Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Xenogears, or "Killing god has never been so convoluted."

Every so often, you'll encounter a book or a movie or a video game that shows a lot of promise.  Then you go and read or watch or play it, and you find yourself wondering what the hell happened that made the author or creator squander that promise.
I still love that title screen.
Xenogears is a game that leaves me terribly conflicted. It's a console RPG that I love for everything it did right. It tells an engaging story with an ambitious scope that many games lack even today, has a tremendous sound track (Yasunori Mitsuda, the composer responsible for soundtrack of Xenogears, also was the composer for Chrono Trigger,) an involving combat system and an interesting art style that combines 2D sprites with rendered 3D backgrounds (With 3D graphics also used for the giant robots and larger enemies.)
But I have a hard time forgiving the game for its wasted promise. Xenogears suffered from a similar affliction as the later games of the Ultima series: Executive meddling. The first disc of Xenogears is terrific. It shows an epic scope, with ancient conspiracies and an ever-escalating war against a powerful force controlling the world to their own ends while at the same time the protagonists have to face their own inner demons (sometimes literally.) There's some information overload at times (and chronic abuse of unattributed pronouns by many of the antagonists) and there are quibbles with the control scheme and over-use of platforming, but all and all, it's a story well told.
And then you put in disc 2.
Wait. Wasn't I playing a game? When did this become a book?
Instead of letting you experience the consequences of the events set into motion in the wake of the cataclysmic climax of previous disc, the game goes into a series of hour-long cut scenes in which two of the main protagonists sit in a chair and tell you everything that's happening with still images behind them, offering a few breaks here and there where you get to explore a short dungeon or fight a boss.
The first time I played through Xenogears, I was floored by the sudden dead stop in the narrative. It felt less like the game was continuing and more like someone was telling me about this awesome game they were playing through and occasionally passing me the controller to experience a bit of the game of it here and there.
As I understand it, the reason the second disc feels so rushed and unforfilling is that Xenogear's staff and resources were pulled in order to help Square get Final Fantasy 8 out the door on time (Hey. Look everyone. Another reason for people to hate Final Fantasy 8.) Doing so crippled Xenogears' development. Instead of letting you continue to explore the world for the second disc of the game as you had during the first, the game rushes from plot point to plot point, giving the player the information and the revelations needed to set up the end game, at which point they return control to you. In some ways, it was an inventive solution that allowed them to continue telling the story without cutting it dramatically. But at the same time, it's a dire disappointment that the player didn't get to play that part of the game. The second disc turns Xenogears into a glorified text-based game broken up by occasional action sequences and FMVs instead of the game we just spent 30 or 40 hours playing.
I wonder if this painting is foreshadowing?
With all that out of the way, let's discuss the plot. The game opens with a cut scene that will make absolutely no sense for at least 40 hours and even then might require some extra reading to fully comprehend.  Fast-forwarding past that, the game introduces you to the main character.  You play as Fei Fong Wong, an amnesiac artist living in the idyllic, isolated village of Lahan, a town situated on the border between two waring nations - Aveh and Kislev. Lahan never really stood a chance, did it? That description alone is like a giant "destroy me" sign in RPGs. A heavily-injured Fei was brought to Lahan three years prior by a mysterious masked man. Fei recovered from his physical wounds, though now suffering from retrograde amnesia as a result of the trauma, and settled into the tiny town, making friends with Dan, Dan's older sister Alice and her fiance Timothy.
The game also introduces Citan Uzuki, one of the most awesome individuals in the game. He's an doctor and tinkerer who also is highly-skilled in combat who befriended Fei for reasons certainly not connected to Fei's mysterious past. Nope, no connection at all. I'd gush further about Citan's awesomeness, but I'd be spoiling most of the game.
That is one hell of a big music box. Also, foreshadowing.
Citan lives on a near-by wolf-infested hill with his wife, Yui, and daughter, Midori. Fei ventured up the hill to borrow a camera for Alice's and Timothy's wedding the next day. Oh man, Lahan isn't going to survive the night, is it? Citan shows Fei a music box he'd been working on that seems to briefly triggers something in Fei's amnesia-addled mind, but it passes rather quickly. Fei spends the afternoon and evening there, has dinner with Citan's family and finally returns to town that night. And as fate would have it (And the plot has been telegraphing for the last hour,) disaster strikes and giant robots belonging to Aveh's mysterious new ally/occupying force, Gebler, and Kislev decide Lahan is a wonderful location for a mecha-based beat-down and start fighting in the middle of town.
Poor Timothy didn't even make it out of the introduction.
Fei rushes to the scene to try to help the townspeople. After encountering a giant robot (called Gears in the game) vacated by its pilot, he sees a vision of himself in the gear's pilot seat and decides to try to fight off the soldiers. This doesn't end well. After seeing Timothy gunned down by soldiers, something snaps in Fei and some sort of power radiates from Fei's gear.  The power wipes out the village and kills anyone in the vicinity, including Alice. When Fei wakes up, the survivors, including Dan, promptly run Fei off for destroying their idyllic little village.
Why doesn't she ever use that gun again for the rest of the game?
Fei heads into the woods where he encounters an orange-haired girl in a military uniform who initially speaks a foreign language consisting of random punctuation named Elehaym Van Houten, or Elly for short. Elly, unbeknown to Fei at first, was a part of the special military unit who crashed in Lahan. To add to the trope checklist, she's also from the world's resident evil empire.the trained, high ranking military officer quickly cements her role in the game by promptly being attacked by forest monsters and then by a forest-dwelling dinosaur. Fortunately, Citan shows up with his flying machine carrying the very gear with which Fei accidentally destroyed his peaceful village. Citan doesn't really see any problem with forcing Fei back into the cursed machine, and Fei uses it to save Elly from the random forest dinosaur.
Get used to this Elly. Being saved is your role in the game.
The group sets up camp for the night and Elly runs off after Citan reveals a bit of foreshadowing by speaking in Elly's strange language. In the morning, Fei and Citan proceed into the desert that inexplicably borders the forest.  The climate of the world Xenogears is set in is weird. Fei goes on to meet a motley crew of colorful characters - including a one-eyed sand pirate, a gun-toting priest, a mutant who looks suspiciously like Blanka from Street Fighter II, a living colony of nano-machines and a a small, pink affront to all that is good in the world - and embarks on a reluctant journey to halt the machinations of the empire of Solaris and to learn about his past and his destiny. And he may or may not kill a god in the process.
Who the hell thought this section of the game was a good idea?
The core of Xenogears' game play is pretty standard for a Square RPG of the era. It features your basic Playstation-era over-world map ans menus galore. The town and dungeon maps feature a camera that, most of the time, and be rotated 360 degrees as needed, helping with exploration a bit. Some areas restrict how much you can rotate your map. The game is more action-oriented than most RPGs of its era, allowing the characters to jump around to get to otherwise inaccessible locations. Unfortunately, that also means that Square shoehorned in a lot of awkward platforming sections, some of which are more egregious than others. Tower of Babel? You're dead to me. Dead!
The combat system is a little odd at first, but gets more interesting as you use it more. On foot, you perform attacks by using action points. There's a light, medium and heavy attack that takes one, two and three points respectively. You can chain attacks together to use all of your points each turn. More over, there are combos that the player can learn that perform a more powerful attack. And if you save your action from turn to turn and use them to chain together multiple combos to do massive damage. Later in the game, characters gain access to elemental-based combos and Fei can gain two final combos that are strong enough to let him take down enemy gears on foot if he so desired.
The magic system, or Ether as it is called in the game in the game, is a bit hit and miss. The most useful spells in the game are ones that augment your fighting and defense. For the most part, your combo attacks will outclass any attack magic you possess.
This is gear fighting. Enough said.
Gear fighting is a different beast. Gears have a limited amount of fuel available. Light, medium and heavy attacks each take different amounts of fuel. Each attack lets you gain an extra power level. Once you have the right power level, you can do a gear version of your learned ground combat combos at the cost of extra fuel. Gear hit points can't be restored on the field (except with the use of certain gear parts,) and must be repaired in gear stores. Gears sometimes also get special abilities that generally have a high fuel cost. Some are more worth using than others and one specific one can be turned into a disc one nuke if you equip the character with the right item. Ether skills can be used from gears as well, but again, most ether attacks aren't worth using.
Character stats do not impact your gear fighting with the exception of the disturbing, pink comic relief character named Chu Chu who actually becomes her own 'gear.' Using the stat-boosting items you'll run into during the game on her yields the greatest dividends and can turn what is basically a joke character into one of your heavy hitters who has the added bonus of not requiring fuel and being able to be healed by healing magic.  Now if only she weren't so damned disturbing.
Okay. Maybe the graphic mix can look odd at times.
Graphically, Xenogears works pretty well, although heavily dated by today's standards.  It makes use of well made 2D sprites placed against a fully-rendered 3D backdrop.  Further, larger enemies and all of the gears are also rendered in 3D.  It can be a little bit jarring at times, but most of the time, it works really well.  They did a good job of making use of what they had.
The soundtrack for Xenogears is phenomenal. While the narrative and other parts of the game can come up lacking, the music helps the game tremendously. I still listen to the soundtrack occasionally. It is some of Yasunori Mitsuda's best work, and that says a lot given his body of work.
The voice acting is a bit hit and miss. A number of videos in the game are fully-animated anime scenes, all fully voiced. The problem is that the localization team made no effort lip-sync the characters' lines in any of the videos. It's like bad Godzilla dub lip-syncing. I don't know if it was the localization teams inexperience with dealing with voiced cut scenes or what. They are simply bad. There are a few short ones that are okay, but that's mostly because they didn't have much voice work in them.
Oh, I almost forgot. You also get to fight giant zombies.
As good as the story is, one of the major failings in Xenogears' plot it can be very difficult to follow. The first half isn't too bad. While the game is littered with terms and places with little context and many of the antagonists revel in their use of unattributed pronouns, but you eventually learn what a lot of it means and visit most off the places that are mentioned. The big problem starts to crop up on the second half where the text starts throwing names and places at you that it seems to expect you to know and in some cases doesn't. It might be better if the second half played out the same as the first half. But the story time game mechanic starts throwing exposition at you fast and furious and doesn't give you a lot of time to digest what you just learned. On the whole, it's a game that might require the creation of a flowchart to make full sense out of. Or get a hold of the supplementary texts that, while not released in the US, have been translated by fans. In fact, read the Perfect Words even if you want to play through again.
I should probably note that this evil looking gear belongs to Fei.
And there in lies my dilemma when judging Xenogears. It is an awesome story with a lot of detail and intricacy (Though you may need a flow chart to keep track of it at times,) and perhaps had the second disc not been full of suck and instead had the story have the same pacing as the first disc, it might have been one of my favorite RPGs ever. But the stumbling block of the second half is far too large to ignore. For as rich and deep as the story is, it starts to trip all over itself and grows increasingly convoluted and just when you need the exposition most, the game tosses the player the game's Cliff Notes. The shortcuts taken to get it produced beat the narrative to death and turned it into a mildly interactive novel for a long stretch. Further, the rush to the end game causes the story to start dropping plot threads and derails most further character development for almost anyone aside from the two lead characters and a few of the main antagonists.
I can't end a review Xenogears without discussing the more controversial aspects of the narrative.  Simply put, the game grabs hold of countless religious and psychological themes and milks them for all they're worth. This isn't a bad thing, really. Xenogears tries to be a version of Gnostic theology, only with giant robots. The game plays fast and loose with symbolism and seems to draw from all over the map from various religions. Sadly, a lot of the references were lost in the lackluster translation. For instance, most of the country names are derived from the months of the Jewish calendar. Add to that one of religions in the game being corrupt beyond belief, and you have a bit of a storm of controversy brewing on the horizon.
Adding to the controversy is the sex and nudity that show up in the plot. Neither is gratuitous or done for shock value. They fit the story, more or less. But none of it would have ever seen the light of day on a console in earlier eras where games had been butchered to sanitize them of far less 'offensive' content.
This scene will make sense eventually. I promise.
So what more can I say about Xenogears? It's a good game. It's a bit long, but a fairly rewarding experience. If you can get past a few of the levels that seem to drag on forever (Kislev D-block.  If you've played the game, you'll understand what I mean.) and the majority of the second disc where you get to test your reading comprehension skills as much as your gaming skills, it is well worth playing. It's confusing and convoluted and could have used a lot more polish to the translation before it's North American release, it generally gets its points across eventually. It's a good example of how the Playstation-era RPGs had begun to push the limits of their story-telling experience. It's a shame that no direct prequels were ever made, but the Xenosaga series act as a spiritual successor, in no small part because a number of the developers who made Xenogears headed for Monolith Soft - the company that created Xenosaga.
The only way to play Xenogears for the moment is its original Playstation release. Unfortunately, new copies of the game cost upwards of $100 and used copies, while costing less, are still over-priced for a Playstation game. The Japanese version has been re-released on the Playstation Network. I hope Square Enix eventually decides to re-release it in North America as well, perhaps even porting it to another console. It's an often overlooked gem in that era's RPGs and with all its faults, it is well worth playing for anyone who enjoys science fiction and RPGs or just enjoys watching an amnesiac martial arts expert lay a smack down on god while piloting a giant robot.  And I mean, who doesn't want to see that?

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