Active Time Battle: Xenogears

Active Time Battle is a chronicle of one man’s spirit journey to play damn near every Japanese Role Playing Game ever made. It is a life’s work. It is, literally, an ongoing battle against time. I sincerely doubt I can finish what I’ve started without succumbing to madness. Viewer discretion is advised.

Xenogears is one of history’s most beautiful trainwrecks. Xenogears is also the game that would have been, could have been Final Fantasy VII—having been originally pitched to be that game. I have made no secret of my adoration for that particular Squaresoft title. Knowing this, Xenogears had been on my radar for a very long time. I’d also been interested in checking out the collected works of Tetsuya Takahashi, the game’s director, for nearly as long. A series with as long and storied a history as Final Fantasy is inevitably going to have a ton of names attached to it at different points in time, and figuring out where the names attached to Final Fantasy and other major Japanese role-playing franchises came from and where they’ve gone since is one of the myriad objectives of this ridiculous mad quest I’ve found myself on.
So there was definitely an impetus for my playing Xenogears, one that predates Active Time Battle, but it took a few tries before I’d finally commit to playing the damn game. Each time I tried to knock Xenogears off my list, I’d get a short way into the game, save it, quit, and have a hard time going back. The game’s technical issues are front-and-center, some of the first things you’re greeted with when starting a new file. The text speed is laboriously slow, with no option to speed it up. The dialogue is wordy enough that this becomes an issue. I’ve likely spent more time waiting for Xenogears’ dialogue to slowly scroll out than I’ve spent completing other games. There’s also an intensely grating load time when opening and closing the game’s menus. Want to check your equipment? Hit the menu button. Wait two seconds. Go to the equipment menu. Equipment checked! I gotta hit the store. Hit the cancel button. Wait three seconds. Game resumes. Run to the store. Talk to the shop keeper. Wait two seconds. Buy equipment! Hit the cancel button. Wait three seconds. Game resumes.

I suppose I’d pin my initial resistance to playing Xenogears mostly on these two issues. The game’s opening sequences, while slow and uneventful, serve an important purpose in setting up the rest of the narrative, and I’d gotten far enough that Stuff Starts To Happen before quitting anyways, so that wouldn’t have been a concern. The game just didn’t do enough in those opening hours to earn my patience for its issues. In my time between Xenogears attempts, I realized that I was less than a year out from the release of Xenoblade Chronicles X, Takahashi’s newest game, and one which returns to him his one true muse: giant fuckin’ robots. I decided I needed to play the original Judeo-Christian Robot Simulator before I played the newest one (Side-note: Xenoblade Chronicles X would end up having not much of anything to do with biblical references. Also, I’ve already played it! I’ll write about it one day, once I get caught up on other games I need to write up. Please look forward to my Shin Megami Tensei IV piece in approximately eight months.)

Xenogears eventually earned my patience, and even more of it than I’d initially required—which is to say, the game tested my patience more than I expected, and it also did more than I expected to earn that additional patience. As I quickly discovered, this is a game that makes one grievous mistake for every moment of brilliance. This made it fun to talk about and oddly engaging. More games should try being strategically bad in key ways to make themselves more memorable while still ultimately completable and enjoyable. Or maybe not. Everything about Xenogears was probably an accident that can’t be intentionally replicated.

When I finished Xenogears, I immediately began to write down my thoughts. Something happened. I realized I had a lot to say about this game. A quick outline for this piece mutated into a sprawling, seven-part essay skeleton touching on nearly every facet of the game. My brain was set alight with things to say. I couldn’t stop typing… Writing about Xenogears was going to be an intense, laborious process. That’s why you’re only reading this now, when I finished the game in late August. I had some concerns. Xenogears is an Active Time Battle game, through and through. It was on The List. The entire point of this series is to play JRPGs off an enormous list of games I either have not experienced or haven’t touched in years, and quickly write down my reactions and thoughts, to keep a document of every step of this life-long journey. I cannot write a sprawling seven-part essay about every Active Time Battle game. I want some degree of structural consistency between Active Time Battle installments. Figuring out how to handle the Xenogears problem has been my first major roadblock. I’ve tried to pare down my thoughts to the essentials for this piece, and maybe one day I’ll put some time aside to write the half-finished big dumb essay about Xenogears‘ myriad dualities that I accidentally wrote the night I finished the game. For now, I just want to keep my focus simple: I can now definitively state that I am very happy I have played this game, for better and for worse. Let’s get into it, then.

Xenogears is the fifth part of an envisioned six-part saga about Judeo-Christian Giant  Robots and the psychology of the people who pilot them. It is often compared to Evangelion in that regard, and as someone who fuckin’ loves Evangelion and mostly loves Xenogears I don’t really feel the comparison holds water on anything more than a surface level. For one, neither actually has anything to do with critiquing or commenting on any particular religion, rather just using their terms and symbology to tell stories which touch on abuse of power by corrupt leaders of faith. Funnily enough the most striking similarity is that both productions ran out of money near the end. Evangelion is a story about its characters, and really not much of anything else. Getting caught up in “Evangelion lore,” while kinda fun, is ultimately a waste of time because the things that happen in the show only happen for the sake of the impact they will have on the characters. Events are tools to be used to flesh out the stars of the show. Xenogears, by contrast, is all about its lore. I mentioned that it’s the “fifth part of an envisioned six-part saga.” The characters, while mostly likable, are primarily a band of misfits that get dragged into a conflict that has played out across millennia within this world. There are hints and flashbacks to ancient civilizations that precede ancient civilizations that precede several generations of the current civilization. I can only assume the intent was to cover all these periods, each in their own game, when Xenogears was laid out as a six-part plan. I’m not usually much of a lore guy, but the reckless, hopeless, borderline-naive ambition that the creators of Xenogears had for their game is nothing short of admirable. People just don’t make games like this anymore. I’m not sure that they ever did to begin with.

Of course, “most lore” does not equate to “best lore,” so simple scope won’t get you anything except my admiration for being actual crazy people. Thankfully, Xenogears Episode V is a story full of twists and turns, constantly redefining your understanding of the game’s world, its factions, its people. After a slow start, the pace at which your quest is totally re-defined and re-contextualized is almost enough to give you whiplash. Once things got going, I couldn’t really wait to see what crazy twist of fate was in store for Fei and the gang when I next booted up the game. In this sense, maybe Xenogears‘ scope is actually admirable in concrete terms. Though the game doesn’t fully explain itself and extradiegetic material is absolutely necessary to understand everything, the way the narrative unfolds and unfolds and keeps unfolding gradually acclimates you to how ridiculously large this timeline is. They don’t frontload these reveals, but rather space them out just enough to be constantly redefining your understanding of the world and your place in it. I think that’s admirable—not that there’s so much lore, but that they did a good job in pacing, controlling and manipulating how it’s doled out. It’s a story that doesn’t “develop” so much as stack revelations on top of revelations on top of revelations, which makes it all the more fun to remember how this mess all started—and realize that not much has actually changed, just your level of understanding. The part about extradiegetic material is easier to forgive when you realize they’d hoped to have several more games to spell this stuff out.

Another big takeaway for me from Xenogears‘ narrative is how many interesting set pieces it throws at you, constantly shaking up the game’s flow and creating a lot of memorable moments. One sequence has you playing as two chracters, doing two different things in two different places: Fei fights in an arena tournament, drawing out his fights as long as possible and holding as much attention as he can to allow Bart to sneak into a castle. How many turns you take doing Fei’s arena battles impacts how much time you’ll have to explore the castle as Bart, before being yanked back to Fei for his next round. Another sequence has you splitting up your team into four groups to defend a city, each taking part in a battle against wildly different enemies that will benefit certain characters’ battle styles better than others. One lengthy interlude has Fei thrown in a massive prison enviroment, needing to work his way up the prisoners’ internal rankings to determine how much cred he has, and winning a tournament to earn his freedom. There’s no shortage of interesting situations thrown at you, and they’re typically handled well.

Another key point of Xenogears‘ reckless ambition is its battle system. Sorry, its battle systems. This game has two entirely different battle systems—one for on-foot combat, and one for mech combat. The same combat engine is shared between the two—you enter your inputs in much the same way—but the actual rules of combat are completely different. Foot combat is about utilizing a character’s AP to input a light/medium/heavy combo string, and in doing so unlocking better versions of that particular combo (called a Deathblow)—just in time for you to have enough AP to start learning a newer, better combo. There’s an inherent tension to this design that I like—every time you use your Deathblows for the sake of increased damage, you’re denying yourself an opportunity to level up your newer, non-mastered combo, which does less damage now but will do more damage when you’ve mastered it. Ultimately, though, that tension is all that I really appreciate about the on-foot combat. The idea of learning Deathblows through repeated use of the associated combo is nice, but makes little sense when the game is so ready, willing and able to rob you of certain party members for long periods of time for story reasons. By the time some party members, re-enter the fray, Fei might be several Deathblows ahead of them, and they likely won’t catch up until the endgame. The animations get to be too long once your AP starts getting high, and this isn’t like a summon in a Final Fantasy title where you’re going to be saving it for use on a big bad boss encounter, this is your regular method of attack. Playing the game on an emulator, I was eventually thankful for the ability to turn off the framerate lock to play the game at super-speed, because it made the battles so much more tolerable.

Gear combat (Gears are the names of the mechs), by contrast, starts out simpler and less enjoyable than the foot combat, but ends up being the superior of the two systems. There are no lengthy combos, and Deathblows are limited two a two-button string. They’re not learned through usage and mastery of these strings, but rather through equipment which unlocks “tiers” of Deathblows. What sets Gear combat apart is the addition of fuel management—every action utilizes fuel, you can very slowly refuel by skipping a turn in combat, or go back to a refueling station to fully refuel in one go. There’s also the booster command, which increases the speed of your ATB considerably while also draining fuel every turn. The fuel management could have gotten annoying, but thankfully everything is nicely tuned that as long as you aren’t abusing booster (instead saving it for tough boss battles that you want to end quickly), you’re not likely to run out.

The keys that make Gear combat more exciting than on-foot combat are that the equipment you put on your Gear (the game has two sets of equipment, too, by the way!) are more likely to have significant, playstyle-altering effects than your ground equipment and that the boss battles are more prone to interesting mechanics to which you will actually need to react. Boss battles on-foot rarely get more interesting than “hammer out your best deathblows and heal sometimes,” where Gear boss battles require you to activate booster, get your Attack Level up by using lower-level Deathblows, start hammering out your good Deathblows, react to the boss’ unique mechanics (This guy drains fuel! This guy does a stupid amount of [Damage Type], but you can boost your resistance to that damage by a fixed percentage with an accessory! And so forth), heal at a very high fuel cost if necessary… there’s just a lot more to keep track of, to think about. I had a lot more fun tinkering with Gear equipment, figuring out a proper balance of general-use offensive equipment and more situational defensive equipment, than I ever did managing my party equipment.

Gears also operate largely independent of the pilot’s stats, which means that even characters who you never use, and who’ve never leveled up, can still be kept somewhat current with hand-me-down Gear equipment and can hold their own if forced into a Gear battle by the story (or if you just wanna level that character up a bit). It’s a nice benefit to having two battle systems, and one that makes sense in-context—being physically strong means little inside the cockpit of a giant death machine.

Environments in Xenogears are fully-polygonal, with sprite-based characters placed on top. The camera can be freely-rotated. Other Squaresoft games of the era went the other way, projecting polygonal character models over pre-rendered backgrounds. This decision sets Xenogears apart from the other games the company was putting out around that time, and opens up the environments much more as places to be explored, rather than navigated. Map designers tucked lots of treasure chests into strange, obscure corners of the maps that can only be seen from a particular camera angle, and there’s much less of a disconnect between “things I can see,” and “things I can go to.” Where a pre-rendered background will fill a screen without necessarily allowing the player to go anywhere on the screen, filling spaces with impassable art, Xenogears lets you run and jump your way to anywhere your run and jump can take you, even if some scale is lost in individual environments because of the added strain of rendering them. Though environments need to be small due to hardware limitations, the team still plays some neat tricks to make environments seem much larger and cavernous than they really are, sometimes requiring you to exit your Gear to enter, say, a tiny crack in the wall, and having your character sprite be roughly the size of an ant to create the illusion of expanse. The other trick in their toolbox to make environments seem large is to use elevators to mask load times. This game has a lot of elevators. I hope you like elevators.

That said, the game sometimes wants you to jump on things, and a platformer Xenogears ain’t. There were lots of moments of small annoyances as I tried to jump up a chain of objects to progress only to fall because the game is essentially a bad isometric platformer at that point. Another intensely frustrating section took place inside a large tower, wherein the player needs to swing on a rope across a chasm to the other side. Not only does it take forever for this rope-swing to reach its top speed, if you mess up your timing you fall all the way down to the bottom of the tower, necessitating a lengthy climb (with lots of annoying jumping) back up to the rope, so you can grab it and wait thirty seconds to get it up to speed, and try the jump again, and fall to the bottom of the tower again…

Dungeons can be hit and miss, with some of them being interesting and some of them proving a pain. Even the cool dungeons are prone to suffer from high encounter rates (though not as high as the encounter rate at sea—that shit is ridiculous). One particular dungeon, a totally-optional spelunking trip into the ruins of an ancient civilization not unlike our own, was so mired in encounters that I had half a mind to just leave… but there was a lot of exciting backstory hidden away, so I had to keep trucking.

On the topic of music. This here is a Yasunori Mitsuda joint. You know, the Chrono Trigger guy. I’ve always lamented how little music Mitsuda actually shared with the world—sometime in the mid-2000s he seems to have stopped doing full soundtracks and instead relegated himself to contributing a song or two to a handful of games. I was excited to hear an all-new (to me) Mitsuda soundtrack. There are some serious stand-out gems in here: from the beautifully contemplative theme that plays when you finally reach Shevat, to this moody little number that plays throughout the game, and during one climactic boss battle, to the doublewhammy of tunes which round out the game’s ending. There’s also some nice use of recurring motifs across multiple tracks, which I always appreciate.

Sadly, the soundtrack’s a little uneven. A number of the songs are somewhat forgettable. I guess Mitsuda didn’t want to work himself into an ulcer this time and decided to let a few slide. It’s forgivable. The bigger issue with the game’s soundtrack is just how little of it there is. We’re talking about a game that’s twice as long as a PS1 Final Fantasy game, and has a soundtrack of half the length. As good as some of the music can be, prepare to hear it a lot.

Maybe the lack of music has to do with the elephant in the room, the one thing I haven’t touched on yet, and maybe the most infamous aspect of Xenogears‘ creation. See, the team ran out of money mid-development. This eighty-ish hour game was originally meant to be longer. The cracks might show early on—stuff like the menu lag should have been optimized and fixed, for instance. But the game doesn’t break apart at the seams until much later. It happens right around the time you put disc 2 into your PlayStation. Did you enjoy the game’s world map? Too bad, you won’t be seeing it again for a loooooooooooong time. Lengthy expository scenes involving characters sitting in a chair in a black expanse narrating major events without actually depicting them are to follow. You’ll resume control of Fei and the gang after they’ve entered a dungeon, and you’ll do the dungeon, and when you beat the boss we’re back to the Chair and the Narrator and wait did that fucking city just lift off and turn into a mech? This keeps happening. Cities are wiped off the map—or turn into mechs—with minimal fanfare. You learn the origin of the human race—no big. A character in a chair narrates to us that some horrific plague has turned most of the human race into horrible monsters. What the fuck is going on?

When the game finally resumes normalcy, you’re in the crashed ruins of a flying city. When did the flying city crash? Who knows? You step outside and you’re back on the world map. Most of the locales on the map are inaccessible. There’s an optional dungeon and the final dungeon. Go get ’em.

It’s bizarre. It’s surreal. I still kinda can’t believe I played it, much less that it got put out in that state. But Disc 2 of Xenogears is Xenogears in a nutshell. For everything the game does right (Disc 1), there’s something it does wrong (Disc 2) [which is to say, the game does plenty wrong and right on disc 1 and on disc 2, but the structure of the discs serves as a macrocosm of every little right/wrong decision made during the game’s creation], and either way, there’s really nothing else like it (I can quite safely say there’s really nothing else like Disc 2 of Xenogears.) But there’s something oddly endearing about Disc 2, in much the same way that Evangelion‘s infamous “oh shit we ran out of money” ending has a strange memetic charm. Like I’ve said, Xenogears is constantly raising the stakes to ever-more-unbelievable levels. Your journey is just getting crazier and crazier… and eventually it flies apart at the seams, goes careening off the rails and plummets into the ocean below. The form fits the content… even if it would have been nice to revisit the world map every now and then.

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