Until fairly recently, the prefix "Xeno" signified one thing for RPG fans: lost opportunity.
If that sounds a little unfair, bear with me: How would you feel if, ten years ago, a time traveler from the distant age of 2015 told you the Xeno-series not only continued, but its latest installment made for one of the most anticipated releases on Nintendo's newest console? Before fleeing from this unhinged chrononaut, you'd naturally assume breaking the barriers of space and time must inflict some sort of madness on the human brain.
Well, I'm writing this from the future, and let me tell you: Things are weird.
The Xeno-series' journey has been curious, and, at times, inexplicable. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's jump back to where it all began: the late '90s. This RPG brand entered the world as the brainchild of Tetsuya Takahashi, a Square employee who mainly worked on the art side of game development for his first seven years with the company. Together with future wife and Square peer Kaori Tanaka (known mostly by the pseudonym Soraya Saga), Xenogears came into being as a failed pitch for the upcoming Final Fantasy VII. Deemed too strange and dark for Square's major RPG brand—but still viable in its own right—Xenogears soon found itself spun off into a separate project, with Takahashi taking the lead.
And this could be where all the trouble started. While it was common for developers to jump between much different roles in that era of development, it's important to remember Xenogears stood as Takahashi's first role as director, and his first time developing a game for the Sony PlayStation. After years of working primarily in the realm of cartridges, the jump to CD-ROMs must have been incredibly freeing to a developer who formerly had to worry about space limitations—and Xenogears definitely feels self-indulgent in this respect. Simply put, it's a sprawling, chaotic mess that puts world-building before any attempt at cohesive storytelling, though it does contain some moments of beauty. While Xenogears' graphics straddle the strange line between 16 and 32-bit, Yasunori Mitsuda's soundtrack more than makes up for it: These compositions mark the first time he really came into his own as a musician, and feature the Celtic influences that would later define his unique sound.
Xenogears eventually derails by the second disc, choosing to impart its story through pure narration, with brief playable bits sprinkled in. It's an idea no doubt inspired by Neon Genesis Evangelion's final, controversial episodes, though, like that anime series—which served as one of Xenogears' major influences—this choice was no doubt inspired by a shortage of money and time. Despite its lack of focus, Xenogears went on to sell admirably, but much of its American hype could be chalked up to controversy; originally, Square wanted to pass on an English localization because of the game's religious references—this is the RPG with crucified robots after all. Post-release, Xenogears gained traction with Japanese RPG fans, simply because its universe seemed to hold so much promise; a textual companion, Xenogears Perfect Works (released only in Japan), indicated this first game actually existed as the fifth episode of an epic saga.
Takahashi left Square the following year to form Monolith Soft, a studio dedicated to continuing his Xeno-series. Even though this successor to Xenogears wouldn't advance the story outlined in Perfect Works—a fact fans seemed to grossly misunderstand—Xenosaga would be just that: a saga. Originally planned to span six separate games, Xenosaga increased the ambition of its predecessor by magnitudes. And while Xenogears was emblematic of its console generation's indulgences, the same can be said of Xenosaga. Instead of putting the cart before the horse, Takahashi essentially made this first installment of Xenosaga all cart: The game tells its story through numerous non-interactive, scripted scenes, some of them so long that save points pop up in the middle to give players a brief respite. Metal Gear Solid got away with this same approach by making effective use of limited technology; meanwhile, with the power of the PlayStation 2 at his fingertips, Takahashi's cast of anime-proportioned, dead-eyed mannequins pulled straight from the set of Thunderbirds didn't do the best job of selling this space opera's pathos.
Once again, Yasunori Mitsuda's contributions—his last in the Xenosaga series—remain the high point of this troubled game, which doesn't seem to understand the sheer goofiness of its source material. Xenosaga mostly revolves around the sturm und drang of KOS-MOS, a lingerie-clad robot, and her egghead human master, Shion—as well as the vaguely titillating homoeroticism involved in their relationship. It's difficult to remember many of the details, but the end of this 50-hour RPG features Shion risking her life to save her automaton companion: a largely unsympathetic sex doll lacking any spark of humanity.
This finale didn't provide players the greatest incentive to anticipate the next of many sequels, though Takahashi himself admits Xenosaga's development had its troubles. In a recent installment of Iwata Asks, he comments, "Because we were developing [Xenosaga] while we were building [Monolith], we didn't have enough people. The programmers and the planners were all rookies... And, it's a bit embarrassing to admit, but the graphics engine was only completed six months before the development deadline. That's the schedule we were on."
The failure of Xenosaga scaled back the series' six-chapter plan to three, and Takahasi's wounded ego definitely made for some better games. Episode II, burdened with the pretentious title Jenseits von Gut und Böse—continuing the series' strange fascination with Friedrich Nietzsche—improved on the series' debut, but not by much. This sequel gave the cast realistic proportions, making their theatrics less awkward, and included much more game, but its attempt to beef up the mechanics resulted in a battle system that forced players to go through several tedious steps before they could even begin to inflict damage on some of the more powerful enemies. And the music, composed by Shinji Hosoe, feels more at home in the driving and fighting games he specialized in up to that point than an epic RPG like Xenosaga. A shame, since the cutscene score by Yuki Kajiura makes for one of the most unsung soundtracks of the PS2 era—even outpacing some of Mitsuda's work on the last game.
With Xenosaga rapidly losing momentum, it's surprising to think Namco didn't cut their losses and urge Takahashi to develop a new series without so much baggage. But, just as consoles entered the HD generation, Episode III barely squeaked past the finish line with a late 2006 release. By then, it was too late for Xenosaga, which was unfortunate, since this finale exists as the result of Takahashi learning from his mistakes. Yuki Kajiura stepped up as composer for the entire soundtrack, and the series had thankfully lost its fixation on non-interactive cinema scenes—something we were all sick of by that point in time (a fact that didn't seem to reach Hideo Kojima during the production of Metal Gear Solid 4). Whether or not the story reached a satisfying conclusion can only be answered by the Xenosaga faithful; the series had a penchant for neologism abuse, rendering important plot points meaningless for those not interested in diving through the games' Mass Effect-style codex. But the most important thing? Xenosaga's sad life of suffering had finally come to a close.
Then again, maybe not. As development for Xenosaga Episode III wound down, Monolith began work on Xenoblade Chronicles for the yet-to-be released Nintendo Wii—a fact that wouldn't be revealed to the world until years later. Originally titled Monado, this new creation eventually adopted the Xeno name thanks to the insistence of Nintendo President Satoru Iwata. Surprisingly, Xenosaga didn't poison the well for Takahashi's brand, at least not in Japan; and finally, he had a game that measured up to his ambition. After years of development, Xenoblade had its Japanese launch in 2010, earning nearly universal praise from critics, and surprising non-Japanese players with word-of-mouth about its supposed greatness. As the traditional console RPG became less prolific, Xenoblade soon became an object of want for Americans—especially after seeing our friends in Europe receive a fully localized release in 2011. After much hand-wringing, and several thousand signatures via Operation Rainfall, Xenoblade Chronicles finally made its way to American Wiis in 2012, with its limited print run driving up demand even more. And this week, Xenoblade has seen yet another high-profile release as the centerpiece for Nintendo's New 3DS XL. After more than a decade of floundering, Takahashi finally had the successor to Xenogears he'd built a company for.
Of course, Xenoblade's success is by no means a happy accident. Reading over his Iwata Asks interview, you get the feeling Takahashi learned much from the rigors of game development, and sought to make Xenoblade like nothing Monolith had ever created before. "I felt like...more and more, the y-axis of the story started to overtake the x-axis of the gameplay [in Japanese RPGs]," says Takahashi, adding, "So the first thing I did when I was making Xenoblade Chronicles was to use my experiences to decide what a good balance was for the x-axis and y-axis, and structure it that way." And, with that as his mission statement, Xenoblade resulted in an experience that's about as different from Xenosaga as you can get. This latest Xeno game drops the narrative-heavy experience for something much more akin to an MMORPG: a big, open world with lots to do, and no real pressure to get things done anytime soon. By embracing the evolution of the RPG, Monolith finally had a critical and financial hit on their hands, and soon began production on an expansion of Xenoblade's formula.
In a sense, Takahashi's a lucky guy; it's rare to get a second chance in this industry, though some would say he had the good fortune of failing back when failure in the video game industry wasn't always financially devastating. Still, there's no denying he's worked hard to restore the reputation of the Xeno name, and a brand that once served as the poster boy for pet projects gone wrong now holds more appeal than Takahashi could have ever dreamed. True, Xenoblade isn't perfect—as indicated by our recent review of the New 3DSXL port—but Takahashi's dedication to improvement bodes well for the future of this series. Even if the upcoming Xenoblade Chronicles X exists as the only traditional RPG for the Wii U, it's going to be interesting to see what new directions his Xeno-series takes from here.