Ambition & Perdition
As someone who plays a lot of JRPGs, it’s hard to ignore Xenogears. When fans talk about classics of the original Playstation era, it’s always bound to come up due to its massive critical acclaim and dedicated cult following. In many ways, the title defines Squaresoft’s ambition at the time, with Xenogears being the peak of their willingness to take risks. Initially pitched as a concept for Final Fantasy VII, the idea was rejected due to its dark and intense subject matter. And yet they still greenlit it as a separate project, sending director Tetsuya Takahashi down his long path of increasingly ambitious projects that has lasted up until this current console generation with Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
It’s hard to deny that the game has left a mark on genre fans. And yet, I somehow feel like it’s impact has only lessened over time. Like Chrono Cross, Xenogears no longer seems to be a title people instantly think of when they think about good JRPGs. The game is still the subject of a lot of speculation and debate, but I don’t think anyone would put it on the level of the Final Fantasy games of the same era in terms of popularity. Then again, comparing a niche game to one of the most mainstream RPG franchises of all time may be flawed argument to begin with.
But it still begs the question of how this game has held up over the past 19 years. Is it still the daring title it was all those many years ago? And better yet, was it ever any good to begin with?
Before we dive into those questions though, I’d like to ask another, more pertinent one: Are ambitious pieces of art inherently great? This is a question I grapple with a lot. I mean, it was only just a month ago that I had a conversation about this with my online friend Weirdy8. It can be a surprisingly tough to answer! After all, it’s hard to dismiss something with visible effort as a complete failure. If the artists who worked on it have put so many hours into creating it, pouring their hearts and soul into making the work unique and innovative, well then shouldn’t we respect them and praise the final product?
Well, yes and no. While it is important to give the artists credit for their dedication, just because something tries really hard doesn’t mean it succeeds. I don’t think anyone will deny that Fumito Ueda’s The Last Guardian is an ambitious title, but that still doesn’t excuse its clunky control scheme (and I’m saying this as a fan of the game). Ultimately, like all art, an ambitious work will still need to be judged on a level of success and failure, what worked and what didn’t. And when evaluating Xenogears on that level, I’m not sure how to feel about it.
There’s no denying Xenogears has a lot of talent behind it. At its best the game is a truly impressive experience with beautiful environments, an expansive world and lore, and enticing mecha action backed up by a multi-layered and philosophical storyline. Takahashi and his team are clearly giving it their all on this first disc, trying to deliver dramatic setpiece after dramatic setpiece. Even the sewer level is filled with a surprising amount of well thought out design work!
Hell, some fans even speculate that the game was originally meant to be a sequel to Chrono Trigger! I can’t find any conclusive evidence on that front, but if it’s true then it makes a weird amount of sense. Like Chrono Trigger, Xenogears is a game that really tries to carve out a unique path, telling a story with a level of depth not common among its already impressive peers. The game clearly wanted to set a new standard for all future JRPGs.
However, that’s where I think the hammer comes down on this game; at least during this first disc. For as much as it attempts to reach lofty heights, Xenogears is in many ways an incredibly flawed experience. Not an unplayable or bad one mind you, but it one that often had me questioning many of the design and writing decisions throughout its runtime.
I feel like a lot of these issues can be attributed to this game’s attempts to balance tone, as well as some of the pacing of its narrative reveals. From its first hour onwards, it’s clear Xenogears is attempting to create some intense drama. Our story opens up in traditional fashion, with our amnesiac protagonist Fei Fong Wong wandering around in his peaceful village of Lahan before the sudden arrival of destructive Aveh and Solarian soldiers in mecha like machines called Gears. This sudden disruption of Fei’s normal life awakens something within, causing him to pilot a strange Gear and eradicate most of his home town by accident, killing his best friends in the process.
It’s quite the opening scene, and effectively establishes a dark and gritty tone for the following 30 or so hours. Of course this is then somewhat undercut by the game’s attempts at wacky anime hijinx. Now I understand the need to lighten the tone, but the comedy on display here really does not help add to the game’s charm. In most cases it creates some bizarre dissonance, with moments of dolphins who pilot ships, tsundere little cousins, and sarcastic interjections. Most of these jokes and non sequiturs only served to bother me rather than enhance the narrative and its characters. In fact the only bit of comedy that really got a laugh out of me occurred at around the twenty hour mark, when the dethroned prince turned pirate Bart shot down a Goliath carrying Fei.
That being said, part of the reason why these scenes might have been more jarring than intended is because very few of the cast members have good rapport with each other. While every character works on an individual level, many just don’t get enough screen time to develop solid dynamics between each other, and those who do tend to be sidelined later on down the line in favor of more plot pertinent characters like Fei and Elly.
Maybe this is partially why I found myself somewhat distant from the cast as a whole. While I found myself rooting for characters like Rico, Billy, and Maria, their arcs were so short and truncated that by the time they became official party members their place in the plot had essentially disappeared. Rico in particular is just a sad case. His story in Nortune was one of my favorite character moments in the game, featuring a heartbreaking backstory that justified his previous hot headed actions. And yet pretty much as soon as you leave his hometown, his presence becomes moot, just another character you can swap in and out of battle if you want to.
Still, the development of the cast isn’t all bad in this first disc. The best characters from a structural standpoint would have to be Elly and Citan. Both have incredibly clear arcs, which effectively twist and turn throughout the narrative. Elly in particular was a personal favorite mine. Like a lot of characters in the game, I initially thought her conflict was over dramatic, but her struggle to deal with her connection to Fei and her homeland of Solaris was compelling and consistently engaging. That being said, I wasn’t a fan of how the story constantly beat her up, especially in the latter half of this disc. For being such a strong character, she certainly seems to be valued more as a love interest for Fei than as an actual human being.
Speaking of Fei though, I would like to briefly mention the elephant in the room, or at least something I couldn’t help but notice as a savvy anime fan. While Xenogears was likely conceptualized before it, it’s hard to deny the influence of Neon Genesis Evangelion on this thing. As a mecha story that utilizes psychology, existentialist philosophy, and Christian imagery for its themes and messages,I couldn’t help but see parallels. However, I feel like the biggest influence the original 1995 anime had on this game’s development can be seen in Fei’s character.
Fei is in many ways a more self aware Shinji Ikari. Like Shinji, his initial conflict stems from him wanting to avoid conflict and ignore his responsibility toward others, but unlike Shinji he seems to acknowledge his selfishness pretty directly. This is both a positive and negative, since while it inherently makes Fei a more likeable character, it also makes him decidedly less interesting. It’s unfair to compare the two sure, but this difference makes Fei one of the weakest characters in the game for me. His personality is very undefined, and while the game tries to justify this with a twist near the end of the first disc, it only serves to make him more frustrating.
And really, that’s a problem with the game in general. In terms of the pacing of plot revelations, Xenogears is frustratingly slow. By the time many of the game’s mysteries are being answered, you’re forty plus hours into the experience. If these reveals here had been interspersed more throughout the runtime of this disc instead of jampacked at the end, I wouldn’t have struggled as much playing through it. There’s a difference between creating suspense and just making things confusing, and I feel like Xenogears fails at finding the proper balance.
Story complaints aside though, if there’s one thing I can compliment Xenogears on it would have to be the gameplay and graphics, though that comes with several caveats. Like pretty much any PS1 title, the 3D here isn’t great, but the developers were smart and utilized a graphical style which I think has held up pretty well. The environments here are rendered in 3D with a camera that can be rotated into 8 directional axes, while characters are restricted to 2D sprites. While this can result in some clunky moments, the overall aesthetic quality is solid even today thanks to some nice environments and good character animation work. It’s not perfect (there are plenty of fuzzy backgrounds to be had here), but for the most part it’s relatively easy on the eyes. If I have any complaints it would be about the character designs, but hey, not all 90’s anime designs are created equal.
More than anything else though, it’s the combat that stands out here. Xenogears utilizes two different battle systems throughout the game, both with interesting strategic challenges to tackle. On foot, monster designs really vary, offering challenges to help facilitate interesting combo based fighting mechanics. Throughout the game you’ll typically be using finishing moves called deathblows to deal a majority of your damage, most of which can be learned by trying out and repeating certain button combinations. It can be a bit trial and error without a walkthrough, but once you figure out one character’s set of combos, you’ve pretty much got everyone else down as well. Some enemies will die just through a good single deathblow, but others will require you to avoid them or build up your attack points to combo multiple finishing moves in a row. This variety in random encounters is especially prevalent in the latter half of this disc, which introduces some interesting enemy types that play on expectations.
Combat in Gears on the other hand is a based around resource management. When piloting the mechs, it’s important to conserve their limited fuel supply, as well as keep their health in check. It isn’t until a good twenty hours into the game that you get something that can recharge their health, and even then it’s something to should only be used in the most dire of situations. This can led to some frustrating moments, but in the end it helps add some variety to the gameplay. If the game where all on-foot combat, it would likely get tedious due to the game’s high encounter rate.
It’s not all great though, and in many ways Xenogear’s gameplay design has not aged well. The worst aspect of this game is easily its dungeon design, which ranges from standard and boring, to convoluted and repetitive. This is admittedly a complaint I have about most PS1 JRPG dungeons, but the amount of similar looking corridors and boring labyrinthine design work in this game is frankly annoying.
Many dungeons just amount to wandering around branching paths looking for treasure chests and praying you don’t get lost. Making matters worse, the game lacks a mini-map feature in most dungeons, which makes navigating and backtracking a nightmare. And even when the game does depart from its typical dungeon formula, it’s nothing to write home about. Babel Tower may be unique from most of the game’s other fair due to its focus on platforming, but because of the game’s restrictive camera angles and awkward jumping momentum, it’s easily one of the most frustrating areas in the game. Xenogears was not designed for platforming to be a central mechanic, and it shows.
Also, while I never had to grind for levels, in the final few areas of the game I found myself going through a bunch of overworld encounters in order to get new deathblows. A lot of this was admittedly due to my poor management earlier on in the game, but that doesn’t change the fact that grinding for these moves is an utterly tedious process. I recommend obtaining these moves throughout regular encounters and dungeons as early as possible, since they will definitely help in boss fights. Still, I wish the designers had thought the system through a bit more and made it easier to gain deathblows naturally over time, rather than force players to grind for them constantly throughout the game.
Now here’s the part where I admit that I haven’t been entirely fair to Xenogears. As the title of this post suggest, I’ve only covered the content of the first disc, and as such there are things in the coming hours which could totally change my opinion on the whole experience. However, considering the second disc’s infamous reputation and the fact that I’m forty hours into the damn thing, I’m not confident that that will be the case. That being said, there is a reason I split this into two parts, and I hope that the second disc can help expand my thoughts on the game while I delve into some of the game’s more interesting thematic elements.
At the end of the day though, I have to admit that I struggle with Xenogears. For a game with so much talent behind it, I can only seem to find the flaws in it; which is weird considering I love Chrono Cross! Both games are very philosophically based, but whereas one made me cry and contemplate my life, the other just seems to bother me on a base level. Something about Xenogears rubs me the wrong way. I understand that it’s not very satisfying to say something like that without a proper explanation, but it’s the honest truth.
Throughout this first disc, many of my favorite sections weren’t the bits of action, or its references to Nietzsche and the Old Testament, but the moments of quiet between the storm. The scenes where the game stopped being so dramatic and let the inner struggles of the cast speak for themselves. Watching the sea ebbs back and forth as Fei and Elly reveal their inner demons to each other, or Maison and Sigurd telling Fei about Bart’s real motivations. Those, to me anyways, were the truly beautiful set pieces. The parts where the game was human and let the cast expand the themes via their development, rather than through philosophy or the grandiosity of the plot itself.
Maybe I’m crazy, or maybe I’m just not a fan of this game’s particular brand of storytelling. Either way, I’ll just have to see how I answer those initial questions once I finally finish this thing.