It Came From Japan #4 – Xenogears
After the phenomenal success of Final Fantasy VII in 1997, many Western gamers — now enthralled by this new found wonder of the Japanese RPG — found themselves wondering just what else Square (soon to be SquareEnix) had up their sleeves.
In response, Square released Xenogears on the PS1 in February of 1998.
Considered high-brow, deep and, to some degree, irreverent, a section of the gaming public were shocked that, instead of another tale of huge swords, friendship and personal sacrifice, they got a convoluted and abstract story that questions the existence of God, waxes on about philosophical doctrine and wonders aloud about man’s evolution.
To this day, Xenogears is held very dear in the hearts of its many fans, seen as a work of immense complexity and acute intelligence. When Famitsu rates a game #16 in a list of the greatest games of all time, you know you have something special on your hands.
Legend told of a great warrior from the east
Xenogears dutifully walks the typical Japanese RPG party-line in part, ticking off many of the mandatory check-boxes and themes along the way. Troubled teen? Present. Worldwide struggle? Check. Giant mechs that can be used in combat? Hell yes. However, where the game differs from the standard fare of the time — and even the RPGs we play today — is how creator Tetsuya Takahashi deftly crafted a multifaceted treatise on life, death, the concept of mind and memory, all the while heavily infused his story with philosophical and religious themes that would make most theology students balk.
So, it’s not just about giant human-controlled robots smacking seven shades out of each other? Hardly.
Your technique is magnificent…
Xenogears is presented in the typical 2D sprites on an isometric 3D background manner. Though there are nine playable characters, the story focuses on Fei Fong Wong and his internal plight after waking up with no memories in a village under attack. Think Jason Bourne but with a pony-tail and the ability to control robots.
Stripping away the philosophical elements (which we’ll get to), the underlying plot of Xenogears is actually fairly rudimentary stuff. Two factions, engaged in an internecine war — each using excavated mechs to fight their battles so as to minimise human casualties — both are equally affected when the balance of the conflict tips toward one side thanks to a mysterious force known as the Gebler arriving and sticking their nose in.
Without giving away too much, Fei turns out to be a sort of quasi-messiah character with a lot of strange concepts thrown in for good measure. Concepts such as, but not limited to, the existence or even death of God (the salient tenants of Nietzsche’s nihilism), the emergence of the “Superman” (Nietzsche again, this time his thoughts on the übermensch), the concept of man “evolving” beyond his current shortcomings (Jung’s theory of collective consciousness and shadow - the idea of change instigated by one’s fears and hatreds) and a whole bunch of Freudian psychoanalysis mumbo-jumbo regarding the id and why we do what we do. In fact, “Id” even turns up as a character, although, in reality, it’s actually Fei with his memories intact. Like we said, it’s a little out there.
You must choose the sword or the ball. I can not make this choice for you …
Xenogears nearly never saw a Western release due to its stance on religion and what some felt was the product of Takahashi-san spending too long in his garden eating numerous odd mushrooms. It did get a release, however, and was lapped up by critics who enjoyed its high-concept musings and infectious gameplay. In fact, with all this talk of cultural memes, predetermination and regressed memories, we’ve kinda glanced over the fact that, cosmic existentialism aside, the game plays great with an assortment of engaging battles on offer and some truly impressive graphics for its time. As previously mentioned, Famitsu holds it in extreme high regard, while the sales figures aren’t too shabby either. The original and subsequent Greatest Hits re-release clocked up an impressive 1.2 million in sales.
Though released on the Japanese PSN in June of 2008, we’ve yet to see a Western PSN release of the game. It could happen. After all, there is no translation required, and with Final Fantasy VII proving such a hit when it finally did appear on the download platform, we can envision Xenogears also raising its philosophical head in the West in the future.
Sequel wise, it gets a little complicated. Moving to Namco after his stint with Square, Takahashi-san continued the premise of Xenogears with the long running, and also much-adored, Xenosaga. More reimaginings than official follow-ups to Xenogears, Takahashi-san himself admitted that, due to the switch of publisher, it just wasn’t possible to continue where he left off. Xenosaga has spawned a multitude of spin-offs and editions with some gracing the PS2 over the years. Could there be a Xenosaga game on the PS3? Though not impossible in Japan, it’s unlikely such a title would hit our shores considering how niche the series is. Finally, as a series, it has favoured the DS as a platform of late.
As for a bone fide Xenogears sequel, it’s pretty much out of the question when you take into account Takahashi-san’s studio allegiances and what he’s done with the “Xeno-” brand-name since directing the groundbreaking original back in 1998. At this rate, all we can hope for is a PSN release similar to what Japan got.
If you like games that make you think and treat you like an adult, Xenogears comes highly recommended.