I'm not sure I can write about how much I've fallen in love with Xenogears in just a few short paragraphs. Playing this classic for the first time was nerve-wracking; It's a game that's often banded around with the words "masterpiece" and "disappointment," and these two juxtaposing words left me feeling apprehensive. Yet, once I dived into the game, Xenogears clicked with me immediately. As a game that's remembered more for what it could've been, Xenogears can appear to fall a little short of expectations. Its expanded universe, theories and ideas are not all explored, and disc 2's famously cutscene-heavy approach was enough to turn people away, but I feel like players who gave up before the final hurdle have missed out on a spectacular game.
I adore what Xenogears is because its so crammed full of ideas. It feels like a game that had so much effort ploughed into it, and it gives so much back. It's got heart, which I don't get from many games these days. Xenogears' characters are not your typical ragtag group of heroes, but all with their faults and flaws. You're not meant to like them immediately, rather the way each of them grows and develops compelled me to root for them as they challenged the very order that held the world back. It's a game that doesn't have villains per se, rather obstacles who feel they too are doing right by the world and see their vision as ideal. The threads of a world created and formed over thousands of years finally come together and create one of the most satisfying and compelling narratives in video game history. It's complicated in scope, but the slow burn and gradual revelations throughout make the entire narrative digestible, enjoyable, and most of all satisfying.
The game has its fair share of issues, such as clunky controls, a sometimes repetitive battle system and some threads which are ultimately left unresolved, but as far as unpolished gems go, this one stands out among the best. Xenogears has become one of my all time favourite games: Elly and Citan have become two of my favourite characters ever; Mitsuda's soundtrack has swept me off my feet; Fei and Elly's generation-defying love has left me in tears. I could go on forever about everything I love about Xenogears, and there's so much I haven't been able to cover. It's 65 hours of my life I don't want back, and when I get the chance to play it again, I'll happily waste another 65 hours in a heartbeat. Thank you for giving me the chance to play this, Retro Encounter.
Xenogears was one of the first RPGs I ever played, and it has long been my go-to answer whenever someone asks me what my favorite RPG of all time is. But it's been almost two decades since I first played it, and my taste in games has changed quite a bit as I've matured. So as I booted up the game for Retro Encounter, I found myself pondering whether this PS1 classic would still hold up after 18 years. The short answer is yes, yes it does.
Oh sure, the game hasn't aged particularly well. The combination of 2D sprites and 3D backgrounds, which were charming back in the '90s, look pretty dated by today's standards. Navigating those 3D environments, with the limited camera control and the game's annoying habit of plunging you into battle in the middle of a crucial jump, can be particularly aggravating. The anime cutscenes, while pretty, are marred by the horribly lip-synced voice acting. And then there's the second disc, which is perhaps the most obvious evidence of a game being rushed to completion in the history of RPGs, although I still maintain that it's not as bad as most people make it out to be.
Despite all of that, there is still something undeniably compelling about Xenogears, and it's in large part due to the epic, engrossing story. This is a game where the plot stretches back over 10,000 years, and while it may not seem that large at the start, the further you play, the deeper the story becomes. Even knowing the game as well as I do, I often found myself freaking out all over again at the plot twists and character revelations that take place throughout the game. By the time I finished my playthrough, I was completely reassured that my answer to the "what's your favorite RPG of all time" question is still valid after all these years.
And the music! Even if the story weren't as good as I remembered it, the brilliance of Yasunori Mitsuda's score would be hard to ignore. Except that main battle theme. That can just go dive off a cliff, along with the main battle theme from Chrono Cross.
Xenogears is a very silly game. Entering production when Neon Genesis Evangelion was at the height of its popularity in Japan, Xenogears wears its Hideaki Anno influences plainly on its sleeve; From its angsty, Oedipal protagonist, to its liberal use of religious iconography to stylish, if not shallow ends. Xenogears has a central character named Lacan, but its themes are almost exclusively Freudian. It has a nanomachine colony that takes the form of a preteen girl (of course). It has overt references to the abhorrent Hitler Jugend program. It even has a cute mouse mascot that grows to titanic size before it finds itself crucified alongside robots in Golgotha. Xenogears is high concepts and bizarre tonal shifts, crammed into a clown car driven by lofty ambition while limited budget calls shotgun.
And yet, it works. For all of Xenogears' over-the-top and hyperbolic style, there's a lot of wonderful substance to be found, and all of its seemingly disparate elements come together in a strangely affecting whole. Takahashi, Saga, Kato and the rest of the team managed to create a one-of-a-kind world, in which several factions with vastly different ideals attempt to impose their own grand narrative on the planet's unwitting populace. There's no black-and-white Empire-VS-Rebels here, rather an infinitely more complex saga filled with genocide and oppression facilitated by double and triple agents. Xenogears' story may be silly and convoluted at times, but it's a lot of fun to think about, and its character motivations are remarkably consistent for a JRPG of its era.
Xenogears offers a glimpse into a different Squaresoft than the one we know today — a burgeoning developer at their most risky and experimental. The three-stage Bunraku of Machine, Man and God offered by Xenogears might just be the jewel in Square's late-'90s crown, and one that deserves to be experienced by any JRPG aficionado.