Friday, November 23, 2012

To Fong Wong, Thanks for Everything: Xenogears

So it's over. I've taken Xenogears off the Backlog, and come to grips with the fact that this titan of gaming mythology is less striding colossus and more puny mortal than I remembered. It's still one of the best games of its time, but it served to clearly illustrate just how much times have changed. Xenogears is still better than some of the terrible games released today, but if each new good and great game stands on the shoulders of giants, then the games of 1998 are just too far down the totem pole to attempt making eye contact with those of today.

And some remain firmly at crotch level.

Naturally. there are exceptions. There are games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Chrono Trigger - games that will hold the same place in history as the Pac-Mans and Tetrises of the world in that they'll never really get old, even when measured up against today. Xenogears was, unfortunately, attempting something that had never really been done before, and since it came along a whole slew of games have done it better. Combat is smoother, the story is presented better, the characters are better developed, and they allow more open exploration of the world.

Still, if you can turn off the part of your brain that knows they didn't stop making games in the late 90s, Xenogears still presents a hell of a good time. Let's take a look at how this Squaresoft gem manages to hold on to the last bit of its luster.

Alright, no one is going to tell you that Xenogears is a bad game. It's just a different game for a different time.

Though if you ask me, Tlachtli is due for a comeback.

Back when it first struck retail shelves, this was as amazing a concept as could be. Final Fantasy with giant robots and combo attacks, what's not to love? It's just that as I play it now, I realize that it's not the kind of love you can go back to and start over fresh; it's just nostalgia and will always be that way, because so many things do it better now. For example . . .

The Gameplay

Xenogears brought something to combat that most of us had never seen in an RPG before; options on how we hit people. The genre up to that point was almost completely dominated by a simple menu screen where your options were to point at either "Attack," "Defend," "Item," and occasionally "Magic," and then confirm and watch the animation (unless it was a Dragon Quest game, which thinks animation is for losers). The guys who made Xenogears were staring at the Sony Playstation controller, baked out of their gourds, when one of them said "dudes . . . dudes, what if like, these buttons . . . what if these buttons all did things, man? Like, all the buttons. Whoa. Whoa. These buttons on my shirt, man. They do stuff. Whoa." The conversation kind of went downhill from there, but the important point got across.

The inspiration for Bledavik.

That's how we ended up with the creative combat system Xenogears boasts. Each button on the controller performs a different kind of attack, and you have a certain number of AP to perform them with. Triangle is a simple, but very accurate 1 AP attack, Square does a harder-hitting 2 AP attack, and X really jams your fist down the enemy's throat, but costs 3 AP and has a lower accuracy rating. You start with 4 AP to spare and go all the way up to 7, and can choose to either blow your whole wad on attacks or use Circle to cancel out and store any AP you don't want to use for later, like a squirrel keeping nuts in its cheeks, only the nuts are deadly attack combos.

You can pick and mix the three attacks any way you choose, but certain combinations will perform powerful special attacks. These can be used every round of combat, but if you store your AP enough (which you'll want to do for some boss battles), you can then use the points to chain together an entire string of special attacks. This is especially devastating on enemies who regenerate health, since it lets you pound through all their HP in a single turn.

Getting one-shotted doesn't really help his whole "being crazy" thing.

Gear combat works much the same way, only with the restriction of no combo chains. You store 1 AP in your Gear for each round you don't use a special attack, and can get up to 3. Each one correlates to either Triangle, Square, or X attacks in letting you spend 1, 2, or 3 AP for a light, moderate, or devastating special move. However, Gears run on fuel and go through it like Hummers designed by BP. Special attacks use up more fuel, and if you run out your Gear becomes useless for awhile. Fortunately, except in rare occasions where you go through a long dungeon without a refuel or encounter a boss that can suck up your gas, this is rarely a problem.

All great for its time, but I think we all know that multifaceted combat controls are the norm now in most games. We don't even have to leave the RPG genre to find the Tales series of games, which utilizes a smooth combination of fighting game style and RPG combat to create a tight battle system as well as one with tons of special attacks and combos based on button combinations. All with much prettier animations, too. Still, saving up all 28 AP and then letting Fei unleash 5 or 6 combos in a row for massive damage is still rather satisfying.

The Story

I covered the story in my last post, but I'll briefly revisit it here. The trouble all starts when our protagonist, Fei Fong Wong, finds the village he lives in attacked by giant mobile suits called Gears the day before he's supposed to stand as best man in the wedding of his two closest friends. The two nations of Kislev and Aveh are in the midst of a protracted war, and when an experimental Kislev Gear is stolen and ends up in Lahan, a skirmish between the two sides breaks out. Fei ends up inside the Gear - Weltall - and actually does pretty well fighting the invaders off until he sees his best friend - the groom-to-be - chewed up by a hail of gunfire. Then everything gets kind of hazy, and when Fei comes to everyone he was fighting is dead and the whole town has been destroyed.

Fei's idea of a bachelor party.

Advised to take the Gear and get the hell out of Dodge before more enemies come after him, Fei begins a sorrowful journey where he has to end up confronting some pretty brutal truths about himself he'd been keeping locked up. His journey takes him deep underneath the earth and high into the sky. He meets a vast and bizarre cast of characters and has an incredible adventure, ultimately saving the entire world from destruction at the hands of the sentient bio-weapon, Deus.

And all because some dude couldn't get some strange 5 centuries earlier.

His hair wasn't the only thing that was blue.

The main villain in the game, Krelian, is in love with Elly. The problem being that his Elly died 500 years earlier saving everybody from the Diabolos, and did so while in love with Krelian's best friend, Lacan..Krelian happens to know that Elly is one of a few beings endlessly reborn throughout the world, but even knowing that he's immortal and all he has to do is wait a couple dozen years for a new Elly to show up doesn't quell his rage.

There's a ton more stuff with the Gazel Ministry, Emperor Cain, the city of Shevat, but what it all boils down to is basically Krelian and Lacan were both in love with Elly. Elly loved Lacan, but they never got together before she was atomized in an explosion right in front of both him and Krelian. Krelian decided that Elly dying in such a fashion meant that God doesn't exist, so he set out to go make one. Lacan took a different approach - God's totally real, and for letting this happen, he's going to find Him and kill Him. The story basically stems from these two characters and their motivations.

Then there's a whole bunch of stuff about psychological disorders and nanomachines, because why not?

We all know what his Gear looked like.

Xenogears also has the cajones to do what very few other games do - completely destroy the world in which you play in. When you reach the end of the game, most of the world's cities have fallen and its population has been reduced to either cannibalistic mutants or a terrified clutch of survivors. This would be much cooler if not for the fact that most of the story leading to that point is done via the infamous Disc 2 flashback sequences, and the entire game is so on-rails that you can barely explore this world enough to care about it that much.

With games out today like Mass Effect, Half-Life, and Bioshock, the sci-fi genre has much stronger entries that end up leaving Xenogears in the dust. Though it's hard not to look back on what they did here and think that they weren't an inspiration to the games that came afterwards.



Xenogears boasts a diverse cast of people in need of some serious psychiatric care. Everybody in this motley crew has some sort of trauma, ranging from simple abandonment issues to drug addiction to having your own father make you shoot him with a giant cannon to keep him from killing you.

Fei Fong Wong

Oh, Fei. Poor Fei, caught up in a world he barely understands with plot lines woven around him like a tacky Christmas sweater.

That reindeer has over 700 lines of dialogue.

Fei is our hero, an amnesiac found outside the village of Lahan three years before the game begins. He's built a life there, found a home and friendship, and is in the middle of a love triangle with a woman who's about to be married. Then Grahf attacks Lahan and everybody gets killed, except for a handful of survivors who all blame Fei. On the advice of his friend Citan Uzuki, the worst doctor who ever lived, he leaves Lahan riding the giant murderbot that pureed all his acquaintances and takes off for the desert. From there he begins encountering the other characters in the game and slowly unraveling his past like the aforementioned sweater.

As it turns out, Fei is the Contact, a being able to speak to the Wave Existence that may or may not be the god of their world. He and Elly are also caught up in a cycle of rebirth dating back 10,000 years, and because of a series of childhood traumas, this particular incarnation has an absurdly powerful and suppressed personality called Id. When he lost his memory three years ago, he became a blank slate, unaware of the "coward," his original personality, and Id. Now whenever he sees something he wants to repress, Id comes out and does his damage while Fei stays safe.

He most recently broke free when someone sent Fei 2 Girls 1 Cup.

Fei reluctantly rides in Weltall, a black Gear called "the vessel for the destroyer of God," though he eventually trades this in for Xenogears.

Elhaym van Houten

Elhaym, or Elly as she's known, is the female lead of our story and Fei's love interest. Like Fei, she's been constantly reborn since the Zohar engine created man on their planet, tasked with the job of keeping humanity safe until such time as they can all be sucked up by Deus and used as body mass in what has to be the worst diet plan in history.

Humans have way too many carbs.

Elly's an officer of Gebler, Solaris's elite military force, and occasionally uses a drug called Drive that makes her a raving psycho-bitch who can blow people up with her mind. She's also, along with Miang, half of the mother of all humanity. We also find out in disc 2 that she's 18 years old, because in Japan anybody who's out of their teens is too old to save the world. This also makes the sex scene and excessive nudity at the end qualify as "barely legal." Elly spends the first part of the game deliberating over where she belongs, but ultimately ends up siding with the plight of humanity as a whole over the destructive whims of the Gazel Ministry.

Elly is the only character whose Omnigear you never get to play with (combat arena in Kislev aside). She goes through the whole game with the ultra-feminine Vierge, so we only catch a cutscene glimpse of El-Regurus.

Bartholomew Fatima

One-eyed desert pirate Bart is also the displaced king of the nation of Aveh, following the death of his parents at the hands of evil minister Shakhan. Bart cruises around in the giant sand ship, Yggdrasil, and during the course of the game eventually gains the ability to also sail in the ocean, and eventually fly. He's also got a thing for attacking moving targets without checking to see who might be inside. He's also not a half-bad military strategist, and is responsible for coming up with the plan that ultimately lets the heroes save the world.

"Why don't we blow up everything?"

Bart's driving action for the first disc is to get his hands on Shakhan and win back his country, but eventually, after most of his countrymen are turned into hideous mutants or eaten by said mutants, he decides to shift focus over to stopping Krelian and the Gazel. His younger cousin Margie is also the religious head of the religion headquartered in the city of Nisan, and there's some strong undertones suggesting that they're the European kind of royalty, so the next Fatima heir might have some extra toes to worry about.

Bart pilots the big red Gear Brigandier, though he's the first of the group to unlock his Omnigear, switching to the slick and stylish Andvari.

Citan Uzuki

Citan is the worst doctor who ever lived.

"He taught me everything I know!"

I'd like to create a list of the sheer amount of dickery he performs in this game, but somebody beat me to it.


When Citan's not letting his friends consume human flesh or abandoning the town where he's the only doctor fresh after a giant robot attack, he pilots the green-and-white Heimdal. This is despite having full access to the Omnigear Fenrir at all times and probably letting a lot of people die because he can't be assed to go dig it out of storage.

Citan is also hands down the most broken character in the game, so get used to having to deal with him long after you're wondering why the Wave Existence didn't confirm it's status of god by immediately unleashing 10 simultaneous plagues all inside his scrotum.

Rico Banderas

At some point, the Kaiser of the nation of Kislev got it on with a peasant woman and had a demi-human son. When, as a child, Rico's hair began growing in thick and orange and he started developing fangs and claws, he needed a lot of support. Naturally, this is when his mother died of a terrible illness and the Kaiser disavowed any knowledge of his giant freak son. 

Evidence suggests the Kaiser also spent some time in Brazil.

When we meet Rico, he's the fighting champion of Kislev's Gear Battling arena, and despite being allowed any one request for this, he chooses to remain in captivity. Fei finally unseats him, but he remains in the capital and tries to off the Kaiser until eventually being convinced to join up with Fei and go save the world.

He pilots the crappy-looking Stier, which looks like a heap of garbage welded together with spit and nail polish. When it gets an upgrade to Omnigear, it comes out a slick black-and-orange that you're much less embarrassed to be seen with.

Billy Lee Black

Billy, Billy, Billy. Does any other supporting character better represent the themes of this game? Loss, betrayal, psychological scarring, repression, and a healthy does of father issues all wrapped up in a gun-wielding priest package. Billy's mother was eaten by the mutant creatures called Wels while his father Jessie was conveniently away. He and his sister Primera survived thanks to the intervention of a member of the Ethos, the main religion of the continent, Father Stone. The whole incident left Primera too traumatized to speak, and Billy joined the Ethos under Stone's caring tutelage.

He's a priest like Citan is a doctor.

Yeah, Stone totally killed Billy's mom, and you know what? I'm betting he did something unsavory to Primera. It's at least implied. Billy runs an orphanage for the Ethos when he's not out culling Wels, who he finds out later are totally humans that the Ethos has him out murdering. Also, even though Jessie survives, Billy's forced at one point to use his own father as a living weapon in order to beat one of the villains, and at the time it happens he has no idea Jessie had any chance of survival.

Billy pilots the heroic-looking Renmazuo, which unfortunately loses its dashing cape when upgraded to an Omnigear. Unlike the other characters, you need to keep Billy stocked with ammunition for his attacks, but they're also a good deal stronger (being that he's using bullets and shells instead of fists).

Maria Balthazar

Maria's kind of a one-note character. You get one sequence of the game where she suffers an unspeakable tragedy, and then . . . that's pretty much it for her. She's a tiny girl piloting an enormous Gear, and is charged with protecting the nation of Shevat pretty much on her own from what I can tell. She also has to watch as her father's spirit seizes control of her Gear and forces it to unleash a devastating particle beam cannon that obliterates his body, which had been taken over by Solaris.

So that's a proud moment in any young girl's life.

Her Gear, Seibzehn, is a massive monster that can seriously put the game in easy mode for awhile. Unfortunately, she joins the team so late in the game that you don't really have much call to use her, especially as she's useless in any combat outside her Gear.


Emeralda's kind of an odd duck, and not just because she could rearrange her molecular structure to literally become a duck. She's the last character you get in the game, and the only one who has her own side quest (which is less a "quest" and more a "go to this location with her in your party"). Appearing at first as a child and later as a grown woman should you do said quest, she's a living colony of nanomachines first created by one of Fei's past incarnations, Kim.

She looks pretty good for 4000 years old.

Because she comes in so late, Emeralda doesn't really get much development, despite being pretty crucial to the plot. She's a good attacker, and even better once you get her adult form, but you don't have the chance to use her until the game's almost over.

She pilots the slim white gear Crescens, and has no Omnigear. Her transforming her wings into giant hands and other tools is pretty entertaining, though.


Chu-Chu is like one of the pigeons you see living in Penn Station. You know they don't belong there, but you just get used to their presence after awhile and it doesn't seem so unnatural. She's a little pink puffball-hamster that eats spiders in a world of giant fighting robots and 10,000 year-old biological weapons. Also, for some reason they give her one of the most tragic stories of anyone and choose never to address it, as in the course of the game practically her entire species is wiped out.

Now, Chu-Chu gains the ability later in the game to grow to titanic size and contribute to Gear battles. She's actually not that bad, and with enough attention she can really be a boon to your party . . . or at least, that's what I hear. Everybody else can contribute without me needing to figure out which obscure artifact I need to dig out of the world's asshole to make them useful. Chu-Chu's not even great as a mascot, because you never use her. So . . . enjoy her one scene of triumph and then let her watch the rest of the game from the Yggdrasil's window.

I guess you could tie knives to her and throw her at things.

Besides them, there's also some villains who are . . . mostly forgettable. Sure, Dominia and the Elements provide some funny/tense moments, but they never achieve their objective of keeping Ramsus from being insane. That's really the greatest weakness the supporting cast of this game has - they're usually in and then gone. The only character you develop any attachment to is the giant walrus captain of the Thames, and only because it's easy to have fun to shouting "I! Am a man! Of the sea!" as a reaction to random events.

I use it instead of signing my name now.

Alright, look. All jokes aside, no one is going to argue that Xenogears is an important part of gaming history. It went deep into themes of religion and psychology in ways other games hadn't explored at that point. It told a complex science fiction story involving space battles and bio-weapons and humans engineered by other-worldly consciousnesses trapped inside living engines. The characters were three dimensional, the plot twists were alternately shocking and heartbreaking, and the ending, despite its somewhat thick layer of cheesiness and excessive nudity, really feels like you earned it.

So, well done in that respect, Square. Well done.

What they didn't do was make an enduring classic. It's not even a case where we can really say that the technological advances in video games left Xenogears behind, because plenty of games made ages ago are still as fun to play now as they were back then. No, the novelty of Xenogears has worn off because it's so obvious now how much they took away from it by pulling out their resources before the project was finished. It's almost frustrating watching this build-up to an all-time classic crash and burn because Square needed to pump out another Final Fantasy halfway through its production.

"Forget our sci-fi epic, the world needs space witches."

Let's appreciate Xenogears for what it is - an attempt at a company that was already making money hand over fist to reach for something higher. In the end, though, they decided the low-hanging fruit was more worthy of their time, and what could have been the defining game of its era ended up just being a really good, and at times satisfyingly challenging game with some unique new systems.

Still, watching the final boss go down after over a decade of waiting was a pretty damn good moment.

Xenogears is officially off the Backlog. Next up, Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, but before I get to that I'm going to spend a little time talking about a gem I polished off just last week; Persona 4.

Until then, keep playing.

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