Wednesday, January 28, 2009

DFB - Xenogears - Fraction III

*Warning, this is strictly a story-related summary. Skip down to “notes and observations” if you want to avoid spoilers and such.*

Chapter Three: A Rainy Day For All

In order to save Margie, Sigurd suggests that Bart, Citan, and Fei scope out the kingdom of Aveh in order to construct a plan. Upon entering, the player is shown a scene which details the arrival of a Gebler (Solaris) official and his attendant. This official (Ramsus) converses with his colleague (Miang) about their current arrival in Aveh (while demonstrating an excessive prejudice for “Land Dwellers”). Greeting them upon their docking is Shakhan himself and a general known as Vanderkaum. Ramsus, Miang, and Shakhan then proceed to Marguerite’s room while discussing her current unwillingness to reveal the location of the other half of the Fatima Jasper. Ramsus asks to question her himself (Miang also accompanies him). They then chat with the young woman, who claims only to have an affinity for cake and no knowledge of missing half of the Fatima Jasper. Despite holding her against her will, Ramsus displays a very civil nature and prefers no “rough methods” are used to extract information from her.

Meanwhile, back in Aveh, Fei and company have found (through some mingling with the town) that they can use the waterway sneak into the castle’s reservoir. Needing a distraction, Citan volunteers an idea to place Fei in the annual 338thfighting tournament. This will allow Bart the lax in security he needs to navigate his way into the castle. Fei on the other hand, will be the attention of most of the guards as they place hefty bets on the tournaments. After a night of rest, Fei (accompanied by Citan) leaves Bart at an inn to go participate in the tournament. As Fei leaves Citan in the crowd, he enters the participant’s tent to find a his opponents, which include a strange hooded man, and Dan. Dan is appalled at Fei’s presence and vows to kill him on behalf of Lahan before storming out of the tent. Left only with the hooded figure, Fei gets addressed by name from this mysterious person, who then leaves him alone in the tent. This is unnerving for Fei, as he entered a false name for himself upon entering the tournament. Noticeably shaken, he proceeds out to the ring.

Overlooking the arena in the castle’s balcony, Shakhan gives a conceitedly heartfelt speech announcing the start of the tournament. Ramsus and Miang enter his balcony just as he finishes, announcing their departure. Ramsus shows no interest in Shakhan’s “impudent” tournament and departs. Miang on the other hand, states she’s interested in martial arts and accompanies Shakhan to observe the tournament. As Fei steps into the ring to face his first opponent, Miang makes the observation of Fei being attractive, and the battle then begins. Meanwhile, just as the tournament is starting, Bart makes his way into the water way of the castle. Swimming against the current, he is finally able to emerge in the castle’s reservoir. As he’s sneaking his way towards Margie, Fei is performing quite well in the tournament. Eventually Fei confronts Dan, and with no other option, he is forced to subdue the poor boy. After Dan’s defeat, the mysterious hooded figure serves as Fei’s final opponent. The figure appears to be strong, as he dodges all Fei’s attacks with relative ease (as if he knows his every move intimately). This eventually leads to him confronting Fei very personally, suggesting he shares a past with him. He acknowledges Fei’s growth, but then proceeds to scold him on his purpose for fighting, and advises him that he’s far too weak to face him. The figure then suddenly collapses to the ground, as if in pain; this causes him to flee the tournament, leaving Fei to be declared the winner.

Back in the castle, Bart has finally found Margie. As he leaves the room with her, he runs down the corridor and rounds a corner, to find himself face to face with Ramsus and Miang. Ramsus demands he return Margie to her room and unsheathes his sword. Bart, full of spunk, leaps gung ho into battle against him. Miang recognizes him as the rightful king of Aveh and assures him that they will treat the two well (despite Shakhan’s influence in the matter). Bart doesn’t care to hear her however, and the two proceed to do battle with Bart. Eventually Bart is worn down, but Fei shows up on the scene just in time and assaults Ramsus. Startled by this sudden entrance, Ramsus is taken aback completely by Fei’s fighting style. Ramsus then experiences a flashback of a destructively violent red-haired figure decimating gears with his bare hands. As he comes to, Fei and Bart begin their assault on more even grounds. Though Fei and Bart eventually gain the upper hand, it’s obvious that they’ll have to escape eventually. When a Gebler officer shows up in an elevator, Fei, Bart and Margie, shove her out of the way and hastily take the elevator down, not knowing where they’ll end up.

They eventually find themselves in the dock Ramsus and Miang arrived in earlier. Just as they notice the Solaris ship they arrived in, a small army of Gebler officers emerge from it and give chase. While running in some nearby corridors to avoid them, the gang turns a corner and Fei finds himself face to face with Elly once again. Though shocked, she impulsively hides the three in her office while the Gebler forces storm the corridor. Bart is clearly angered at Fei & Margie’s immediate trust of Elly as a Gebler officer, and he refuses to trust her. Elly on the other hand, shows them the way out by giving them access to a standard model gear in the hangar. Despite Fei’s pleas for Elly to come with him, Elly proclaims her loyalty for Solaris and informs Fei that the next time they meet, they will be enemies. Using the gear, Fei, Bart, and Margie escape back to the Yygdrassil.

While everyone is delighted to see Margie safe, Bart immediately reprimands her for getting herself caught. Sigurd advises Bart to show some leniency given her family was killed, which causes Bart to relent. The crew then descends into the ship while they make their way to Nisan. While travelling, Fei is eavesdropping on another surreptitious conversation between Sigurd and Citan (the latter mysteriously disappeared for a short while after Margie’s rescue). The exchange suggests that Citan and Sigurd have some personal ties to Solaris and they acknowledge Ramsus’ position as the commander-in-chief of Gebler (Solaris Special Forces). Sigurd also points out an unsettling feeling he has about Elly’s involvement in everything that has happened. Though Citan seems to suggest that she’s a good person, Sigurd states that he senses a dangerous fear in her. Citan concedes upon hearing this, as Sigurd apparently has some accurate intuition in such matters.

Eventually the Yydrassil finds it’s way to Nisan, and everyone departs. Everyone in Nisan is overjoyed for Marguerite’s safe return, and Margie herself immediately makes her way to nation’s cathedral to notify the sisters of her return. Citan, Fei, and Bart accompany her to the cathedral and in doing so they discover some interesting observations made by the inquisitive Citan. Among these findings is a beautiful (yet unfinished) portrait of Sophia, the founder of Nisan. Citan curiously notes that the style is not too much unlike Fei’s own method of painting. Fei on the other hand is captivated by Sophia’s resemblance to Elly (he even experiences a daydream portraying him painting her). Unfortunately, nobody is able to shed any light on the extensive history of the painting (not even sisters themselves), as those kind of things aren’t easily accessible on Ignas (due to the Ethos religion controlling historical information).

After departing the cathedral, the entire crew meets up at a paid-for house within Nisan, and Bart finally questions Sigurd about his involvement with Solaris. Sigurd finally divulges that he and Citan are from the sky city of Solaris. Citan is a natural-born Solarian, but Sigurd was an abducted from Ignas early in life as experimentation project used by the inhabitants of the sky city. Both Citan and Sigurd knew Ramsus as a talented officer in Jugend (Solaris’ military academy). Though initially attracted to Kahran’s (Ramsus) ideals at the time, they quickly saw that his ideology only differed from Solaris’ usual slavery-based industry by favoring elitism and talent above all else. Because of this, Sigurd and Citan eventually fled from Solaris to the surface and ended up where they are now. Bart, who has known Sigurd his whole life, needs time to process this so he departs. After a consoling discussion with Citan, they all meet up again and formulate a plan to take back Aveh.

In order to for their plan to go through, they decide that it would be best to manipulate general Vanderkaum’s weakness, who has been demoted to border patrol. Vanderkaum, who is renowned for favoring size and power over tact and skill serves as an easy crux in their plan. The plan requires that Gebler and Aveh think that Kislev and Nisan have united (and are leading an attack force). Fei, with his newfound desire to fight, instantly agrees to lead a strike team to create this ruse. Meanwhile, the Yygdrassil will return to Aveh, and Bart will attempt to storm Shakhan in order to take back his rightful kingdom. After their plan’s details are solidified, they decide to launch the attack as soon as possible (the next morning).

Later that night, Ramsus is seen lying in bed with Miang. Ramsus begins to have a dream that involves the same powerful red-haired figure destroying gears with his bare hands. This dream is obviously a nightmare for Kahran, as he can be seen being easily dispatched by this warrior as well. The enigmatic figure can also be seen utilizing an extremely powerful scarlet gear that decimates everyone in Kahran’s dream. After waking up startled, he leaves the room. Miang, also awoken by his nightmare, can be seen conversing with the figure that was taunting Fei in Lahan and in the desert (who calls himself Grahf). The two exchange words suggesting that they have far more knowledge about Fei’s situation than anyone. Miang sassily informs Grahf that she will not interfere with his plans and Grahf departs.
The next morning, the plan to recapture Aveh is set into motion. Fei and a squad are sent to slow down the border patrol fleet, while Bart, Sigurd, and Citan use the waterway as a means to swiftly put themselves in an advantageous position to take back the castle. As Fei scales the mountainside, he runs across a Gebler unit led by Elly herself. The Gebler unit is composed of the very same gears that ambushed the Yygdrassil’s docking bay not too long before. This strike force is very arrogant and refuses to act under Elly’s orders, despite the fact that she is their superior officer. This leads to them all receiving a swift beating by Fei aboard Wetall, which leaves Elly as the last member to oppose him. Elly, who is piloting a new model of gear (Vierge), is clearly torn between her loyalty to Solaris and not wanting to harm Fei. Elly finally makes her choice, choosing to dose herself with the battle enhancing drug “Drive”. Her unruly subordinates, who have already been excessively using “Drive”, watch in awe as Elly begins to perform fantastically under the influence of the drug.
It seems “Drive” is a substance that only unlocks the user’s already latent ability. The lower Gebler forces observe that Elly must be extremely powerful to operate so formidably under the influence of the drug. Elly on the other hand is haunted by her power, as it turns her into exuberant war-monger. Though a lethal force, Fei is able to talk Elly down enough to force Wetall on top of her gear while the drugs pass through her system. After the “Drive” wears off, they both disembark their respective gears and Fei questions Elly about her use of the drug and her loyalty to Solaris. Elly who still refuses to defect, watches as Fei boards Wetall once again, to continue on with his mission.

Back at the castle, Bart, Citan, Sigurd, and a small force raid the courtyard of the castle only to find Shakhan waiting for them (along with Miang as well). Miang reprimands Citan (recognizing him from Solaris) for not taking them seriously, as Ramsus long predicted that they would eventually try to feign a war in order to take back the capital. As Shakhan orders his men to fire, Maison (Bart’s butler and minder throughout his childhood), shows up in a land crab to save them. Clearly outmatched, they flee from Aveh and make their way back to the Yygdrassil. Fei and his strike force on the other hand, have had no communications with Bart or his team, so they continue carrying out their plan, despite it being fruitless at this point. They launch an attack on the border fleet and wind up face to face with Vanderkaum. As predicted, Vandekaum obstinately proceeds to use his horrifically slow sem cannon to dispatch the exponentially faster gears. After his ship (Kefeinzel) is destroyed, he uses his own gear model (Dora) as a last ditch effort to destroy Fei and his team. Fortunately, even Dora falls to Fei and his small yet competent band of soldiers.
As Fei and his team turn their back to leave, Grahf suddenly appears in front of a crushed Vanderkaum. He questions Vanderkaum’s desire for power and obliges his wish, which causes Dora to rise again with a noticeably larger amount of power. It easily kills the rest of Fei’s team, and as Fei looks on, he once again begins to feel the will of another and Wetall falls to it’s knees. Back on the Yygdrassil, the team is allowed a short moment to sulk in defeat before they find out that they’re already being pursued by Ramsus’ forces. Ramsus, who refuses to outright destroy the Yydrassil (due to his history with Citan and Sigurd), tries to diplomatically force the Yydrassil into surrendering for the sake of Nisan. Bart, still wounded by his failed attempt to take back Aveh, decides to use all the Yygdrassil’s remaining forces to make a stand against Ramsus’ fleet. Ramsus then relents on his mercy, telling all his ships to attack the Yysdrassil at once. As the assault begins, a new gear arrives on the scene and swiftly decimates Ramsus’ entire fleet with ease. Ramsus is excitedly horrified, as this mysterious scarlet gear is the same one from his dream the night before. He orders Miang to accompany him and they both rush to meet the mysterious presence.

As Bart watches the enigmatic gear, it suddenly appears directly in front of him, questioning his strength. Bart immediately flees, as he sees he’s clearly outmatched. Just as he escapes the scene however, the gear instantly reappears in behind him to his horror. Suddenly, Miang and Ramsus show up in their own gears and Ramsu abruptly proceeds to combat the mystery gear. The new gear easily defeats Ramsus, literally tearing his gear apart. It then turns it’s attention back to Bart, who reluctantly tries to fight it. Miang picks up the remnants of Ramsus’ gear and departs from the scene, leaving Bart to face the monster gear alone. Bart throws what’s left of his gear’s ability into the fight, but it’s pointless. The scarlet gear instantly launches a devastating assault on Bart’s gear leaving him helpless. Sigurd, who is witnessing this aboard the Yygdrassil, decides to use what’s left of warship to make a last ditch “jump” maneuver in an attempt to rescue Bart. The plan seems to work at first, the Yygdrassil makes a “jump” and lands directly on top of the scarlet gear, seemingly crushing it. Sigurd, calls to Bart, asking him of his condition and Bart boldly replies that the Yygdrassil is nearly done-for after that maneuver. Suddenly, the Yygdrassil shoots up into the air and the scarlett gear can be seen underneath, holding the entire warship up on one hand. It’s mysterious blood-drunk pilot acknowledges it as a interesting attempt to dispatch him and then tosses the entire ship on Bart’s gear.
The Yygdrassil, now torn apart under it’s own weight, is flooding with sand and will not last long. Sigurd orders everyone onto the bridge so he can close off all the sectors and attempt to keep everyone safe. Sigurd then advises Citan to leave in an escape pod, stating that he can’t ask Citan to stay aboard in such a situation. The doc hesitates at first, but eventually hops into an escape pod and is shot out into the desert alone. The Yydrassil is now destroyed, Bart’s fate is unclear, and Fei and team have fallen under Dora’s reanimated bloodlust.
Notes and Observations

“Well, If I’m Going to Watch…”
In the first few parts of this chapter, the player gets to watch a scene while Shakhan, Ramsus, and Miang make their way to Marguerite’s room. During this time, the sprites walk through the complex while the player manipulates the progression of the conversation. I actually prefer moments like this, if the game actually needs a scene, as the sense of progression is aided with the characters navigating the halls while conversing. Though I’d still love to see this game voiced, this area didn’t make me mind the text boxes as much. This makes me wonder if it would be overly ludicrous to essentially substitute the text-boxes with voice cues. When I thought about that however, it actually seemed a bit too gimmicky for my tastes, but the conversation caught my eye nonetheless. Watching characters move while talking is simply a novelty that videogames in general do not use enough. Titles like the last four Grand Theft Auto games bring this to mind as well (i.e. listening to conversations while driving). While the more ambitious RPGs try to painstakingly simulate conversations through elaborate trees and such (i.e. Mass Effect), a lot of the luster is lost when the characters remain in one place while engaging each other. It can’t be THAT hard in this age to give pixels mannerisms, can it? I’m not trying to discredit the nuances some of those “conversation-tree games”, but it’s just something that furthers my opinion that the animation of the characters themselves are a gold mine waiting to be excavated.

Rustlin’ Bustlin’ Capital…
I’m sure at this point, the nature of “towns” in RPGs are on a kind of expected checklist of things to come across over the course of the game. Xenogears certainly isn’t alone, but it showed me that a town can have some life apart from people just waiting behind counters to sell me my next awesome weapon. In Aveh, I came across kids running around stealing things, people calling me left and right to buy bananas and radishes, and children playing hide and go seek. The fact that there are kids at all in this game are something I’ll credit Xenogears for, as it’s kind of taboo to stick children in games for some reason (I assume it’s because they typically center around flashy action?). Although the pattern never changed, the illusion of walking up the market street never lost it’s appeal, as there was an abundance of life while I was in Aveh. In an age where most gamers over twenty are “aware” of the technical underpinnings of situations like this, I think it’s imperative to notice that we can easily be fooled given the right situation. I don’t really care how developers pull their rabbits out of the hat, I just care that I believe that they did, even if it’s just for one second. Xenogears gave me this second, when most RPGS today don’t even pretend to try anymore.

“Driving” Time…
A sequence which I thought could have used a time adjustment was portion prior to the 338th fighting tournament in Aveh. Something I think a good deal of people found solace in during this game’s launch year (1998) was the fictional clock in Ocarina of Time. Having a simple night and day system can do wonders for instances like this. The tournament itself could have been exponentially increased by using time in areas like waiting in line for an upcoming fight. I’m sure representing a certain number of sprites on screen was taxing for the hardware, but I would have loved to have actually witness the Aveh crowd enamored with the tournament (possibly Citan humorously working the crowd as well). The point in that sequence was for Fei to provide a distraction while Bart snuck into the castle. Fei only fights in the tournament when Bart enters a new area of the castle, so it ended up being a cop-out experience for me. I would have actually preferred to have had some degree of anticipation build up beforehand while waiting for my fight (and possibly watching other matches). It also provides a mode of mingling with opponents and participants. Though the game kind of does this anyway by letting Fei enter the tents of the participants (in order to trigger the scene with Dan and the mysterious figure), it’s lost because the in itself a ruse, existing only as a cognitive bullet point for the player to engage with while making their way through the game. This demand is a ludicrous for a game of this period I know, but I thought it was something worth mentioning nonetheless.

Believe in Oppression!
Kings and Queens are trite in any medium of fiction, but the structure built around Bart and his desire to “be a man before lord” provides an admirable bit of characterization for him. Any fictional construct that can actually make someone want to see a fundamentally flawed mode of human government put into place is doing it’s job right. Between Maison and Sigurd, Fei is fed a link that allows the player to empathize with Bart on a deeper level than just “another guy in your party”. It’s not a question of believability, which flew out the window with the start of this game. It is a question of the game providing a window for the player. Games like Xenogears require people look just a bit at themselves in order to enjoy it more. Royalty is an absurdity in 2009’s North America, but it’s not such a bad thing on the continent of Ignas. Any title that makes you buy that illusion for a second is choice stuff.

It’s Not As Ludicrous As Most Make It…
It’s hard to admire “faith” in a game when most people don’t even bother to do so in real life anymore. Everyone these days either identifies more as an atheist or an overly-dependant-out-of-fear religious person. Listening to Margie explain the creation myth for mankind brought me to question how dangerous it is for a game to even touch on religion. Xenogears is obviously using Christianity (original sin) as a color of crayola and I kind of admire that. Games still have a very short list of titles that directly try to do this. People are quick to denounce a game such as Xenogears that directly tries to implement these tools, but their alternatives usually have no greater merit. For example, Is reading the bible really a more substantial solution to conveying messages about metaphysical life and it’s nature? One alternative does it quite effectively enough to teach (rather enjoyably) a child an actual lesson or two, while the other is filled with countless accounts of cruel bloodshed that will just either bore most people or instill the” fear of the sky bully” in them. Give me an open minded child playing Xenogears over a practicing Protestant any day…

Believable Buddies

For a horribly infantile-yet-derivative medium like video games, Xenogears is still impressive as a narrative based game. Something like Xenosaga is either hit or miss formost, but both tales rely on characterization as a major vehicle for the plot. Though I personally like the characters of Xenosaga better, I have to admit that Xenogears’ fellows are far richer. Citan is like a very fine threading between himself, the player, and every other character. Bart represents that age-old hot-blooded yet likeable nobility that’s easy to empathize with, and Fei is for lack of a better a phrase “A easily more lovable Cloud”. Characters in most videogames rarely carry their weight here. For RPGS, this is a cheap burn, as the player is already dedicated to spending 40-50 hours with the characters anyway. In other genres, the popular fault lies in characters relying too much of flash and tawdry appeal. Xenogears has given me at least four characters I’m not already sick of, and I actually look forward to (and genuinely care about) their fates.

Flashbacks (With Distortions of Perspectival Memory)
Flashback sequences are one of the few rare tools that are cliché, yet still immensely effective when utilized right. Ramsus’ nightmare should have in some way been playable. His character obviously has some immense fear of the mysterious individual that Fei reminds him of. It would be nice to capitalize on this by making the player effectively “feel” Ramsus’ dread. Even if it’s just the derivative standard RPG “impossible fight”, I’d rather experience it rather than watch it. For a more innovative approach, a dream can be distorted as memories and perspectives vary from person to person vastly. Twisting the situation so that the player feels some degree of sympathy for an” antagonist” such as Ramsus, is something I’d be impressed to see. The best stories involve tales where the antagonistic side has an understandable point of reason for their mindset. Plots where the line between good and evil are blurred usually cement themselves in rich value. Xenogears showcases this blur, but it’s weakened left and right by “watching” rather than “playing”.

Kefeinzel For Kicks…

The fight with Kefeinzel centers on a very humorous scene, which gives the player a sort of omnipresent power through humor. Vanderkaum is played up as being a “Brawn-over-Brains” kind of guy and it culminates excellently in this fight. Much to it’s credit, the fight with Vanderkaum’s precious cannon proves to be ridiculously easy, furthering the grasp that this macho general is indeed an idiot. In between-the-play sequences, the player watches as the entire bridge yells at Vanderkaum for obstinately forcing his doomed plan of attack down on a small group of gears. In many ways, I really wanted to see the two sides coalesce more efficiently, but I suddenly remembered this battle’s spiritual successor (Xenosaga Episode II), which does the exact same thing, but the player can only hear Vanderkaum (he has the same name and appearance in Xenosaga as well) yelling at his crew through the radio. It worked well, but the visuals were still a nice touch. The only way I can think to have my cake and eat it as well, would be to offer desire for the underused picture-in-picture tool (i.e. something like Heavenly Sword). There are plenty creative ways to offer visual scenes without them degenerating into becoming JUST scenes.

Vicious Visuals

I’m a person who appreciates new visuals in games, but I don’t like the way the industry is right now. It’s moving into an area where people hide behind “supposed visual nuance” when they’re just moronically dancing around in the uncanny valley. Cel-Shading is what developers run to now when they want a “new look” and the truth is that the technique should be one of many on an already long list of visual options. Xenogears isn’t vastly different from any other 2D game utilizing sprites, but it does have it’s own novelty in terms of visual quality. Like I said before, I’d rather see some of these older games remade with the intent of simply playing around with the old hardware (If I had ANY money I’d do it myself), instead of simply trying to adapt it to run on already overpriced systems. I do own all the current gen systems, but I in no way support the HD generation. It’s only definitive result is that it definitely played some part into why the economy is the way it is right now (I’m not sensationally proposing it’s a significant factor but it is one nonetheless). The reason why games aren’t visually scattering in new and exciting ways are because most gamers are consumers, it’s that simple. People that share my desires shouldn’t be so quick to throw down money for a T.V. that costs over $300. Even if they have the money, it’s really hurting more than helping in the end. Unfortunately, I think the HD thing has embedded itself into the current infrastructure of the industry. It will not be easily removed at this point and developers (along with gamers as well) are going to have to work around it now (if they don’t want visuals to take the next century to evolve that is).