The Xenosaga trilogy – in retrospect

This is an elaboration of a pastebin I wrote a while back. I figure it had enough material to warrant a blog post.

During the course of 2014 and 2015 I replayed the Xenosaga trilogy, something I’d wanted to do for years. I originally played through the games in the mid-2000s as a high schooler, so I wanted to re-examine them as an adult. They’re clearly meant for a mature audience, and I wanted to experience them with a clearer and more competent mind. I’m writing this post to briefly share some thoughts.

It’s common knowledge that Xenosaga was an absolute production mess. What was originally planned as 6 games ended up barely being 3, and Monolith Soft underwent several changes in staff and staff roles after Xenosaga I that drastically affected the direction of the series. You can read about it in detail here.

The trilogy has a lot of historical significance to its conception and release. Tetsuya Takahashi had left Squaresoft after Xenogears to form his own company, Monolith Soft, and he took with him many of his staff. Takahashi had previously played a major role in titles like Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI, and Chrono Trigger and eventually sought to helm his own project – which became Xenogears. Squaresoft did not move forward with a sequel to Xenogears and that eventually led to Takahashi’s departure. It happened roughly around the time Squaresoft began merger talks with Enix, and the resulting Square-Enix would never be the same company it once was.

XENOSAGA: EPISODE I
As expected, the first title clearly catered to the Xenogears crowd and intended to carry its torch as best as it could amidst legal issues (Square-Enix held and still holds the rights to Xenogears…). Takahashi directed the game and his wife Soraya Saga returned to assist in script and storywriting; Kunihiko Tanaka returned to provide character designs, and legendary music composer Yasunori Mitsuda returned as well. The London Philharmonic Orchestra even performed several songs for the soundtrack. The game had several Xenogears staff involved and as a result was reasonably hyped up.

With that said, I have to admit I think nostalgia clouds a lot of judgement when it comes to Xenosaga I. Yes, it’s made “for me” (as a Xenogears fan), and I do like it for that, but it hasn’t aged well. One of Xenosaga I‘s claims to fame is its sheer length of total cutscene time… but in retrospect, this is kind of off-putting. There are just way too many cutscenes! Literally hours; the majority of the story is told through cinematic cutscenes, to the point that after a while you might begin wonder why they didn’t just make this a full-feature film instead of a video game. I understand the impact this had back in 2002, but I don’t find it a convincing form of storytelling in a JRPG. There needs to be a semblance of balance in storytelling technique. But hey, at least the plot’s good. It introduces  Shion and KOS-MOS and their personal stories and goes into detail in the Jr. and Albedo subplot. The basic premise even appears to borrow bits from Xenogears Perfect Works, much to fans’ content, and elements of Nietzsche, Jung, and Freud philosophy are thrown into the mix of things as well. Plot and character-wise, Xenosaga I contains all the elements needed for greatness, and perhaps on its own merit it can be considered as such. The actual gameplay unfortunately is dated; the battle system is relatively slow and simple and battles can drag. Everything in general just feels slow and clunky and transitions and loading times are very noticeable. It’s not entirely unfun though; I’d say despite its glaring issues, the game still holds up. It also has the benefit of being the last game to boast a truly masterful soundtrack by Mitsuda.

XENOSAGA: EPISODE II
I don’t think Xenosaga II is unplayably bad or anything, but it’s really rather hard to stomach. Monolith Soft underwent several changes after Xenosaga I and as a result, Takahashi was removed from directing duties and Soraya Saga had minimal involvement, if at all. Kunihiko Tanaka and Yasunori Mitsuda were not rehired. A lot of key players beloved to the fanbase were gone. The new character designs by Choco (the original designer for KOS-MOS) drew people away, and the soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura & Shinji Hosoe was not bad but uninspired. The original vision of the series was also now long gone. The sudden change to everything also just feels abrupt and jarring, as the story continues literally where Xenosaga I leaves off. Thankfully, perhaps due in part to Takahashi’s involvement, the story’s still decent even if it doesn’t feel nearly as “complete” as Xenosaga I‘s. It concludes the meat of the Jr. and Albedo subplot, which is nice, but as a result Shion and KOS-MOS are sidelined. Not a good thing, considering that they were introduced as the main characters to the series. On top of it all, the battle system is convoluted and frustrating and the game still suffers from an overabundance in cinematic cutscenes. To put it simply: Xenosaga II is not very good.

XENOSAGA: EPISODE III
The conclusion to the trilogy was meant as an apology to fans and intended to close out the series as best as it could. I think it accomplishes what it set out to do rather competently. Choco’s art style was brushed up and the resulting character designs are a massive improvement over Xenosaga II‘s. Yuki Kajiura composed the soundtrack entirely on her own this time, and it’s a lot more refined and fitting in style. Takahashi refused to direct the game but stayed on as an involved supervisor (I believe by this point he had already begun planning for Xenoblade Chronicles). Reportedly, a lot of the original ideas of Takahashi and Saga were used in Xenosaga III, so there was a sense of satisfaction from everyone involved. Oh, and Xenosaga III contains loads of Xenogears Easter eggs (more than the previous two games), which are fun fuel for fan theory.

Xenosaga III concludes Shion and KOS-MOS’ story and attempts to answer all other lingering threads. As a result, yes it does feel a little rushed. To add to this, a series of flash movies titled Xenosaga: A Missing Year are necessary to watch, as they connect Xenosaga II to Xenosaga III. Alternatively, you can read the very exhaustive databook that is conveniently provided to you in the game. What I like most about Xenosaga III is the “grand” and “finale” feel to it. It’s the epic conclusion to an extremely messy-yet-ambitious project. It amps up the religious symbolism, the Nietzsche-isms, and suggests some very interesting things in its ending. It even arguably drops some heavy Space Runaway Ideon references in the ending, which is pretty cool! Xenosaga III is lacking in a lot of the one-on-one character building scenarios that were present in previous games (which are generally accredited to Soraya Saga’s writing), but I think it circumvents the issue entirely by simply being very big-plot-oriented. The game wastes absolutely no time, and quite honestly it’s a very welcome change from the dragged-out feel of Episodes I&II. It helps that Xenosaga III has the best presentation style of the three games; most of the story is told through standard text boxes that can be read at one’s own pace, and the few cinematic events that are there carry a lot more weight — like for example, the KOS-MOS v. T-elos battle scenes. The gameplay has aged well too. Battles are simple and move quickly and aren’t bloated by long animations, and loading times and menu transitions are reasonable even by today’s standards.

In the past, I was of the opinion that Xenosaga I was the best in the trilogy, and while an argument can still be made for that, I now feel that Xenosaga III is a better overall product. I think I can even feel safe saying it’s one of my favorite JRPGs.

I might have come off as critical in a lot of what I wrote, but really I love the Xenosaga trilogy. It’s a hot mess, but it’s one I’ve grown close to and its staff and history. I’m a lifelong Xeno-series fan, I love all the games despite their flaws.

THE CHARACTERS
One thing I really like about Xenosaga is that it follows [mostly] the same set of characters in all three games. As a result, you begin to feel close to each and every one of them. What’s interesting is that they are all very unique; you have normal humans, non-humans, artificial humans, robots, ???’s, etc. It annoys me when sequels add a million new playable characters in new installments, so I’m glad something like Xenosaga exists to satisfy me in this particular criteria.  Here are some quick thoughts on the main characters.

Shion – I see her as a character who’s easy to appreciate but hard to like. I really wanted to like Shion on a personal level… she’s intelligent and attractive and her relationship with KOS-MOS is beautiful and compelling. I just can’t get over her obstacle with Kevin. I find him an unneeded character who bogs down Shion’s own personality and growth every time he’s mentioned, and this persists in all three games and manifests greatly in Xenosaga III.

KOS-MOS – A cool, badass, and loyal fighting robot. KOS-MOS is extremely likable and easy to root for. I also like all the subtleties that hint at her true reveal, which all comes together nicely near the end of Xenosaga III. Her personal story with Shion is beautiful and the sacrifices KOS-MOS makes really hit you in the gut

Jr. – The crux of Xenosaga, if you ask me. Not necessarily in an overall plot sense, but he’s the most involved character in all three games. His story and conflict are intertwined with MOMO, Ziggy’s, and a lot of the major named NPCs (like Albedo and Gaignum). He also exudes energy, passion, and leadership, and as a result comes off as the most relatable and “human”  character, despite, y’know, not being a normal being.

Ziggy – Ziggy’s not unlikable or annoying, but he is rather forgettable compared to the rest. His sense of duty to MOMO and composed nature are commendable, at least. Out of the entire cast, he’s the one that feels most like a plot point and less of a character, and I suppose someone had to suffer that fate.

MOMO – I really like her. On surface, she’s a standard case of “am I really alive?”; “who are my real parents?”; “is it okay for me to have feelings?” you see in other characters like her, but it stands out in a powerful way due to the amount of focus she’s given. MOMO slowly and meticulously develops a personality, and by Xenosaga III, I couldn’t help but feel she had grown tremendously and I had been there to witness it all.

chaos – Can’t really say much without going into spoiler territory, but he’s mysterious in a cool way. Plus he’s voiced by Soichiro Hoshi in Japanese, which is, well, fucking hilarious and fitting if you consider all the memes revolving around that character. chaos is definitely one of those characters who’s fun to analyze after you’ve played through the games and/or on a replay.

Jin – Jin’s obviously modeled after Citan from Xenogears, both in design and arguably in character. He’s lot less of a schemer than Citan though; he plays the role of a kinder older brother providing worldly advice and assistance to his troubled younger sister. I like his chivalrous rivalry with Margulis and think it’s one of the highlights of the game. Wish it had been a larger focus.

And that’s about all I have to say. Hope you enjoyed this largely unorganized thought dump.

-Feez

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