Retro Journal #6: Xenogears

Xenogears
Original Release: October 20th, 1998
PSN Release: February 22nd, 2011
Publisher: Square/Square Electronic Arts
Developer: Square

What Is It? Xenogears is a classic Japanese role-playing game originally released for the PlayStation console in the late 90s. The story chronicles the exploits of a young, reluctant warrior named Fei Fong Wong. The story is heavily saturated with religious themes and sensitive issues about conflict and human nature. The developers took familiar role-playing game concepts from past releases, such as a turn-based battle system, exploring an overworld map, talking with NPC characters, playing through several mini games, and so on. The combat system is structured similar to the venerable Final Fantasy franchise, because of the Active Time Gauge system, which gauges how frequently and when a character can attack.

The game also featured an interesting “Gear” combat system, where characters pilot gigantic humanoid robots. During a time when popular and prolific anime series like Neon Genesis Evangelion were still relatively new for North American players, this game had a unique and interesting hook. Giant robot battles use a similar turn-based combat system. Rather than having one simple “attack” command, however, there is a combo system based around three levels of attacks: light, medium, and heavy. Characters can also unleash special combo attacks, special magic attacks, and so on. Several of the staff involved in the production of this game had a hand in earlier Square masterpieces. The game’s director, Tetsuya Takahashi, has also done work as Executive Director on the now critically-acclaimed Xenoblade Chronicles.

Why Is It Worth Playing? During its release, this game was billed as one of the most innovative, deep, and impressive games of its generation. During the 16-bit SNES era and later during the PlayStation’s lifespan, Squaresoft delivered more classic gems than most companies could ever hope to produce in a lifetime, establishing a pedigree that has lasted to this day. While modern generations of gamers may not share the same sentiment, older RPG enthusiasts know firsthand how well Square has done. The storyline is deep, personal, and complex. Several scenes are told through beautifully done anime cutscenes, during a time when North American audiences were falling in love with Japanese animation. For many, Xenogears proved to be an evolution in linear game storytelling. The memorable characters and scenes helped Xenogears earn its place in the pantheon of classic role-playing games, alongside games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Trigger. Reviews across the board were quite high when the game was originally released, averaging at about 9 out of 10.

My Take: Unlike previous games on my Retro Journal entries, I have actually not played Xenogears until recently. I consider this one of my “failings” as a diehard fan of Japanese role-playing games. I admit to being rather disinterested in most Western RPGs, because I have a soft-spot for classic turn-based adventures. Playing through Xenogears was like discovering a hidden time capsule of greatness and it’s something that has made me question myself thoroughly: just why did I wait so long to play this gem? What else have I been missing?

While it still doesn’t dethrone my personal favorite game of all time (Chrono Trigger), Xenogears is arguably one of the best role-playing games I have played, bar none. I have never played the game during its original release window, so my experiences are completely fresh and my expectations can be compared against more modern, supposedly more “advanced” pieces of software in the same genre. I’ve seen how game developers, game consoles, and game software have changed to accommodate changing tastes and demographics. While Xenogears may tug at some of my retro-loving heartstrings, there’s an undeniable charm to it regardless of nostalgia. A quality product remains so forever and that is self-evident.

The narrative is easily the most identifiable and admirable element to the game. Fei is a very human and a fractured protagonist. Some may scoff at this and simply point to the abundance of “emo” characters featured as leads in (predominantly Japanese) RPGs. I would argue that regardless of preference, this character dynamic is handled exquisitely in Xenogears and I simply wouldn’t have it any other way. Fei’s journey is largely introspective and is one of serious personal growth. It has a strongly spiritual tone. His approach of how to handle violence properly and how to deal with pain and loss has a strong feeling of authenticity to it. Gamers today tend to rebuke the idea that these kinds of leads can be fulfilling, throwing out the term “emo” as a generic insult. For some reason, the gaming public has forgotten that there was a time when having an emotionally complex, disturbed, or depressed characters was a new and exciting idea. For many, their first introduction to this was FFVII’s Cloud, which was an equally admirable effort. The reason for this is that it’s not overdone or forced. The emotion is real.

Fei has a strong desire to help those in need, but struggles with his identity and his sense of purpose. For that reason, his dialog feels far more human and legitimate than some of the more contemporary RPG heroes.  Other characters suffer other deep traumas. Elly struggles with the concept of being bound by a strict code of honor. Not only does she grapple with her fear of being ostracized by her home country and culture, she does so while still trying to listen to her conscience. Spoiling the game should be a crime, so for the sake of keeping things brief, I’ll just say this: even in an era of more advanced storytelling techniques, near photo-realistic visuals and motion-capture capabilities, professional grade writing and acting, Xenogears still remains admirable and memorable. It’s like an unexpectedly poignant and genuine anime story. This is especially amusing, considering that the anime cutscenes were supervised by Koichi Mashimo, who had lent his animation talents to Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion.

The actual game mechanics are fairly standard for a 90s era Japanese role-playing game. Exploring somewhat linear levels, random encounters with unseen enemies, and a turn-based battle system round out a familiar package. While these conventions can get tiresome for many, they hardly bring down the quality of the game. If you are able to get into the proper mindset to experience these elements, you should be in for a great time, especially if you are a retro game fan or just a fan of more classic RPGs.

There are two different “modes” of battle: in-person or Gear battles. This is made to separate small, humanoid enemies from giant foes. You can actually engage large enemies on foot, though this is obviously not recommended. While outside of your Gears, you fight via an interesting combo system. Rather than assign each character a simple “attack” command, there are three levels of attacks to choose from, in addition to other special abilities. By stringing together a sequence of attacks (the amount of allowable attacks is governed by an available number of points), you can execute powerful “Deathblow” combo moves. Discovering new combos makes combat more exciting and fresh, giving a different feeling on a tried-and-true system.

Gear battles are almost identical to the on-foot battles in terms of general execution: both are based on the same three-tiered combo system and method of stringing together attacks. However, the Gear battles have a few extra concepts to keep them distinct. First of all, Gears must have enough fuel to execute maneuvers: this means you cannot keep using powerful commands in succession for many battles in a row. Planning moves effectively is encouraged so that you can pull off a powerful comeback at the right time. Gears also have specific combo moves or special attacks. This element keeps the game fresh for a long time.

I have logged in about 32 hours so far. Amazingly, I’m still on the first disc! I’m expecting that the second disc won’t be as jam-packed with content as the first, but that remains to be seen. My impressions are extremely positive and I’m very impressed with many of the game elements. I recently uncovered several of the game’s major plot twists, recovered Fei, and defeated Stone. This game is near perfection.

Sadly, not everything in the game has aged so well. The character designs are exquisite, bringing to mind a classic sci-fi anime series. The in-game graphics, however, are jagged and rough on the eyes. The fully rendered 3D environments are more interactive than, say, Final Fantasy VII. However, the trade off is that these environments are far less detailed. Also, some things, like walkways, stairs, or even NPCs can be obscured by the environment or by the camera angle. This makes exploring a little more cumbersome. Also, some of the game mechanics may turn away newer gamers or just feel like a waste of time. Unlike Chrono Trigger, which allows you to switch characters at any time, Xenogears forces you to seek out a specific character to change party members. Also, the high random encounter rate can make even short trips feel much longer. The music is as beautiful as ever though and has remained as one of the game’s finer points.

Despite these minor issues, I simply cannot recommend this game enough. If you have the means to play the game, either by buying the PS1 original or downloading it via the PlayStation Network Store, do so immediately. What better way to prepare for the amazing Xenoblade Chronicles than to play this PS1 classic?

5 thoughts on “Retro Journal #6: Xenogears”

  1. Another excellent entry in the series Tim. It’s funny how you mention different elements like getting into the game only recently and how it easily surpasses more modern, supposedly better pieces of software. I feel much the same about the adventure genre. I know this is going to be switching topics a tad, so let me just say that Xengears remains one of my favourite RPGs released on the PS1, and one of the key reasons why I still say the PS1 and SNES are hands-down the two best JRPG systems ever created.

    Now back to what I was saying, the adventure genre has changed so much that I really missed my point and click adventure games of years past. Supposedly the genre has evolved into games like Limbo or some of the DS offerings like Hotel Dusk, but those games are really different. The entire experience isn’t the same. Just play Maniac Mansion or The Secret of Monkey Island to see what real adventure games are like. I can’t even begin to say how thankful I am that Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert and going back to the traditional point and click adventure game. I’ve already invested $100 into their kick-starter project and just can’t wait to see their results.

    1. Thanks for the compliments! :) I am really enjoying this game and I am just surprised at myself for putting it off for so long. Whenever I’ve told people that I’ve never played Xenogears, I was usually met with blank stares or dropped jaws. I’m a guy who loves a good Japanese RPG, so this is definitely something I love. I can admit that the RPG as a genre is already nebulous and difficult to describe, but JRPGs specifically have gotten a pretty bad rep for this generation. I do agree wholeheartedly that JRPGs this generation don’t quite live up to the classics of old, but there are many quality titles that everyone should play. I think that some of the spite this genre gets is rather unfair though, because it seems like people are more than willing to hate on JRPGs without even touching them. I’ve heard so much hate for FFXIII/FFXIII-2, most of which from people who have no interest in even playing them. I won’t say these games are perfect, but the genre has seemingly lost its mainstream popularity.

      I don’t believe linear game design, pre-defined characters, or turn-based systems make for a bad game at all; I think these can be elements of a great game. They are just building blocks. But people have difficulty lining up their preferences with actual flaws. Choosing to make an RPG structured around open world gameplay design or linear design isn’t just “do I want a good game or bad game?” It’s a question of what kind of experience you want to create. I don’t believe having a blank-slate approach to role-playing (i.e. creating a custom character, having a good/evil system, letting the player approach quests on his/her own time) makes a “better” fantasy. That, to me, would be like arguing a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Book is a “better” fantasy than Lord of the Rings. Being able to determine your character path doesn’t make a game any better, it’s just a different kind of experience.

      I’m hoping that with games like Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story, which seek to shake up JRPG conventions, will be able to reclaim some mainstream popularity and help change popular opinion on the genre. I do think it’s needed, especially after some pretty embarrassing missteps.

      And Jarrod, I can see what you mean about that. Some genres are just transforming so much that they’re almost recognizable. Perhaps I’m a JRPG guy because I became so attached to mainstream RPGs on consoles in the early and mid 90s, so the change in popular opinion is a little sad to me. I can appreciate a lot of the new games. Stuff like Mass Effect is really impressive. As for adventure games though, I can totally relate. I remember playing a lot of point and click games on the PC when I was little, and it was so much fun exploring those kinds of games. Anyone remember 7th Guest, Full Throttle, or King’s Quest? I think some of that genre has come back with games like Phoenix Wright, Professor Layton, Back to the Future, and 999, which are all amazing, but I wish this genre would come back more.

      1. I think we’re going to get one hell of an adventure game from Double Fine, which I am super excited about to be perfectly honest. Cannot wait for that, and I strongly recommend everyone go ahead and give the guys your $15. That gives you access to behind the scenes goods and a copy of the game. What’s not to like about that?

        As for RPGs, I’m a traditionalist. The only thing I dislike about the older RPGs are the encounter rates in the random encounters. Sometimes I just want to have a look around without getting into 487 battles before making it through the front door. Know what I mean? Everything else is gold though, and I don’t know why so many people bitch about Japanese RPGs today, when in 1997 they were all the rage. Like I said, I’ll take a traditional Dragon Quest over virtually any other RPG out there, just make sure I can see the enemies on the screen please :)

        North American RPGs like The Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect are sensational all-encompasing experiences. I adore those games, but I don’t understand why people have such hate for JRPGs today. Seems really odd. I’d rather have a nice mix between the two and have a steady stream of quality games. Again though, I think random encounters are a relic of the past that should remain in the past. I much rather see my enemies and then choose to battle than to just walk three steps and fight all the time. Even the way FFXIII-2 did their battles was leagues better than standard random encounters from years past.

        As for those two Wii RPGs, I’m extremely excited to see what they have to offer and personally can’t wait for them. Sadly being released on the Wii won’t make them mainstream successes. The Wii is no longer a relevant platform in North America, as we can see by the sales. Zelda was likely the last major game released on the platform. That’s not to say these two RPGs can’t be successful, but I don’t expect Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls level of sales, not even a fraction of the sales I’m afraid, but that’s got nothing to do with the quality, and everything to do with the platform being extremely old and no longer in the mainstream’s eyes.

  2. I personally don’t classify it as such, but apparently a lot of people do. Was on an adventure board yesterday evening and tons of people were talking about Limbo as a modern day adventure game. Tim Schafer himself was talking about it as a new take on the adventure genre. Apparently all of these people consider any game that features puzzles wrapped around the narrative to be an adventure game.

    I found that to be quite interesting actually. To get this back on track, what did you think of Xenogears, or have you not played that one? If not, you might want to remedy that one of these days.

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