Xenogears came to me unexpectedly when my gaming experiences weren’t nearly as robust as they needed to be. RPGs were still a relatively new thing to me at the time and I was only just starting to understand what they were all about. Looking back on it now, Xenogears is probably the last thing that I ever should’ve considered playing. I seek out this type of alternative experience now but back then I was just looking for the closest thing to what I already knew, Final Fantasy. What a blessing in disguise.
Truthfully, I never would’ve found it at all if it wasn’t for big Mike on the bus home from eighth grade. One day he started poppin’ off about some crazy RPG he just had finished called “Zenno-gears”. Other than the name and a stubborn proclamation that Zennogears was easily the Best RPG Ever Made he wasn’t providing a lot of meaty details. Intrigued upon his attempt to lend me the game I optimistically obliged…which ended up as maybe the best decision ever.
Remember the old days of “Non Final Fantasy Squaresoft RPGs Made By Non Final Fantasy Designers That Don’t Get Hardly Enough Credit”? They used to be pretty damn good. Vagrant Story, Chrono Cross…things of that nature. While you could always depend on Final Fantasy to provide a solid experience, these other games were less chained to convention. Back then some serious designers took part in what could be described as obscure projects that were really anything but. When you’re SquareSoft, though, and you’ve already got your breadwinner it isn’t necessary to market anything else you’re doing. We still get awkward off brand Square Enix RPGs (Drakengard, Nier) but they aren’t quite what they used to be during those Golden Years.
Xenogears was a product of this PS1 role playing renaissance. Released in 1998 and riding the heels of the enormously successful Final Fantasy VII, Tetsuya Takahashi’s religiously saturated RPG was not exactly center stage in the popular sphere. People found it, of course, like my friend on the bus did. But I wouldn’t say that it was even near the forefront of an already massive catalog of PlayStation RPGs. The last thing I want to do when I talk about this game is stubbornly proclaim that Xenogears should’ve been a huge hit, or even that a few more people had played it. The game is just genuinely not made for the general gaming public. Time to sound like an elitist asshole! A lot of people don’t have the capacity to appreciate Xenogears. Yeah, I don’t go there often but there’s no better way to phrase it.
Takahashi and crew were not making a Final Fantasy. This simple fact allowed these developers to bend the boundaries of convention a bit. It provided them an arena to express their creativity more freely, and it shows. The battle system was innovative and complex. The story was brutally mature in concept, not only in its imagery but in its references and emotional themes as well. Both the music and art were beyond brilliant and the character sprites rendered over the fully 3d world were beautiful. You know, there was a lot going on in this obscure RPG from 1998 that I would have loved to see again at some point but non of it really seemed to stick with anyone other than its fans.
|Xenogears’ Battle System|
I can honestly say that Xenogears’ battle system has remained pretty damn unique. Nothing before it and certainly nothing that followed seemed to even acknowledge that someone had created a turn-based system in an RPG that was actually fun. Not only were you expected to understand classic RPG mechanics to succeed but you had to wrap your brain around a borderline Street Fighter-esque button combo input. God forbid one of those wacky JRPGs incorporate some sort of interaction for once. While the standbys of ‘Magic’ (Arcane or Ether) and ‘Defend’ were ever present the ‘Attack’ option was where the real innovation came through.
In essence Xenogears presented a system that recognized a series of button presses as combos that would eventually lead your character to perform a finishing move. X, Square and Triangle were all assigned basic (but different) attacks that when pressed in certain orders would allow you to perform a special deathblow attack. While, for example, seven triangles in a row wouldn’t perform a combo you’d still hit the enemy seven times. Fun, but I always thought the real beauty of the system was actually learning the deathblows.
If you happened to perform a triangle, triangle, X enough times (provided that’s a recognized combo) your character learned that combination and from that point on performs a specific deathblow every time you enter it. Once a deathblow for a combination is learned you can use it endlessly or move onto spamming the next unlearned combination. What ends up happening is that you spend most of your random battles trying to learn new deathblows while using the ones you already have on bosses and/or tough fights. This system performs miracles in terms of making the grind less boring and creating a level of immersion that is damn near impossible with most other RPGs. It was completely unprecedented for a player to feel like they had that much control over their party member actions or development, even if it was just a fancy elaboration on a simple theme.
Perhaps right now you feel that what I just tried (in vain) to explain is a little complex. It is…and I’ve found it extremely demoralizing trying to puzzle out even the simplest pieces of this madness for mass consumption. To my sorrow I should also do my best to explain Xenogears’ STORY in a WAY THAT MAKES SENSE, maybe to a reader who HAS NEVER HEARD OF OR PLAYED THIS GAME. Luckily, if you break down all of the complicated twists and turns you’ll find that behind all of the perceived insanity is a simple tale of love, or rather, lost love. It’s a tragic narrative that boils down to a single moment when two men reacted differently to losing the same woman.
Then it gets complicated…Krelian and Lacan begin to weave a history for Fei and company when they react to the tragic sacrifice Sophia makes in order to save many lives during a war, including Lacan’s. His bitterness towards himself for being too weak save her (or himself) drove him nearly mad and he adopted the persona of Grahf, the Seeker of Power. He then sought to destroy God himself and the two entities involved in the conflict that took his true love’s life. Fei’s encounters with Grahf slowly unfurl the twisted tale of that singular tragic event while simultaneously revealing pieces of Fei’s past in the process. How these two characters relate in the end is absurd, intense and beautiful.
Krelian on the other hand, a dear friend of Sophia, took the loss differently. Devastated by her sacrifice, Krelian declared that were there truly a God watching over them Sophia would never have been put in a position to sacrifice herself. That someone as kind and good as her would be protected. From that moment on Krelian set out to fill the vacancy in heaven he knew existed, to create God with his own hands. Sadly, ‘creating God’ required vile acts that split Krelian’s soul asunder. What remains of this extremely complex character by the climax of our story is difficult to describe.
On top of that there are wonderful character elaborations here that most game creators don’t even have the capacity or nuance to understand. For instance, Lacan was a painter whose feelings grew for Sophia while he worked on her portrait. As time went on and the painting neared completion he slowed down fearing the day he would complete it, that sad day he would no longer be able to spend hours examining her beauty and relaying it to canvas. He ends up not actually finishing because the war comes and steals her away…an even worse fate.
This is about as simple as it gets with Xenogears, because almost everything else is layered upon that concept…that relationship between these characters. I’ve found that my interpretation of the story is at its most powerful when I begin to relate every event to that core idea. Yeah there’s crazy shit about religion, lost civilizations, giant robots, Id (most ridiculous and amazing character storyline ever), reincarnation even…but the entire game is anchored by the tragedy of Sophia’s sacrifice and the destruction it wrought on two important characters. And it is powerful. When you can finally get to a place with Xenogears where you understand all of the moving parts the depth of the themes really start to shine brilliantly. In fact, it’s only through two complete playthroughs and a shit ton of reading Perfect Works translations that I can even give a base account of what the hell is even going on.
Xenogears’ story requires an investment and dedication. Things are not explained to you in any sort of digestible manner, you’re expected to put the time in. Were the personal rewards not as robust as they are for doing so it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. But it is. Never have I encountered in any medium a saga so affecting, so worth it. As devoted as I am to my Shepard and the reaper invasion or as nostalgic as I am about the Final Fantasy series, none of them carry nearly as much weight or hit me as hard as Xenogears does. It’s both emotionally and physically devastating to play the whole way through but in the end you feel as though you’ve done more than just played a simple video game. This is also the reason I find myself slow to recommend Xenogears to any but the most sincere and understanding people.
And the people that do find the courage to commit to this game? They discover a story filled with maturity that could really only resonate with an adult, a person who has actually experienced shit in their life. I think Xenogears is the only video game I have ever seen that actually depicts the serious love interests laying in a bed naked having just slept together (and not in that very BioWare overt fan service way). Or that an extremely manipulative relationship between two other characters would take them to the same place with a much different tone. Silly, that a game with a love story might actually relay that intensely personal ‘thing’ that every single human being on the face of the earth can identify with: physical attraction, sexual intimacy and taking a relationship to the next level. I would call it ballsy in any other game but these sequences fit the tone perfectly, implemented in a way not to shock the player (but it is kind of shocking anyway), but to make the characters and situation seem all the more realistic or identifiable.
Yasunori Mitsuda is Xenogears’ composer and it is some of the finest work I’ve ever heard. In fact, I would have a hard time describing Xenogears as ‘realistic’ and ‘identifiable’ were it not for its soundtrack. If only songs like these were playing somewhere in the distance in our real lives when epic things happened. Finding anything that compares to this OST is really hard for me, and I’ve tried. It’s true that I believe Chrono Cross to have the best music in video games and I will stand by that statement, but Xenogears is special. I’m hesitant to even list it by comparison because it’s difficult for me to qualify just exactly what it does. There are honest to god moments in my daily life where a song like “The Treasure Which Cannot be Stolen” will play on random and I will stop what I’m doing because I have to concentrate on not shedding tears in front of my computer screen. There is a beauty in this soundtrack that very few other things in this world have achieved, a very pure and emotional sentiment that makes you feel as though Mitsuda himself was moved during its creation.
The entire score is extremely heavy, or powerful. It’s a tone that compliments Xenogears perfectly, a game that is itself very serious and thought provoking. Tracks like “The One who is Torn Apart” (Id’s theme) express something through subtlety that is hard to find anywhere but here, and it’s something I struggle to describe…so I won’t waste my time.
These songs are two examples from a score that honestly doesn’t have a sour track in it. While you may find the quantity to be somewhat lacking considering the size of the game, each song has an important quality that does nothing but elevate Xenogears every moment a tune can be heard.
I should be honest, this has been my most difficult game review to write on this blog. Xenogears really means a lot to me, not only for the way it introduced me to the idea of mature themes in an entertainment medium before I had really developed a taste for it, but kinda just for being what it is. Not even Takahashi’s own works after Xenogears come anywhere near it. Every time I play the game I learn something new and my adoration grows, the experience and memory becomes more potent. This, to me, is the definition of a masterpiece. A vision. Something that words simply just cannot describe. Truly one of the best games ever made…Mike was right, even if he couldn’t tell me why.
Reading back over this I’ve found, not surprisingly, that I haven’t written much at all about the game itself. Usually when I do these things it’s more of a stream of consciousness effort than a structured outline of points. I knew Xenogears was going to put me in a weird place for that reason. When I think about the game the things that come to mind aren’t the menus or the pacing…I don’t even really consider the wonky delivery of the narrative. Playing this game isn’t always fun, it’s just not. There are obvious imperfections, I’m not trying to hide that. In fact, many aspects of this game could be called less than average. The gear battling is not nearly as robust, fun or interesting as the regular. The second disc is enough to make a gamer who’s used to Final Fantasy polish throw his copy out the window. All I have to do, though, to remind myself that this game is special is remember how hard I fought back the tears when I heard the music box version of “Small Two of Pieces” play in Citan’s backyard hut near the beginning of the game.
Or think of the phrase Fei’s Kim.
Or ponder the tragedy that is Ramsus.
Or to know that I’ve experienced something not meant to simply sell the most copies or spawn the most sequels. That I walked down a path that was someone’s vision and not just a yearly corporate creation advertised in GameStop’s window. Not only is Xenogears one of a kind, it very well could be described as the last of it.