A Rushed Apotheosis
If there’s one thing most JRPG fans remember Xenogears for, it’s the game’s infamous second disc. When a critical discussion of this game comes up, the second disc will usually be a talking point. Going into this thing, I knew that it was likely going to be a messy, somewhat rushed experience, and while my predictions were correct, I didn’t think it would be this bad.
The second disc of Xenogears knocked the wind out of me, and not in a good way. For every moment of beautiful storytelling on this thing, there’s a boring info dump, forced gameplay, or sometimes both back to back. Playing through it made me actively miss the first disc, which is amazing considering I wasn’t even really a fan of that one to begin with. And yet by the end of the game’s credits, I was exhausted and burnt out by the game’s squandered potential.
Because in a weird way, what frustrated me the most about this disc were the moments that made me want to love it. So many aspects of the story here blew me away from a conceptual standpoint, and almost made me feel attached to the story in a way the game’s first 40 hours had failed to accomplish. From the flashbacks to Fei and Elly’s past lives, to Fei’s confrontation with Id in his own psyche, there were times where I was amazed by Xenogear’s themes and ideas. But in the end, those sequences were only fleeting glimpses at what could have been a great second half. Instead what we actually got was a condensed fifteen hour version of that with terrible pacing and some questionable storytelling decisions.
Look, I think everyone can agree that the worst parts of this disc are the hilariously obvious exposition dumps. At first when I started up the disc, I kind of enjoyed the change in style. The opening moments with Fei and Elly reliving the same scene from their past life was visually striking, and acted as a nice cooldown from the previous bits of action at the end of disc one. But by the fifth or so time they used the sitting in a chair visual, I had grown weary of it. It was too blunt, reducing almost every story beat to a slideshow and making most of the gameplay segments feel incredibly disjointed as a result.
For a while, the reasons behind this drastic change in the game’s story presentation weren’t clear. Some thought it was for budgeting reasons, but recently director Tetsuya Takahashi finally cleared everything up in an interview with Kotaku. To paraphrase, since the staff was made mostly out of new developers and Squaresoft had a set two year development time for each project, the second disc’s style was made as a concession in order to complete the game on time. Some executives suggested ending the game after the invasion of Solaris on disc one, but Takahashi adamantly refused, believing the story would be less satisfying without the planned story content on disc two.
Ultimately, in spite of my grievances, I’d have to agree. Ending the story with Fei and Elly running away from their problems wouldn’t be very satisfying, and a lot of the reveals on the second disc completely recontextualize certain aspects of the story. Plus, even with the many reveals during the invasion of Solaris, there would have been a ton of questions left unanswered. It would have felt like sequel bait.
However, while I can agree with Takahashi’s decision on an artistic level, the overall effect this disc’s rushed nature will have on modern day players is negative. Back in the day I think Xenogears got away with it due to its brazen content; there just wasn’t a lot like it. But today, there’s too many issues with the second disc to make it something enjoyable to play through.
I mean from a gameplay standpoint, the dungeons and bosses here are easily some of the worst in the entire game. While the combat still clicks for the most part, fights feel disconnected from the story, and the few dungeons you’re actually allowed to explore feature very little treasure and a lot more hallways. It’s like to make up for their lack of time, the designers decided to make navigating these places even more complicated and tedious. You can have the greatest writing in the world, but if your gameplay isn’t enjoyable enough to keep players going, well then you’re dead in the water as far as I’m concerned.
Still, although I found myself struggling with the experience of watching and playing through these final hours of content, I have to admit that I finally began to understand why so many people look up to this game’s story. When it comes to symbolism and general thematic content, Xenogears is the densest JRPG I’ve played. The references to gnosticism and the work of psychologists like Sigmund Freud here are a bit overwhelming, to the point where I’m still mulling over a lot of it. From the way Fei negatively siphons off his darker memories in order to help him manage his trauma, to the naming of plot critical bosses and places like Zohar and Urobolus, Xenogears isn’t playing when it comes to its research and inspirations. There may be a few questionable points here and there (I’m not expert on it, but I wouldn’t say this game is a very accurate or respectful portrayal of dissociative identity disorder), but for the most part the game makes surprisingly effective use of its philosophical ideas in order to enhance the story’s drama and character conflicts.
While the game may still be a typical JRPG narrative about fate and destiny at its core, it’s also about self-identity, state religion, and so much more. I feel like a lot of people could misinterpret this game as anti-religion with all its references to destroying God and such, but in reality I think the text is more anti-state and anti-blind faith. Like Final Fantasy X, the game goes out of its way to show that religion can and does help people. The Nisan sect helps people all throughout this second disc, and although Ethos was clearly an evil organization, one could argue it helped orphans like Billy find stability in life (even though they were also often the ones who caused that instability). In reality, Xenogears is more concerned about people ignoring the atrocities committed by religious organizations in the name of divine power, and encourages people to act on their own free will.
The final confrontation between Fei and Krelian is a brilliant encapsulation of this, featuring a lot of back and forth about what is truly good for humanity. It’s a little blunt, but like the post final boss scene in Chrono Cross, I found it touching in its directness.
In fact, can I say how surprised I was by how decent of a villain Krelian ended up being? For a good seventy five percent of this disc, I was afraid he was going to end up being a stock evil guy with no real motivations, but the flashbacks to his and Lacan’s past do a lot to make him sympathetic. Krelian isn’t just some monster who just wants to revive God and destroy the world for no reason, he’s a broken man who’s given up and thinks that creating a divine power will solve all his problems. If there’s one thing I can give Xenogears credit for, it’s that it always managed to subvert my expectations.
Now let’s get back to the main question I posed in my previous post: Does this game hold up?
Well, if I had to be honest, I think the answer is no. Xenogears is by no means a truly terrible game. The first disc is pretty alright all things considered, and the story here is too intricate to dismiss entirely. Hell, I just gushed about certain aspects of the game’s plot! But despite my compliments toward the game, I can’t in good confidence recommend it to anyone, even for the sake of intellectual curiosity.
There were too many moments that ruined it for me, too many frustrating gameplay set pieces, and too many unsuccessful scenes of attempted pathos. The second disc really is the main culprit here. If the game were as good as the first disc across its entire runtime, then at least I would be willing to cut it some slack, but as a complete experience Xenogears is a remarkably lopsided creation.
And frankly, the characters here are still a major weak point. The trend of ignoring the cast of side characters continues in this disc, and while I understand why they did that in this case, it doesn’t excuse their botched story arcs. Sure Krelian and Ramsus get some more development, and Fei becomes a little more interesting, but for the most part I found myself distant from most of the cast.
Of course, it doesn’t help that my favorite character Elly gets the crap end of the stick during these final fifteen hours. After showcasing a strong personality and great development throughout a majority of the game, this final disc tries to up the ante on her appeal as a love interest. This results in a lot of scenes that had me shouting at the screen, whether it was Fei telling her to stay of battle because she was too sensitive, or the speeches she had about her following a “woman’s perogative,” I couldn’t help but hate the way the game treated her like some sort of stereotypical maiden. Now I’m not saying Elly can’t be in love or try to save Fei, but the way the game portrays her love as just something natural for all women is utterly stupid. Worst of all they eventually completely cast her to the side, making her a damsel in distress during the game’s climactic battle. Way to make use of one your few playable female characters Takahashi!
Xenogears may be a sprawling, ambitious, and occasionally beautiful title, but that doesn’t excuse its blatant flaws and failures. This isn’t to say you can’t like the game, or that it’s somehow the worst thing ever made. I know there are people out there who still love this game, and that some may be able to find joy in it today. But in my opinion, sometimes the pain isn’t worth it. Even if Xenogears is considered a classic, and even if the game features some impressive thematic ideas, sitting through 55 hours of a game like this just isn’t very rewarding.
I don’t regret playing Xenogears. As much as I may be complaining, there were some moments in there that I’ll never forget. However, that’s all they were. Mere moments. And realistically, you can find better ones in less frustrating media.