(Continued from part 1)
So part of what I hoped to convey by talking about the characters last time was just how massive and convoluted the story of Xenogears is, how it has absolutely no editorial spirit, how it is committed to being this slow-burn ‘serious’ sci-fi epic, but also committed to jamming as many anime set-pieces in the game as possible (there are two boss fights, for instance, that exist solely as homage to Voltron and Macross, respectively).
Which gets to a potential point of contention: this is a really cutscene-heavy game, and I am usually very critical of that.
I certainly am critical of the game’s tendency to put difficult boss fights after long, unskippable cutscenes, but this may be the exception that proves the rule: the writing in most video games, frankly, is not interesting enough to withstand pulling the controls away from me for long periods of time. Xenogears manages to suck me in, not because the writing is sublime, but because it is so, so pulpy in the most eccentric ways.
That said, it is also a game, and there’s a question of whether said story actually gains anything by being in this particular medium. For a long time, one of my criticisms about Xenogears was that it felt more like a frustrated anime than a video game, with a lot of the gameplay being more a concession to the medium than an integral part of the story.
I’ve since changed my mind about that; although Xenogears qua gaming can be a really rocky ride, it could only exist as a game: much of the story’s texture comes from being able to poke around in the world, and all the small details that can only come from an interactive experience. There’s a lot of loving attention to detail here, even if the developers didn’t always have a strong grasp of ‘fun’.
Xenogears is a turn based RPG with attacks and magic and experience points and all the usual stuff – but with a twist! The hand-to-hand combat is designed to have a very 90s shounen anime feel to it, so instead of having one normal attack option, you have three – a weak, moderate and fierce attack – which can be strung together in various combinations. By doing this, characters learn deathblows, which work kinda like fighting game combo moves that you can use. A lot of attention went into animating these, and it’s always a joy to watch your characters pull it off. It has the weird effect of suggesting that everyone in the future is into martial arts, but it looks cool.
Then there are giant robots, called Gears. Xenogears is big on giant robots! Combat in them is very similar to combat on foot (so yes, giant robot kung fu is a thing), except everything you do uses up fuel, and so Gear battles/dungeons tend to be about resource management, which can be a little nerve wracking. But they look cool and have an excellent sense of scale to them.
So when it comes to the combat, I have little to no complaints: it’s often more about being flashy than being strategic, but Chrono Trigger did the exact same thing.
When we turn to dungeon design, things get a little more hairy. For one, Xenogears is unique among turn based RPGs in that the characters can jump – there’s platforming in this game! And random battles. So it’s very easy to have your jump get cancelled by the game throwing you into combat, which can be annoying in the dungeons which are designed to have platforming challenges and hazards.
And a lot of the dungeons are just bland and confusing – you wind up running through a lot of samey, mazelike corridors and rooms. They often feel like their design sensibility is still rooted in the 8-bit 80s area where the challenge comes less through clever design than the game just being very mean and unforgiving to you, making things complicated, but not interesting. This game spends a sizable chunk of its time being a dungeon crawler, but isn’t particularly good at it. It’s clear that the team was far better (and perhaps more interested) in making towns, designing the world, and so forth than they are in that stuff (so perhaps its not surprising that the company that the Xenogears team would go on to found would eventually contribute to Breath of the Wild, the least-dungeony Zelda ever).
Which brings me to the infamous relationship between Xenogears’ two halves. Squaresoft in the 90s had a rule that projects had to be completed within two years – you couldn’t just sink an entire decade on a Final Fantasy title, for instance. Xenogears was ambitious enough that, in its completed form, it would be about twice as long as the average JRPG. There was no way that this would happen, especially given the budget and the team’s relative inexperience. So rather than end the game halfway through the story, a compromise was made: disc one would present the first half completely intact, while disc two would cut a lot of its content in favor of railroading the story to the finish line. Effectively, the game stops being a normal JRPG and becomes something more akin to a visual novel.
A lot of people don’t like this, pining for the completed Xenogears that never was. But I think this is a blessing in disguise. By the time you complete disc one, you’ve played an entire RPGs worth of very flawed game, and there’s just a serious risk of burnout. Disc 2’s more streamlined approach is exactly the break you need, in order to make it through. Indeed this turned out to be such a great strategy that Final Fantasy XV did the same thing years later.
Next time: Themes and stuff