Friday, January 16, 2009

DFB - Xenogears - Fraction I

You know, I’m puzzled when people are shocked to hear my favorite JRPG titles are the now-defunct Xenosaga games (Der Wille zur Macht, Jenseits von Gut und Böse, Also sprach Zarathustra). I actually think it’s one of the easier logic tracks to follow with me. They’re pedantic, they’re preachy, and they focus way too much on their narrative at the expensive of the game itself. Anyway, I’ve decided to use a simple formula to “leak” me back into my RPG groove. Normally, this would involve me simply replaying my favorite aforementioned titles. Instead, I’ve decided to take one step back and retread their allusive older brother, Xenogears. While I have played a considerable amount of this game already, I remember nothing of it now (nor do I even remember beating it). That’s horrible in my book, so I’ve decided to go back through the game and fine-pick it through a series of these posts. For those with no inkling of what the game is, don’t worry. I’ll be writing with you in mind, as well as those well-versed in the Xeno-series overall.

Now, Xenogears is the “spiritual predecessor” to the Xenosaga series. As such, this is a game that perversely takes it’s plotline into priority. It uses tools ranging from areas in psychology, religion, and philosophy. It’s plot is it’s main focus and that’s what I’ll try to respect the most. Also, keep in mind that I’m not holding myself back from a spoiler-free write-up. I assume those who haven’t played Xenogears at this point will not be doing so anytime soon. This is a game though, and I will go to whatever lengths I can to point out how this could and probably should work more as a game. I’m expecting Xenogears to be more humble as a singular title, as Xenosaga is shameless in what it wants to do as a game and that is what served as it’s vice and subsequent coffin nail. In it’s defense however, Xenosaga had an extremely fragmented/problematic development that ultimately resulted in it’s premature end (it was initially planned to be six episodes).

So yes, the story will be the focus here while I look for ways for it to be conveyed more powerfully as a game. I should also mention that I play traditional RPG games very differently from most. I go to extensive ends to weaken myself in order to aberrantly enjoy my battles and drag out the game overall. It’s something I’ve always done and I’m not going to stop now, so keep that in mind when reading this. Some guidelines to keep in mind regarding this:

Rule 1 - Cutscenes no matter how efficient are the enemy and as thus we shall fight them.

Rule 2 - We will not get lost in what the plot itself is trying to say, rather we listen to WHAT it says instead.

Rule 3 - Xenosaga and Xenogears are games that actually have an obligation for characterization, and so we have to recognize this emphasis and act accordingly.

Rule 4 - Playtime and what it consists of. If there’s any area where the JRPG mold can be broken, it will be broken.

Rule 5 - The minutiae of the game itself is what we have to snatch at here and there, while not blowing it out of proportion.

Now, let’s get started…

Chapter 1 “We All Know You’re Well Endowed, but You Also Prove to be Shallow at Points”

Warning –This part is strictly a story related portion and contains many spoilers. Skip down to notes and observations if you want to avoid this.

Xenogears takes place on the “world” of Ignas, and focuses primarily on the tale of Fei Fong Wong, who is a young man living in the small and simple village of Lahan. Although he is well-known and liked by most of the town, he’s an outsider in that he wasn’t born there. Because of his orphan-status, some citizens of the town regard him with suspicion. He spends his free time painting and teaching martial arts to children. One day, after finishing his latest painting, Fei talks with a small boy (Dan) and is subsequently led into conversing with this young man’s sister Alice (whom Dan believes Fei should end up with). Alice, who is getting married the next day, requests that that Fei go to Doctor Uzuki’s house in the mountains to get equipment for her upcoming wedding (while leaving some obvious hints for an apparently clueless Fei). Upon reaching the doctor’s house, Fei is exposed to the doctor’s usual eccentricities and knowledgeable grasp of the world of Ignas. After a peaceful dinner, Fei sets off into the night to return to Lahan. About halfway home, Fei notices large humanoid robots (gears) flying toward his village. Dr. Uzuki catches up to Fei and informs him that he noticed this as well, and suggests that they get back to the town and find out what’s happening. When they reach Lahan, they find it in flames and serving as a battleground for fighting Gears. Alice and her bride (Timothy) are looking for young Dan who is nowhere to be found. Fei and the Doc suggest they evacuate while they look for Dan themselves.

Fei notices an unmanned gear nearby and against the Doc’s protests, hops in under the intent of fighting back the gears. The doctor eventually finds Dan and they evacuate to safety. Fei on the other hand, showcases an inexplicable aptitude for piloting the machine and even manages to take out a few (under the gaze of a silent gear watching the conflict). However, once Fei witnesses Timothy’s death by the surrounding gears, something odd happens. Visions flash, and Fei appears to lose control of himself; this causes a massive explosion which wipes out the entirety of Lahan, the hostile gears, and the remaining citizens of the town (including Alice). Fei falls unconscious and upon waking up, he’s greeted (or rather scorned), by the survivors of Lahan. Dan, who just saw his sister killed, runs off professing his hatred for Fei. Doctor Uzuki calmly advises Fei to leave the town and make his way to the Blackmoon Forest, as the remaining survivors (with the exception of Dr. Uzuki) all express a similar fear/aggression towards Fei.

Fei makes his way to the forest and eventually comes across a young woman who holds him up at gunpoint. Fei, who is overcome with grief & guilt at his unexplained explosion of power, runs at her demanding to be killed. The woman is obviously shocked and nervous, and after it’s clear she’s not going to harm Fei, she falls under the attack of a forest creature. Fei quickly dispatches the monster, and the woman (Elly) hesitantly offers her cooperation in order for them to find their way out of the forest. Along the way, Fei and Elly verbally confront each other regarding the tragedy at Lahan. Elly eventually ends up leaving Fei on the ground to wallow in his own grief while she progresses forward. Not to long afterwards, Elly is then knocked unconscious by large lizard. Fei who hears her scream, catches up to her and proceeds to confront the animal with his bare hands.

When it’s obvious that Fei isn’t doing enough damage, Dr. Uzuki shows up and offers Fei help in the form of the gear he used in Lahan (Wetall). Hesitant to operate a gear again, Fei has no choice but to use it in order to save Elly. After killing the creature, the three then continue to make their way out of the forest. Upon camping later that night, Uzuki suddenly confronts Elly and identifies her as the pilot the Gears were looking for in Lahan. Elly, who is surprised at the doctor’s degree of knowledge, confides in him. This includes expressing regret for screaming at Fei earlier (where she demanded he take responsibility for what happened to Lahan). The doctor advises her to leave them, as it’s safer for both parties if they part ways. Upon waking the next morning, Fei reveals he heard most of the conversation that took place prior. The doctor suggests that they make their way to a nearby sand-town in order to make repairs to Wetall. When they reach the town, they find out that it’s shop doesn’t carry parts for an advanced gear such as theirs. The doctor then uses a sand buggy to traverse the desert in hopes of finding parts from other gears that have fallen in battle over treasure-conflicts. Fei, who the doctor suggested stay in town, begins to grow impatient and then ventures out into the desert by himself.

After chasing gears, a large saucer-like machine, and some sand-bikers, Fei comes across two hostile gears. Suddenly the doc shows up in a temporarily repaired Wetall and fends the oncoming gears off. The doc then hops out and advises that Fei pilot the machine, as he’s displayed a far superior talent in operating it. Fei reluctantly hops in again and defeats the gears and a giant threatening worm. Upon defeating it, the silent gear from the Lahan incident shows itself once again. This time however, it’s pilot exits and confronts Fei. The pilot reveals that he orchestrated the events so that Fei would wind up in Wetall and unleash his destructive force. He also alludes towards knowing of Fei’s father, and acknowledges Fei as some sort of tool for his use. Upon hearing this news, Fei winds up unconscious once again. Two more gears arrive, capturing Dr. Uzuki and Fei while bringing them onboard a large sand transport.

To be continued in next post --->

Notes and Observations

A Useful toolbox
One thing that I’m noticing so far in this tale is that Xenogears is using it’s tools to build it’s own world. This is used to much greater effect than it’s successor (which is understandable as Xenosaga takes place on a much larger scale). Either way, it’s appreciated when the player has some footing of homely charm. Most world based RPG’s use this anyway, so it’s not like it’s anything new. Xenogears does start off a bit starker though, when considering it isn’t the usual depart-from-home-to-bigger-adventures deal. The flying civilization of Solaris is given some significance in the grounded thematic of immediately forcing the player to deal with a small-town, a forest, and then a desert in rapid succession. Elly, who is revealed to be a citizen of Solaris, uses little tools (no matter how forced) to illustrate this. She showcases an obvious prejudice between air-farers and surface dwellers (she calls Fei a “lamb” upon meeting him).

I Appreciate My Ps3 More when I’m Not Playing Ps3 Games
I’ve been using my Ps3’s remote play function to play through the game so far, as it’s more convenient for me to play the game out of my pocket when I’m bored. Although the stream lag can be a bit annoying at times (particularly the pseudo-platforming portions), I really have to express my gratitude for the function. If I’m at home, I can use the T.V., if I’m out, I can simply stream the game through my Ps3 and the internet.

Crackling of the Fire
Some sounds should be manipulated outside the realm of reality to be noticeable. This is especially apparent in this age where developers are horrifically obsessed with moving forward. Sound design is something that I’ve probably complained about the least in the gaming industry. Even in a game from 1998, the use of sfx were charming in their antiquity. The conversation between Fei, Citan, and Elly while in the woods, is more permeable in it’s immersion, simply because of the antiquated sound of a fire crackling in the background. When looking for style, developers really should start looking back in order build upon things. Visually, everyone is dumbly trapped in the uncanny valley, while auditorily, they’re all stuck in letting the technical joys of audio supplant what the audio actually is.

The True Fate of A/V Evolution
I love reading, it’s in the top three of my favorite pastimes. However, when I see an RPG that I have to cycle through text while various conversations play out, I get sickened…fast. Of course, with the technical limitations, this was tolerable, now it’s maddening. Modern RPGS still use text-boxes to convey most of the non-cinematic dialogue. This suggests control that I’m not comfortable with. The developers not giving the player options in terms of moment-to-moment relations with the game kind of kills the effect when it shouldn’t. This same thing could be said about the animated cutscenes that playout in Xenogears as well. Of course they’re cool to look at, but when it’s a 10 second sequence that is unusually ambiguous in design, it’s worthless to someone like me. I DO appreciate however, that Xenogears isn’t blatant in it’s overhauled cutscene usage (*coughfinalfantasycough*). The “scenes” typically play out in the in game’s own engine, and although they’re still cutscenes (broken in definition only by pressing X to move the text forward), they’re more effective than over-the-top graphically promiscuous cutscenes.

Gears and Orbital Frames
I wonder how much significance the gear units themselves will gain over the course of this game. I’m seeing some odd correlations between this and the Zone of Enders franchise for Ps2. Of course, giant humanoid robots aren’t exactly rare coming out of Japan. However, when looking at characters like Elly (Xenogears) and Ken (ZOE: The 2nd Runner), it really starts to make me wonder. Then again, maybe I’m just hoping that ZOE’s combat somehow will make it’s way back into an RPG this grand someday. This leads me to my next topic…

After You Sir,
For those new to me and my writings, I am not a fan of turn based combat. It’s something I’ve loathed since I first made contact with it, and it’s something I’m never going to enjoy fully. Whatever novelty it DID have disappeared in the 90’s when it hit it’s peak (and was more tolerable due to it pressing technical limits). Since then, we’ve had to wade through ages of trash that has tried to blasphemously incorporate some degree of action in order to make the combat appear like combat. Make no mistake, I DO love strategy, I DO love carefully planning out my moves, but turn-based combat fundamentally tries to honor that ideal while spitting in it’s face at the same time. Combat isn’t combat if the action-pace degrades past a certain point. If I want chess, I’ll go and play chess, I don’t need a game trying some pseudo-play nonsense, it pisses me off to no end. This is also why I weaken myself as I mentioned before. It’s a cheap tactic, but it’s something I’ve realized I been doing since I was eight. Keeping myself under-leveled actually builds the illusion of action where there absolutely is none.

With that said, I will admit that Xenogears’ battle system is definitely in the top-tier of what I’ve played over the past two decades. The animations and AP system is charming to work with once you adapt to it’s pacing (which is much faster than most). So far, it’s just the gears’ combat that makes me cringe. This is definitely “slamming” (see previous post) on my part, as all I can think about is ZOE when I see game-based mecha combat.

Serene Swordsman
Having dinner with and chatting up Citan Uzuki has been one of my more surprisingly beloved moments with the game in this early stage. Of course Citan is the spiritual ancestor of Jin Uzuki (Xenosaga), a skilled swordsman with a serene curiosity for academics (both serve in the player's party as well). Even in the scenes (which I stalwartly stand against), he’s the voice of reason that always seems to stand in your favor (which in turn can help with Fei’s characterization itself).

It’s not exactly super-rare, but having a JRPG where you can actually jump around outside of battling is appreciated…

Random Shots of Annoyance
I really don’t think I’m the only one that hates random battles. Luckily, the use of on-screen enemies is something that has actually gotten better over the past few years, but it’s still something that’s mind-numbing to experience in these times. Xenogears does have on-screen enemies in some scripted portions, but I really appreciate knowing what, when, where, and how I’m going to fight (something that Xenosaga picked up on despite being incredibly stilted).

The Head-Clutching Main Crybaby…I Mean Character…
You know, people appreciate subtlety and nuance; they always have, and they always will. However, being flagrantly ambiguous is something that I’ve seen RPG’s in particular trip themselves with constantly. Characters like Cloud (FFVII) and Fei (Xenogears), are rightfully put on a stage and tossed tomatoes at for a reason. If it isn’t some psychologically tormented young male, it’s the cliché and useless silent protagonist. Xenogears is no different (so far), as foreshadowing is already spelling out that Fei is going to have to come to terms with his own tormented past in some form or another later in the game. It would be nice to have a character that’s toned down for once. Not being effective is the best way to be effective sometimes (which speaks tenfold in epic plots). Fans love to get behind a main character if he/she is showcasing some genuine form of charm. It’s not fair at all to simply make a paradigm for the story itself out of the main character. Usually, they will just end up cancelling each other out, but developers have started to play this up where they actually start damaging each other instead. Given that this game is ten years old, I can be forgiving here, but I won’t pretend like Xenogears hasn’t served as one of the progenitors for this issue, which is where the industry stands now.

Melodrama and The Nature of God
Given that this is Xenogears, I’m sure I’ll end up having to delve into this deeper as this DFB progresses. Right now however, I have to express disdainful admiration for Xenogears so far. I like any game that wears it’s epic narrative on it’s sleeve. Usually, these games will use tools that incorporate the areas of human civilization that can only be expressed pleasurably through artistic endeavors (i.e. Religion, Philosophy, Psychology, etc.). Xenogears is no different, as it uses these tools as vehicles for it’s plot. I’m sure these will begin to crumble under the weight of the sheer enormity of the narrative it’s trying to portray, which is in direct conflict with people’s preconceived notions of it’s concepts (i.e. Fei’s consciousness). This is a line I’m willing to meet the game half-way with though, as it’s easier to tear the game down if you’re a narrow-minded take-it-at-face-value kind of guy/gal. Like I said way up there, I listen to what the game is saying, not what I think it’s trying to say. Some of the dialogue does suffer under these circumstances, as anything using the term “God” will instantly be misconstrued by 90% of the world’s population. Voice acting could save the vast majority of these melodramatic lines, but it also runs the risk of being botched by dull voice acting as well. It’s in a lame middle-ground right now with the on-screen text, and that doesn’t bode well in my book. Good voice actors are up and coming in this industry and can literally exalt some games far past their breaking point (not too unlike how literature has an unfair advantage with imagination).

Perhaps this is just me, but I think I enjoy these games the most because of my own stances on the nature of life and it’s purpose. I consider myself a “stalwart ideal”, an amalgamation of existentialism, anarchism, pseudo-nihilism, and a mothering concept of misanthropy. I’ve had many people call me a wanna-be-Nietzsche. Nietzsche in particular has scared me ever since childhood and I stay away from his concepts (Outside the Xenosaga games), because I’m worried I’m going to end up agreeing too much with his philosophy and involuntarily let his perceptions color my own. I do plan on drowning myself with his writings once I’m completely comfortable with my own philosophy on life, I’m just being very cautious right now (I’m only 22). With that said, I won’t deny what I’ve skimmed, as many of his notions are what I will side with when I lay down at night. I’m not narrow minded-enough to be an atheist, and I’m not delusional enough to be a religious-nut. So this leaves me on a thin tightrope where I’m able to focus on games like this with a certain degree of fictitious spirituality. The nature and concept of God is obsolete to me, it’s existence is not an area of debate because it’s irrelevant in my life either way. This means a story about “God” will instantly start me at ground zero where I build my own lego-house, nothing more.

This will of course, continue next week. It's a long and fairly epic RPG, I think these posts should reflect that.