Sunday, January 25, 2009

DFB - Xenogears - Fraction II

Now that I don’t have the painstaking introduction to deal with this time, we can get right to it…so…

*Chapter 2 – The Royal Brigand and The Freudian Hero

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

When we last left Fei and Citan, they had just been captured by an Aveh transport looking to take Wetall back in order to gain the upper hand on their opponent-country (Kislev). When Fei awakens, he finds himself and the doctor in a prison cell, while the transport makes its way across a vast desert. After a heart-to-heart with Citan (which also shows a strange dialogue between Citan an unknown party), the transport is struck by a mysterious group of sand pirates and Fei and Citan have to make their way out while the transport quickly sinks into the sand. After they make their way to the top and Citan helps Fei regain Wetall, they make it off the transport just in time.

Unfortunately, their escape is short-lived, as the sand pirates who struck the ship attack them directly (mistaking them for Aveh soldiers). A brash young man in his own crimson gear confronts Fei and demands a fight, despite Fei’s claims he is not a part of the transport. After a brief scuffle, the two and their gears also find a similar fate with the Aveh transport by sinking into the sand. Underneath in an intricate stalagmite cave, the young man yells that Fei get out of the gear and is shocked to see that he is in fact not a Aveh guard. The man introduces himself as “Bart” and the two agree to make a truce while using their gears to make their way out of the cave safely. Citan who was picked up by the Yygdrassil (Bart’s sand pirate ship), has a mysterious conversation with a young man who looks very much like Bart (while the Yygdrassil’s occupants plunder the Aveh transport’s wreckage).

Back underground, Fei and Bart make their way through the stalagmite cave and eventually come across a hut set by a gate that they need to proceed through. Upon entering, they find a friendly old man who introduces himself as “Bal” and presents himself as an avid collector of artifacts and fossils (and fairly knowledgeable source on gears as well). Through some curious questioning and such, Bal ends up telling an old myth about the ultimate gear. This is a gear that is said to stand against God itself. After completing a mutually beneficial deal to shut some sensors off , Fei and Bart return and Bal opens the gate for them to proceed. However, when Bal goes out to check the two’s worn-out gears, he is awestruck by the sight of Fei’s Wetall. He rushes back inside and proceeds to rush Fei and Bart out under obvious false pretenses (very rudely). Though they agree to leave Bal alone, Fei is unnerved by what Bal let slip out of his mouth (referring to Fei as the “Slayer of god”).

After making their way forward a bit, Fei and Bart come across a large and powerful gear that stands in their way. After a long-winded battle, the two seemingly manage to defeat it and it falls down in storm of it’s own flames. As Bart cockily turns his back to proceed, the gear manages to get up and assault him, nearly crippling him. Fei then begins to show an odd intent of another’s will again. After yelling at Bart to get out of his way, Fei launches an all out combo on the big machine, destroying it. Bart, flabbergasted at what just happened, excitedly questions Fei on how he pulled such a maneuver off. Fei , once again shocked by his own aptitude in a gear , states that he has no idea at all. After the battle, the two are finally able to make their way back to the Yygdrassil and are greeted by the young man chatting with Citan earlier and Citan himself. He introduces himself as Sigurd, and everyone then makes their way to the bridge.

Over the course of having tea and looking at Bart’s old scrolls, Fei and Citan get filled in on the pirates' situation. “Bart” is actually Bartholomew Fatima, the prince of Aveh and rightful heir to the throne. He and his followers have been forced out their country by Shakhan (the current ruler). To make matters worse, it is revealed that Shakhan has Bart’s first cousin in captivity. This cousin (Marguerite) is the mother of Nisan (a small country), and she is also one of the last two living members of the royal family (along with Bart). Margie is being held because she possesses one half of the Fatima Jasper, which is a item said to unlock the route to a mysterious treasure. Bart, who possesses the other half, is currently planning to mount a rescue mission for her.

Bart, Citan, and Sigurd all seem to half-heartedly agree that Fei’s help would be a significant aid in their aid to rescue Margie. Fei, still haunted by his actions in Lahan, is angered by their “need for his power”. He only desires to live peacefully, and would be quite fine if he never had to set foot in Wetall ever again. The others think it’s best not to pressure him for his assistance and let him think about it while he rests. While sleeping however, some gears storm the hangar to Bart’s hideout and attempt to destroy his gear force. Bart immediately rushes to combat them, but Fei is still refusing to fight as chaos is falling out around him. Citan, who is clearly disappointed by this, hops into an unfinished gear in the hangar, and attempts to help Bart fight back the invaders. Fortunately, they are able to repel most of the hostiles (who are using drugs to help them maintain battle endurance), and just as a large gear makes its appearance to oppose Bart and Citan, Fei appears. Finally having found the resolve to fight, he aids the two in Wetall and aids in their fight against the large gear.

After overcoming the invading gear force, everyone meets up on the bridge. They decide that it’s time to put their plan into motion, and they proceed to Aveh to rescue Margie.


-To Be Continued

Notes and Observations
Navigational Portion Areas (anything outside battles).
Sometimes I look back on the many RPGs I’ve played over the years and wonder just how fun they actually were outside of battle. Much time is spent running around doing absolute dribble in terms of a “game trying to be fun”. I’m not saying it all has to be bells and whistles, of course not. Running through caves and experiencing set-pieces should be more than what they are though. Even in MMORPGs, the only joy that really comes to the player is level grinding, gathering a slew of weapons, and micro-managing a number of stats and items. The sequences outside the fights themselves are often drab and meaningless. I’m not saying the stealth portion in an RPG has to be Splinter Cell, but I expect something a tad more than standing behind a bush or something while a guard walks past. Chances are, it’s a one time sequence, so why not make something unique out of it? These areas account for the vast majority of playtime anyway, they should be memorable for the player, and not just stretches of…reality. No doubt, scenes that play out in Xenogears had to be what they were at the time because of technical limitations. Now, I think branching out can be done in scenes for RPGs. An example would be the scene in which Bart shows Fei the scrolls from his family archives. Fei inadvertently walks across the floor, which is in actuality the display for the scrolls. Bart yells for him to get off the screen so they can see and the sprite walks back. This is not handled by the player at all, and that’s kind of sad, because with the right degree of linearity, moments like that could build very strong connections with the player.

Building Artistic Legacies

The communities for this type of thing should be much larger than they are and the troves of artwork that actually go in these games (RPGS specifically) themselves should me more readily available for fans. It’s definitely a spark that lights a fire under all the asses of would be artists out there. Sure, there are communities and fanbases that perpetuate their own submissions of glorious artwork, but is it problematic to ask the developers to help cultivate it as well. I wonder how many storyboards went into some of the sequences for Xenogears and as a fan I’d love to see all of them. I know artists don’t like whoring their work past a certain extent, but they shouldn’t really be that damn hard-pressed to share their creations with the industry. I hate the cheesy artbooks that come with games as part of some preorder deal or whatever and this is certainly a reflection of that. I don’t even care if it’s an unlockable part of the game, that one can look at in a menu (most non-RPG games use this ironically enough). Of course, I like having tangible copies, but sometimes I end up having to take what I can get. Luckily for me, my favorite games (of all time) are the MGS games, so I’ve been able to easily get my hands on exquisite collections of Yoji Shinkawa’s illustrations.

Building with it’s own Tools Again
I think this is something I’m going to see more frequently as I press on through this game, but I feel like I should say something everytime I see it. Everytime a character references the continent of Ignas, something about it rubs me the right way. It doesn’t seem as forced or stilted as most other RPGs I’ve played. Even now, with it’s archaic technicalities as a game, Xenogears is spinning quite a tale for itself…

“The desert only covers around 1000 sharls of the outer layer of the earth. The stratus underneath that consists of igneous rock.”

It’s so small, it’s not even worth mentioning, but I don’t see enough games referencing their own worlds past a certain degree. What little most RPGs use is simply for navigational purposes. Sometimes small lines like Bart’s aforementioned quote give more than just a tad of life to a world of pixels.

For Fei…and the Funnies…
With a good voice actor, Fei’s “craziness” could easily be saved. This isn’t Final Fantasy, and he isn’t Cloud. Apart from some over-indulgence in his desire for peace, he’s not such a bad character (so far). His lines specifically are somewhat damaged left and right by how dry they can be read (rivaled only by a few of the antagonists'). Small portions that carry their weight would benefit here as well. There’s a particular scene where a nurse is checking guards after the ransacked Aveh transport survivors are found and she’s depressed that there are no serious injuries. I will admit however, that watching the pixelated sprite turn left and right was very hilarious to watch. Of course this is not so much against Xenogears itself as it is against any modern RPG with text-boxes. Little things like this leads me to wonder how well hand drawn sprites can be used in conjunction with voice acting now. It seems like something worth trying at least. What’s really interesting to note is that Xenogears does have very tiny moments of voice acting after and during a battle, this is part of the reason why I think it’s so important for this title in particular. Voicing just seems to resonate with this game specifically. Another thing I see as a desire in this area is for the voice acting to be purposefully flawed for the sake of communication.

A member of Bart’s sand pirate team mistakenly said “Police” instead of “Policy” in a conversation and I wondered how lovely it would be to hear some folky-dialect interpret lines like that. I don’t want fucked up lines left and right, but it’s kind of a back-end way for improv, which is actually something very scarce in games even now. Also, the intensity of some situations could be given a dose of steroids. The alarm sequence that goes off when Fei wakes up in the middle of the Yygdrassil’s attack made me think of the crackling fire I talked about in my last entry. When Fei awakens, the inhabitants of the ships are running around haphazardly to simulate panic and turmoil (for sprites it was actually kind of cool to watch). As a layer over that lovely antiquated alarm signal, it would have been nice to hear some voices yelling as well.

Xeno-family of What the Fuck
Ironically enough, Xenogears is actually a very small chunk of a larger portion of fiction detailed in the Japanese-only book known as Perfect Works. According to that book, Xenogears is actually the 5th entry in a six episode layout. This is also trumped by avid fans who waste countless hours trying to plug the Xenogears universe within Xenosaga. Quite frankly, the game makes it pretty easy, as characters such as Fei and Elly are seen as “eternal re-incarnations” of the cosmic order (basically Fei Fong Wong is the fifth incarnation of “Abel”). This is one of many reasons why many people will instantly link Xenosaga and and Xenogears. Personally, I just think it’s a spiritual predecessor with elements making their respective cameos (i.e. Abel/Fei & Nephlim/Elly). Though, superficially fun to contemplate, I find no extensive need to fangasm conspiracies over how Xenogears is secretly the fifth episode in the Xenosaga franchise. It’s all made so confusing by the dozens upon dozens of allusions both series reference each other with (especially Xenosaga Episode III: Also Spach Zaruthustra). It’s actually a more blatant crossover than the transition between Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake & Metal Gear Solid (Ironic that I like both the later incarnations over the originators).

They Never Found The Black Box
Another thing Xenogears and Xenosaga share is the “black box component” of the front stage mechanical instruments of power. In Xenosaga it was of course, KOS-MOS, and in Xenogears, it’s Wetall. They both play an integral part of the narrative and they’re never capitalized in the game once (in playtime). An engineer tells Fei that there are parts of Wetall, that are essentially “black box”, and are areas of extreme interest as well as power. Having an X-factor in play is something not used to great effect in most games. KOS-MOS uses these areas in Xenosaga constantly (typically when she enters her blue-eyed phase). Wetall usually manipulates such moments through Fei (and I’m sure we’ll find out why soon). The scene actually mentioned in the summary above actually spells out a moment which Fei uses an unknown force beyond what he comprehends as a means to decimate a boss character. This is in essence, just another cutscene. That one on the other hand could have easily been solved in it’s time period (without technical constraints), by simply giving Fei a ridiculous amount of AP (which would inexplicitly let the player perform a ridiculous combo out of nowhere). It just didn’t have to play out as a scene and that’s a big no-no for me to experience now.