You remember Xenogears, right? Well who doesn't? The game opens with a large spaceship crash-landing on a planet, leaving behind a beautiful woman with long, lavender hair, but for most of the game, you have no idea what this opening movie has to do with what you are playing. You take control of Fei Fong Wong, whose peaceful, serene village is destroyed almost right off the bat. At the same time, he is forced to take control of a giant, sought-after mech. Leaving his corner of the continent, he meets Elly and journeys across the world, after which the plot thickens... and thickens... and thickens. In fact, the plot ended up with a bigger scope than Square may have been capable of pulling off in a single game: waxing philosophical, trying to tie in religious references, and bringing in a lot of technological advancements at the same time.
Xenogears is sort of a puzzle, where the game hands you a few pieces at a time, sometimes several in a row that belonged in your area of the puzzle. Every once in a while, though, they'd show you pieces totally unrelated to what you actually have put together – pieces that look like they don't even belong in the same picture as the rest. But if that's the case, why are they handing you these pieces? You keep getting more and more of them, but can't seem to decide where they all fit, or if they fit at all. In the end, you have a huge, gorgeous puzzle which you still feel may be defective – ten years later, you're still not sure that Square Enix ever handed over all the pieces. Still, there's enough fulfillment that asking the manufacturer for a refund doesn't quite cross your mind.
Many Xenogears fanatics already know about – and probably even own – Perfect Works, which is essentially the game's Bible. It outlines six episodes in the Xenogears universe's timeline, of which the game was the fifth. Given all of the backstory in Perfect Works, it's easy to see Xenogears as falling so late in this timeline, as there's more than enough material to fill up the four preceding episodes. As we know, it didn't quite work out that way. Xenogears was the lone episode-turned-game (I will get to Xenosaga in a minute), and as a result, a lot of background history was crammed into later parts of Disc 1 and pretty much all of Disc 2, often in the form of text – lots of text. I realize that wasn't Disc 2's only problem, as the team had to rush the last half of the game, but that certainly didn't help matters.
You may recall that a lot of the staff behind Xenogears left Square to create MonolithSoft. Imagine that this staff had stayed at Square. Instead of forming MonolithSoft and making Xenosaga, which could only allude to Xenogears, but not directly reference it due to copyright issues, imagine that they had released true Episodes I, II, etc. of Xenogears. Not Xenosaga, not Xenoblade, not anything else – but episodes that really followed and fleshed out the Perfect Works timeline. Wouldn't that have been something? Yes, in the real world, you could loosely connect Xenosaga to Xenogears, but you could only match it up to a degree. And let's face it, who wants to believe that Citan Uzuki's ancestor was as high-strung, gullible and generally annoying as Shion? It doesn't help that the Xenosaga series, meant to span six episodes, stopped at 3. There was so much story left untold!
With true Xenogears episodes, we could have seen a more direct buildup to the fifth episode. Perhaps we would have gotten a clearer picture of how things led to the ship crash-landing, or even of life on that ship before the crash. What about Krelian, Sophia, and more about Abel himself? How did they go about this new world as they populated it, and adopt the philosophies that they did? To see what was explained in Xenogears actually played out as a video game, rather than thrown at players in flashbacks and hundreds of paragraphs of text, would certainly undo much of the confusion. Perhaps we would even feel a connection to characters who are supposed to be integral to the Xenogears universe. This is not necessarily the fault of the story itself, but rather the horrid pacing and the fact that they had so much ground to cover. Even for an 80 hour game, it was a tall order, and in the end, not everything was entirely clear, but that is where the sixth episode was supposed to come in.
You could argue that Xenogears and Xenosaga had similarities even in the battle system, with different buttons producing different attacks to string together combos. Unfortunately for Xenosaga, the battles were executed poorly, and were rather tedious more often than not, at least in the first episode. The mech designs also left much to be desired. Things did improve over the next two episodes, but the battles never seemed as quick and fun as they were in Xenogears. Certainly, they weren't perfect in Xenogears either (the Gear battles were more enjoyable, and whenever Citan had a sword it was an assault on your ears and speakers), but those issues could have been tweaked, improved and built upon in subsequent episodes. This is also true for other areas of Xenogears – its blend of 2D and 3D graphics were certainly charming twelve years ago, but they haven't aged well at all.
That's not to say that Xenosaga was a bad series in real life. It had its merits, such as its story (especially Albedo) and its cleaner visuals, but much of its shelf life was spent in the rather large shadow of Xenogears, and the fact that it simply couldn't legally be (and was never supposed to be) Xenogears was its major fault in the eyes of many fans.