Review by SephKatana

Reviewed: 08/27/12

You can't be perfect. But you can try.

Oh boy, Xenogears. It was the most polarizing RPG ever made, when it came out. You either loved it or hated it. Well, I loved it. And let me tell you, I had no trouble saying so in the heady days of message board flame wars! The gorgeous music, the confusing plot, the self-important symbolism -- I loved it all.

But then a funny thing happened. I didn't really play it much since then -- it's a long game, so it's not the sort of thing you can blow through in a few days. Finally, about two or three years ago (i.e. about 10 years after it first came out), I replayed it.

And...well, I loved it again. But for a completely different set of reasons! And this is where things start getting kind of interesting.

Coming back to the game 10 years later, I saw that a lot of that self-important symbolism really was pretty silly. Xenogears is an easy game to laugh at. If you're looking for reasons to mock it, you won't have any trouble. It's almost like the game wants to make it easy for you. It's got giant robots, magical girls, evil priests, and a talking pink rat growing to gigantic size while heroic music plays in the background.

Even that's not the worst of it. One can easily forgive a few silly scenes. But the entire script is awkwardly translated (and the text advances slowly). Furthermore, in any given scene, the writers always go for the plot device that seems the most "cool," regardless of how well it fits into the story. They have no restraint. They came up with the idea to use multiple personalities from Freudian psychology as the basis for a key plot twist. Now, to be honest, this idea was pretty new for an RPG in 1998, and it worked reasonably well, building up the mystery from the early parts of the game and waiting until the very end to deliver the payoff. But when the final multiple-personality revelation comes, this wasn't enough -- the writers had to insert a SECOND dissociative-personality-disorder plot-twist which actually contradicted one of their other key ideas about reincarnation. Plus one character's mother was possessed by another reincarnating being, except she sort of broke free with her last ounce of strength, and shielded her child from some crazy energy wave, or something. The writers were creative, but they were really immature -- most of their knowledge of philosophy came second-hand from manga and giant robot anime. It showed.

This kitchen-sink approach shows in every aspect of the game. They had to include voice acting and anime cutscenes, just because everyone was doing it. Even though it was completely unnecessary, as the in-game engine was more than up to the task of handling story sequences. And in any case, the game was so huge that the disc only had space for a small handful of anime scenes. You could go 20 hours before seeing one. Even then, they didn't even bother to do it right, so that the voices and dubbing are quite poor, to the point where they begin to seriously detract from the story.

Yeah, you have to be in a charitable mood -- you have to want to give Xenogears a chance before you start it. But if you do...

The flip side of the game's excessive scope is that it has phenomenal direction. It looks huge. Early on, there's a relatively insignificant cutscene where an airship docks at the Aveh capital, and the Gebler captain comes out to meet the ruling usurper. It only takes a couple of minutes, but the dock and the airship are gigantic. The camera zooms out and pans over the ship from multiple angles as it slowly docks. Never before could a game impress one so much with the size of an environment, with a camera that could give one such a feeling of space. And this is just one room that you don't even visit during gameplay sequences.

The dungeons were also huge. I actually think that the dungeon design was one of the game's great strengths. People complained about it a lot, but to my mind, that just goes to show that people will complain about anything. If the dungeons were small and linear, they'd say the game was too easy. But instead the dungeons were maze-like and confusing, and often difficult. This frequently combines with the directorial flair of the cutscenes to very powerful effect. One of the most exhausting sequences in the game is the sewer dungeon in Nortune. It has a very confusing layout and is full of tough enemies, with an especially horrific boss at the end. As you stumble around, occasionally you see cutscenes from the monster's point of view, as it stalks your characters from around the corner. The camera uses short and long shots to create a sense of lurking dread -- unlike most RPGs, you're not coasting through the dungeon, you're really not certain whether you can make it to the end. When it's done, you breathe a sigh of relief, but hey, games are supposed to be challenging and memorable. Xenogears is often surprisingly challenging -- Gear battles require a lot of planning and thinking about which accessories to use (assuming you were able to find them first).

Then there was Babel Tower. Yeah, I'll go ahead and say it -- I love Babel Tower. I think its alleged unfairness was greatly exaggerated. It actually has very few random encounters, as the battles in the second section all occur at fixed points on the map, allowing you to prepare for your jumps when you have to make them. The first section is tougher, but again all you really have to do is proceed carefully, and you can save in between the two parts. Plus, again, there was that feeling of immense size. The first section is essentially one gigantic empty cavern, and you have to gradually climb your way up to the top to the sound of Yasunori Mitsuda's beautiful, foreboding "Omen." The next game to create such enormous deserted environments was Portal, made in 2006 (well, I guess Half-Life 2 had them too, but it felt much more constricted), and even Portal only actually did it in the last stage.

It wasn't just the dungeons. The Nisan Cathedral is another breathtakingly spacious structure, and this time it's just plain beautiful. Everybody remembers the anti-religious elements of Xenogears, but what people often forget is that the game also prominently showed a good religion, in the form of the Nisan sect. The statues of two one-winged angels in the cathedral are lovely -- the one time when the writers truly succeeded in creating a meaningful and original symbol. The room up above where light from a cross-shaped window illuminates the floor in front of an unfinished portrait is a masterpiece of aesthetic design. Not to mention the sense of mystery created when you first see that portrait.

See, Xenogears wasn't always spot-on in the "story," but it was unbelievably brilliant when it came to "mystery." No, I don't mean the fact that the lousy Gazel Ministry guys kept popping up and talking nonsense, I'm talking about pure atmosphere. All RPGs have ancient ruins and powerful relics and so on, but the immense size of the ruins in Xenogears, combined with the direction and the music, actually made you feel like you were venturing forth onto forgotten, forbidden ground, slowly unraveling unknowable ancient secrets. Many scenes in Xenogears are what you might feel if you could actually learn the secret meaning behind all our ancient creation myths, and find out that it was considerably different and much more frightening than you expected. That was Babel Tower -- as you slowly climbed up this unfathomable, inexplicable structure, you gradually saw that it must have been man-made, but that it had somehow been turned on its side. Late in the game, you see the legendary paradise rise slowly from the ocean, but it's not what you might have imagined; the camera pans slowly over its desiccated shape, and when you finally read those rusted letters, connecting all the unexplained mysteries in the game with a single image -- well, basically that is the closest that any RPG is ever going to come to making the player feel an apocalyptic revelation.

That's part of the reason why I still like the infamous Disc 2. I don't like many of the actual plot revelations (see the Freudian discussion earlier), but yes, to some degree, it was effective to see Fei and Elly sitting on that chair and just reflecting, at an unhurried pace. At this point, the story was getting way too big for itself. Huge, unimaginable events were unfolding, and it was somehow effective to meditate on them from this distance. CGI explosions wouldn't have conveyed their magnitude anyway. Sure, it could probably have used more action -- but at the same time, I admire the way the game committed to this idea and just stuck with it. For better or for worse, you can't do that anymore.

The story itself is, as I said, much more of a mixed bag. Replaying the game, I thought that the "cool" parts were the generally the weakest -- Grahf provides three memorable scenes where he confers "the power" upon lesser villains, but other than that he actually contributes nothing to the game except confusion. But the reincarnation idea, by the end of the game, becomes genuinely touching. Like all RPG protagonists, Fei and Elly have to learn to live up to their chosen status. But Fei also experiences visions and memories from thousands of years ago, reinforcing the theme of unlocking the secrets of the past. There's a hidden side quest at the end where you can walk among the ruins of an ancient civilization, and Fei suddenly sees fragments of scenes from that time. This miraculous ability to see into the past, however faintly, while other people can only see an unfinished painting in the present, has a lot of dramatic appeal.

Of course, it would never work as well without Mitsuda's music. Now, the Xenogears soundtrack isn't even his most consistent work (nothing beats Chrono Trigger), and it clearly shows him reaching his limits as a composer. For example, he can't really do battle themes -- he can do an operatic build-up, but he can't do the crescendo. And you can see where he's reusing his old ideas: the Shevat theme is a lot like the Zeal Kingdom theme. And yet, the Xenogears soundtrack contains his best _tracks_. "Omen" is the perfect Mitsuda track, somehow combining both gentleness and dread, while "Fuse" is such a tragic, doom-laden rush that you almost don't notice the awkward, clumsy peak at the end of the build-up. The final boss theme is sublimely meditative and low-key, an inexplicable contrast to the usual orchestral pounding that you expect from the usual RPG final boss theme. And "Knight Of Fire" solves Mitsuda's crescendo problem by completely replacing it with an unintelligible sampled voice (just what is it saying?).

In retrospect, Xenogears was probably a dead end for game design. They just couldn't get any more excessive than this -- even Xenogears already feels self-parodic in a lot of places. But at the same time, as silly as it can get, I have to admire its earnestness. Like all video games, Xenogears was a product, and it was full of cliches and gimmicks -- but it desperately tried to be something more, and that matters. No endless side quests, mini-games, and item-gathering, no smirking pop culture references, no attempts to make you sympathize with "morally complex" protagonists gleefully slaughtering people. Just Fei and the others, on an ancient mountain, looking up at the tomb of the first woman on earth. You know, that's not a bad legacy.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Product Release: Xenogears (US, 10/20/98)

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