On Xenogears (Development Diaries – Entry 4)

When I have both good and bad things to say about something, I’m never sure which I should lead off with. If I start with the good stuff first, then that all gets forgotten by the time I’m through criticizing things. On the other hand, if I lead off with the bad, to me it seems like I went with the bad stuff first because it’s the main dish, and the good stuff afterwards is lip service to keep the intended audience from thinking I just wanted to bitch about things.

But speaking of intended audiences, there’s a 0.0000001% chance this ever gets read by anyone important, and I’m probably not saying anything anybody hasn’t already said since Xenogears came out twenty (!) years ago, so I guess it really doesn’t matter.

I unintentionally held off on playing Xenogears for years. Not because I thought it was bad or anything, but because it simply never entered into orbit. The only new Squaresoft release I played in fall of 1998 was Parasite Eve; the rest of the time I was busy playing Final Fantasy Tactics or WCW/nWo Revenge or F-Zero X or pretending to be a college student. I had an “oh yeah, I should play that” moment in 2011 or 2012 and got the PSN version of Xenogears for my PSP, but then promptly shelved it for one game or another. And then early in 2018, with a mission to knock things off of my backlog once and for all, I finally got around to it.

So there you go – decades of not playing what people call the greatest JRPG ever, and it was only because I was doing the video game equivalent of forcing myself to eat my vegetables.

I won’t rehash story elements here because it’s already been four months and I’ve already forgotten some of the finer details of the plot. The overall impression I had was that it was probably a lot edgier in 1998 than it is today. A gang of people fighting against an organized religion? If the concept of a Moral Majority had any sway left by the time 1998 rolled around, that has certainly waned even more since then. Without the urgency of modern thought to bolster the narrative, Xenogears’ story falls back to being simply another “rebels vs. empire” story; one in which two of the main characters cross the lines of battle in the name of love, one in which the younger main protagonist has a mentor named Doc, one in which your ship turns into a giant mech called the “Super Dimensional Gear Yggdrasil IV”. That is to say – not terribly original, with a side helping of rampant intellectual property theft.

The real crime in this game is what happens in the second disc. I’m no stranger to visual novels, so the idea of pressing X to read a book masquerading as a video game is nothing new. But when the entire first disc of your game is a forty or fifty hour JRPG experience, and then the second disc is another twenty hours of mashing X and doing half a dungeon here or a boss fight there, something’s seriously wrong. What was wrong in this case was laid out by the director in a Kotaku interview – a story in which a video game being developed by a staff of inexperienced game developers was cut off at the knees by the reality of software development and Squaresoft’s release schedule. The second disc had an entire game’s worth of material crammed into highlight reels and occasional bouts of actual gameplay. That’s a shame.

So what about the gameplay? This in itself is a mixed bag, but it’s mostly good. Xenogears attempts some light platforming in spots, which can get frustrating. There are only so many camera angles to work with, so jumping from one ledge to another sometimes becomes a bigger chore than it needs to be. The battle system is a nice change of pace from the normal menu-driven stuff Squaresoft was mostly known for in the 1990s. Characters start their turns with a bucket of action points for the player to spend however they want – press triangle to spend one point on a light attack that’s all but guaranteed to hit the target, press square to spend two points on a medium attack, or press X to gamble three points on a heavy attack with a greater chance of whiffing. Chaining these moves together in certain combinations unleashes more powerful attacks called Deathblows. You don’t get these for free – Deathblows must be learned over time by taking certain actions a certain number of times. This feature isn’t very well documented in the game; aside from some cryptic progress bars buried in the menu and a vague directive to go out and experiment, I had no clue what I was doing and had to consult the internet for help.

The one aspect of the game I can’t find anything to complain about is the music. The soundtrack is equal parts grandiose, mysterious, and commanding of your attention. Songs like The Wind is Calling, Shevat of the Azure Sky demand replays just so you can more fully digest everything that’s going on, and The One Who Bares Fangs at God (again, I’m sure this would have been more impactful of a song title twenty years ago) calls out as a really unique spin on a final boss theme. Composer Yasunori Mitsuda really had a run going in the 1990s. Between Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, and Chrono Cross – if your favorite band put out three albums in five years that were that well received, or your favorite sports team won the championship three times in five years, you’d call it their golden age.

Overall, in the face of astronomical expectations based on decades of hype, I found myself leaving the Xenogears experience not overwhelmed, but also not underwhelmed. I think I was just whelmed. The story was only okay, the gameplay was mostly okay but occasionally annoying, the overall delivery of the game as a complete package was a 50/50 situation. At least the soundtrack gets played regularly when I need music to listen to. I think I expected to be blown away by this game the same way I was blown away by contemporary Final Fantasy games. Not only was I not blown away, the hype caused the flaws to stand out even more than they probably would have otherwise.

Sometimes creative works of art are worthy of the “flawed masterpiece” moniker. Final Fantasy VII might be one – great game, sloppy translation. Or how about Persona 3 – the storytelling and pacing of the game were fantastic, but wow, your computer-controlled allies were stupid. Xenogears doesn’t really fit the mold. It does one thing well, and the rest only kind of okay or worse than okay. 3/5.

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