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Review: Xenogears (zero stars)

September 3, 2011

(This is a first draft, but I’ve got most of the ideas I want down)

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. 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.

NOTE: I make no attempt at avoiding spoilers, so read at your own risk.

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.

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.

But then, as we go along, the plot keeps adding on complications. Citan actually works for the Emperor of Solaris; Grahf is actually the continual personality of Lacan 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 OH MY GOD MAKE IT STOP. Suddenly, you’ve lost all your JRPG bearings and you just want to cry in a room somewhere, honestly.

Man, those first 50 hours were captivating. Takahashi REALLY 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. If you have to explain this much in storytelling, you are doing something wrong. If the ideas are naturally linked to the narrative, they are SHOWN rather than TOLD.

It’s 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 24 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? Yeah, that’s Takahashi’s sense of the world.

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 ABSOLUTELY 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.

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 (ZOHAR). 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 (http://xenoverse.xenotensei.com/) 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.

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