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A Japanese RPG Primer: The Essential 20

March 19, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 21 Next


Developer: Square

Publisher: SquareSoft (1998, PlayStation)

In PR-speak, the word "epic" means "really, really long." That term seems a bit misused, especially when the "60+ hours of gameplay!" can tend to be monotonous grinding and empty wandering. Not so with Xenogears, a sci-fi story it's one of the few JRPGs that could actually qualify as being an epic, just for the astounding amount of detail that's been written into the game world.

As a young villager named Fei Fong Wong, you try to defend your village by climbing into a nearby abandoned mech, only to accidentally destroy the whole place, killing off practically everyone you knew and loved. After being exiled, Fei, like many RPG heroes, learns that his destiny is much more significant than he expected, leading to the discovery of the roles he's played in the origin of his planet and the evolution of humanity.

All of this culminates in a religious conspiracy, bringing into question the act of fighting against God -- which, in the case of Xenogears, is pretty far from the clichéd, bearded deity you might expect. This topic had been touched upon in a handful of other Japanese games, but at the time, it seemed remarkably innovative, and the many plot twists still remain captivating.

Though its creators deny it, Xenogears appears to draw a lot of inspiration from the mid-'90s anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion. Both involve giant mechs pulling off all crazy stunts. Both have heavy religious and philosophical overtones, sometimes drastically mangling Christian symbolism to unintentionally hilarious effects.

Both are overly wordy, a bit pretentious and occasionally borderline nonsensical. Both are also extraordinarily ambitious, and as a result, both suffered developmental constraints. Evangelion ended its 26-episode run with two avant-garde episodes that barely provided a closure to the plot, and the two movies that followed devolved into more craziness that posed as many questions as were answered.

Xenogears, in the meantime, had the infamous Disc 2. After the first CD is completed, the second CD puts the concept of "player control" out to pasture. Instead, the main characters narrate the story, in dreary, slow moving text, only occasionally allowing the player to explore a dungeon or fight a battle.

If nothing else, Disc 2 shows how much background story was written into the world of Xenogears, even it couldn't be squeezed into a single game. All one has to do is look at Xenogears Perfect Works, a 300 page behemoth of a guide released in Japan.

Practically every major Square RPG gets at least one "Ultimania" book, which contains statistics, scripts, artwork, screenshots and so forth, but a huge chunk of Perfect Works details the history of the game world, its politics, religion, geography, and science. It's fascinating to see how the entire species evolved into the time frame where the main story takes place, which is a major theme of Xenogears.

The rest of the game is pretty good too, if not particularly innovative. The battles -- which are either fought on foot or inside the mechs -- are generally enjoyable, even if their depth doesn't hold a candle to the story. It's a bit strange that so few RPGs feature mechs (outside of a few strategy games like Front Mission and Super Robot Wars), considering their popularity in Japan, so any opportunity to climb into a giant robot and dish out damage is reason enough to check out Xenogears.

The exploration is a bit clumsy, especially in the dungeons that involve platforming, but the architecture feels more three dimensional than most RPGs of the era. The soundtrack, too, is one of the high points, consisting of both entrancing world music and powerful orchestrations, provided by Yasunori Mituda.

After the Xenogears team went to work on Chrono Cross, a number of members left to form Monolithsoft. Their vision was to create a fully fleshed out version of the Xenogears saga, remaking the series to avoid stepping on Square's copyrights. Titled Xenosaga, it has just as much, if not more, detail than Xenogears, and -- spread across three games -- would practically redefine the concept of "epic" once again.

Still, once again, the plot was simply far too ambitious for its own good, and the number of planned installments was cut down from six to three, compressing the plot even more. It didn't help that the first two games were saddled with terrible pacing issues, plodding cutscenes, and boring battle systems.

It wasn't until the third and final game that Monolithsoft found a happy medium, with snappy fight scenes and less frequent cinematics, but by that point, the plot had already been compromised, and many potential fans had already written it off. Xenogears, even with its long winded text sessions, is still the better game, but for all of its flaws, Xenosaga is still a respectable companion piece.


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 21 Next

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