"A new chapter in RPG..." These words, interspersed with a variety of cryptic comments about "the secrets of science" and how "rumours about the true nature of the body are to be suppressed" appeared in the mysterious opening montage of a trailer, released in the US in 1998, for Squaresoft´s forthcoming RPG epic, Xenogears. I saw this trailer on the bonus disc that came with Square´s disappointing Parasite Eve, and was immediately intrigued by what I saw; a blend of what looked like superbly designed mecha, anime and FMV cut-scenes, haunting music, thrilling concepts, and of course the expectation of grand storytelling, given Square´s excellent performance in this period with games like FFVII and VIII. This was a game I had to have, and it was not easy due to the fact that I soon found the game was never released in the UK, and it was for this title that I eventually took the time to get my PlayStation modified to play games from other regions. Soon enough, the game was in my hands.... and I was far from disappointed. This game delivered everything it promised, and much more, and remains the most compelling and moving game I have played to date. A new chapter indeed.
Xenogears plays similarly to all the Square RPGs of the time, control of a main protagonist and a party of other characters, a world to explore as the story progresses, a turn-based battle system, and a well-balanced learning curve. The gameplay aspects were not groundbreaking, but stuck to rules that most certainly worked. One exciting addition, however, was the ability to fight both hand-to-hand as well as in huge humanoid machines with statistics and upgradability all their own. Four years on, the graphics are nothing to write home about anymore, though they are more than adequate to tell the tale.... and it is the story, told through a great amount of in-game dialogue, that makes this game the recognised epic it has become. Although, if it was only the story that was superb, then Xenogears might as well have just been a book. Not so, because regardless of the technical capabilities of the time, the game boasts absolutely stunning character, mechanical and location designs, as well as first-class direction and pacing, and a beautiful soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda. So on the contrary, this is a game that truly does make the most of the computer game medium in bringing to life an astounding interactive cinematic experience. This is much more like an epic sci-fi film than a book, and an 80+ hour highly involving film at that.
From the outset, the storytelling quality of the game is clear. It opens with an anime movie set in deep space, depicting the highly mysterious system failure of an immense colony-sized spacecraft as its crew frantically analyse some force that seems to be growing inside the ship´s computers and hacking it´s way to domination. As the ship very quickly goes on red alert and starts evacuation, the malevolent force begins to take over the course of the journey and tries to set a course for a place called the "main planet". The monitors on the bridge cease to function properly and instead menacingly repeat the phrase "you shall be as gods" in deep red letters. This seems to be the final straw for the captain of the ship, who seems to know more about what is happening than is apparent, and he immediately orders the rest of the main personnel to evacuate. In a chilling moment backed by a ghostly choir, the captain retreats slowly to his office amidst all the clamour and sits in his chair overlooking the gargantuan hull of his craft. Taking one last fond look at a locket with a picture of his wife and daughter, he enters the self destruct command at the ship´s controls and takes the most drastic measure possible to stop this new force from making any journey. In an immense explosion, the ship is destroyed in space and the wreckage caught by the gravity of a small nearby planet. An uncertain time later, we swoop down to this very planet, to a peaceful beach where the sun is setting, and there lies scattered tons of wreckage. Astonishingly, amidst the debris, a single figure is huddled, completely unharmed, a beautiful female with long blue hair. As the intro finishes, she rises to her feet and looks sadly out to the horizon as she sees more wreckage falling from orbit in the sky far away. As the booklet to the game says, this was "the day that "god" and "humankind" fell to earth".
The game actually begins nearly 10,000 years after these events, and it takes many hours play to determine the significance of that disaster far above the world. Now, we are suddenly thrown into the midst of a world torn apart by a centuries-long war. We play from the point of view of a young man, Fei Fong Wong, a painter and martial artist living in the peaceful village of Lahan, where he was brought by a stranger three years before. He has no memory of anything before that time. The gentle opening in Lahan is soon cut short by the presence of the war, as two mysterious groups of giant robotic fighting machines, called Gears, land in the village and cause great destruction by fighting there. And something about the event seems too convenient… Torn apart by the killing at his home, Fei leaves Lahan in search of a new place to go, and possibly the answers to who he is and where he came from. Soon, he is caught up in the events of the war, and eventually far more besides. Xenogears tale grows in scope with every hour of play that passes, piling mystery upon mystery, suspicious character upon suspicious character, until at last unravelling the amazingly complex web of history in a shocking revelation of what the last ten millennia on this planet have beheld. The game explores a great many philosophical, ethical, and psychological themes, going to great lengths to shape characters that are thoughtful and curious, and the probing criticisms of religion featured in the game almost resulted in it not being released at all in the western world. It is the brilliance of how intricately the world and history of Xenogears has been designed that makes it so special even compared to newer and far better looking games.
On the whole, this game is a stroke of genius, and it can be seen as one of Square´s biggest mistakes (along with the Final Fantasy film) that it was never released in the PAL territories, where I am certain it would have been even more warmly received than it has by those who imported the game anyway. At the time of writing, the prequel to the game, Xenosaga, has just been released in the US, developed by the same team and exploring events from further back in the timeline even before the colony ship disaster. Players of Xenogears will know how intriguing this idea is, and we can only hope that the series' new publisher Namco has enough sense to release Xenosaga everywhere.