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JRPG Collection

Why Xenosaga Episode 1 is still great

Contents

A crowd at the Kukai Foundation in Xenosaga

Part 1: Story and Characters

In the first few hours, Xenosaga Episode I drops an action cutscene that shows it isn’t playing around. The protagonist’s dreadnought is attacked by the Gnosis, enemies impervious to their weapons because the Gnosis exist out of phase with the material world. This fact doesn’t, unfortunately, limit the alien’s offensive capabilities, and as they tear through the human fleet unopposed, leaving starship debris and cold bodies in their wake. 

That is, until KOS-MOS is activated. The female cyborg who can fight the gnosis has been at the centre of our attention since the start of the game, but this is the first time we see her awake, and the outcome is devastating. Spinning, flipping and shooting lasers in all directions, staring with red eyes of death, we are left in awe of KOS-MOS — and of Monolith Soft’s ability to construct an action scene.

KOS-MOS is an action figure, in more ways than one. She has movable parts. Take her arms off, replace them with weapons: a gun, a spear, a scythe. Went she enters battle mode, her visors clicks down over her face. 

She is the coolest toy, which is just one of the ways KOS-MOS is similar to Weltall, the coolest toy in Xenogears. As Weltall was to Fei, KOS-MOS is to Shion: an overpowered machine, allied to the main character, but with a mysterious and grand role to play in the cosmic story.

Whether we can also draw lines from KOS-MOS to Aegis in Persona 3 or 2B in Neir Automata, I can’t say: a full genealogy of hot female androids was beyond the scope of my research. But the developer’s sanitised explanation for KOS-MOS’s creation satisfies me. This is a mech-ridden universe, but even the most powerful giant robot cannot fight the Gnosis. The secret weapon had to exist on a different technological path, and the design — small, human, dexterous, feminine — reflects this. 

It has been awhile since I’ve fallen in love with a group of characters like these. Every time Ziggy asks a question with cyborg stoicism but human concern. Every time Jr., the physically smallest character, is the first to step forwards in the face of danger. Every time Shion is filled with sympathy for another character. I love them all. I had no complaints with the voice acting.

Xenosaga is part prequel to, part remake of Xenogears (which was rushed to completion, and the planned sequel never greenlit). Canonically, however, they are separate entities, Gears owned by Square and Saga by Namco. In other words, this universe has been made twice, and that is a testament to the faith of Tetsuya Takahashi and Soroya Saga (husband and wife co-writers) in their ideas. 

Sadly, Xenosaga, planned as a six game series, ended after three. The fate of a Takahashi-Saga universe is to fizzle out prematurely. This is a canon event.

I want to say “The candle that burns fast burns bright”, but it would been ironic considering the slow burn of the game itself. That’s where most critics leave their analysis of Xenosaga: the length of the cutscenes. They should be talking about the depth of the mystery, the richness of the universe, and the quirks of the characters. These are what makes Xenogears and the Xenosaga series, however truncated, exceptional.

From the sci-fi megabuildings like the Durandal (a spaceship which becomes the government building for a planet when it lands vertically) to the design details of the UMN (just a menu screen, but with the in-universe role of being a popular app), this world is big, original and immersive. It has the production values to back up that ambition: despite leaving Square, Xenosaga can almost compete with Final Fantasy in the department. 

Lots of JRPGs, especially in the Final Fantasy series, reference Star Wars, but Xenosaga draws on a deeper creativity, feeling like Star Wars while looking nothing like it; capturing the imagination and excitement of a sci-fi classic without referencing any. Xenosaga is, simply, great science fiction.

Part 2: Mechanics

Earlier I compared a character to an action figure. Well, that metaphor also extends to the levelling, where there is not just one system to play with, but several. EXP, TP, SP, and EP are gained after battle, and they can all be spent on different aspects of your character. EP is spent in a tech tree to acquire new magic. TP is spent making your technical attacks faster or more powerful. 

UX designers aim to delight their users; I find the various systems in Xenosaga delightful. They are like a sushi selection: simple, varied, and finely crafted. Levels are dotted with enticing red doors, the keys to which are found in other levels. Behind the doors you find unique accessories that impart skills. Spend enough SP teaching your characters skills, and you level up to a new skill tier. Every stage of this process is enjoyable in itself. Combined? This is the stuff addictive side activities are made of. 

It’s a shame the decoders, which open the doors, are so well hidden you might need a guide to find them. Occasional obtuseness in Xenosaga can be a small impediment to fun. It also made the end of the game challenging for me, as I didn’t understand what the appropriate way to spent TP was. Somewhat counterintuitively, you should spend a lot of them on stats, not techniques. I understand that obtuseness also affects Xenosaga Episode II, but I’ll be prepared for it when I get there.

In Xenogears, I was unimpressed by how characters had a random selection of ether skills, rather than ones that best fit their character. Xenosaga does better. First, because characters can transfer ether skills, there’s no requirement to make their natural spells balanced. Therefore, the spells a designed to fit the character. Second, each character has a unique spell intro animation that fits the nature of their power. 

Attack effects are a work of art. They hit hard, supported by a sharp and varied library of sound effects and screen shake or a camera swing when appropriate. They are visually complex, with unique particles, glows and overlapping layers. They suit the character that uses them. KOS-MOS attacks with quick slashes and lasers, while Shion, the scientist, uses a type of magic that requires the use of a multicoloured “ether circuit”.

Rule-bending is a thrill in any game, and the most thrilling mechanic in Xenosaga battles is the boost system, where at the press of a button you can force one of your characters to the front of the turn order. It works in tandem with the second most thrilling system in Xenosaga battles. Three battle bonuses rotate from one turn to the next: act on a particular turn and you can guarantee yourself a critical hit. Kill a foe on a particular turn and you multiply your end of battle rewards. Getting a 10x bonus is a euphoric experience.

Xenosaga is not a game more concerned with philosophy and world building than fun and mechanics. It is filled with systems that are delightful, good-natured, smart, and original. In my head, the Xenosaga lead designer has a curly white beard and laughs a lot.

Conclusion

This review is in two parts because that’s how Xenosaga Episode I is. One half epic sci-fi anime, one half addictive character levelling adventure. There were times I wanted a cutscene to end and give me control again, and I’m a pretty patient guy.

Some will argue that this is an inelegant way to tell an epic story in a videogame, but I disagree. It does what all JRPGs were doing at this time. It just goes hard as fuck on both parts of the experience: the anime, and the RPG.

Takahashi and Saga made a JRPG like no other, and I’m only one-third of the way through it.

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JRPG Collection

The Cowboy JRPG: What Makes Wild Arms Great (Video)

Note: the video and the text are the same review.

Wild Arms seems like a standard SNES-style JRPG. Yes, it’s on the PS1, but it feels like a SNES JRPG with higher resolution 2D sprites and 3D battles — with questionable models, though I admit they did grow on me.

The point is it seemed pretty standard… until I realised Wild Arms is doing some unique things.

1. Character Skills and Upgrades

Probably my favourite thing is how the three characters boast distinct abilities and distinct ways of upgrading those abilities.

Cecilia has magic, Jack had sword skills, Rudy Roughknight (cool name by the way) has big guns — doesn’t sound like anything that interesting yet. But the way you upgrade each of these ability sets is also distinct. And each of the upgrade systems has a component of choice: like which spell do you pick from this wide selection, which attribute of you gun do you upgrade, which sword skill do you make cheaper to use. They’re not drastically different character builds, but you will end up with a Cecilia, Jack and Rudy that is good at different attacks than a friend playing Wild Arm’s might 

And each of the upgrade systems also has an element of exploration. For Jack’s skills you need to find statues that initiate combat challenges, fo Rudy you need to find special chests, for Cecilia you need Crest Graphs scattered across the world. 

It’s not complex, after all it’s only three characters and one unique menu of abilities for each, but it’s a very smooth and polished system that ties together the level design, battles and characters in an elegant way that a lot of JRPGs frankly struggle with.

And it takes the exploration or level design aspect even further, with the second thing I really like about Wild Arm’s, which is the tools. 

2. Tools and Puzzles

The convenient way to describe these is like the items in Zelda, acquired throughout the game and used to overcome obstacles in dungeons. There are even bombs and a hook shot. The bombs let you blow up walls with cracks, and sometimes you find hidden stashes of chests, that sort of thing. It adds so much to the variety of dungeons, add the fun of exploring them, break up the monotony of trudging through them. This sort of level design is something JRPGs have only got worse at over the years.

And this is the bit that really reminds me of Golden Sun. In that game, it was psynergy that was used outside of battle to solve puzzles. The balance between puzzles and battles feels very similar. And Golden Sun even has that combination of 2D levels and 3D battles.

Now I know there are a lot of Golden Sun fans really disappointed that Camelot haven’t continued the series, and I agree, but now I’ve got a series of four other Wild Arm’s games to explore instead, and Armed Fantasia after that maybe. It really feels like they fill the same niche of polished, puzzly, bright JRPGs with close knit parties.

What else makes this cowboy JRPG great?

I haven’t mentioned this, but all the Wild Arms characters and some of the side characters are extremely likeable. They’ve got motivations, they’ve got arcs; my favourite is Calamity Jane. And the backstory and the lore of the world of Filgaia is pretty fleshed out too. 

And that’s another way Wild Arms is like Golden Sun. Overall, they’re both series that look very traditional, but in their own way, are subtly quite ambitious. 

If you want more SNES-style RPG goodness, if you want more of puzzly JRPG like Golden Sun, if you want to see what Zelda might look like as a JRPG, Wild Arms ticks all of those boxes.

How does Wild Arm’s stack up against other PS1 JRPGs?  It’s an extremely competitive field, and Wild Arms was an early release. I can point to JRPGs with more brilliant stories or battle systems, but Wild Arms, with it’s original ideas and excellent pacing, delivered a very consistent level of fun that even some of the genre classics don’t always manage to achieve. For that reason, I think it’s top tier, or at least almost top tier, and I’m looking forward to playing the next one.

Read next: My review of Persona 3

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JRPG Collection

Is Secret of Mana good?

Note: the video and the text are the same review. There are additional observations below the text review that are not in the video.

Secret of Mana is going thorough a re-evaluation. It has traditionally been considered one of the best JRPGs or action-adventures on the SNES, and sits near the top of many “Best of” lists. 

Today, similar to the classic Sonic the Hedgehog games, people are playing Secret of Mana and coming away with some quizzical looks. “Is this it?”, they are saying. “What’s all the fuss about.” 

I don’t think either Sonic or Secret of Mana are getting a fair assessment from these newer players, but as somebody who recently completed Secret of Mana, there were times I wanted to quit, too. 

Fighting in the Pure Land, Secret of Mana screenshot

The combat is particularly unpalatable to those of us acclimatised to modern game design. Unlike most action games, you can rarely dodge enemy attacks, and are forced to take them on the chin. You regularly have control taken away from you as you recover from long stun conditions. When you attack, sometimes you hit the enemy, and sometimes you don’t, but it seems to be random, making the player feeling like they aren’t in control. Enemies can be spongy, and if hitting them again and again doesn’t wear on your patience, the pathfinding of your AI companions certainly will. 

It seems like textbook “bad game design”, but I want to defend Secret of Mana. It comes back to something I said a moment ago, that Secret of Mana used to be considered a great action-adventure or JRPG. But which is it: an action-adventure or a JRPG? It certainly looks like Zelda and has action-game controls, but as you explore the mechanics you realise it has a lot of mechanical similarities to an ATB system like Final Fantasy IV. You have to wait between each attack for your attack gauge to fill up, and special attacks are chosen from a menu. Looks are deceiving here, but Secret of Mana isn’t really an action game.

In JRPGs combat isn’t enjoyed for the fast-paced skill involved. Rather you enjoy them for some slower paced decision making and, most importantly, the spectacle. In Secret of Mana, When multiple spells are popping off in real-time across the screen — attacks, buffs, heals all at once, from enemies and party members at the same time — you start to see the appeal that Secret of Mana would have had in 1993: of seeing the spectacle of a JRPG battle from a top-down, real-time perspective. 

Boss battle against dragon in Secret of Mana screenshot

Blowing up an enemy in one magic that hits a weakness never gets old, and though charge attacks take an age to reach full power when they hit, and the big numbers start flying, it’s totally worth it. 

It is also worth it because each enemy you kill helps raise your weapon level, and this is where Secret of Mana starts to get a bit addictive. 

It starts with weapon orbs, which are found in the world and they are extremely enticing because they allow you to transform your weapon at the blacksmith, which gives more damage, a new charge level, and usually some sort of secondary effect. But you don’t get the benefit of the new weapon until the character has used that weapon type enough. All characters can use all weapons, but they only gain proficiency with whichever ones you use for them, which encourages you to mix up which weapons you use while also creating a uniqueness to your party: in your game, the girl might be proficient with the axe and the bow, in another player’s game, the girl might be proficient with the fist and the whip. 

(Your companions don’t have default names in the Western translation. I called the girl Tangle and the spite Brave).  

It’s a similar story for magic spells. Spells are grouped by magical spirits as if they were spellbooks: the more you use that spirit’s spells, the more powerful that spirit and its spells become. 

Remember that the first mana game was The Final Fantasy Legend, and I find it interesting to consider that in a different timeline, this second mana game might have been “The Final Fantasy Legend 2”, and Udine might have been Shiva, Djinn might have been Ifrit, and so on. That’s just theoretical, but what isn’t theoretical is how these systems make it really rewarding to keep fighting enemies, even when the combat feels a little janky.

Now we’re talking about Final Fantasy, we have to point out that while action adventure games might get away without, JRPGs require a strong story, but Secret of Mana doesn’t have that. It has a handful of characters with a thimbleful of development each. It really lacks the complexity you expect from Square Enix.

But to me, it makes up for it with the world. Maybe not so much in level design — which is fine, nothing special. But in atmosphere and variety? Absolutely yes.

  • There is an eerie forest make of crystal.
  • There’s a desert town, which seems downtrodden until you return the water, then everyone wants to party like they’re in Dubai. 
  • There is the mana forest, which haunting, dangerous, and vibrant.
  • There’s even a cheery mushroom kingdom. Mario would be proud.

It’s a bit like Mario, actually: it might not have a story, but it has a vibe, and that’s enough to draw you into the worth. I’m fact, I don’t think any JRPG beats Secret of Mana for feeling sunny and adventureful. It comes out in the pixel art… and even more so in the music (composed masterfully by Hiroki Kikuta), which strikes an exceptional balance between chirpy and ethereal, truly appropriate for a light-hearted quest about nature and the threat of losing it. Indeed, that is the one theme that does shine through in Secret of Mana. Particularly at the end of the game, where the hero has a genuine dilemma to face, the one time that the storytelling matches — very, very briefly — the heights of the game’s audiovisual qualities.

This is a bit of an out-there comparison, but Secret of Mana reminds me of Diablo II. A real-time RPG, but not one known for its story or responsive combat mechanics. Rather, one that thrives on a finely tuned atmosphere and a satisfying sense of progression. That’s the lens Secret of Mana deserves to be seen though, and when you do, you realise it deserves to be known as a classic.

Victory post after beating a boss in Secret of Mana screenshot

Additional observations

Spirit order: Once you get Sylphid, you can learn if an enemy has a magic weakness without trying each type. Before Sylphid, you only have two elements to experiment with. So Sylphid being the third “spellbook” you get access to makes a lot of sense.

The Pure Land difficulty spike: Progression is generally good in this game, but there is one difficulty spike that is handled very poorly. The enemies in the Pure Land hit mega hard, which on one hand is expected: it’s a narratively important area so it feels appropriate that it is dangerous and special. However, the only way to stand up to enemies here is to buy armour that is sold by a single merchant who is easy to overlook. I didn’t even know this armour existed until I looked up a guide, because I assumed I was missing something. This transition was rushed or otherwise underthought.

The shrine pacing: the first few shrines take a long time to get to, but by the time you’ve got four you’re probably ready to get to the end of this quest, so the last four shrines come one after the other in much quicker succession. This might also be an indication that the game was supposed to be longer but the second half was truncated, but in this particular way it works out for the best: it’s fun that the quest speeds up rather than gets dragged out.

Flammie: Flammie is the best airship in a JRPG. He has a button that toggles between top down and from behind views as well as ascend and descend controls in both views. That makes Flammie the airship with the best controls and features in any SNES JRPG?! Also being able to call them from almost anywhere, not having to go to the world map and walk to find it again. He swoops out of the sky and picks you up wherever you are.

The Script Augmentation Project: The fan retranslation released as Secret of Mana: Reborn purportedly clarifies the story and adds events that were not included in the official Western release. As I already feel there is a hint of a great story in the Ted Woolsey script, I’m excited to explore this retranslation further to better understand the Secret of Mana lore, but I haven’t done so yet. Read more about this project on the romhacking.net thread.

Finally, let me leave this game for now by sharing this beautiful collection of Secret of Mana song covers organised by Rebecca Tripp and played by various musicians:

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JRPG Collection

What made Persona 3 great

When I think back to the very beginning of the P3 project, I remember trying to accomplish two things: to create a worthy sequel to a great series, and to create the ideal hybrid of game elements to introduce a new RPG experience.

– Katsura Hashino, Persona 3 Producer & Director

Hybrid. I can’t think of a better word to describe Persona 3, a game of two halves in beautiful harmony, entangled but separate. There is a dungeon crawler and there is a social sim, and if you don’t like one of those genres it might be a deal breaker. However, if you can at least tolerate both, this game might become very special to you.

Persona spawned from the Shin Megami Tensei, a series of punishing dungeon crawlers about convincing demons to fight with you against other demons. Though Persona 3 reuses both the exceptional monster taming mechanics and the high difficulty, it pairs it with a captivating aesthetic, world and characters that the progenitor series lacked. That makes Persona 3 a double threat, sinking one hook into you with its style and another with its systems. 

All this took me totally by surprise. As a JRPG veteran who thought he had a great understanding of what the genre had to offer, I didn’t expect to play one this year that felt like no other game I had played before. 

This might have been because I didn’t have good enough points of comparison. There are other games that have done a similar genre mash-up, and I haven’t played them yet. The Sakura Wars series, for example, are half dating-focused visual novels and half tactical battles, and that sounds like a pretty close match to Persona.

And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that Persona 3 is something truly special.

Like the game itself, this review is split into two parts, plus a middle section about social links, the connecting mechanic that make this game work as a whole. Enjoy. 

Part 1: A Game About People

Your party are people

Persona 3 is partly a dungeon crawler. It has one dungeon, which is actually a tower, called Tartarus, that you return to again and again. You have a party, of course, who follow you through those dank halls. One common method that JRPGs use to might handle a party of followers is to hide them until a battle breaks out, though in other games your party follow you at all times. 

Persona 3 goes a welcome step further: each member of your party is a  mechanically separate entity. They can be told to split up and explore the dungeon independently, opening chests and bringing you the booty (I was rarely brave enough take advantage of this option). They can get lost, and even end up in fights without you, agitating you to race to their rescue. 

These characters are independent agents, and the game wastes no opportunity in conveying that fact to you. You can’t even access your party’s inventories from your own main menu: you have to talk to them. It’s one of the dialogue options. When you want one of them to heal the party, you talk to them. When you equip them with new items, they say thank you. 

We become endeared to characters in JRPGs because of how they look, how they sound, and how they act. Persona 3 ticks off all three, with exceptional voice acting and beautiful character portraits that I never stopped enjoying even after 100 hours: these are portraits that stand up to 1000 views.

But it isn’t the individual parts, but how they are consistently implemented across all levels of the game that makes Persona 3 special. When you are in a battle, characters do not lose their personality: it is only another opportunity for them to express it. When Iori says “Keep it up Yuka-tan!” when Yukari gets a good hit on the enemy, I think about what a great little team and social circle I am part of here.

The most fundament example of your characters acting like people is that you cannot control your party’s actions in battle — at least, not in the original release of the game. Rereleases offer the option of full party control, though I’m more fond of the original implementation. The developers were sticking to a theme, and I respect that. 

Your demons are your party

Another way in which Persona is a hybrid game is that is has both the appear of a traditional JRPG, starring a colourful cast of human party members, as well as the appeal of a monster-taming game with an army of demons to do the fighting for you.

Those demons are inherited from Shin Megami Tensei, Persona’s parent franchise, which is a bit like Pokemon for masochists. Persona 3 is by no means an easy game either: it demands that you create strong monsters and makes it a pleasure to do so. Fuse a new monster when you have a social link associated with the correct aracana, and the new monster will receive a waterfall of experience, levelling up multiple times in a row and obtaining higher-level abilities without a moment of grinding needed. 

That’s something you get in SMT games but not in Pokémon. You can use your new monster and they are effective immediately. There’s a trade-off, though: you don’t keep a monster long enough to form a strong bond with them, like you would with a Pokemon. You enjoy their company and their power, then you trade up. They are temporary friends only. 

Though these connections are brief, they can be meaningful. At the top of the second block of Tartarus me and my party met groups of nasty beetles that hit for big physical damage. They killed me a few times. Back in the purple room, where you fuse new monsters, I noticed one that had good lightening skills, which the beetles were weak too. Plus, I could fuse him with passive abilities that increased my defence, allowing me to tank the deadly horns of my foe. Plus, this new monster looked very cool. I brought him into battle against the beetles and he made short work of them. When I ordered him to attack, the main character even shouted his name: “Take-Minakata!” Why can’t Pokémon games do that?

Take-Minakata

I know I would replace him after a few floors, but for that moment I was extremely pleased with my strong new monster, and felt a bond with him. That’s what makes the heart of a great monster raising game. 

Demons drive the mechanics of the game, but they are fenced off there: they are rarely relevant in the story, except in a generalised way. Each character has a unique persona (the correct name for the monsters they fight with), but they have no individual personality or role. 

It’s almost if these monsters were only a Alice In Wonderland-like metaphor, and it makes me question if this is a game about monsters at all, or if they are just a obligatory carry-over from the parent series.

A pentagon spread (five-demon fusion) with Inugami, Take-Minakata, Orthrus, Vasuki, Ubelluris performed by Igor in the Velvet Room of Persona 3
A pentagon spread (five-demon fusion) with Inugami, Take-Minakata, Orthrus, Vasuki, Ubelluris performed by Igor in the Velvet Room of Persona 3

Would the game be meaningfully different if all demons were replaced with spells? I don’t think so. They add to the atmosphere and they support the mechanics, but that’s about it. They are superficial, and that’s fine: this game isn’t about demons. 

Sense of place

If not demons, what is Persona 3 about? While we try and figure that out, let’s take a walk through the town. Persona 3 takes place in Iwatodai City and Tatsumi Port Island. Your characters are high school students and must spend some of their time in their lessons at Gekkoukan High School. If you join the swimming team, you might visit the pool after school, which glistens as it reflects the overhead sun. As you leave the school, passing gossiping students at the water fountains, you pass are shelves at the entrance that overflow with student’s shoes. 

Each detail in the world feel true to life. That goes for the surrounding town, too. The ramen restaurant, the fast food restaurant, the book store, all these tiny locations have a unique atmosphere to them. I want to visit these places. I want to drink coffee in Chagall Café. I want to sit on the lawn by the persimmon tree. I want to walk the dog in the shrine and run into somebody I know on the way. 

Just like in real life, in is in these regular places that you find peace, and in these pointless moments that you find pleasure.

Time is your enemy

Days pass and winter turns to spring, at which time the characters no longer take their jackets to school with theim, and at the weekend they wear lighter casual clothes, too. Though you path you walk to school hasn’t changed, the music has, and the cherry blossoms are blooming. 

Persona 3 takes a lot of care in portraying the passage of time. That because the whole game is based around it. You play this game day-by-day, and when you have taken your last action for the day, you go to sleep, and the date changes – unless you enter “the dark hour”. 

The dark hour is when demons called shadows walk the streets freely, and most humans are frozen in place. If you end the day by entering the dark hour, a ticking clock counts down to midnight and then… shatters. 

Early on, during the dark hour, you are visited by a mysterious boy in striped clothing. He tells you this: in one week you will face your greatest challenge yet. 

One week is no simple narrative device in Persona 3. That is a week you have to live though, choosing what to do with each of your days. Which friends do you spend time with during the day? Which nights do you train and which do you rest? Do you continue to study, or leave that till after the challenge? 

In the days before the big challenge, the usual chirpy music at the school gates turns ominous. The friends you pass there confide their fears, doubts and determination. 

At the gates of Gekkoukan High School, Yukari talkes about Mitsuru, in Persona 3

Unlike a traditional JRPG, time can be “lost”: you have a number of opportunities each week to spend on stat-building activities, and if you waste them you cannot get those opportunities back. You cannot go back in time. Vacation and the school trips last a set number of days, and when they are over you cannot return to those locations. Similarly, you can’t speak to your classmates during the school holidays, so you spend time with them while you can. 

Much later, the game puts its skill at crafting atmosphere to make something chilling. The  world turns cold, crazy and depressing, and you walk through the mall where you used to go to sing karaoke, where it has a wallpaper of cult flyers, and human sufferers of apathy syndrome stand as static as furniture, and it is a sad sight. 

You always want it make the most of what time you have, both in terms of being efficient about building social links, social stats and levelling in the dungeon, but also making the most of your time in this world with the characters, before something dreadful happens.

The message of Persona 3 is trite if you spell it out, but the game doesn’t spell it out. It makes you experience it, it makes you live it though how you play the game and how you experience the story. 

Gekkoukan High School classroom 2-F, talking to Kenji, in Persona 3

People are your world

Take a stroll to the shrine in the evening, and you will run into Meiko. She is one of the many residents of Iwatodai City that you can build a “social link” with. Each time you spend a slice of your day with these characters, and you will live a small chapter of their story, learning about their challenges, flaws and futures. 

What sets Maiko apart from the other social links, who are all teenagers or adults is that she is nine-years old. For a long time, I was reluctant pursue the Meiko social link because of this. It felt too strange to be hanging out with an nine-year old school when character I was controlling is in high school. It occurred to me how ridiculous that would look to my classmates and who suspicious it would look to any adult passers-by. 

The fact that this even occurred to me is a clear sign that this game had deeply immersed me in its world.  

Talking to Maiko during a social link event in Naganaki Shrine, in Persona 3

Eventually, I started using my time to talk to Maiko. It wasn’t long before I sympathised with her story, which revolves around a precarious home situation. 

I started thinking way too seriously about how to respond to her so that I didn’t upset her or give her harmful advice. At one point, she starts crying, and the options are “Tell her to stop crying” or “Let her cry it out.” That’s a tough one.  

Social links usually just progress, but they can also be broken. I was left gaping the first time this happened. Yuko, the captain of the swim team, is one of the romanceable characters. As the social link progressed, our conversations became more intimate. However, I must have gone too long without speaking to her, because she broke up with me.

When I got back to the dorm, I wanted Junpei should give me a slam on the back and tell me better luck next time. I wanted Yukari to be sympathetic. I wanted Akihiko or Mitsuru to give me some practical advice. Of course, that’s expecting way too much from the game, which does not react to my loss. Nonetheless, the emotion I felt was quite real. 

Now I have reason to be concerned. Have I unintentionally activated a degenerate part of the brain gets overly attached to fictional characters? How long before start talking about waifus unironically? 

Fuuka's bedroom in Iwatodai Dormitory/the dorm, for Fuuka's social link in Persona 3
Fuuka > Yukari

Part 1.5 The genius of social links

The early steps you take into Persona 3’s “real world” (the half of the game in which you have school work and a social life) introduces you to some curious game terminology. After you progress a socia link, time stops. There is the sound of glass breaking. Unsettling music plays while a mysterious card appears on the screen, and you are told that you now “Create Personas of the Fool Arcana” up to a certain level. 

This dramatic version of a “level up” is part of what makes social links addictive to pursue, but at first it is confusing, because the game hasn’t told you what an arcana is or why it matters. 

Soon, you discover that arcana are how the two halves of Persona 3’s gameplay slot together, and it’s a brilliant mechanism. The reason you build up social links in Persona, (other than to hear a selection of stories about depression, disconnection and growing up), is to be get bonus experience when you fuse a monster. The higher the social link level, the more bonus EXP gained by demons matching that arcana. 

For example, spending time with Meiko means stronger demons of the Hanged Man arcana, and spending time with Yuko means stronger demons of the Strength arcana. 

It’s a JRPG, there is a lot of dialogue, and the relationships you build through dialogue in the “real world” translate to increased strength when you enter the dungeon. That character development is the story is also part of your training. It’s mechanically relevant.

Levelling up the strength arcana during Yuka's social link even in Persona 3

This is easily my favourite mechanic in Persona 3, and maybe my favourite mechanic in any JRPG ever. If Persona 3 was the first JRPG to do this, it’s quite incredible. It’s a genre in which story and battling are bread and butter, but Persona 3 seems to be the first one that buttered the bread!

Part 2: Mechanics

Battles

Let’s go back to the dark hour. At the stroke of midnight, you can choose to enter Tartarus, This is the game’s solitary dungeon, where shadow roam through twisted hallways and the floors go up seemingly forever.

The monsters you find here are surreal creatures, typically black blobs with a mask glued to a random object. There’s a stag beetle with the purple mask at the end of its horn. There is a tiger’s head grafted onto a spiked chariot wheel. There are floating snakes that coils around themselves in an unnerving fashion. 

Fighting Carnal Snakes in Tartarus, within the Adamah Block, in Persona 3. Battle Screen.

After a few fights with these abstract abominations, I had a revelation: Persona 3 has almost everything I want from a turn-based battle system. 

How often do you choose Attack in a JRPG because you can’t think of anything better to do? That’s not how it is here. For one, the reward for hitting an enemy’s weakness is just too juicy to ignore. Not only do you get an extra turn for knocking them to the floor, but if you can do that to all foes you can perform an “all-out attack”, usually ending the battle It is very like watching a row of monster-shaped dominos fall in slow motion.

This makes having a range of magic essential, and a range of physical attacks too, but it goes beyond that, because eventually you find enemies without weaknesses, or enemies that hit so hard that they will still kill you before you kill them. How do you deal with those? Buffs, defuffs, status ailments and elemental resistances become the counters that you can’t get with elemental attacks alone. 

Fighting the Fanatic Tower, the Hierophant miniboss, while Fuuka warns you, in Persona 3

Almost every move in your menu has a purpose, and almost every turn makes a difference. 

Persona 3 is a game of counters, hard counters even, and they’re not always obvious. Sometimes the solution you need is found in an item, such as the a magic mirror that reflects magic, versus the magic bomb dropping Sleeping Table mini-boss). Other times, the trick involves a sequence that you repeat throughout the battle. Bosses can be discouragingly brutal until you find the right approach, but when you do it’s like activating a cheat code. 

This results in battles where every correctly chosen attack feels powerful and every major success feels earned. I think back on how easy it is, in other JRPGs, to ignore the attributes of battle, and how flat and redundant those systems seem now. 

Oh, and because these battles involve a variety of hard counter, it really does incentive you – well, force you – to change your personas, weapons and party members according to the situation. And I love the variety that arises from that.

Persona 3 is long, maybe repetitive, but almost to the end I was still making mistakes and learning new ways to succeed. 

A critical hit in battle of Persona 3

Field

The field is what connects your exploration experience to your battling experience. In Persona 3, it means the halls of Tartarus, in which you can enjoy a highly developed “field-game” that exceeds that of most other JRPGs. 

It is reminiscent of Earthbound, but better. Enemies, visible in the halls as a slimy blob, will chase you, but they can always be avoided. The size of the blob indicates the number of enemies, but not their strength. A large blog is likely a group of weak enemies. Counterintuitively, it is the small blobs you should watch out for, but not as much as the red blobs, which represent truly threatening battles.

There is an even greater threat than that to be found, too: if you stay on a floor too long, the grim reaper shows up! On the other hand, if you out level a group of enemies to the point that the encounter would be trivial, they will run away from you. 

Hit a foe before they hit you to get a better chance at a first turn advantage. Let them hit you first, and it’s probably going to hurt. Swinging your sword (or spear, axe or fist) in the dungeon screens feels surprisingly nice. It never got old to surprise an enemy by dropping the end of my sword down their back. 

The hero of Persona 3 about to hit a foe in Taratus to get Player Advantage in battle

Here’s an example of those systems in action. This happened while I was climbing from floor 90 or so. I was ready to retreat at around floor 93 but I couldn’t for the life of me find a teleporter. So I kept climbing, avoiding battles where possible, but also hitting enemies first if I otherwise risked the enemy hitting me. If they got the initiative I was confident they would could wipe me out, so I removed enemies from the field where I thought it was prudent. The red enemies scared me of most of all. On floor 97, Fuka told me the teleporter was on the next floor. Then, a red enemy appeared just a few steps from the room with the stairs! I snuck around him, and punched the air as I reached safety.

This is a lot more positivity than you might expect of a discussion around Tartarus. While the systems here are excellent, the level design is generic: randomly generated floors of a single dungeon, with a different tile set every 30 or 50 floors, but functionally almost identical from the first floor to the last. 

It’s hard not to think about Jade Cocoon at this point (What is Jade Cocoon?). The first game had forests that were everything I wanted from JRPG levels, with something visually interesting on every screen and with many-non combat interactions with NPCs and the environment. In Jade Cocoon 2, released on the PS2 but pre-dating Persona 3 by about 5 years, the forests had become repetitive, endless identical paths resembling Tartarus’s endless identical corridors. But in Jade Cocoon 2, there were still, rarely, NPCs to speak to.  

Persona 3’s dungeon is fantastic for facilitating combat encounters, but it fails at integrating into the narrative or into the world in a moment-to-moment, floor-to-floor manner (the dungeon does have a broader purpose in the story, of course).

But because you can run from enemies, and because it’s not too rare to get lucky and find the stairs leading upwards right next to where you arrived, and because you can choose when to enter the dungeon (ignoring it for many days in a row in favour of the social sim mechanics), the game doesn’t force you into engaging with its tedious level design too often. It is easy for me to overlook this flaw. 

Fuuka talks to the party in the Harabah Block of Tartarus in Persona 3

Moreover, little pleasures like figuring out the weaknesses of new monsters you encounter, or seeing higher numbers on the minor arcana cards you pick as a reward at the end of some battles, helped keep the climb engaging. 

Levelling

As a gun should feel good to shoot in a FPS, so too should a level-up feel good to achieve in a JRPG. But not all level-ups are created equal. When reflecting on RPGs, I often ask myself, did I care about getting those next levels? 

In Persona 3, the answer is “Extremely yes!” New main character levels do something much more significant than small stats boost: they let you fuse personas up to your new level. Every time, it excited me to get back to the velvet room to explore what powerful monsters I might be able to add to my arsenal next.

Seeing the silhouettes of monsters that are beyond your current level in the fusion screens gives you a tantalising hint at what will be possible in a few levels time, or sometimes much later.

Also, the music that kicks in on the victory screen when you level up pumps me up.

The interesting decisions you make as you get stronger are just dramatically higher than any other JRPG I have played: 

  1. Resistances and weaknesses matter massively, so you probably look at those first when fusing a new monster. 
  2. You still need to out-stat the opponent, so you check which option improves your attack and defence the most. 
  3. Then, does the new monster have abilities that are going to make you more deadly, or can they inherit good abilities from your current monsters? 
  4. And at all times you team needs to be fairly balanced, dealing damage and defending damage against as many of the types as possible. 

This is nothing like Pokemon, where you can get comfortable with a team that you like and just keep them levelled up. No, you are always having to reinvent your team in Persona, and you better do it the right way because these battles won’t let you get away with much less.

Samael levels up and learns a new skill, Dekunda, in Persona 3

There is equipment for your characters, but compared to the monster fusion this is a uninteresting element of getting stronger. In most games, finding or buying some a new weapon or amor piece is a big part of the fun. In Persona 3, everything else is so fun I almost wanted to ignore the equipment.

Getting stronger together

We’ve explored the entire process of getting stronger in Persona 3, and what stands out to me most of all is how social links marry the story and the levelling together so beautifully. 

You spend half of this game with people that don’t know that demons exist. Your daytime life does not resemble the time your spend in Tartarus at all. Superficially, they are two separate games. 

And yet, the the contribution of these people to your strength and your success in battle is palpable at all levels of the game. 

When you spend time with them, you level up their arcana. When you fuse a monster, you are grateful to that character for the additional experience you receive. Then you take that monster into battle.

I imagine the anime protagonist who receives the thoughts and prayers of their friends they made throughout the show to level up their attack to beat a boss. That’s what Persona does, but not just as a narrative trope, but as a mechanic. 

It is that this, of all the great accomplishments of Persona 3, from the visual flair to the soundtrack to the battle system, that is most impressive to me. 

The party of Persona 3 stand in front of Tartarus where Aigis and Ikutsuki stand

Legacy

A lot of people think of Persona 3 as the lesser sibling of Persona 4 or 5, which is horrendously unfair. Not only because Persona 3 has its unique qualities, but also because it was the first. 

Today, we recognise that Persona 5 as a masterpiece that has drawn new fans in to the franchise and into JRPGs as a whole. Yet it builts firmly on the foundations of Persona 3. You can’t say the same thing about Persona 3 and Persona 2, at least not to the same degree. A tremendous creative leap was made by this franchise in 2006, and it was a leap not only for Persona, but for all JRPGs.

Persona 3 popularised the combination of social sim and a dungeon crawler. Post-persona, we see more games making a mechanical connection between character relationships and battle effectiveness: Fire Emblem already had a support system and character conversations at the base, but post-Persona they were combined into a system that effectively mirrored social links. 

We can see influences, subtle and otherwise, across the genre. I don’t think Trails of Cold Steel or Final Fantasy Type-0 exist without Persona 3. Frankly, with the way Persona 3 reinvigorated Atlus, there might not even have been a Shin Megami Tensei 4.

Both Atlus and fans of Atlus games owe Persona 3 some gratitude. It might secretly be one of the most influential JRPGs ever. It deserves to be in the same conversations as Final Fantasy VII. It will remain a blueprint for any designer wanting to combine two genres and them both to tell one story with one strong theme. 

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JRPG Collection

What made Xenogears great? An In-Depth Review

Xenogears released in 1997: after Final Fantasy VII, before Final Fantasy VIII. At a time when the Square Enix development cycle could stretch to a year and a half (Final Fantasy games included), Xenogears took over two. Even that wasn’t enough, not even close: Xenogears is, at best, 75% complete. 

That’s nothing, though. Xenogears is only one part of the saga. I almost didn’t want to start my review with this fact, because it seems like a spoiler… except when you think about it, it can’t be. The “spoiler” is this: after the credits role, Xenogears is revealed to be subtitled “Episode V”. But if another game had been released in the saga as intended, Xenogears existence as the fifth part would now be common knowledge. It’s only because the series was cut short that the placement of this game remains a hidden easter egg.

Xenogears, the complete saga, is only 12.5% complete. And yet, you can feel the weight of those four prequels in the content of Xenogears: Episode V. When people describe this game with grand approbation, that is the truth at the heart of their praise. Xenogears: the most intricate story in videogames; the most ambitious JRPG ever made. 

I imagine what Xenogears: Episode V (from here, just Xenogears) might have been it had been fully fleshed out from start to end. The word that comes to mind is “breathtaking”. 

Xenogears was conceived by Tetsuya Takahashi and Soraya Saga, husband and wife storytelling superteam. They were inspired by Gundum, Star Wars, and perhaps most obviously, Neon Genesis Evangelion. They were inspired by Freud, Jung, and Neitzche.

Takahashi went on to write the scenario for every Xeno game since, from Xenosaga Episode 1 to Xenoblade Chronicles 3, and Saga is credited for the Xenosaga games. These subsequent games were not the missing Xenogears episodes, though some fans consider the Xenosaga trilogy as an adequate replacement for Xenogears episodes I and II.

Xenogears is a orphan gem, lonely and unique, but it is also something more simple: an incredible game. With the resources of Square in their golden age, who turned out masterpiece after masterpiece in the JRPG genre, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Xenogears is one too.

In fact, this game started life as a pitch for the seventh Final Fantasy game. The gears, so essential to the game that they made their way into the title, started life as summon monsters. 

It is extremely interesting to look at Xenogears as an alternative branch of the Final Fantasy series. It builds on the foundations of Final Fantasy VI but develops them in a different way to VII. And when you see the similarities in story between Xenogears and Final Fantasy VII, you have to wonder how much of an influence Takahashi’s story had on the most loved JRPG in history.

I played Xenogears for the first time in 2022. Here are the reasons it blew my mind (and a few reasons it didn’t). 

An aesthetic to die for

Xenogears has my favourite character spites of any game.

The hair flows, the clothes have volume. Each character has a unique gait and posture that matches their personality. The power in their legs as they run is palpable. This was so unlike the restained movements of SNES-era JRPG, and equally unlike Final Fantasy VII’s stiff limbed 3D characters that had arrived on the scene one year previously.

This is a theme: where Final Fantasy VII zigged, Xenogears zagged. It is stark in their visual presentation. Final Fantasy games on the PS1 have 3D characters against detailed, pre-rendered 2D backgrounds. In Xenogears, it is the environments that are 3D while the characters remain 2D spites. 

It was not the only game to do this: Breath of Fire III was another RPG to take this route, and the whimsical Klonoa used the effect with excellent results in the platformer genre, but games with 3D characters were fast becoming the fashion. Therefore, Xenogears represents the heights of its 2.5D style (though HD-2D games like Octopath Traveller have now arrived to challenge that claim).  

Mitsuda: Maps used to be one piece of art that characters would stand and move around on, but Xenogears was innovative in that it implemented the ability to move the camera around. The characters are 2D, but the background is all 3D. Because of this, we could try out new gimmicks and new camerawork that was previously not possible. That was what we started with.

Yasunori Mitsuda, Xenogears Composer (2018 Anniversary Concert Interviews)

Xenogears demonstrates the strengths of it’s presentation choice early. By default, it is we see the world at an isometric angle. You spin can spin the camera left and right. But when the moment calls for it, the game will seize the camera from you. In the first village, climb on the roof of your next-door neighbours house: the camera sweeps up to face the horizon, and the birds, sun and mountains come gloriously into sight. 

Fei looks across to the horizen from a Lahan Village roof.

When a game with prerendered graphics, like Final Fantasy, wants to show the sun, a new background has to be drawn from scratch. There is no sweep of the camera, either. This fact also affects cutscenes. Final Fantasy could rely on FMVs when they wanted to deliver an action scene with greater impact, but Xenogears could pulled it all off in-engine. 

“Xenogears was innovative in that it implemented the ability to move the camera around. The characters are 2D, but the background is all 3D. Because of this, we could try out new gimmicks and new camerawork that was previously not possible. That was what we started with.”

– Yasunori Mitsuda, Xenogears composer [Source]

As a result, Xenogears regularly has cutscenes with the dynamism and drama of an anime. They are complex, with multiple moving parts, changes in camera angle, dramatic pacing. There is never a cut from gameplay to FMV to break your immersion. 

Unlike the characters, the mechs (called “gears” in the game — I’ll stick with mechs so this article is easier to read for those who have not played it yet) are 3D models, but as they are blocky machines to begin with, this doesn’t detract from their design in the slightest. These are mechanical warriors that could take the stage shamelessly in any Gundam show room — and I wrote that line before I realised that Junya Ishigaki, the primary mechanical designer for the game, is also prolific in the Gundam franchise. 

The mechs, the character sprites, their portraits, the lived-in details of the environments: they all come together to delight the player. Every location is a perfectly constructed diorama, a sculpture that is fit to be enjoyed from every angle. Every character portrait drawn with a skilled and seductive stroke. Xenogears is visually captivating.

I’ve heard some people describe the visuals of Xenogears and a pixelated mess, and that pains me so much. If you are emulating this game, turn on a CRT filter. It makes more of a difference here than any game I have ever played. It smooths out the textures, smooths out the jaggies, brings the image together and let’s you appreciate the extreme artistry on display. 

I can’t exaggerate the number of times I wanted, needed to take a screenshot while playing Xenogears. So many rooms of this game are gorgeous. So many cutscenes are eye catching. There are so many evocative environments, so many unique unique visual effects. You want to experience it at its best. 

An anime epic

How many mysteries does Xenogears present in the first hour? We have a anime FMV about spaceship disaster with no context; a text crawl that introduces two mysterious organisations (the Ethos and the Gebler); an amnesiac protagonist and hints about his significant past; that protagonist’s unexplained and dangerous powers that he tragically can’t control; a mysterious figure called Grahf…

Xenogears is slow to doll out answers to any mystery is introduces. It is known, quintessentially, as a “slow burn” JRPG. Instead of answers, Fei is whisked away to new location after new location, meeting new characters, getting embroiled in new conflicts. The war for Aveh’s capital, the prison block struggle in Nortune, the defence of the floating city, Thames, against the Wels — the list goes on and on. There are unique characters, animations, scenes, plot developments around almost every corner. 

Takahashi: I liked mechs and pop culture characters, and I wanted to make a game combining the two. And if I was going to do it, I wanted it to be better than FF, too. I wanted to try my hand at the popular fad at the time of littering the plot with foreshadowing and having all of those storylines coming together for the central story, too.

2018 Anniversary Concert Interviews

Describing Xenogears as just a slow burn does not do it justice. It is a long lasing campfire to warms your story-loving cockles for many hours. It is a story that could easily be repurposed into episodes and mini-arcs of a long-running anime series. 

There is always a crisis and a plan. This is fundamental story telling, but it works. The crisis shunts the heroes to somewhere new — a deadly foe is chasing you across the desert, a dictator has taken control of your friend’s home city, a battle goes wrong and somebody is dreadfully injured, warring factions coalesce on your location. Rarely a dull moment.

Zephyr talks to the party.

More than the crisis, the stories of Xenogears are elevated by its smart and active characters. They come to the table with different goals and attitudes. Bart is brash, passionate, and funny. Citan is calm and calculating. They talk over the latest crisis, asking questions about possible issues with their course of action. They unfurl a map.

This is the intersection of a plot driven story and a character driven story. Unfortunately, not all characters are as fleshed out as others, but every one of the playable roster is worthy of your consideration (except Chu-Chu?). 

Takahashi and Saga’s reading of psychological literature helped them write characters with issues that were uncommon in other JRPG protagonists. One main character has split personality disorder, which becomes very relevant to the plot. One of the best scenes in the game takes place inside that character’s mind, and the full reasons and implications of the split are revealed. It is one of the most emotional scenes in the game. 

Oh yes, the story gets dark. You don’t have to wait long for that, in fact. The Evangelion inspiration is makes itself known within the first few hours.

After an emotional deathblow or or two, the story eases off somewhat. But it’s always ready to give you a painful jab to make you wince, or make you question what you know about the world up to this point. If you want a story with a cynical view of religion, where god exists but not in the mystical sense we usually think of him, Xenogears has that. If you want a story where humanity faces an nuanced existential struggle, Xenogears has that too. There are points where we wonder if the people of this world have lives worth living, or if they are indeed just “sheep”? 

However, let’s not pretend Xenogears story isn’t fun! The search for the animus relics to transform the gears to the next level reminds of, believe or not, Digimon Adventure. It is very similar to the search for the crests to evolve the Digimon to ultimate level. Most of the game is like that. A journey that is bright and full of character. It is only at key moments, especially towards the end, that the game takes off its gloves. The balance is masterful. 

Fans may use words like “love story” describe Xenogears. It is, but only a little bit. It is more of a “father issues story”, and it will hit you hard if you are weak to tales of troubled father-son and father-daughter relationships. Almost every character has a variation of it.

A natural product of the game’s exceptional scope, there are numerous other themes present too. Which the main one? Each player you ask might might have a different answer. Some that stood out to me include:

  • Common people exploited by elite castes. Solaris vs. “the lambs”. Nocturne and the prison population.
  • Technology used to gain supremacy, even transcending the human condition. The gears. Krelian’s nanomachines. Deus.
  • How previous generations form the ties of our destiny, but also how those ties are not unbreakable. Fei and Lacan. The Fatima heritage. The age of the Gazel ministry and their eventual fate.

What else? Revenge. Loss. Reconciliation. Trauma. Xenogears is those sorts of stories. And, yes a little bit of a love story as well.

Unfortunately, the weightiest plot points only emerge in the games truncated second disk, where only a little attention can be given to each issue. Even so, I found the attempt a lot more convincing than in other JRPGs. 

It is of comparable quality to the “World of Ruin” half of the Final Fantasy VI story: a plot that delivers on the big ideas it presents, instead of tiptoeing around them. It is a story committed to itself.  

Another word I would use to describe it is intricate. It has many subplots that feed into one another. You don’t realise it until the game starts revealing it’s secrets towards the end, but this story really is extremely complex. Do I understand Id’s story even now? Or Grahf’s? Or Elly’s? Miang’s?

The Elder talks about God.

I have only played the game once, but I am already certain that if I play it again I will be shocked by the subtle references and foreshadowing I missed.  

For something as long, complex and high quality as Xenogears, you would the script must have bee written in detail ahead of time. But it seems this was not the case:

Interviewer: There was a deadline, but the plot wasn’t done yet, it seems.

Tanaka: Takahashi-kun seemed to come up with parts of the world as he went along making the game, so there were times when we didn’t know when we’d see the exit. It might have been better to write up something first, clean and tidy, and go from there, but I think Takahashi-kun had a vision of seeing everything in action, and further expand the world from there.

Hiromichi Tanaka, battle planner for Xenogears (2018 Anniversary Concert Interviews)

If I could sum up the game in a word, as cliche as it sounds, it has to be “epic”. Even in a genre full of epics, Xenogears takes it to another level. So much happens in an average 10 or 15 hours stretch in this game that where the characters were at the start of the game feels like a different life time. By the end of the game the political status of the world is very different. The nature of the conflict is different. I think back to when Fei and Citan were first looking for a way out of the desert after the events in Lahan. There was a small desert town that we never returned to. It seemed consequential at the time, but it was a drop in an ocean.

Speaking of Citan, he is my second favourite character, but it would be too much of a spoiler spoiler to tell you why.

My favourite character is Bart. This cast is full of characters with a dark side. Bart is boisterous and takes action before he thinks, but he is fundamentally good in an uncompromised way. 

He isn’t the main character, but he is the most traditionally heroic. That contrasts with the anti-hero characters in a way that makes him shine brighter.  

A world of fun

Around halfway into the first disk, Xenogears takes a detour. Fei is captured and finds himself confined to prison town with a unique culture. The pecking order in this town is based on “battling”, a formal sport of mech-on-mech combat. 

There are many times that Xenogears shocked me, but none more so when I realised that “battling” is a fully-featured, 3D fighting game!

Hiromichi: Yes, we put a lot of stuff in it to make it look like a standalone game. I think that took us about six months.

Takahashi: It was a year.

1998 Interview with Xenogears staff

JRPGs are a balance of repetition and variety. The core gameplay of grindable regular battles is inherently repetitive, but they soften the blow with variety — minigames, dungeon puzzles, gimmick bosses, and so on. But no game achieves the balance quite like Xenogears does. 

In other words: this is a long-ass game, but it doesn’t like to repeat itself. 

The setpieces are exquisite. Take Bledavik. The goal is in infiltrate the castle, but a distraction is needed. Therefore, the game alternatives control of Bart, who does the breaking in, and Fei, who is part of a tournament, where he puts on a good show to distract the guards. It’s double the excitement, half the chance for the player to get bored.   

Later in the game, its you inside a castle, defending an assault on Shevat. A lesser game might have turned this defence scenario into a dungeon: run through the city, fighting random encounters, until you reach the leader, whom you defeat to fend off the assault. Xenogears knows this wouldn’t make sense. Instead, it requires that you split up your characters, choosing which character to defend which side. You fight battles with each of them in turn until the boss arrives. 

It seems like a small change, but it is vastly more evocative and memorable. Xenogears understands that not every conflict scenario in a JRPG needs to take the form of a dungeon.

There are many examples of Xenogears choosing to go beyond the obvious JRPG gameplay loops. Even the sewer, that ubiquitous level type that is a joke among gamers, is elevated here: facing off against the sewage-dwelling monster of Nocturne is not unlike a level you might find in an early Resident Evil game. 

I could keep going. The anima dungeons have very welcome puzzles. That isn’t a big surprise, as lots of JRPGs has puzzles in these days, but it adds to the variety.

Speaking of puzzles, there are a few decent puzzle battle. Deus is one. So is the following Ramsus fight. Unique battle encounters can set a JRPG apart. Not all JRPGs have them, but Xenogears does okay in this department. Nothing special, but similar to Final Fantasy.

Between the battles and dungeons, you find towns areas worthy of a travelogue. There is never a lazy town, only fleshed out, lived-in locations with carefully considered geography and idiosyncratic visual design. 

One town is actually a giant salvage rig floating on the open ocean. You enter from the deck and come across a lift. Facing the controls, you see there are six floors you can visit! But once you start moving through them, you realise they are all connected in a corkscrew pattern. 

Another town floats above the map, and when you enter the residential area you are wrapped you in relaxing music that makes exploration feel easy. Stone bridges crisscross above and below you, and there are many nooks and crannies to pry into. 

Then, you enter the palace where you find a library library packed with a history of the world that you won’t find anywhere else. All the people you meet all have their own perspectives on wars long past and tribulations yet to occur. 

Even how you explore each town feels distinct. In one late-game city, it involves taking floating platforms to reach people’s tiny, oppressive cell-like abodes. 

At times, Xenogears seem to have the fidelity and charm of a point and click adventure game. Towns with lots of detail to add realism. Nooks, crannies and secrets to find. Distinct areas with unique atmosphere. Minor characters everywhere, ready to tell you a piece of the story. 

There are two towns that stand out to me. Kislev’s prison block; and Solaris, the main enemy city. In both urban areas, you come into contact with people you don’t understand, following rules that you haven’t been introduced to. It takes time to acclimatise, which is the sign of a well designed fictional culture.

Bledavik market

Every location was truly designed for you to enjoy being there. It makes believe strongly that there are variety of types of people that exist in this world, and that makes the world feel vast.

A sense of scale

In the Stalactite cave, where you get lost early in the game, you are piloting your mech and find a switch you need to pull. It is not a mech sized switch, but a human sized one. You jump out of cockpit. From this perspective, which is calibrated to the size of a giant robot, your character is tiny! 

It’s almost like I’m playing Blaster Master.

Scope and scale and keywords for the JRPG genre, adventures in which you circumnavigate the globe and sometimes go into space. Since the NES era, they have had a reliable bag of tricks to create the illusion of scale. From smaller to larger, different screens showed the world from different perspectives: a battle screen, a town and dungeon screen, and a world map. 

By 1998, those techniques were long in the tooth, and PS1 JRPGs were innovating for the 3D era. Just as Final Fantasy VII and Xenogears branched away from one another when it came to visual presentation, each games also had their own new methods of conveying scale.  

In Final Fantasy VII, scale is increased at the small level, though detail. You see the grime in the slums of Midgar, you see the ramshackle state of their streets, all careful conveyed in hand-crafted, pre-rendered backgrounds. The world feels big because you can see it in greater resolution than ever before.

Xenogears does something different. It adds new, intermediate levels of scale. The “mech” perspective, in which your character is ant-sized, is one example. Zoom out further, and you find that the transition from town map to world map is blurred with the addition of a city screen that helps you better appreciate the size of these large settlements. 

As a result, Nisan feels like a much bigger and more realistic location than, say, Kalm, even though the playable space of each is a similar size (a few shops, a few houses). 

Another Xenogears city is Bledavik, the capital city of Aveh:

When you arrive there, a festival is taking place. It’s not as packed with side-activities as the festival in Chrono Trigger, but it was enough to remind me of it. There are loads of nice details here. One stuck in my mind. A man outside a tent gives you a balloon, then you exit this area to a city map. Then, on the city screen, you see your little balloon float away into the sky! Brilliant.

Let’s zoom out again. Back on the world map, there are structures that look enormous! We have developed an intuitive sense of what the city-sized world map object really represents. So when we see something many times bigger, like the Babel Tower, we are awed! When we enter the tower, the sense of enormity is maintained, as this is by far the largest interior location on Disc 1 — and that’s from the perspective of a mech! 

World maps would eventually fade from JRPGs, making Xenogears one of the last games in the genre to develop new ideas for it. In this way, Xenogears feels both classic and innovative, the height of a defunct artistic style. It truly would have made an excellent FF7 in another dimension. 

There’s one more perspective to look at: the battles. You learn early on that there are two types of battle in Xenogears: battles on foot, with your 2D spite characters, and battles in your 3D mechs. They have slightly different mechanics, presentation, and seem to be entirely unrelated to one another. 

The two battles types seem to be entirely separate entities. The level of damage is different by an order of magnitude. The user HUD is different. And of course, the mechs are so much larger than the humans, it would only make sense for them to fight mech sized enemies.

Then there was another Xenogears moment that blew my mind. As escaping the Kislev prison, and regaining your mechs, a new option becomes available in battles: summon mech. You can do this in any outdoor battle. You can do it for one character at a time, so that your party consists of a mix of mechs and humans. You can summon three mechs against an enemy party of rabbits. Yes, you do comically overwhelming damage to them, 1000+ per hit against enemies that have 50 health. The point is, these two battle systems were never separate, just two halves of the coin. That means you can really feel the gigantic size and power of your machines, and conversely the powerlessness of your human characters even they happen to stumble into an encounter with an enemy far too big for them (there is at least one area of the game that makes this likely). 

Your first thought might be that this sounds terribly imbalanced, but it’s not. Most story scenarios are built to be played in a mech (wide open spaces) or as a human (narrow interior spaces where the mech cannot be summon). The majority of the game is story scenarios, so it’s never an issue. 

But the fact that mixed mech/human battles are possible, occuring at two vastly different scales at once, is awesome.

A battle system

It was over 30 hours into the game that I first had to make a tactical choice regarding battle. I equipped items to my mechs to reduce fire damage to stop Shakam incinerating me. 

The Xenogears is a traditional system with physical attacks, elemental magic, buffs and debuffs — all the building blocks of a strong battle system, 

Yet it never quite coalesces into a tactical experience because the only effective damage dealing option is to use back-to-back “deathblows”. 

Deathblows are made up of a combination of light, medium and strong physical attacks. Light attacks are more likely to hit the enemy, but do less damage, and the opposite is true of strong attacks, and you can do a sequence of these attacks in one turn. 

It’s an original idea for a JRPG, borrowed from fighting games, and a nice one at that. In a genre sometimes ridiculed for the ability to spam the first attack in the menu to win, making your physical fighting options more complex is a truly appreciated innovation. 

At the end of your sequence of attacks, you perform the deathblow, if you’ve learned that technique and if you’ve followed the prompts at the bottom of the screen (or memorised the sequence).

These attacks are some of the most visually interesting moments in a game jam-packed with visually interesting moments. A personal favourite deathblow is Citan’s “Myogetsu”, in which he appears to pogo stick off the enemy’s head using his sword, Zelda II style. The later deathblows get even more flashy and intricate, such as Billy’s “Holy Gate” or Citan’s “Haze of Fire”.

Unfortunately, deathblows are more exciting visually than they are engaging tactically. They deal a lot of damage with no downside, so will be your primary method of attack from the start of the game until the end. 

It is, however, quite addictive to train for new deathblows.

Almost all JRPGs give you money and experience after a battle, but the good ones give you something else to work towards. For Xenogears, this something is deathblow experience, obtained by performing different physical attacks in battle. Each character has four light attacks, two medium attacks, and just one heavy attack. Each attack type gives a type of experience towards new deathblows attacks. 

As deathblows are the primary way of becoming more effective in battle, it became enjoyable to get into random encounters to figure out what sequence of attacks will train my next deathblow, and spam it in as many subsequent battles as possible. 

It even made Xenogears irritatingly high random encounter rate quite sufferable. 

I have one more thing to mention about the battle system. Towards the end of the first disk, Citan starts using a sword instead of his fists. After that, Citan has a whole different set of deathblows! What exceptional attention to detail.

An imperfect game

I’m not going to say that Xenogears is for everyone. I want to warn you about a few things before you get overhyped and then blame me for playing something that didn’t transcend reality. 

If you get confused by the story, I can’t blame you or act surprised. I felt lost at multiple points. There are multiple antagonists and it won’t be clear for a long time how they are related or what each of their motivations are. There are many factions, something I usually love in a story, but only if I know a bit about them. We go from getting involved from one faction to another and it’s not clear how some of those scenarios relate to one another. 

It’s a jam packed story and there is always something interesting driving events forward, but you don’t always get any view on the bigger picture, and that can make it hard to get engaged with.

Minor storytelling irritations aside, the main thing I don’t like about this game is the speed. Many actions in this game execute with a delay:

  • Opening the menu
  • Scrolling text
  • Walking through a door
  • Entering battle
  • Completing attack animations

It’s a drag. In a remaster the first thing needed is to cut out these dead seconds. Faster loading, shorter gaps between attacks, faster text, and maybe a speed up button.

Remember, this is a 60+ hour game. There’s no question about it: if you are prone to impatience, Xenogears is going to challenge you. 

On the other hand, if you’re into JRPGs for the music, let assure you that the work of Yasunori Mitsuda, of Chrono Trigger fame, does not disappoint… except in one way: there just isn’t enough of it. There are 44 tracks (compared to Chrono Trigger’s  64) and there are about four in particular that you will hear very regularly. It’s a testament to the exceptional quality of those tracks that I never tired of hearing them, but more variety would have been better.

Some other things that could have been refined:

The random encounter rate in a few areas is way too high. The last dungeon was the most frustrating example, but it’s not the only one. 

The camera can be an annoyance, or rather the scenery isn’t always designed in a way that works best with the isometric camera, so you vision might be blocked from some , or it is hard to get a clear sight with an angle that makes it easy to make a jump. 

Just a little jump.

Speaking of jumping, many players people hate the platforming. However, frankly, there’s hardly any of it, nowhere near enough for me to hold it in contempt in my memory. It’s only significant in one dungeon (Babel), and I can’t even say I dislike that dungeon overall. It is supposed to be a ruin, the platforming just helps emphasise that this is not a place that exists for your convenience. 

Being able to jump just makes the expiration more varied, usually, and more JRPGs could learn from this. 

Okay, rounding out the negatives, let’s talk about Disk 2.

Xenogears is a two disk game. The first disk is a 40 or 50 hour typical JRPG journey, with it’s own minor climax. The big mysteries of the game are still unanswered at this point. In fact, you could say that Disk 1 is a massive, multifaceted set-up arc, and all the events with the biggest consequences (those on a global and cosmic scale, as you might put it in comic-book terms) are set to occur in Disk 2.

However, Xenogears vast scope did not fit into Square’s development cycle, which was supposed to take something like 1.5 years in the late 90s. Xenogears had an extension to 2 years, but finishing the whole story in this time was impossible.

Takahashi could choose to finish the game at the end of Disk 1, but he took a different path: rush through the remaining story in a JRPG-storybook hybrid. 

It’s not just a change in how the story is presented. If the game’s story became a novel, similar amounts of dialogue, a similar level of detail and pacing, but without the gameplay sections, I wouldn’t have minded so much. 

Instead, events that would have taken a great deal of dialogue to build up if they had occurred in Disk 1 — spreading the nanomachines to remove the seal limiter from the population, or finding and activating the Norturne mega-mech, events of global consequence — are just thrown at you in a few lines of text! 

It’s pretty comical and bad.

It starts to come together again at the end, for a hour or two before the final fight, when you get access to a world map again. For that reason, I thankfully don’t have to say that the game ends on a low. 

It’s a decent ending, we just don’t get there in the best way. The rest of Disk 2 is just the silhouette of an incredible story. Therefore, you have to go into Disk 2 with low expectations. 

Conclusions

Xenogears is exceptional and unique. At it’s core, it was born of the minds of exceptionally well-read and ambitious writers, and for two years they were given the resources and talent of the Final Fantasy series in it’s golden age, and the freedom to make the game they wanted despite it’s complexity and weirdness and an unrealistic scope. That is a combination that is rare in videogames.

Xenogears is a game you can go in-depth on, if you are so included. Take the Xenogears and Xenosaga Study Guide, for example. The writer sometimes shows disdain for the “immature consumers of popular media” who see Xenogears as “just” another JRPG classic like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII, instead of the Russian literature of our generation — an attitude that I find off putting. But I have to admire his or her dedication to the series, and consider it a point of merit for the work that that it can inspire such dedication.

I’ve only played Xenogears once. I am confident that if I play it again, I will be struck my how much of I missed or misunderstood. 

I do not believe there will ever be a finished version of Xenogears. Therefore, the game leaves us us sad, something full of wasted potential. A marred magnum opus. Elation and sadness: these are essential to the Xenogears experience. It could have been the best story ever told in a videogame (some people say it still is). It being unfinished is part of the rich metastory of the work… but I would prefer to have the tales of Fei, Elly and Bart told in full. 

Xenogears was also inspired by Star Wars. Grahf is Xenogears version of Darth Vader, Cain the Emperor, the chasing Gebler forces in their battleships equivalent to the Empire’s Star Destroyers. Star Wars, too, had a unique and compelling metastory, one of a convoluted untold history (before the prequels were released), and eventually disappointment (after the prequels were released). That is essential to the Star Wars experience. 

The same again: Evangelion, that ran out of money and had a finale composed of mainly still images. It was eventually corrected by a movie, but the episode 25/26 disappointment is part of the metastory of the franchise. A quirk that makes it more fascinating to us. 

Inspired by Star Wars, Takahashi intended Xenogears to be the middle part of his story. Multiple prequels (not necessarily games)  should have filled in events that are only hinted at in Xenogears: Episode V, such as the previous incarnations of Fei going back 1000 years or more. A sequel, Episode IV, would have wrapped up the story and the universe. 

That never happened, and never will. But the ideas for the first of those prequels was spun off into a new franchise, Xenosaga. Thought it might be some time before I get to playing it, what I hope to get from it when I do it is reassurance: that the ideas of Xenogears lived on, in some form, and that it become something close to the multi-game, space-spanning epic that it always deserved to be.