Review: Xenogears (* star)

TL;DR – Xenogears is a plot focused game; if the plot doesn’t work, than neither does the game. That is unforunately the case here. Though having an excellent plot in its first disc, literally fall apart in the second due to being extremely incomplete. What remains doesn’t inspire; the battle system and Gears remain diversions and unnecessary padding at best. Only the soundtrack and graphics prevent the experience from falling in on itself.

(this is a reprint and revised proof of an earlier review I wrote; apologies if you’re read it before, but it’s much more substantive now)

No game has disappointed me more than Xenogears.

I may have been playing it 13 years or so after its original release, but I think having the “Squaresoft” logo on its cover during the Playstation era seals the deal for most people. I was one of those bright eyed youngins once. Square-Enix, however, has become nothing but a soulless collection of zipper pushers and JRPG tropes reused again and again. It’s a sad fate for a company that was the leader of the video game world, latching onto the zeitgeist for a short period in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, to be absolutely critical is simply the more honest approach; I cannot let the rose-colored glasses taint my view of the game, and so I must see it in the best possible light.

Xenogears, itself, is an odd beast; its story, theme, and setting were created by none other than Tetsuya Takahashi, who at the time was working for Squaresoft. He was, furthermore, originally drafting a story fit for the next Final Fantasy game (what would eventually become Final Fantasy VII). However, the Squaresoft executives, finding the scenario writer’s imagination too dark and inaccessible for the Final Fantasy moniker, instead decided to give Takahashi full control over his own original game. Perhaps it was a mistake to give the man so much power, perhaps not.

With that stroke of luck, Takahashi created the game we now know as Xenogears, a crazy mishmash of game ideas and pseudo-philosophy cooked into a giant melting pot of genre stereotypes, high school philosophical musings, and boring combat. Unlike, say, a Final Fantasy game, it doesn’t feel like the director had a specific focus in mind; instead, whatever ideas came to mind ended up in the game. It’s a wonder that it was even released, given the state it is in (but I’ll save that for later).

NOTE: I make no attempt at avoiding spoilers, so read at your own risk. The statute of limitations on the plot points of a fourteen year old game expired, I think.

No discussion of the game could be made without touching that both totally gorgeous, and absolutely awful, plot. We begin with protagonist Fei Fong Wong, who has amnesia (trope number 1 identified) and can’t remember his past. He was found, three years ago, at Lahan, a small village located in the country of Aveh, which is at war with Kislev (dropped off by his father’s friend, Wiseman!). So, he ends up destroying the village due to a mysterious power, and off we go on an adventure to find out why BAD THINGS HAPPEN. Same old, same old, right? Every person who’s ever played  a JRPG rolled their eyes at the first few hours of this epic journey.

I mean, honestly, the premise sounds totally generic, right? And it is, for a while. You meet a bunch of characters like Citan, wise old doctor, and Bart, thief with a heart of gold who also doubles as a king when the story requires. Hey, look, Elly, a reluctant female protagonist who must choose between her country and what her heart tells her! And some kind of evil villain, Grahf, who says mysterious things about power and stuff! I mean, if we could get any more generic, we’d be inside an American Eagle store in a mall somewhere. However, it’s that kind of “appearance” that allows the game to completely smack you upside the head.

As we go along, the plot keeps adding on complications. Citan actually works for the Emperor of Solaris, our main foe; Grahf is actually the continual personality of Lacan (i.e., Fei, who is Lacan, who is Fei – very confusing) possessing the bodies of other people; humans only have 10,000 years of history because that’s when they dropped onto this planet; God wants to kill everybody, a complete inversion of the Judeo-Christian story. Angels are everywhere; people inherit memories through DNA, there’s an Adam and Eve thing somewhere, prototype people, mysterious entities from different dimensions that can destroy dimensions, multiple personality disorder therapy in real time, and just about any other hair-brained idea you could imagine. Suddenly, you’ve lost all your JRPG bearings and you just want to cry in a room somewhere, honestly. There’s so much plot thrown at the player every other moment that it’s amazing you can keep up with it all.

If there’s one element that Xenogears totally nails, it’s pacing. The first disc’s 50 hours (that’s not a joke) are captivating. They mete out just enough information to intrigue, but not enough to make things too obvious. It knows when to show, and definitely knows when to tell. If the perennial problem of fantasy/sci-fi fiction consists in its need for expository dialogue, then Xenogears makes this effortless. Perhaps I should give the translators some credit – I was surprised to find a game of this time as engaging as it was, especially given Xenogears’ predilection for engorging every single scene with plot. If it works, it works: I can say that with complete confidence.

Takahashi knows how to get a story going. Let’s say the character development of Disc 1, as I will call it, works incredibly well because we spend a great deal of time with a few of them, especially Fei, Citan, and Elly. They are, quite honestly, the only party members that have a real bearing on the main narrative, and even then Citan drops out somewhere along the way. The game starts out slow; for about 20 hours, you are basically seeing character interaction at various places, learning about the universe itself rather than the people you control. But that’s a good thing; you want to know these characters so that we care for the conflict that follows. All great JRPGs do this, even the early ones (FFIV’s Cecil, Rosa, Kain, etc). However, like the works of J. J. Abrams, a great premise does not guarantee a great story (see: Lost, and its utterly inexplicable ending which explains nothing).

And that, for all its novelty, is a big problem with Xenogears: the world, and its metaphysics, ultimately trump the personalities who actually experience these things. Once we reach Disc 2, certainly, we find that Fei and Elly retain the memories of their ancestors, thus making their identities a moot point to the grand metaphysical conflict taking place. Grahf, Miang, Krelian, and Kahr Ramsus are merely copies or clones of other people who originally exist, or simply devices. Is the universe fascinating? Of course, absolutely. However, the format of a JRPG does not fit the material at all. Try making Lord of the Rings into a JRPG, and you’ll see what I mean (the fact that the game is “Episode V” scares me, and even the release of that Japan only book describing the other episodes makes that clear). So for all that, I no longer care about the protagonists at all, but I do want to see what happens to the universe. There’s no emotional connection, and for an Role-Playing Game with a Story, that’s simply unacceptable; how can I care what’s going on if I don’t care about who I am playing?

Furthermore, Takahashi simply doesn’t know what he wants with the material. He takes the MOST surface-level ideas of two psychologists and one philosopher, and somehow constructs a message entirely antithetical to the philosopher, and perhaps disingenuous to the psychologists. Those, of course, are Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung. In order, he take the “God is dead”, Id-Ego-SuperEgo, and collective unconscious into an amorphous mold, creating no message at all in the process. What does it all mean, really? You can’t just take Nietzsche out of context; you need to understand why he said these things. He believed himself as one of the new “free spirits” of humanity, an “Ubermensch” who has risen above the petty quarrels of humanity and conquers. Maybe Takahashi read a bit too much Zarathustra (it’s a metaphor, not a literal reading), but that’s not Nietzsche’s point at all; it’s a dumbing down. As for Freud and Jung, Takahashi toys with these ideas and makes them slightly incoherent.

Of course, I would, by default, reject Takahashi’s conclusion, but I’ve heard all these things before. They don’t phase me; they speak to the modern construction of an adolescent mind (especially in the United States), who think they know everything and can solve every problem. Naturally, it is the place of young people to reject the flaws of their predecessors and become better human beings, but all too often this results in a complete rejection of the previous generation simply by default. That is wrong; it’s even one of the Ten Commandments, for goodness sake. As well, it’s quoted in Ephesians 6:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth.  Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Of course, that doesn’t preclude Jesus in Matthew 10:37, either:

37 “ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.

To me, however, the point is obvious: not everything your parents did is wrong. Independence does not equate to “opposite day”; it’s actually thinking about why you believe what you believe. That’s not something colleges teach you (contrary to popular belief, they’re more than likely to indoctrinate). This is not a narrative of “independence”, but self-deception. Pseudo-profundity can sound like the real thing to a teenager, and that’s what makes it so dangerous unless one’s parents have given them the tools to discern various entertainment mediums.

Xenogears, in that sense, portrays the worst excesses of such thought processes. If you have to explain this much in storytelling, you are doing something wrong. They’re not naturally integrated into the narrative; the talky Disc 2 loads this pseud0-meaningful dialogue at you with increasing regularity – it’s annoying rather than interesting, and preachy to boot. Look everyone, undergraduate philosophy at its best: pretentious, self-important, and egoistic. It says “Yeah, I know the solution to everything”, and yet tells me nothing. I am 25 years old; I know the world is more complicated than that of a video game. If you have ever watched Little Miss Sunshine, remember the kid with the Nietzsche posters in his room? That’s Takahashi’s sense of the world  when he created this game.

To state it most clearly in the terms of Xenogears, the message the game wants me to see is “we are human beings, and we should get along, even though we have flaws, and we don’t need God to do that.” But really, this message is in no way tied to the distinct characteristics and evolving plot of the universe at all. Instead, the game increasingly becomes preachy and pretentious in tone, reaching a high point with the last few hours of the game. As a narrative, it fails to reach a message because of its detachment from the characters who experience it. Unlike, let’s say, Final Fantasy VII, whose message of “cherish life” was integrated in the narrative of Cloud and Mako/Lifestream energy, it just doesn’t work here. Takahashi has too many ideas, and not enough focus to channel them.

This lack of focus exposes many other flaws as well. Takahashi made a great first half…and then suddenly the dreaded Disc becomes less a game and more an interactive novel where you get to press the save button every once and a while. Obviously, their resources were squandered on the first “half” of a story that needed much more time. I am faulting the developers on this one; it could have been completed in time, but they chose otherwise. I finished the game in 60 hours, 50 for the first disc and 10 for the latter. One could call that a pretty large discrepancy.

Basically, whatever resources they had left was cobbled into a rushed 10 hours experience. It should have been left for a sequel, but it just doesn’t work. Anima Dungeon 1 and 2 just make me laugh with their titles – seriously, it’s incomplete. Check out the World Map on Disc 2, and everything from Disc 1 is still there, even though they said the world was destroyed; you just can’t enter them. Honestly, it’s just lazy. They had the resources, and they messed up, simple as that. Whatever was complete was shipped out the door.

Even so, I’ve not talked about the “game” portion at all. To put it bluntly, the battle system is terrible. Again, Final Fantasy VII does this right; an actual portion of the plot, Materia, is heavily used in EVERY SINGLE battle in the game; it’s even a plot point, for God’s sake. Xenogears, on the other hand, has gears…that are, really, irrelevant to the plot. The thing in the TITLE really is a side issue at best, and get shoehorned into the game at the last minute. And the battle system fares no better, because it exists as a vehicle to get to the next cutscene. It’s terrifying how boring it all is. You get attacks, and attack combos, which look neat and all, but they all happen to have the exact same function – whichever one requires the most button presses is the best, or costs the most fuel. Plus, enemy variety is extremely lacking; usually, there’s only 3 in every area, and they don’t require much thinking to defeat except what was outlined previously. Xenogears’ battles give you options, to be sure, but no place to use them.

Given this negative criticism, the graphics have aged rather well. The 2/3D mix actually lends itself well to the art style; it certainly looks fine now, though obviously aged. It has fared better than FFVII in that respect, to be sure. I also give kudos to Yasunori Mitsuda’s amazing multipurpose soundtrack; it really makes moments of the game more emotional than, given the story, they have any right to be. Chrono Trigger was simply a generic RPG OST, if a particularly memorable one due to the game it was associated with, but Xenogears shows his Celtic stylings, chanting, and techno influences come into full blossom. It’s even shorter than the CT OST, yet each song, used multiple times, is exactly fitting for each situation.

However, as a game, Xenogears fails; as a plot, it fails. I’m sorry to say, but Xenogears is a failure. The fact that a game captivates you for a while does not diminish the sour taste of its aftermath. All its attempts at posturing and being “more than a game” make it incredibly depressing to play. At times, I just wanted to throttle the creators, and tell them how to make it awesome. Seriously, the ideas behind this are great, but it all amounts to focus. If you want a good game, you need a focused vision (see: Hideki Kamiya, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Shinji Mikami, Daiskue Ishiwatari). Xenogears is a victim of its own creator’s misplaced ambitions, an unfortunate casualty of the “games are art” movement even before it began. And, let me say, any attempts to compare this to literature like Dostoevsky and Tolkein’s works  just BEGS for common sense. It’s not really a game, so much as it is a failed attempt at literature.

Just let me play the game, dude, not your pretentious message.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.