Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The Xenosaga Trilogy: twenty years later.

Uh, before we start, I did not intend for this essay to be almost 4000 words long.  Buuuuuut, here we are.  So, yeah.  Oops.  I can really get going when I’m talking about things that I love.  My bad.


What is Xenosaga?  It’s a trilogy of games for the PS2, which takes place within the same universe as Xenogears on the PS1, and the Xenoblade Chronicles games on the Wii/Wii-U/Switch.  It’s an epic space opera that’s deeply rooted in philosophy, and the hidden meanings behind the myths that make up religion.  It manages to have religious undertones without being overtly religious.  It merely explores ideas put forth by Christianity from a standpoint of looking at the roots of Christian mythology and examining what sort of sci-fi metaphysical weirdness can be made up to explain them.  


You can watch a pretty good fan made trailer for the trilogy to get an idea of what the series is all about here:


So, one of the side effects of having zero social obligations outside of work for almost two years now is that I’ve had a lot of free time to myself to work through my videogame backlog.  All those games I picked up, thinking hey, this one looks good, maybe I’ll play it sometime.  Yeah, now I’ve played through most of those.  I was sitting there, looking at what was left, and kind of not really feeling like starting any of them.  I mean, I am down to the dregs here.  And, the thought of actually finding something productive to do with my time frightened me, so I thought, what’s a game I really enjoyed that I wouldn’t mind playing again.  And Xenosaga popped into my head.  How long has it been since I played through Xenosaga? 


Holy crap, that first game came out in February 2002. 


That’s almost twenty freaking years.


D’oh.  I’m old.


So, I went to my shelf, and grabbed the trilogy, then headed to my closet to dig out my PS2.  As Bandai Namco, who hold the distribution rights to this series, view the trilogy as a financial failure, they have never invested in porting it to any other systems.  It is available on PS2 and PS2 only.  I dusted off my trusty old PS2, and then went to Amazon to buy a PS2 to HDMI converter, because apparently my shiny new TV doesn’t have RCA ports on it.  So, a couple days later when that arrived, I plugged it all in, popped in Xenosaga Episode 1 and… crap.  My PS2 is so old that it no longer reads discs.  So, back to Amazon, how much does a PS2 go for these days.  TWO HUNDRED FREAKING DOLLARS!?!?!  That’s almost as much as they cost when they released over 20 years ago.  What the hell!  Over to Ebay, then.  Not much better.


But I was set on replaying these games.  What?  No!  Of course I didn’t spend $200 on a PS2.  I downloaded a freaking emulator, hooked my laptop up to my TV via HDMI, and played with a wireless Xbone controller.


So.  A bit of history for this series.  It first began with Xenogears for the PS1.  That was, despite its second disc, my favorite PS1 game.  It did a lot of things I’d never seen, story and character-wise, in a videogame before.  It was kind of more of an adult sort of story, with questions about the meaning of existence, uncovering the truths behind the myths that make up religion, and defining oneself.  It was a game that wasn’t afraid to treat me like an adult instead of a kid.  At one time it was in the running to be Final Fantasy 7, but it was deemed to be to philosophical and religious, and was released as its own thing.  Unfortunately, the team working on the game ran through their entire budget before reaching the end of the game, and when they asked Squaresoft for more, they were given just enough money to slap together a quick visual novel style ending for the game that many people found to be very unsatisfying.  I was annoyed by it, but I loved the story, the characters, and the world so much that I replayed that game several times, looking for all the hidden meanings in everything.  And off course there is that infamous line of text at the end of the credits.  “End of Xenogears Episode 5.”  Whaaaaaaaaat?  There was going to be more of these?  Did I miss four others?  To the fledgling internet, I must know!!!  Yeah, no, they were just pulling a George Lucas and telling a later part of the story first.


Fast forward a few years, and it was announced that Tetsuya Takahashi, the creator of Xenogears, had left Squaresoft to form his own company Monolith Soft, and struck a deal with Bandai Namco to produce a six game series taking place within the same universe as Xenogears called Xenosaga.  I was so incredibly hyped for these games.  A continuation of the game that I’d loved so much?  Maybe those 4 missing Xenogears episodes that were teased at the end of the credits?  Hell yeah!  Sign me up!  So, I watched and waited eagerly for the games to release, Watching and rewatching trailers for the game over, and over, and over again, which brings us to 2002 when the first game finally came out.


So.  Xenosaga Episode 1.  It was all I had hoped it would be and more.  It’s a completely new story with a lot of the same themes, philosophical ideas, and religious undertones as Xenogears, but with new characters and in a new setting.  An alien race called the Gnosis are slowly but steadily wiping humanity from the galaxy in the distant future, while Shion Uzuki, a software engineer, and our main protagonist, is developing weapons to fight against them.  There are half a dozen different factions, all with different goals, vying for dominance while the end of humanity is visible not too far off on the horizon.  It is truly epic in scope, but doesn’t forget that an epic story is nothing without well developed and sympathetic characters.  There are certain things that tie Saga to Gears, but they’re pretty subtle, and you don’t need to play one to enjoy the other.  There are things like the Zohar, Anima Relics, and the Wave Existence that exist within both stories, etc.


So, was the game as good as I remembered it being?  Well, yes and no.  The story and characters are still amazing.  But the English translation is terrible, and the voice acting isn’t much better.  The gameplay and graphics are very dated.  Your character moves at a snail’s pace.  The battle animations are ridiculously long and cannot be skipped or sped up in any way, and it has a lot of sections where there’s just a ton of pointless backtracking toward no real end but making the game longer.  There are also some pretty hefty difficulty spikes early on in the game.  It is not balanced very well AT ALL.  The game was also heavily censored for the English release, removing several scenes deemed to be too intense, and removing a fair quantity of blood.  But oh man, that story and those characters.  I loved it.  Even with the clunky gameplay, bad acting, and terrible translation.  It’s still a great, great game even now, twenty years later.  While playing through it, I was constantly saying to myself, this game is so good.  This game is better than I remembered it being.  Man, I love this game.


The game sold pretty well, but not amazingly so.  It made money, but only just.  It also had a lot of criticism.  People didn’t like the way that the story is told through long sections of prerendered CG cutscenes.  There are some very long sections where you’re more watching the game than playing it.  It was also pretty short.  You can do a full completion of the game in under 30 hours.  These two things are pretty typical by today’s standards, but back then, people got pretty annoyed at the number of cutscenes, and the fact that the game wasn’t 60+ hours in length.


So.  That brings us to Xenosaga Episode two, which released 2 years later.  I don’t think I have ever been more hyped for anything in my life than I was for this game.  And it did not disappoint me.  It was better than I hoped it would be.  The game also ends with one of the most epic cliffhangers I’ve ever seen in a videogame.  Now, this game is the “controversial” one in the trilogy.  People really seem to HATE this game.  The focus shifts from Shion, the main protagonist in the first game to Jr., who was more of a side character that didn’t really enter into the first game until about halfway through.  And Shion is basically sidelined for a pretty large portion of this game while we delve into Jr.’s backstory.  But, as Jr. was a pretty intriguing character in his own rights, I wasn’t mad at the shift of focus from Shion over to him.  I still really like Shion, she’s my favorite character in the series, but I understood that Jr. really needed to be the focus of this story.  People were angry that instead of cutting down on cutscenes like they wanted, Monolith Soft doubled down and added in far more cutscenes than in the first game.  They also created an entirely new battle and skill system, and whoo-boy, that battle and skill system.


To call the battle system complicated would be an understatement.  It is ridiculously complex, and it requires a fair bit of strategy to get through even fights against trash mobs.  Enemies have weak and strong zones in a paper rock scissors sort of thing, and every enemy is different with its weaknesses.  And then there is a break mechanic, and a knockdown mechanic, and a boost to skip enemy turns mechanic that all have to be mastered and utilized or else the game will just completely steamroll you, because it uses all of those things against you at every opportunity.  The game also breaks its own rules on how the battle system functions on several of the boss fights to artificially make the fights more difficult.  It also does an EXTREMELY poor job of explaining how it all works to the player.  I had to look up a guide to explain it to me in detail the first time I played this game, because I was getting slaughtered on just normal trash mobs, much less boss fights.  Luckily you don’t have to remember what each enemy’s weak zones are, because there’s a skill you can unlock that will remember them for each enemy type you encounter after you figure out what its weakness is.  That is, of course, if you can figure out how the skill system works.  The first time I played this game I didn’t even realize that there was a skill system until I was almost halfway through the game.  That is how poorly the game explains things to you.  The skill system is also overly complicated and pretty clunky to use.  The battle system is so unwieldly that it even the simplest of fights can take forever to get through, and boss battles can last upwards of 30-45 mins.  This is not helped by the fact that the battle animations, like in the first game, are extremely slow, with no way to speed them up.  Back in the day, when 3d character models were kind of a new thing, gamers were awed by intricate battle animations.  They were a brand new thing that added to the experience.  Now-a-days, we’ve all seen it and ain’t nobody got time for that no more, but back in the early 2000s, that was just the way that games were made, and nobody complained because we didn’t know better, and we were still being dazzled by the graphics.


And so, all of these things kind of pissed a lot of people off, and turned them away from the series.  And even so, I still love the game.  It’s a perfect continuation of the story, delving deeper into the mysteries, while also advancing the plot and the characters.  But, Xenosaga 2 still outsold Xenosaga 1, despite the backlash.  Again, the sales were respectable, but not amazing.  So, as Monolith Soft was gearing up to head into production for the third game in the series, Bandai Namco came to them and told them that the series was underperforming, and they had one game to finish their story. 


So, they took the story that would have been Xenosaga 5 and 6 and they crammed them into what would become the Xenosaga Episode 3 that we have today.  It’s pretty blatant that this is the story of two games in one, as there is a very distinct climax and cliffhanger cutting off point that was clearly meant to be the end of game 5.  But what about the story for Xenosaga 3 and 4?  Why, thank you for asking, random imaginary person I made up to ask that question.  The story for what would have been Xenosaga 3 and 4 was stripped down to it’s very, very, very bare bones and released in a six episode visual novel, which was, of course, never officially released outside of Japan. 


All together, the visual novel parts add up to being about 90 mins long, and it’s basically just a couple of the voice actors telling you a brief summary of what the games would have been.  It’s pretty unsatisfying, and extremely low budget, if I’m being honest.  The problem is that some elements of the third game do not make any sense at all without having seen this visual novel first.  Shion does a bit of recapping the events that happen between the games, but she doesn’t go into enough detail to make it all gel and make sense.  A lot of it is left to your imagination, which can be pretty annoying.  It wasn’t until years later that I was able to find an English fan translation on youtube, and finally fill myself in on the missing elements of the story.


You can find the fan translations I watched here:


Bandai Namco had so little faith in the international sales of this game that they only produced a limited quantity of the English discs.  Basically, if you didn’t preorder this game, you probably never saw it in a store.  And it was never even released officially in Europe.  There are even stories floating around on the internet that people who did preorder it never got their copies, because Bandai Namco didn’t send out enough copies to cover the preorders that some stores had taken for the game.  It was this mess that prompted Nintendo of America to pass on translating and releasing Xenoblade Chronicles, the next game in the Xeno series, until the fan outrage reached epic levels.  And even then, they botched it with a craptastic Gamestop exclusivity deal that managed to piss pretty much everyone off, including Gamestop.


Anyway, when this game came out, I was pretty disappointed with it.  I can’t even remember why.  Fifteen years ago me was a freaking idiot.  This game is amazing, and it is now my favorite one of the trilogy.  Now that I know what happens in the year between Xenosaga 2 and 3, the story makes a lot more sense.  The battle and skill systems were simplified, streamlined, and BLESSEDLY sped up.  The graphics were improved upon.  The focus shifts back to Shion as the main protagonist, and man does this game put her through the wringer.


There are a few things you’re probably going to notice right off in this game.  The first is the sound design.  For some unfathomable reason, someone thought jacking the volume on your character’s footsteps up to 11 was a great idea.  It’s kind of annoying.  There are also several sections where someone is repeating something endlessly over an intercom in the background and it can get pretty annoying.  The next thing you’ll probably notice is that there are nowhere near as many prerendered CG cutscenes in this game as in the previous two.  This was done to save time and money, and help facilitate cramming two games worth of story into one game.  The first game had something like 7 hours of prerendered cutscenes.  The second had 12.  This one has 3.  Instead, we have rudimentary in engine graphics giving simple motions corresponding with what’s happening, while the story is told through dialog text boxes that are voiced over it.  Oddly enough, for me at least, this made me feel more like I was playing the game rather than watching it.  Strange that such a lowering in quality in the visuals of story scenes would be more immersive than the prerendered cutscenes, eh?


This game has far more censoring than either of the two previous games in the trilogy.  And there are some pretty egregious edits here.  The complete removal of blood from the game leads to some hilariously bad scenes where the blood is a big part of what is happening.  A young version of Shion trying to pour her dead mother’s blood back into her because she doesn’t understand what death is and thinks she can fix her by doing so comes to mind.  Imagine a scene where she’s doing that, but her hands are completely empty because the censors removed all the blood.


The ending is a little rushed, and it’s pretty open ended.  Things are resolved, and it is a clear ending in the story, but there’s room for more stories if ever they decide to continue it.  But I loved it.  Like I said, after replaying the whole trilogy, this game is now my favorite of the three.   Shion is a great protagonist that goes through so much horrible crap through all three games before she finally comes out the other end stronger and better for it.  She’s not perfect.  She makes mistakes.  Hell, she even joins the villains at one point in the game because she’s so desperate for someone who will show her even a little bit of love and kindness, and accept her for who she is.  It makes her overcoming everything and realizing that what she was really looking for is the ability to forgive, love and accept herself that more impactful. 


A character like this would just never exist in modern media.  No female character is allowed to be anything short of perfect these days, which makes them very boring and hard to relate to.  Any big character moments are completely undercut by the fact that they’re never wrong, completely incapable of failure of any sort, and have nothing to really overcome and earn that story moment.  But a character who is suffering from things I’ve suffered from, who is looking for the meaning in her own existence, and who keeps getting beaten down repeatedly over the course of the story, but still finds the strength to stand back up again.  That’s a character who is meaningful to you long after the ending of the story.  That’s going to stick with you.  That’s a character you’re going to remember.  Who is going to teach you things about yourself.  A character that you can stand up and root for when the odds are long, and cheer for when she finally overcomes. 


It just really illustrates how completely awful modern media is at the portrayal of strong female characters to me.  Strength comes from more places than just a character's muscles.  A character can be strong without being an ultimate badass in a fight.  The ability to endure, and stand back up again when the world slams you to the ground is another, and frankly more meaningful, way of showing one's strength.  A character that doesn’t earn her eventual triumph in the end isn’t a character worth remembering.  For example, if she didn’t have the Star Wars brand attached to her, would you even remember who Rey “Skywalker” even was at this point?  Can you remember ANYTHING that she did?  Can you name one single defining personality trait that she has, or quote a single line of memorable dialog that she gives? Neither can I. Did the Captain Marvel movie earn her Carol's moment of triumph at the end of her movie through overcoming any sort of adversity?  What's that, she just remembers dealing with shit literally every human being on this earth deals with on a daily basis and pretends that overcoming it is some epic triumph?  Yeah, fuck you Captain Marvel writers, you have failed to write a character that is even the slightest bit compelling or unique.  She's not even uniquely bad, because characters exactly like her bland, unrelatable ass are popping up in all forms of American media.  Shion earns it by having a dark and tragic past that is deeply explored throughout the trilogy, being shown to fail time and time again, being visibly beaten down by the horrors of her life, and, when faced with her own death, decides to deny the villain what he wants, something that SHE also wants very much, for the greater good.  Choosing to sacrifice her life, if need be, to do the right thing, instead of the thing that she feels she deserves after all that she’s been through.


Do you see the difference?


So.  The question is: Is the Xenosaga Trilogy worth playing in 2021? 


Yes.  It absolutely is.  With some minor caveats.  It is a great story, about great characters.  It explores some really deep questions about the meaning of existence, and why we go on with our lives.  It delves into interesting questions about religion without pushing an overt religious message down your throat.  The gameplay and graphics are a bit dated.  Gameplay in the third game is more in line with modern JRPGs, while the first two games are pretty clunky, slow, and needlessly complicated to play.  These games have long been near the top of my list for favorite videogames of all time, and replaying them has only reaffirmed to me why they deserve to be there.  They are epic in scope, and emotionally meaningful.  That is, if you can get past the clunky gameplay, bad translation, silly censoring, and questionable acting in the first two games.


Now for the bad news.


These games were never released on any system but the PS2.  They never sold terribly well, which means there are limited copies existing in the world, especially for the third game.  A full set of all three can run you upwards of $400 these days.  And that is assuming that you have access to a working PS2, which, as I found out, I no longer do.  For most people, the only financially feasible way of playing these games would be to… ahem… sail the high seas, if you know what I mean.  If you can get your hands on copies of the games, or have no compunctions against piracy, I highly recommend them.  They are among my favorite games of all time.


(Note that I do not condone piracy, I’m only pointing out that the option exists for those with fewer scruples than me.  Yes, I did emulate the games to play through them this year, but I still own them.  I have the discs sitting on the shelf right over there.  I paid money for them, and I ripped the .ISOs from the discs myself to plug into the emulator.)


Also to note, there was a 12 episode anime series made of the first game.  It is extremely low budget, and the story is changed significantly.  It’s just not very good, and it kind of misses the point of the story entirely, so I wouldn’t recommend it.  But those games man.  They are amazing and beautiful.  Go play them, however you’re able to.

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