Updated: August 22, 2016
This is not a review. This is simply me pouring my passion into a largely unorganized post. I’ve long wanted to write something like this for archival purposes.
To begin with, I think it’s necessary to establish some context. I began playing JRPGs in the mid/late-90s as a kid and one of the earliest titles to capture me was Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger, a game still beloved to this day by many. I’ll leave fanboying over Chrono Trigger for another time, but it does serve as an important preface to this discussion; it introduced me to legendary music composer Yasunori Mitsuda and scriptwriter Masato Kato, both who were also involved in Xenogears. So when I played Xenogears in the early 2000s I was already intrinsically attracted to it due to hearsay — the fact that some of Chrono Trigger‘s development team was involved excited me. Of course it was in retrospect years later that I actually had the capacity to do all this research in detail.
I have a lot of respect for series director Tetsuya Takahashi and his wife Soraya Saga as visionaries. Both were major players in legendary titles like Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI, and Takahashi himself was even involved in Chrono Trigger. Takahashi was growing frustrated with design choices outside of his control and wanted to create his own project. Soraya Saga (then Kaori Tanaka) penned a story idea that, through twists and turns and a rejected Final Fantasy VII script, eventually became Xenogears. It’s an extremely ambitious project with a lot of history and significance as two crucial Squaresoft employees cut divisions to draft their own thing. They were not satisfied with Xenogears simply being another typical JRPG that fit into the established mold. There’s a lot to read about its production history, but in an effort to save time and space and avoid redundancy, I’ll refer you to this resource.
Xenogears is long, ambitious, complex, dialogue-heavy, and clearly intended for a more mature audience with the themes and topics it covers. It has a massive script even by today’s standards, and most of it is contained within the game’s actual main story. This complements its large scope as a project; it has a story spanning over thousands of years across multiple eras of a planet’s history. There are also detailed planned settings in supplementary material (Perfect Works) which span across tens of thousands of years, with enough content to last a lifetime of theory and discussion that still continue to this day. There are modern-era JRPGs which do satisfy me in these type of criteria–the Ar Tonelico and Trails series come to mind–and I’m vaguely aware of some Japanese-only titles as well, but Xenogears was definitely a hallmark as a mainstream Squaresoft title. I experienced it as an impressionable young teen and it has had a lasting effect on me. It has honestly shaped the way I examine video game and anime stories.
There’s a lot to like in Xenogears. A lot for me to like, at least. It’s a sci-fi/mecha story with lots of cool giant robots, one of the most convincing love stories I can think of in this type of medium, a massive detailed world, and a masterful soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda (it’s one of the few video game soundtracks I own a physical copy of). It discusses topics like philosophy, science, reincarnation, religion, sex, politics, racism, slavery, and the themes of Gnosticism are used smartly to deal with the pretense of a false God to discover and reaffirm real “Godhood”. On top of it all the game just oozes passion. Takahashi and Saga essentially projected themselves and all their various thoughts and ideas and the things they liked as a couple and weaved it into a story. There are loads of references to film, historical events and figures, religious text and scripture, novels and literature, anime and manga, and other video games.
You can spend hours examining Xenogears and listing all the things it draws influence from. Most notably are its obvious influences from previous Squaresoft titles. For example, Soraya Saga was responsible for the characters and stories of Final Fantasy VI‘s Figaro brothers (Edgar and Sabin); this bleeds through in Bart’s character background and role in Xenogears‘ story. I’d even wager that Celes from Final Fantasy VI may have been used as a base reference in drafting Elly’s character and story. There are Chrono Trigger references and Easter eggs everywhere, and the floating city Shevat does bare some resemblance to Chrono Trigger‘s Zeal (not to mention the Shevat arc was Masato Kato’s primary scriptwriting contribution to the game). This is very clearly still a Squaresoft JRPG and the game doesn’t hide the fact, but rather embraces it.
My focus in this discussion will be on mecha anime. Tetsuya Takahashi and Soraya Saga are known fans of giant robots – it’s said they even enjoy playing the Super Robot Wars games with their son. It’s no surprise that Xenogears is reminiscent of mecha anime from the 80s and 90s and borrows a lot from them. A lot of mecha stories from this time period bare similarities to one another, Xenogears being no exception, but I’d like to highlight some parallels that pop out in my mind;
- It’s often compared to Neon Genesis Evangelion, perhaps unfairly because Xenogears was conceptualized before Evangelion even aired. A lot of mecha anime are accused of doing this, whether superficially or not. Nevertheless, both are notorious for referencing loads of other fictional works. For instance, both pay heavy tribute to science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both have religious undertones, both involve a father figure who acts as a protector and enforcer, and Citan’s role in the story is not unlike Kaji’s. Parallels can also be drawn between the Gazel Ministry and SEELE. And the protagonists in both works deal with identity crises and are self-analyzed and psycho-analyzed throughout the course of the plot.
- And, of course, there’s Space Runaway Ideon, which itself was a heavy influence on Evangelion. Xenogears–and the Xeno series as a whole–brings to question “who are we?, where did we come from?, where are we going?”; Ideon too focuses on these cosmological curiosities, but in a larger, more catastrophically grandiose scale. Comparisons can also be drawn between the Ide from Ideon and Id from Xenogears; both are beings or identities which “awaken” at the call of the innocent struggles they oversee. Both stories also put heavy emphasis on opposing Ide/Id and breaking free from the inner and outer conflict they bring to the main character(s).
- There are similarities to G Gundam. Both involve martial artists with defined fighting styles who incorporate their techniques into giant robot combat. Both also involve a mysterious masked adversary who doubles as a surrogate mentor to the protagonist. Furthermore, both involve a father figure who serves as an antagonist and is a master of the martial arts style of the protagonist–he can even do battle with giant robots while on foot. The Weltall-2 and its System Id are reminiscent of the God Gundam and its Hyper Mode, and the Alpha Weltall’s posture is strikingly similar to the Master Gundam’s. To add to all this, the final story moments in Xenogears are actually quite similar to G Gundam’s. They say it’s no secret that G Gundam‘s an influence, and it’s not unreasonable to say there’s a bit of a Imagawa touch to the work as a whole (no Wuxia elements though…).
- Although Turn A Gundam aired after Xenogears was released, they do have some basic plot similarities. To be honest, this isn’t something I had given considerable thought until recent years, and it is possible this is a result of War of the Worlds influences than anything else. But, both Turn A and Xenogears involve land-dwelling humans being “invaded” by people of the “sky” with technological prowess far beyond their own. Both involve a sky-dwelling woman in authority who’s forced by circumstance to spend a considerable amount of time with the land-dwellers, away from her people. To add to this, in both stories the protagonist is mesmerized by her and does everything in his power to guarantee her well-being. Themes of dual-identity are present in both, both involve the excavation of ancient ruins, artifacts, and weaponry, and both also deal with an agenda-seeking villain who doesn’t take center stage until the latter half of the story.
- Maria Balthasar’s Gear, the Seibzehn, and how she operates it are clearly a reference to Giant Robo. The Super Dimension Gear Yggdrasil is a reference to the SDF Macross from Macross. The G-Element and its combination sequence are a reference to popular 90s Yuusha anime. This list can go on…
… these are just a few examples off the top of my head. There are tons of smaller homages thrown in as well, and you can probably draw plot similarities to many other anime too. For instance, I’ve seen Xenogears being compared to Neo Ranga but I haven’t seen the show myself. My point being Xenogears has a lot of established mecha anime elements to it, for better or worse. It effectively combines the best of two worlds: a classical JRPG experience infused with elements from mecha anime, and I really value that. Because to be honest, I can’t really think of any other JRPG that does it to the extent Xenogears does, likely due to being a product of its time.
I can’t go without talking about the character cast, because they have been an influential bunch for me, especially Citan and Elly. Although I don’t now see him as a prime example of the archetype, I consider Citan (along with Piccolo from Dragon Ball) responsible for drawing me in towards “wise-old-men” or mentor-type characters in anime and video games. As a teen and preteen I was very fascinated by his knowledge and know-how and general badassery. His guidance and trickery and ability to move the plot forward steered me along, and how he shapes Fei (the protagonist) into who he is really is quite interesting. Of course, as you grow older and replay the game you realize things you might not have when young (WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS, but this article is hilarious if you’ve played the game!). Ellehaym’s (Elly) one of my favorite female characters in fiction, and I’ve been passionate about her for so long. I really like her character and backstory: marked by tragedy, thrown into a position of power, and forced to make difficult decisions and grow as an adult. Her overall design and aesthetic are nice, and the relationship she has with Margie is strong and endearing — both being young women in leadership roles who can relate to the struggles they each face. And, well, I actually like the Fei x Elly romance; it’s very well prepared and developed. It’s a very powerful multi-generational romantic destiny that much of the game’s plot actually revolves around.
And I just have a very storied history with the game’s community. I was active on and lurked various Xenogears fansites and discussion forums in the early/mid 2000s. XGAM, Xenotensei, Guardian Angels, and GameFAQs all had very useful articles and threads for discussion. The Xenosaga trilogy rejuvenated the communities to new heights, and Xenoblade Chronicles brought in even more discussion, despite its initially controversial response from the fanbase. It’s a damn shame Takahashi and Saga’s visions were never truly realized and likely never will be, as Squaresoft still owns the rights to Xenogears… but I think Xenosaga and now Xenoblade X have carried the torch reasonably well.
I’ll admit there is a lot to complain about in Xenogears if you examine it from a critical perspective. This is not a review, so I’m not going to go into detail, but it’s obviously an unfinished game, and I don’t just mean the infamous second disc. Even in the first disc a lot of plot threads are left underdeveloped and you can tell a lot more was planned. It also suffers from being terribly dated and having PSX-era gameplay elements that I can’t in good faith argue in favor of today. It also doesn’t help that the localization isn’t particularly good; the community took great measures over many years to pinpoint out all the inaccuracies and translation errors that are present. Still, in my mind it’s managed to stand the test of time on the strength of its merits alone.
I think when it comes down to it, I played Xenogears at a very critical part of my adolescence. It introduced me to many things and defined a lot of my tastes thereon. It’s not a game I’d freely recommend to others, but if you like 90s JPRGs and/or mecha anime, I do think it’s worth keeping on your radar. For me it’s an experience I’ll forever cherish.
Some of my personal Xenogears collection