Before Final Fantasy VII on the original PlayStation in 1997, RPGs were not as popular in the US vs over in Japan. Square’s magnum opus brought the joys that many of us had been experiencing since Dragon Warrior/Quest on the NES into the hands of the masses, and made them crave more. It pushed the limits of technology; with it’s never before seen CG work, endless lines of dialogue and side quests, and a deep story that made a connection with the characters that is still felt today. Despite the amount of praise I will pass the game’s way, and as often as I may laud its accomplishments, it is not my favorite RPG, or even my favorite game. That honor goes to Xenogears.
Today, October 21st, marks the 10 year anniversary since Xenogears hit US shores. Xenogears tells the story of Fei Fong Wong, a painter who found himself in a small village with no memory 3 years ago, fallen in love with a girl who is about to get married in town, and befriended the local doctor, Citan Uzuki. One day, a large mech, called a Gear, crashes in town. Fei finds himself in the cockpit of the Gear, hoping to somehow prevent the mayhem taking place, but winds up destroying the town in the process. He is exiled from the city, and bumps into a young redhead named Elly Van Houten, and the two instantly seem to know each other, though they have never met. This is the beginning of Fei’s journey.
The story is what sets Xenogears apart, and is its best feature. The main story is about Fei and Elly’s love for one another, and how their souls find each other again, over and over, generation after generation. The story covers Fei’s battle with himself, having formed split personalities after a tragic accident in his youth, and Elly’s evolution from a young naïve officer following in her father’s footsteps, to a grown woman with a past that spans centuries. God’s existence is brought into question, both literally and figuratively, and the origins of life and humanity on this planet are eventually discovered.
Visually, Xenogears went the opposite way of FFVII. Instead of 3d character models placed on pre-drawn sets, the world was fully 3d, with 2d sprite based characters. This led to some interesting platforming elements, and with full control of the camera’s rotation, it leads to some very well designed dungeons and towns. The audio is top notch as well, with a moving score that remains one of my favorites to this day.
This game nearly didn’t make it to the US due to its very adult themes, including death, sex, and the questioning of God. It nearly didn’t make it out in Japan either, as budgetary and time constraints forced Soraya Saga (aka Kaori Tanaka) and her husband Tetsuya Takahashi to remove many of the gameplay elements (dungeons and side quests) out of the final third of the game, the infamous 2nd disk, and focus exclusively on the story. This was done by having the main characters, specifically Fei, Elly and Citan, to talk directly to the player, in a first person perspective, telling the player what is taking place in the story, instead of having the player experience it themselves. The character would appear on the screen in front of art, with text scrolling along, with music playing behind. This caused a large number of players to never finish the game, detracted by the major change in pacing and gameplay style.
Saga and Takahashi went on to form Monolith, and eventually created the Xenosaga series, which Square-Enix would not allow to directly reference Xenosaga due to copyright laws. The Xenosaga series takes the story telling aspect of Xenogears to the next generation, with state of the art cut scenes, something that many gamers lamented. Sadly, the world of Xenogears seems to have come to an end, but for me, the story will live on as long as Fei and Elly continue to find each other again.