Xeno Phobia

Back in the day, Square used to be known for its role-playing games, in particular the Final Fantasy series. But that’s certainly not to say that that’s the only set of RPGs it produced. For example, you’ve got Chrono Trigger, but this post isn’t about that. No, it’s about Xenogears. And spoilers.

Xenogears is the answer to the old question, “what happens if you mix your standard Japanese RPG formula with giant freaking robots?” A question I’m sure you’ve asked yourself at one time or another. You wind up with something that isn’t really an improvement over your standard Japanese RPG formula.

The story centers around a guy named Fei, who knows martial arts and has a pretty nasty case of dissociative identity disorder, living in a peaceful little town, blissfully devoid of any memories from before he showed up there. It’s not too long until a battle breaks out between forces of the two warring countries on the continent, which happens to drop a “gear” (what the giant freaking robots are called) into Fei’s lap, which he uses to black out and destroy the town. Like I said, that dissociative identity disorder is nasty stuff. Needless to say, the survivors aren’t too pleased, and show him the door.

I could go on summarizing the plot, but it doesn’t take too long before it becomes difficult to follow. Names get thrown at you pretty rapidly, often with little explanation of what they are or why they’re important. It’s mysterious! Plus, after a while most of the so-called plot development devolves into characters spewing long streams of technotheobabble (more on that later). Something about a planet-destroying superweapon named Deus, which pulled in some wave existence from a parallel dimension, crash-landed, fractured, spawned people, then there’s conspiracies, oppresive regimes, nanomachines, genetic engineering, reincarnation, genetic memory, evil churches, “terminal interface weapons,” and a bunch of other stuff that gets smashed together.

The gameplay’s a bit interesting, since there are two parallel and largely unrelated forms of combat used during (sigh) random encounters. The first is the hand-to-hand combat you’d expect between your party and wandering monsters. Each turn you get so many points to use in a battle and can keep attacking until you use them up. You can fire off combos once you learn them, a process that seems to involve somehow guessing what the combo would be, and then trying to perform it enough times until the game decides to give it to you. You get magic spells ether abilities, which aren’t terribly useful aside from healing. In principle, you can save up unused action points to unleash a series of combos in a later turn, but considering how many points you need to save up, and that they don’t stay saved between battles, I never bothered. You’d have to pretty much no nothing for several turns to build up a decent reserve, and what’s the point in that.

The other is gear-to-gear combat, which of course works differently. You get one attack each round, and each normal attack builds up your power level. As you learn hand-to-hand combos, you also learn special moves for your gear to use once you get a high enough power level. This means your non-trivial battles are largely in deciding whether you want to use level 1, level 2, or level 3 attacks, and waiting to use special moves accordingly. In principle, your ether abilities can also be used in gear combat, but why would you want to use them when you’re piloting a giant freaking robot? Besides, just about any healing abilities, whether item- or ether-based, don’t work on gears — they’ll heal your character’s HP, but not your gear’s. You need to equip special hardware on your gear to heal it, but you don’t have enough fuel to heal very much, and you can heal, much less revive, one gear using another gear’s abilities.

The two different types of battle result in two different things you need to equip per character, the character’s equipment and the gear’s hardware. Late in the game all the action becomes much more gear-centric, so those stockpiles of healing items and whatnot aren’t going to be useful for much else than pawning off for more gear hardware. Seriously — I sold off all my character items before the final battle to upgrade all my gears so I’d have a chance of surviving.

Exploring areas gets tedious fast, whether you’re on foot or in gears. First, there’s the random encounters that come at you all the time, and I’m pretty sure just moving the camera around counts as “moving, and thus eligible for a random encounter” as far as the game’s concerned. Second, hit detection seems spotty at best. A lot of the areas involve jumping from point A to point B to proceed, but it’s often difficult to tell what can be jumped on and what can’t. Third, lots of areas have invisible rails around many platforms, so you can’t walk or jump off of them, even when doing so would clearly give you a shortcut. Fourth, corridors quite literally have painted-on doors that look just like real doors, and it’s tough to tell which doors are real and which are just scenery. Fifth, while the different areas tend to have their own character about them, there isn’t much there to distinguish one corridor or room from another, which makes getting lost pretty easy, especially if you’re swinging the camera around enough to actually let you see where you’re walking, in between getting distracted by random encounters.

Jumping-based areas while riding gears can be downright infuriating. Some areas are very much vertical, which makes one false step mean a fall back down to the beginning. The sloppy hit detection doesn’t help matters, naturally. Neither do the blind jumps you’ll encounter once in a while, usually in those same all-vertical areas, where the platform you’re trying to jump for literally can’t be seen from where you need to jump from.

But worse of all is the fact that there is jumping at all while riding gears. During cutscenes (more on those later), gears have no trouble flying. They have no trouble flying across half the planet at a go. They have no trouble pushing massive flying battleships off a collision course while in mid-air. So why can’t they get more than two seconds’ uptime when you’re at the controls? You even see them hovering using their jet engines when you’re “running” in the gears! This makes missing that blind jump onto a tiny platform in your gear all the more frustrating and more prone to controller defenestration.

Oh yeah, the cutscenes. Hope you like them, because Xenogears is full of them. There are literally cutscenes — plural — that are more than half an hour long, and I’m not even one to dally through the pages of dialogue. You’ll sit through hours and hours of characters talking about things and seeing events unfold, especially later in the game (but more on that later), to the point where it feels as though you’re not so much playing a game as watching a moderately interactive movie with no real branch points in the story.

The vast majority of cutscenes use the in-game sprites to act things out. A few of the cutscenes are anime-style, though their usage is pretty spradic and, well, odd. The game opens with a long anime cutscene whose relevance to the game’s plot only becomes clear much, much later. After that there’s a few very brief anime cutscenes, usually a few seconds embedded within a sprite-based cutscene for no really discernable reason. Then you don’t see them at all for a long time until you get near the end of the game, when they start to resurface. In truth, they’re somewhat distracting, since they usually left me wondering two things: first, why they thought those two lines of dialogue couldn’t be done using sprites and dialogue boxes; and second, why they used that voice for a character, which doesn’t match at all the voice I gave him in my head.

These cutscenes are where the aforementioned technotheobabble really starts to fly. Xenogears easily rates at around 8.3 Eva, where the Eva is the SI unit for excessive Judeo-Christian pseudosymbolism. Not that religious references in video games is anything new, but it’s taken to an extreme here. There’s loads of it, and it never seems to be much more than an exercise in throwing names around. “Hey, let’s name the planet-destroying superweapon Deus! He can be powered by, um, the Zohar modifier! And one of his parts can be named Metatron!” There are crucifixions — again, plural — even of the annoyingly cute and utterly worthless mascot character (seeing a fluffy pink little animal on the cross completely ruins any horror or drama the scene was trying to invoke). Remember, Chu-Chu died for your sins.

The above comparison to Neon Genesis Evangelion isn’t entirely in jest either — it’s had a very clear influence on Xenogears. The goal of the bad guys, after all, is to reawaken “god” by merging mankind’s bodies together into a single entity (*cough* Third Impact). The powers that are working to achieve this goal are the shadowy, conspiratorial Gazel Ministry (*cough* SEELE) and the man who’s supposed to be putting their plans in motion, but in the end betrays them, Krelian (*cough* Gendo Ikari). Plus, of course, there’s the gears (*cough* Evas) that are revealed to be much more closely related to the villains’ plot than it appears at first. The similarities aren’t enough to say Xenogears is just a rip-off of Evangelion, but you can’t miss the similarities.

A particularly interesting similarity is how both Evangelion and Xenogears change dramatically near the end. Briefly, in Evangelion, the last two episodes completely shift gears (no pun intended) and take place entirely in the main character’s mind, represented by a stage. In Xenogears’s case, Disc 2 is where the structure of the game completely falls apart. Instead of moving about the world doing what you have to do to save the world, events are narrated to you. You’ll have a character sitting in a chair, in front of a slightly askew image of events, telling you what happens. A few times, you’ll even have characters reenacting — yes, reenacting — the scenes being narrated in front of that same image, instead of, you know, showing the actual scene! Interspersed in these long narrative segments you might have a half-scripted battle, or a smallish dungeon (with no escape aside from the objective) to explore. Only before the final dungeon do you get to move around the world map again, but now the world’s nearly been destroyed and there’s only a handful of places you can actually go, mainly to re-enter the couple of Disc 2 dungeons. One can’t help but wonder if budget constraints caused this sudden shift in the game, but it’s all I can come up with.

To be fair, the final (technically, penultimate) battle was an interesting variation of the standard multi-transformation bad guy you often see in these games. You get the option of attacking any of Deus’s four subcomponents before taking on the core, trading off fighting more battles against taking away some of Deus’s attacks when you battle the core. It would’ve been nice to be able to tell which subcomponent you’ll be fighting, especially when you really want to pick out the proper gear hardware to use against each one. But after that, the only strategy you need against Deus and the fairly simple “real” final boss is to charge up Xenogears (Fei’s ultimate gear — hey, that’s where the name of the game came from) into its “infinite” power level (read: one past 3) and use its most powerful attack. Rince, lather, repeat.

And then there’s the ending, which tries to make Krelian look like he wasn’t such a bad guy (despite the whole “mutating mankind and putting their bodies into Deus” thing) and, meh, more needless anime cutscenes.

In the final analysis, my main motivation for playing Xenogears was to see if it really was anything like some people say. As it turns out, yes, it pretty much is. So, um, I guess it was everything I was hoping it to be? (There’s a glowing review for you.)

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