in Lacan becoming ruthless and power-hungry resulting in his eventual transformation into Grahf, Kim creating an artificial life form in absence of a child, and the current Fei becoming intertwined with his Id as well as his previous incarnations, some of which are still around. (I’ve never seen an article of media focused on reincarnation where one person actually met their previous incarnations!) Yet the villain who is the main focus of Xenogears, Krelian, is also a victim of unrequited love, yet he chose to give into despair and help reconstruct Deus in order to destroy humankind. This presents a powerful idea of motivations, free will and the ability to spurn your predestined fate.

Xenogears’ art is truly gorgeous.

Xenogears’ settings are varied and splendorous, ranging from tiny villages and shacks in the mountains to a civilization in the sky, an underground prison city, and the Tower of Babel (Irritating jumping and all). All of these combine to create a rich experience I have not seen equaled in any other JRPG.

Characters such as Billy, Bart, Rico, and Maria do one useful thing in the entire story and then tag around uselessly afterwards for the remainder of this lengthy video game. Chu-Chu is that, too, but is also a stupid character who should not have been in the game. Chu-Chu is a wacky talking animal sidekick, an irritating trope made popular by Disney movies and Pokémon. Other worthless comedy relief characters include the Captain of the Thames, a walrus sea captain, and his dolphin-man pal Franz; a wandering moron named Big Joe who belongs in a different game entirely; the Elements (An irritating team of female color-coded Power Rangers rip-offs), and more. The extra characters (the playable ones, at least) were probably thrown in for gameplay variety; only Fei, Elly, and Citan are important to the main plot.

About half of these characters will do something useful.

Maria Balthasar seems like such an afterthought. She has no deathblows, a strange gear, no voice clips, and little bearing on the story. She was either thrown in at the last minute or is a symptom of the game’s rapidly diminishing budget. Xenogears is replete with incomplete characters such as hers who appear to me to be the seeds of good ideas that didn’t have the opportunity to grow.

The character of Hammer and his eventual fate are a mixed bag with fans. Some saw it as unexpected brilliance, while others (like me) were annoyed at having a likeable character disappear and reappear out of nowhere for the sole purpose of betraying the protagonists. They could have made his “I do crazy horrible things because I want to be special like you guys” motivation less ham-handed and he would have been the tragic character they were looking for. The villain Krelian has a similar unreasonable fate as well. Working with an ancient evil computer thing and causing untold suffering to millions of people in the process, and his reward? He gets to merge with the universe or some other unexplained metaphysical crap and the protagonists even forgive him for his atrocities. What a cop-out. Either it’s a Japanese “death equals redemption” cultural thing or another symptom of the aforementioned quickly drying budget.

Please Hammer, don’t hurt ’em. But he does. He does bad things. Spoiler alert.

The theme of anima/animus shows up repeatedly. The dichotomy between woman and man is an absorbing one that borrows heavily from Jungian psychology. The quasi-Christian Gnostic/Kabbalistic imagery saturating the game is sometimes warranted and sometimes unbelievably pretentious. There is a scene in the game where the main characters’ gears are crucified in some ridiculous symbolism of something-or-other. While the characters themselves sit comfortably in their cockpits. Yes, this includes the aforementioned stupid pink puffball character. Let me reiterate that: Both giant robots and a giant pink puffball that says “Chu!” are nailed to crosses in this game. This scene is absolutely dead-serious and was deservedly mocked throughout the internet.

Sometimes a cigar is just an anime.

The resemblance between Xenogears and Neon Genesis Evangelion is obvious and undeniable. Both are mid-late 90s deconstructions of the giant robot genre. Both contain broken characters who struggle to understand human nature while fighting other people in giant robots. (Look, it’s from Japan, give it a break.) Both contain themes drawing upon primitive Christianity and Freudian psychology. Both have angst-ridden teenage heroes who are drawn into some vague plot about humanity and the meaning of the universe.

The second half of the game is a clear result of the project’s money running out. Instead of visiting new and strange locations like you do in the first disc, you are told (not shown) about the things the characters do. There are a few interesting dungeons that existed in the creators’ minds, but they lacked the funds to put them into the game.

The music is just astonishing.

The gameplay of Xenogears is an interesting idea that (once again) was not implemented to its full potential. On-foot combat is standard JRPG fare with some extra button-combination twaddle; but what really shines is the gear combat. You have to walk a tightrope between managing your fuel and dealing enough damage to the enemies. However, there are a few game breakers such as Citan-with-sword and a couple items combined with Elly’s Aerods spell, which can crush bosses in one shot.

If Square remade Xenogears into a video game with a coherent narrative and a good second disc, it could be a truly phenomenal experience. But it doesn’t have the fanbase like the Final Fantasies do, so it won’t happen. I wish the game was successful enough to have spawned the sequel and four prequels that were originally intended. They could have had the opportunity to explore things in a more consistent and articulate manner over the course of five more gigantic games.

Instead we got Namco’s mediocre Xenosaga trilogy, which took Xenogears’ worse aspects (incredible pretension, confusing plotlines, phony references to Judeo-Christian lore, endless boring cutscenes), amped them up to 12, and added puke-worthy fanservice designed to appeal to pedophiles. But, as with other very poor sequels such as Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager, Alundra 2, and Devil May Cry 2, they cannot destroy the wonder of the original.

About Lee

Lee Laughead writes stuff about video games. Read his Twitter at https://twitter.com/Mesarphelous even though Twitter sucks.
This entry was posted in Animu, Fantasy/Sci-Fi, RPG or thereabouts, This isn't just a video game this is ART you wouldn't understand it you plebian filth, Video Gaming. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to I’m ambivalent about Xenogears.

  1. Strider says:

    Well, as you probably recall, when I was 18, I thought that Xenogears was the most profound thing ever.

    When I first played the game, it was under perhaps the ideal circumstances; I found myself with a month or so with most of my time to myself and very little to do save play Xenogears for 4 hours a day and think very hard about ti for the rest of the time. The storyline really captivated me at the time- the scope and amount of detail was like nothing I’d ever played before. If memory serves, I put something like 80 hours into the game on my first run-through; revisiting it later, I worked my way down to 60. My situation gave me a lot of time to digest everything instead of simply bombing through, giving my brain time to backtrace plot points I’d just played to ones that were 20 hours earlier.

    I focus primarily on the storyline above because that was the game’s primary attraction- beyond that, well, it’s something of a mixed bag. Combat is fine, but it’s a maximalist, kitchen-sink system that feels heavier and more complicated than it needs to be- there are a number of features that you’ll never use, or will use once in a gimmick battle and then never touch again. The pacing of the game could use work; it always feels like a series of uncomfortably long cutscenes followed by uncomfortably long dungeon crawls The infamous second disc is… Well, I think that- unfortunately- the second disc would need to be mostly on-rails due to the number of events that everyone in the world would be expected to have a reaction to, but reducing most of the action to a narrated storybook was a little too much.

    I’ve often felt that I should play it again, but these days I don’t really have the time to invest in it. In a way, I’m also a little afraid to… As good as the plot seemed at the time, when you get down to it, Xenogears is basically a mashup of two or three different anime series (that I have now seen)- the most egregious example is that several plot points and even scenes are lifted directly from Nadia and the Secret of Blue Water, although there’s a healthy dose of Evangelion in there as well. Were I to play the game again for the first time today, I don’t doubt that I’d find myself rolling my eyes for at least some of the plot points I thought were amazingly deep when I first played it. I loved the game when I was in High School, but I recognize that my memories of it are rose-tinted. I’m not sure I want the “opportunity” to contrast those memories with reality.

    I felt like Xenosaga fell really quite flat, for a number of reasons. On a gameplay level, it shared many of Xenogears’ pacing issues; the whole series suffered badly from this. The first Xenosaga game in particular also seemed to use the fact that it was part of a planned long-term plot arc to not resolve anything- that the game just kind of ended on a whimper always disappointed me. Perhaps this was the translation’s fault, but I always felt a little like I didn’t have very good footing in the world; the game seemed to have conflicting descriptions of how their universe’s FTL travel worked, and seemingly-important details of whether their instant travel/communication/inorganic material teleportation gates were something that humanity had found or built in space. Finally, and perhaps most worrisome, Xenosaga always felt really plastic and focus-group-oriented to me- it was lacking the soul that Xenogears had in spades. I’ve never played through the third game in the series- I really should- and maybe I would have enjoyed the first more had I been expecting Xenosaga Episode 1 and not Xenogears Episode 1, but still.

    – HC

  2. Masamune says:

    Nice review. I must say to the games credit that the clunkiness of incompleteness often felt by the game’s budget cuts is completely overshadowed by how the story, characters, art and music create such an incredible ambiance and immersive world. This game was epic before epic was a meme, and its epicosity outhshines its flaws 100 fold, though your review does a good job of mentioning some of those flaws. The world they constructed here, it’s history, it’s lore, it’s mythology, perfectly blends with the music, cinematics and storytelling, so you just keep wanting to know more about it. And that, to me, is the key to making a great RPG. Creating a world that you keep wanting to delve back into.

    I personally do not have a problem with the Hammer and Krelian plotlines. I think draw out Hammer’s role helped make him less predicatable and his betrayal more meaningful. Indeed this game, especially at the end, had far too many sped up plot ideas. As for Krelian, his motive makes total sense to me: he’s a sociopath. Like a serial killer who finds some divine meaning behind his ritualistic murders. Reuniting with the universe can also be a way to achieve the oneness sought in his unrequited love. Replacing oneness with another person for oneness with God/existence, while exacting revenge on the world that supposedly mistreated him. Guess that does make him sound a bit like a Gendo Ikari rip-off. I can, however, definitely understand feeling like it was a cop-out to forgive Krelian.

    @Strider try playing it again, you might be surprised. I first played the game in 8th grade when it had just come out, and I remember the clock hitting the triple digit mark in the last dungeon, so I played it pretty thoroughly. I recently started a replay and a bit of the way into the 2nd disk my only disappointment is the one I had the first time around: the unfinished 2nd disk. The game is still amazing. And if you’ve played any of the of the number of disappointing, soulless JRPGs of the last decade – filled with new battle systems, mechanics, and gimmicks but lacking heart and soul – all those special qualities that make Xenogears great will be that much more appreciated. Remember Xenogears, despite it’s flaws, was an amazing gem of a JRPG against the backdrop of JRPG glory years. That is to say it stood out even in a market with Star Ocean, Vagrant Story, SaGa Frontier and the legendary Final Fantasy VII.

    For that reason I would love to see a proper remake (or finishing really). But I do not believe it is Square’s place to do so. They hold a legal title nothing more, an artificial property with only marketing value behind it. The talent that made this game and other Square classics have long since left the company. The spirit and talent that made Xenogears what it is cannot be recreated just because one owns the copyright to a name, Namco tried that already and it failed pretty bad.

    Now if Sakaguchi would stop working on the mediocore RPGs coming out of mistwalker and start recruiting the talent he worked with at Sqaure along with like-minded new talent, then maybe we might see a company capable of such a remake, or heaven forbid a decent new console JRPG which I really can’t recall seeing since Final Fantasy IX.

    • Strider says:

      Honestly, I kinda think that JRPGs have suffered a lot from the same production-cost issues that are affecting the rest of the industry; the cost of producing a AAA game roughly quadrupled around the time the Playstation 2 was released and has only gone up since. This makes companies more conservative and risk-averse- this translates relying on time-worn tropes and encourages the kind of mechanical, focus-group-driven game systems that we’ve seen a lot of in the last half-decade. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of the most interesting and unique games of that time have surfaced on the relatively-cheap-to-develop-for portables.

      Conventional wisdom seems to be that Square Enix in particular is poor at managing large teams and ends up burning a lot of money through lack of direction. I personally feel that smaller teams are more conducive to games with actual ‘personality’, like those that we saw out of Square in the SNES and early PSX eras… Unfortunately, we’re not living in the world where a “major production” is when a dozen people can produce Final Fantasy 4 in a year and a half, and I think the industry as a whole is suffering for it.

      – HC

  3. sophiasiong says:

    Good review. Though what I see frequently is how people mention the similarities between Xenogears and Evangelion. My question is, what does it matter if it is similar? Novels and films borrows ideas and plots from each other all the time. We often see the same kind of revenge/action plots where the hero has to save a loved one because they’ve been kidnap and there’s tons of asskicking. No one really makes a big deal about that but people make a big deal when a videogame such as Xenogears borrows ideas or inspiration from other sources. Basically, in the art world, there is no true originality. Art is inspired from other art and from the world around the artists.

    • Lee says:

      Thanks for the input. For the record I find Xenogears much more enjoyable than Evangelion, though they belong to two different media. Being earlier at something is not necessarily being best.

  4. Ek0 says:

    You missed so much of the plot I had to quit reading…

    This section was my favorite though:

    Maria Balthasar seems like such an afterthought…

    You mean she does not have deathblows… like because she is a little girl who has no hand to hand training? The whole point of her is that she is an asset because of her gear. That is why her “spells” are her calling her gear in.

    Now before Emerelda is brought up, she is not a little girl. She is a pre-programmed Nano-machine colony. There is no reason to believe that her fighting ability is anything but programed into her.

    I wish I had time to pick apart your whole argument, but I have better things to do… like paying attention to the story I am reading/playing/watching… etc.

    • Lee says:

      No you see Emeralda is really a 5000 year old wizard with a child’s body and therefore

      The fact is that Xenogears was rushed and unfinished. To claim otherwise and explain away its flaws as being secretly planned all along is just being foolish.

  5. McBootyPirate says:

    Damn…I played this game at the ripe age of 18 as well. I found that the themes and messages of the game were more profound at the more subtle scenes instead of the huge climax; like when Fei and Elly were stuck on the boat alone.

    Luckily, I was informed of the lackluster second disc, so I came in expecting it. While the narrative definitely suffered from it, I wasn’t caught by surprise and I could actually focus on the story. It definitely went a notch higher on the story-telling scale, although the info-dumps were something I had to stop at for a good hour or so before continuing.

    It truly is a shame that Xenogears was left unfinished. And the chances of it being remade is but a dream now, even with the rumored Xenogears: Origins for the Wii U popping up. If Square just recognized how much potential this game had compared to Final Fantasy VIII, I think this would’ve gone down as potentially the greatest JRPG of all time, matching up against Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *