Wednesday, February 4, 2009

DFB – Xenogears Fraction IV

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

Chapter IV – Night Skies of Nortune

When Fei finally awakens, he finds himself in an unfamiliar place under the care of a nurse. She informs him that he’s been brought to the capital city of Kislev (Nortune) as a prisoner. As a result, he’s had a bomb placed around his neck that will detonate if he attempts to wander too far. Fei, still groggily taking everything in, watches as four individuals suddenly come into the room and demand he be taken with them. The nurse objects, but is powerless to stop them, so Fei agrees to be a part of what they call a “baptism”. The four guys then take him to a large monstrous looking fellow known as Rico. Rico informs Fei that he has to go through a “baptism” in order for them to gauge his rank for the society of prisoners in D Block. After they drag him to a back alley, they then proceed to fight an unwilling Fei. One by one, Fei dispatches Rico’s subordinates until Rico himself challenges him. Fei refuses to fight, but his unknown presence surfaces for a second and injures Rico. Rico, excited at this development, proceeds to finish off Fei, who’s completely refusing to fight at this point. Rico awards him 'rank A" and sends him back to his bunk.

After waking up again, Fei is greeted by the now impressed nurse who is ecstatic that he actually stood against (and injured) “The Champ”. Fei, becoming exasperated by the entire situation, begins to wander the prisoner town, until he comes across a committee hoping to recruit him into a battling tournament. Fei, more than annoyed now, curtly informs them that he has no intention of fighting in a gear ever again. Fei also meets up with a large rodent-esque demi-human named Hammer, who informs him that the committee is his best chance at getting high-end access to Kislev. As he makes his way back to his room, Hammer informs him that a doctor has taken the place of the nurse that Fei met earlier. When he makes it back to his room, he finds that it’s Citan, who tracked him down hoping he ended up somewhere in Kislev. After the doc unsuccessfully tinkers with the bomb-necklace, Hammer informs them that winning the tournament means Fei gets the bomb removed anyway. Though initially appearing as if he would rather rot in jail, Fei finally agrees to participate in the tournament (to honor a promise he made to Bart earlier).

Fei makes his way to the battling arena and finds out that he is mysteriously granted use of his Wetall, which was taken into custody upon his capture. During his first match however, he discovers his Wetall has been rigged to overheat and in the process Fei is knocked unconscious yet again. When Fei wakes up, he and Citan decide that it’s best to continue in the tournament, given his Wetall is now repaired. Fortunately, Fei is able beat his remaining opponents fairly easy. As he makes his way into the finals, Rico confronts him one evening and informs him that his two subordinates (both of whom Fei beat in his “baptism”) were killed in the sewers (which serve as the prisoner’s sole mean of work and income). Rico informs Fei that he is the prime suspect for their murders given the circumstances. Fei clearly denies this, and although Rico admits that he probably didn’t do it, he doesn’t completely discount it. Fei and Citan then decide to accompany Rico into the sewers and they discover a large and powerful beast thought to be the culprit of Rico’s subordinate’s deaths. After defeating it, Rico announces he will see Fei next in the arena and departs. Before Fei’s bout, he is confronted by the mysterious masked individual who first appeared in Aveh’s tournament (dubbed the “Wiseman”). He informs Fei that his Dad was originally from Shevat's military academy and that he studied the same martial arts as him (hence his intimate understanding of Fei’s fighting technique). The individual also gives Fei some helpful advice about his upcoming match with Rico.

Meanwhile, Citan has once again been seen conversing with the individual known as the “Emperor Cain” in some sort of limbo. The conversation doesn’t suggest that Citan means Fei harm, but Cain does seem to harbor some deep-seated fear of Fei for some reason. Back in Solaris, Elly has been told to escort the “Hecht” on a delivery mission. Elly is taken aback, as the details of her assignment are classified even to her. Her strike force also takes notice to this as well, but they decide to follow them nonetheless. Upon leaving, an "Elements" officer (high ranking female officers under Ramus’ command) known as Dominia fills Elly in on the details of her assignment. She is to escort the Hecht (revealed to be a massive bomb) to purge the entire civilization of Kislev (another group of mysterious individuals can be seen earlier discussing the relevance of Kislev’s Kaiser). The bomb will completely decimate the entire area and the fallout will last at least a century.

Back in Kislev, Fei has defeated Rico and has become the champion battler. This means he is allowed access to the rest of Kislev, and his bomb necklace is taken off. After Fei visits with the Kaiser, Rico can be seen breaking into the facility and having a moment of Déjà vu in the Kaiser’s bedroom (which suggests his biological parents as well as how he was shunned as a child because he was a Demi-Human). With the help of Hammer and Citan, Fei decides it’s time to get out of Kislev and back to Aveh, but before they put their plan into action, Rico’s remaining subordinates confront Fei to inform him that Rico is set to be executed. Supposedly, he tried to assassinate the Kaiser, but they believe otherwise. Fei, also in agreement, decides to create a rescue for Rico as an adjunct to their escape plan. After Hammer procures the necessary info, Fei and Citan hitch a ride on a train and make their way to Wetall’s docking bay. After succeeding in Wetall’s acquirement, Fei proceeds to rescue Rico, who was thrown into a area to be eaten by a large creature. As Fei, Citan, Hammer, and Rico make their way to safety, they find out that they have just escaped one danger and jumped right into another, the “purging” has begun.

Fei, who is anxious to stop this from happening, boards Wetall and attempts to fight off the Gebler/Aveh forces launching the assault. After defeating them, he comes across Elly once again. This time Fei wastes no time in forcing her to exit her gear and witness firsthand the destruction her nation is causing (they both stand on a rooftop as Kislev is being bombed). Fei, still wanting to befriend Elly, leaves her to watch while he races off in Wetall to confront Dominia. As he stands against her, Rico who has also joined the fight, aids him in battle. After defeating Dominia, the Hecht falls towards the Kislev nuclear reactor, threatening to kill everyone and everything. Fei and Rico, while aboard their gears, attempt to hold the massive bomb up in the air, but the mass is too great they begin to descend rapidly. Elly however, who has finally made her choice, decides to aid in holding the bomb up. Through the strength of three gears is enough to divert the course of the bomb, it’s not enough to completely stop it. As Fei and Rico move to let the bomb go, Elly remains, vowing to divert it for as long as she can. She is able to keep the bomb from striking the nuclear reactor, but goes down with it in the process. A mysterious gear can been seen shielding Elly’s at the last moment as the bomb goes off right by her.

Fei, Citan, Hammer, and Rico reunite with Elly and they decide to make their way north to steal Kislev’s secret weapon, the “Goliath” (in order to prevent Kislev from retaliating against Aveh). Fortunately they are successful in acquiring it, a massive warship capable of flight. Citan decides to pilot it and the crew makes their way towards Aveh. Along the way, the crew finds themselves face to face with Grahf in his gear. Fei, Rico, and Elly rush out to the wing of the Goliath to do battle with him. Grahf proclaims it’s not Fei’s time to leave the capital yet, and proceeds to viscously assault the crew. Though horribly outmatched, the crew is able to suppress him (Grahf mysteriously leaves Elly untouched and it was his gear that shielded her from the bomb earlier). Citan, using a window of opportunity, yells for the rest to hang on, as he accelerates the plane, blowing Grahf and his gear off the side. Grahf survives, but is shot down by Hammer using the Golaith’s firepower. This is seemingly enough to stop Grahf’s pursuit, as he stops giving chase at this point.

In the ocean, it is revealed that Bart, Sigurd, Maison, and the inhabitants of the Yygdrassil survived the earlier destruction and have taken to the Yygdrassil II, a powerful submarine. As Bart stands at the bridge, he and his crew notice a massive Kislev prototype warship flying towards their kingdom (it’s the Goliath). Thinking it to be a retaliatory strike against Aveh (and not realizing Fei and crew have hijacked it), Bart over-zealously orders the Yygdrassil II to shoot the plane down. The submarine’s power is demonstrated as the aptly named “Bart-missiles” decimate the Goliath forcing it to crash into the ocean. Realizing what happened, the Yygdrassil saves Citan, Hammer, and Rico (Fei and Elly are nowhere to be found). Bart, who is crushed by his bellicose tendency to shoot first, deeply apologizes to Citan and Rico for shooting them down. Citan immediately advises Bart not to think twice about it and Rico (who jumped on Bart once he initially found out), tells the young prince not to dwell in the past. Though consoled by their forgiveness, Bart still expresses concern for the missing Fei and Elly.

Fei and Elly are revealed to be floating on what’s left of the Goliath in the middle of the ocean. Elly discovers that their gears are deep underneath the debris as Fei spends his time unwittingly catching fish with his bare hands. After expressing some heart-felt feelings on their desire to help others, the two find out that they have some sort of implicit connection to each other. The two continue to float along the sea, hoping to be rescued soon.

To be continued…


Notes and Observations

Rudimentary Real Time Makes Me Want To Fight Turn Based
During the battling competition in D Block, the game throws you a very rudimentary combat system (which is in real-time). RPGs have a tendency to shove little mini games down the player’s throat, and this just comes off being another one of those. In theory, I respect the urge to mix things up, but I also detest when it’s little more than “something new”. Like a barking dog, these instances of the game have to be willing to bite as well. What this part of the game did make me wish, was that the gears combat be entirely real-time and more fleshed out. Having a more frantic fight illustrates the entire novelty and usefulness of a gear in the first place (i.e. upgrades, damage, status effects). This also loops me back to Xenogears’ “actual” battling system (on foot), and how I prefer it to real time combat in the case at hand. Some games use a more action-paced combat system while others prefer a stricter turn-based mechanic. They all try to offer a respectable mix-up, but they usually end up gravitating towards one extreme or the other. Xenogears is one of the few RPGs I’ve played in a long time that actually has me enjoying the combat mechanic by balancing a little of both. It’s still turn based for the most part, but it relies more on stringing combos together, and manipulating AP to gain the upper hand (the traditional conventions are the only thing holding it back). The gears combat is far weaker to me at this point in the game, but I definitely see promise for the “on-foot” system that Xenogears plays to. It’s a hard hill to hump, but I’d love to see the pace picked up a tad more without necessarily making it real-time. That is something to take notice to, when you lay out that I’m defending love for a portion of turn based combat (something I’ve never done before).

Operating World
It’s a common RPG staple for oppressive hierarchies and governments to run amok, forcing a young band of cliché rebels to thwart them. Xenogears saving grace is that it does the exact same thing, while making it less light-hearted and well grounded (as opposed to “fantasy”). This in turn makes the entire layer of the setting refreshingly distinctive (as opposed to simply being derivative). The game has the player juggling the following nations, but it never once becomes confusing or overwhelming, it actually feels like the world is actually “pumping blood”. Obviously, this luster of the game is stronger in some areas and weaker in others, but fact of the matter is most other RPGs that try to do this end up having it come off entirely shallow, or they focus entirely too on one oppressive establishment (i.e. Shin-Ra). Xenogears throws all of these at the player (without it becoming too much):

Ethos – A “functioning religion” that subtly governs most of Ignas. The Ethos controls most aspects of historical archives, as well as any religious sanctions the world may have. Xenogears has a major weakness concerning this organization, but I have to wait until the story actually progresses to the point where the Ethos’ relevance is at it’s peak. It’s also responsible in some part for training young priests that deal with “Wels”, deformed mutants thought to be abominations (If you’re a fan of Firefly/Serenity, you’ll immediately notice a correlation here).

Solaris – This is the main “asshole country” of the game. Solaris is an airborne city that governs and subverts most of the land’s dealings. It’s inhabitants are extremely prejudice to “surface dwellers” and think of themselves as “men tending to their pets” when it comes to dealing with anything on the surface. Their technology is the best, their living conditions are top-notch, and they are all bred in an hyper-aristocratic fashion. It’s military is compromised of the academy, Jugend which graduates individuals to Gebler (Solaris’ main military force).

Kislev –This is the country at war with Aveh on the “surface”, the war between both sides is manipulated and instigated at every turn by Solaris. In actuality, the manipulation is caused by Solaris to prevent the land-dwellers from gaining any power. Other than Aveh, it’s probably the most advanced/largest nation of individuals on the planet.

Aveh - The other side of the war is actually the side the player is forced into siding with (As it’s Bart’s nation). The connection to Aveh is felt through Bart’s character and it’s why he’s important in the narrative as a whole. It’s obvious he doesn’t want this war going on, but he is the crown prince (in secret) defending his nation to the best of his ability.

Nisan – This is smaller sort-of-adjunct to Aveh. Margie is the mother of Nisan and Bart’s cousin. It’s mostly a city built on religion and peace. It has no real means to defend itself other than a small military force, so the player is also roped into fighting for it’s sake as well. This also creates a nice characterized representation for the player as well. Bart is the ambassador for the player when it comes to Aveh, and Margie is the exact same thing for Nisan. The leaders in Xenogears showcase their nations to a noticeable extent (The Emperor/Krelian, Bart, Margie, The Kaiser, etc).

Shevat – This is another massive floating city, that nobody has access to, due to a powerful gate protecting it (not even Solaris can reach them). It’s actually a nation that went to war with Solaris 500 years prior to the game, and was left decimated because of it. I actually have more to say on Shevat, but that gets it’s own section in an upcoming entry.

World Map Outdated?
This is probably still something that’s too technically limiting to run wild with. I still find it interesting to contemplate however, so lets. A game that immediately jumps to mind when considering how to “manipulate the illusion” here is Half Life 2. The citadel in that game was a massive building that overlooked the entirety of the Gordon’s quest (you could see it almost anytime you were outside in the game). This makes me wonder how modern RPGs could translate that same sort of beauty. Having that same sense of scale WHILE the player traverses through numerous lands in real time is a massive undertaking, which is why I suppose nobody has taken to war with the task. Xenogears is a product of it’s time so I won’t fault it for this disappointing aspect. It would be nothing short of amazing however, to experience the Yygdrassil actually “sailing” through a vast desert, or seeing Aveh, Nisan, or Kislev in it’s rightful scale and beauty (rather than just caricaturized/pixilated distortions for the sake of navigation on the world map).

Something that also puts this into plain site is the “Hecht” purging of Kislev. Numerous times, the scene pans out to show the entirety of the fight going on (as well as the bomb when it actually does hit the nation). Landscapes like Kislev at night, in the midst of it’s unsuccessful purging, would forcefully carve memories into the player’s mind if it was handled right. Shevat is my personal favorite, but like I mentioned…that’s another entry. Even if it’s handled with Pre-rendered backgrounds, it can be pulled off. Realistically speaking, there’s no way (right now anyway) to provide a Fallout/Oblivion-like travel-guide for what I’m picturing (and that IS what I have in my head at the moment), but I know there’s some way to fool the audience…there always is. Never underestimate people’s cluelessness, especially gamers.

Background Humor
This is an odd one, as every time I contemplate having a playable sequence for these portions; it feels shoehorned and stupid (making me wish it was just a scene anyway). The scene after the Goliath’s crash, involving Fei catching a fish was hilarious to watch (another rarity in that the text-boxes helped it as well). Xenogears actually reverse presents this scene by having Fei jump in the immediate foreground while the set camera actually focuses on Elly (who is off screen in a hole talking about the location of their underwater gears). When I realized what I was laughing at, I noticed this was humor only a video game could accomplish. The cues could be set up specifically, but the exact positioning of how the central conversation plays out to a background event (which is actually taking place in the foreground) can be activated by the player, even if it’s the minimal degree of interaction. If it were up to me, I’d probably let it just play out as a scene, as the work that would/could go into trying to make the scene more humorous than it already was would be too much work for the end result…oh well.

Fei and Elly
Though they’re cliché archetypes, Fei and Elly are actually rubbing me the right way each time the game sets them up. Even when they’re having a “moment” I actually appreciate the importance of the scene itself (because the characters are actually enjoyable). The characters themselves haven’t degraded (as typical protagonistic heroine/heros tend to do). Sure, the dialogue itself could be better written (especially for a JRPG filtered through localization), but the content of their scenes together rarely falters, and so many games still do this now. You also really have to appreciate this when so many of their counterparts in other narratives are so damn annoying. It’s only gotten better for me as the game progressed. The game keeps running the two characters into each other, but when I think about it, it only feels forced in that “well, this is the story it’s trying to tell” and not “IT’S BEATING ME OVER THE HEAD WITH IT”. Fei as a character keeps getting messier, but he’s not losing credit from my perspective. Elly on the other hand, keeps turning out to be a delight, when I expect to hate her at every turn. Given that both characters play off each other without becoming overly-dependent upon one another, I think that’s quite a feat for “just a video-game”. It’s only flaw is that a good majority of the scenes can be played rather than watched…as always.

Waxing Poetics
Xenogears is not emotionally pandering, perhaps it is in it’s reliance on metaphysics, but every time Xenogears had a “moment”, I didn’t have my usual cringe that I typically associate with melodramatic scenes. The example I’m going to use is Fei’s conscience over his nature of “wanting to be needed”. While him and Elly are floating at sea, Fei goes on about doing “good” more for himself than actually helping (therefore stripping the definition in his eyes). One could obviously attribute this to the fundamental problem of altruism as a thematic (I.e. there’s absolutely no such thing as a selfless act in the world). It’s mainly a scene, but it does incorporate instances that can easily be aided by idle gameplay. The only act that takes place is in the semi-flashback where Fei eats a ration (despite it tasting horrible). Actions can always be taken to be playable. The majority of it however, consists of Fei and Elly sitting on the side of debris while discussing the whole matter. Anything ranging from a FPV sequence (i.e. the MGS games) to throwing things into the ocean would plug in here nicely and serve as an cognitive-connect.

Degradation of a Fanbase
The length of Xenogears’ arm is “perplexingly perfect” in today’s word. All the artwork here is provided by the lovely Xenogears/saga Image Archive. I only tweaked the brightness and contrast in Photoshop to punch up the linework. I specifically used this work, as I’ve spent the past few weeks looking for decent media on the game. It brings to head the actual reality of how Xenogears’ image has dwindled in the past decade. Everything about it’s fanbase is shrinking into stalwartly tunnel-visioned fans that will defend the game to it’s grave. Though I never agree on pedestalizing anything, I actually can’t blame them here. This is actually a great JRPG that has completely fallen off the map over the past ten years (Xenosaga’s troubled development didn’t help it’s legacy either). The Xenogames in general find more hate than love here, as these games actually “try to say something along an epic quest” and people (specifically critics) get far too hung up on what they want it to say (or play). After researching a bit, I found that while the game was critically divisive, it still garnered a fair amount or praise as well. Specifically, in that late 90’s time-frame period where FFVII presented it’s overhyped business to the world, Xenogears still held it’s own…as a far above-average game. I hate that the game’s grave is being overcome with vegetation, but at the same time, I won’t deny liking that part of it as well. I was still able to come along and clear the headstone off…for myself. As usual, the rest of you can go to hell. I love when I can announce my opinion as God and leave it at that (did you catch that little inside joke? Ha..ha..).