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.
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’ 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.
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.
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.
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 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.