Why did I play this?Why did I play this?

Posted on May 26th 2020 at 08:00:00 AM by (SirPsycho)
Posted under RPG, squaresoft, square enix, playstation, ps1

One aspect of criticizing artistic forms of media that is frequently brought up is the idea of recency bias. The main problem with recency bias is that when a work is new, the fresh coat of paint can sometimes successfully hide the pocks of rust hidden by the frame. This idea is true for all forms of media, books, movies, shows, and perhaps it's strongest for video games. Games are heavily reliant on the technology of the era, and as that technology advances, the inherent weaknesses of previous works comes to light even more powerfully than before. In other cases, it's simply a question of project scope.

Xenogears was once touted as one of the greatest Japanese role playing games ever created, but over time, that opinion has softened and any discussion about it inevitably leads to the game's biggest flaws. Pinpointing the source of this slowly decreasing opinion of this once highly touted classic relies on knowing what the game's major flaws truly are, an understanding of everything that happened during and after its development, and speculation on how the gaming public itself has shifted. Xenogears is over 20 years old by this point, having released on the first Playstation all the way back in 1998, so there has been plenty of time for reflection.

Xenogears began as a Final Fantasy VII pitch and was created by Tetsuya Takahashi and his wife Kaori Tanaka. It was accepted as its own project and began a rough development that zapped most of the development's health as they worked insane hours to finish the project. Squaresoft allocated much less resources towards Xenogears as it was developed alongside the game Xenogears was originally pitched to be. Yasunori Mitsuda is the main composer of the game, and this was only his third game as the main composer of. It is easily one of his most influential works and remains one of his best. After this game he would leave Square to begin his career as a freelancing composer.

Xenogears starts off quite strong. After a rather typical introductory sequence the game picks up quite quickly, introducing its systems in piecemeal segments. The game is rather interesting in that it has two similar, yet different combat systems. One combat system that just involves the characters fighting small enemies is based around using a pool of points to build combos, some of which are special Deathblow attacks. The other system is a similar combo based system as the first, but in large mechs called Gears instead. There are a few differences between human and Gear combat, with Gears having a fuel system that serves as a hard cap to how much the Gear can be used. Each system has its own unique features, such as each character and gear having their own unique skills, with some of the more special attacks getting a souped up version in Gear combat. Both systems have a time bar similar to the ATB bar that Final Fantasy uses. When this game was still relatively new these battle systems were praised, but they have not aged well. The timing system is strange in that its either frozen in place during attacks or the bars are moving at breakneck speed.

The first disc plays like a rather typical role playing game, it has great characters and a nice story that is revealed through player interaction and exploration, which helped to elevate the game's profile. The localized writing also feels quite theatrical, characters are emotional and start dealing with psychological trauma from an extremely early point in the game. There's scene in the forest outside of Lahan Village where the game starts, Fei first meeting Elly is a great example of this theatrical style of writing. Fei is dealing with the very fresh wounds of the fact that he's partially responsible for the destruction of the village that took him in and raised him from childhood, plus he's in the forest for being ostracized and exiled as a result of the attack. Elly ambushes Fei from behind, points her gun at his back, and Fei turns around and basically tells her to shoot him because he's a worthless failure. This inevitably leads to combat where Elly becomes a damsel in distress and Fei comes to her aid not once, but twice. The second time Fei's old friend Citan brings the Gear Weltall to Fei to use to defeat this massive dinosaur that's going to eat Elly. After the fight Citan and Elly talk by the campfire with Citan giving Elly directions and convincing her to leave in the middle of the night, and Fei happened to be awake and heard it all. All of this happens quite quickly with sudden ups and downs with the actual lines of dialogue feeling like they would fit into a stage production as well as a video game.

All of these events in the first hour or two of the game give the player an idea of how the rest of the game will, or rather should, play. There will be plenty of ridiculously cryptic cutscenes that don't seem to make much sense at first mixed together with a narrative progression that leads the main cast to highly emotional scenarios that bring out the theatrics. Keep in mind that this game barely has voice acting, and this voice acting is limited to the game's fully animated cutscenes. The silent dialogue windows themselves do the most work to fulfill this game's desire for high stage like theatrics. Yasunori Mitsuda's wonderful soundtrack brings the deep emotional waves of the game to the forefront. While the soundtrack is incredible there are not as many tracks as some of Square's other RPGs coming out at the time which had even shorter stories. Xenogears was one of the first RPGs where simply completing the game's main story takes roughly 60 hours, while most others still hovered around the 40 hour mark. While longer games are now becoming more common, this extra length may be one of the reasons the game takes such a heavy shift in design focus on the second disc.

Now that the main systems are out of the way its time to discuss the way the game flows. The first disc is essentially the classic RPG experience that genre fans have a heavy desire for. The player moves on the overworld from place to place, cutscenes vary from scripted movement on the main map to fully animated in wonderful 2D graphics, which are highly pixelated now but their style still holds up well. The player experiences everything the game wants them to experience. From the Gnostic inspired organized religion of the highly technical Ethos, to the Aveh desert pirates, to delving deep into ancient ruins, to becoming a prisoner and beating its combat arena, with many, many more interspersed through the game. All of these and more are things the player not only does, but controls their movements between. Xenogears was developed simultaneously alongside Final Fantasy VII, and as such its budget was considerably lower than that of Square's classic blockbuster breakout game.

The first disc ends on a highly charged cliffhanger, giving it a near perfect ending while also teasing more to come. The second disc is almost the complete opposite of the first disc, and the main theory behind this change is that the budget was simply running out. Instead of directly experiencing the narrative flow of moving from place to place the second disc instead plants Fei down in a chair floating in outer space and he tells the player what happened. Occasionally these long scenes end and the player is often just dropped inside of some dungeon with very little context of where they really are in relation to the rest of the world. And if the enemies spike in difficulty and are too hard the player must now leave this dungeon, deal with enemies that may be just as strong as the dungeon's, find out where they are because they didn't actually go there themselves, and resupply sometimes a quarter or half way across the game's world, and maybe grind a little on top of it.

This is disc 2. Almost all of it.

This dichotomy between the two discs is massive, and makes critiquing Xenogears quite difficult as its essentially two separate games that share the same combat system, characters, and story. Xenogears feels like it should have been a duology but this did not happen for various reasons, some of which existed behind the scenes during development of the game, and one factor being that duologies had not yet really been done in video games. The first major example of one being the Persona 2 duology of Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment from Atlus. The first part of the Persona 2 duology, Innocent Sin, would release in Japan in 1999, one year after Xenogears. Atlus would later go on to develop other duologies such as Digital Devil Saga and Raidou Kuzunoha. Its hard to fault a game for not using a design structure that is both business friendly and works to help the creators tell a much longer and more involved story, but it certainly would have helped if it made Xenogears disc 2 its own game with a similar amount of development resources allocated to it as the first disc. Because of how faulty disc 2 of Xenogears is, it makes this game one of the prime candidates for a full blown remake, but that outcome is still quite unlikely.

Xenogears is quite a widely available game through digital stores. It was a PSOne Classic on the Playstation 3's store so its quite inexpensive to buy and play for that route. Physical copies of the game are becoming quite a bit more uncommon to find and are pricey when they are discovered. Complete black label copies of the game are starting to push $100 in price, while the Greatest Hits release is hovering around $60. At this price only the most hardcore of collectors, RPG fans, and Square fans are taking them in. Xenogears is still a great game, but its flawed 2nd half does not justify the price tag of a physical copy. For any new players that are interested in seeing the game, just stick with the PSOne Classic version on the PS3.

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I've got such great memories of this game despite always hearing about the disc 2 issues most people have with it. I convinced a couple friends to play through it last year and neither of them seemed to enjoy it though. I'm half tempted to replay it and see if I still have the same feelings, but I'm also a bit afraid to tarnish those good feelings I currently hold.

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