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How the Xenoverse Got Its Groove Back

A series once destined to be a footnote in RPG history now commands some serious hype. Find out how the Xenoverse regained its relevance with a look back at its strange, generation-spanning journey.

Analysis by Bob Mackey, .

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.

Neon Genesis Evangelion inspired its share of self-loathing mecha pilots.

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."

Is this the cast of Xenosaga, or Mannequin 3: Mannequins in Space? Your guess is as good as mine.

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.

Xenoblade's open world is a far cry from the sterile, sci-fi backdrop of Xenosaga.

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.

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Comments 29

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  • Avatar for The-Fool #1 The-Fool 3 years ago
    Interesting article, Bob.

    I remember reading that Takahashi said that with Xenoblade Chronicles X, he's finally achieved his dream of having a world where humans and robots can co-exist. Let's hope he has truly, finally, created the game he's always wanted to.

    I can't wait to give it a shot later this year!

    I also just bought another Monolith Soft RPG, Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean, for the GameCube.

    I'm not sure when I'll find time to try it, though!
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #2 Vonlenska 3 years ago
    Good writeup! One nitpick: I seem to recall Takahashi or Saga saying in an interview that Evangelion was not an influence on Xenogears. They're just superficially similar. You'd be forgiven for raising an eyebrow, too.

    I love the Xeno games, flawed as they are. The sheer ambition and convoluted development they underwent is fascinating. For all their deserved criticisms, I think people tend to be too harsh on them, though; they still have much more interesting ideas and complex characters than you really see anywhere else. They definitely have their own style.

    Xenoblade, on the other hand, kind of bored me to tears. The music is lovely and the environments are nice, but...that's about it. Almost everyone who'd made the Xeno games interesting to me had moved on long ago, and it's super obvious the game was never intended to be a Xeno title. It's kind of disappointing that it got glued onto the franchise, inheriting expectations and baggage that are just a bizarre fit for the game; Monado should've been its own deal. But, videogames publishing.

    I'm looking forward to X.
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  • Avatar for daysofstatic65 #3 daysofstatic65 3 years ago
    @Vonlenska I agree with you that Xenoblade feels oddly sterile. I finished the Xenosaga trilogy about 2 years back for the first time. Lovely games. Has Xenosaga aged well? I've never finished it, and want to go back to it eventually.
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  • Avatar for airbagfin51 #4 airbagfin51 3 years ago
    Wow, this is a great article to complement that Iwata Asks (not to say it doesn't stand on its own), particularly for someone who didn't really follow the history of the Xenoverse. Kudos!
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #5 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    MEN.

    *pwish*

    OF

    *pwish*

    THE SEA

    *PWISH PWISH*

    "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,"

    Odd, I'd always heard Suzuki told them to wrap it up and turned off the money faucet on them (contrast this with Vagrant Story's acrobatic and near-imperceptible truncating in mid-development).

    I had real issues with Saga ep.1; the battle systems did a very very bad thing and neutered core systems by lying about stated mechanics to truly artificialize difficulty, and I have never in my life seen so much bloat in cutscenes. It's like Kojima making a MGS about grocery shopping and powerpoint presentations to a half-empty lecture hall. Mitsuda was uncharacteristically off in this one as well; I've heard tell his original compositions were nearly impossible for an orchestra to play, leading to re-writes so the London Philharmonic could DO it. Sadly, this lead to a personally-to-me largely forgetable effort that is a shadow of his previous 3 masterworks. Sad really; (I hope he at least didn't shit blood over it).

    Got the CE and sold it right after beating it out of spite; it remains a sore spot to this day.

    Never played Ep 2 or 3.

    Xenoblade was really great. The characters were in that nice, in-danger-of-being-forgotten-to-cater-to-dudebros-or-otakus way that good JRPGs of old did. Landmark OST, magnificient world design, and was a wonderful return to a "tweaking-and-shifting" MSO gameplay I'd thought was gone after FFXII. I just wish it hadn't been saddled with that "revival of JRPG" crap it got after importing hit with all its near-sighted hunger for every JRPG henceforth to play like it. (Gen 7's a hell of a drug)

    Looking forward to XX.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #6 bobservo 3 years ago
    @SatelliteOfLove You might have missed it, but I pointed out that both Xenogears and Evangelion's "artistic" final acts resulted from a lack of time and money.

    Also, I've never heard that Mistuda information, and I also think it's one of his lesser scores. Do you have a source on that?Edited April 2015 by bobservo
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  • Avatar for bobservo #7 bobservo 3 years ago
    Deleted April 2015 by bobservo
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #8 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    @bobservo

    Oh! Sorry. Missed that in context.

    But yeah, I'll hunt that down working himself to death articles.

    Thing is, I have dozens of interviews, articles, and reviews but I'm still missing so backup on knowledge I've had forever.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #9 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    Found some! Musta been second-hand info as I don't remember reading these before.

    http://www.1up.com/do/feature?pager.offset=1&cId=3162780

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasunori_Mitsuda#cite_note-GHliner-8 (yes, Wikipedia, I know)

    http://www.rpgfan.com/features/mitsuda-interview/index.htmlEdited April 2015 by SatelliteOfLove
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  • Avatar for Daryoon #10 Daryoon 3 years ago
    Weren't Takahashi and Saga effectively fired from the Xenosaga project after Episode I, and development continued without them? I remember Episode II was actually based on content that was supposed to be in Episode I (which is why that game ends in such an anticlimactic fashion - and also why the DS port combines them into a single game), whilst Episode III was built based on Takahashi's/Saga's notes.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #11 MetManMas 3 years ago
    Okay, this is gonna be a long one.

    I had been disappointed by Xenogears (the second disc went all episodic chairs and aside from one hidden giant bonus dungeon, the final dungeon, and a few places with minigame diversions the world map was barren by the point you do get free reign), but when I'd heard of Xenosaga I initially thought there was no way that game wouldn't be a much better sci-fi mecha RPG. It was on the more powerful PS2, it looked like an anime during a time I was still interested in anime, the robot battle minigame was returning (or rather a new one) and games with a heavy cutscene emphasis weren't a turn-off for me yet.

    At the time, I thought Xenosaga would be everything that Final Fantasy X wasn't. Then I actually played it and was massively disappointed. Body language was just as primitive as any other early PS2 game and exacerbated by the creepy models, those overly long cutscenes also had a tendency to be really boring, one of the worst bits in the game is a front-loaded alien assault where you have to sneak past several biological monstrosities or get murdered, and the game was generally really linear with small enclosed spaces and lots of choke points in the form of brutal boss fights.

    Xenosaga Episode 1 was the game that turned me off of buying RPGs for their story.

    I passed on the other Xenosaga games. The series needed an art style shift, but Episode 2 went a little too far in the other direction, and after Episode 1 I had no interest. I'd heard that Xenosaga Episode 3 was (apparently) a better game than the first two, but between having to play the previous two games to have any idea of what was going on and the pointless censorship* that was obviously last minute given how the dialogue's not changed to represent it I've had no real interest in playing it.

    As for Xenoblade Chronicles, I was skeptical of the game at first but the Xenoblade-related content in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U piqued my interest in it and I snatched up a practically unused used copy last year. The combat's a love it or hate it affair, but it's much more my kinda RPG. Wide open spaces and better cutscene pacing do a lot to make Xenoblade Chronicles a much more appealing experience.

    Shame you don't get to ride any giant robots, but hey, that's what Xenoblade Chronicles X is for.

    * I know they were aiming for a T rating, but given the first game had tons of blood and corpses and a little girl getting strangled to death and the series in general had a regenerating man who dismembers himself, it never really should've been a T rating in the first place.
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #12 SigurdVolsung 3 years ago
    I'm okay with the Xenosaga games, they were fun to play through and I'm happy to own each of them. But I cannot be reasoned with regarding Xenogears. Regardless of what anyone else says, I will always deeply love that game. By all means, keep your own council on whether you think the game is good or not. But I happily play through it again and again and again, just with a smile on my face for a good 60-80 hours at least once a year. It is fun to go through Xenoblade Chronicles again, this time on my hand held while I'm at work. But more than likely this will just serve as an appetizer to getting me to play Xenogears on my Vita again after I am done.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #13 bobservo 3 years ago
    @Daryoon I'm not sure of the exact details--and definitely couldn't find them--but Episodes II and III were produced by Monolith, which is Takahashi's company, so he definitely had some involvement--though he has the least to do with Episode III. My guess is the killer development of XSI made him want to take a break from directing, or, as is the case with many Japanese devs, he gradually took on more of a supervisory role with XS instead of being so hands-on.
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  • Avatar for NinjaMic #14 NinjaMic 3 years ago
    Xenogears is bae.

    I still want to play Xenoblade someday for it's openness, since I love the offline MMO of stuff like Final Fantasy XII, but it'll have to be the Wii version played on the WiiU... which might never happen.
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #15 Lord-Bob-Bree 3 years ago
    I've only actually played Xenosaga Episode 1, and I wasn't greatly impressed by it. I like the gumption of setting out to make such a large multi-game spanning story, and I do like the idea of getting into such a series. Still, there was so much that could have been improved about it... Someone with extensive experience in managing a project needed to be brought in and get priorities sorted out. If the rest of it had been handled better, perhaps the series could have sold enough copies that it could have held closer to Takahashi's vision.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #16 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    Personally I think all the Xeno games have value. Xenogears is still a classic, one of the best SBGs from the PS1 era. Sure the 2nd disc is a bit disappointing, but that doesn't take away from the game's excellent gameplay, soundtrack, and story.

    The Xenosaga games had their ups and downs. I thought the 1st one was a very good game, with an intriguing story. Unfortunately the 2nd and 3rd game don't quite maintain the same feel. The 2nd Xenosaga game in particular is not very good because of a really different artstyle and a wierd, unintuitive battle system.

    However, I will say that despite the abscence of Mitsuda, Xenosaga 2 has an incredible soundtrack. It sounds very different from Saga 1, which is part of the reason the series feels so inconsistent, but still it's a fantastic electronic soundtrack and it's massively underrated! Everyone should listen to it.
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  • Avatar for andrewmayes78 #17 andrewmayes78 3 years ago
    So I don't know what's been going through my head all this time, but until now, I never once established the connection between Xenogears/Xenosaga and Xenoblade. As an outsider to the franchise (I played the first Xenosaga and was bored to tears by it), I had no idea they were related. Now don't I feel foolish?
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  • Avatar for Feanor #18 Feanor 3 years ago
    Bob's issues with women really show thru in the mean-spirited snark about Xenosaga. I played thru those games and never once thought of KOSMOS as a sex doll.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #19 bobservo 3 years ago
    @Feanor You're right; her battle lingerie is *purely* for the sake of practicality.
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  • Avatar for KaiserWarrior #20 KaiserWarrior 3 years ago
    @bobservo That's really not a fair analysis of KOS-MOS's outfit in the first Xenosaga game.

    The only thing even remotely "lingerie" about it is the garters. And unnecessary extra, yes, but hardly qualifying the whole thing as "lingerie". Her legs are covered in thigh-length boots, her torso is covered almost entirely by what would be analogous to a pretty common dress -- a touch on the short side as it comes down to about mid-thigh, but it leaves only a small portion of her legs exposed thanks to the really tall boots -- and her arms are completely covered from bicep to fingers. The only skin she's showing is in her shoulders and a small strip of thigh, and she's got extra armor in major impact zones -- hips, shoulders, hands.

    It's a bit on the form-fitting side, but not overly so, and in the end KOS-MOS is an android - a robot, specifically built for combat with a durable chassis. It's a stylistic choice, but one can hardly argue that she's unprotected; the body itself is the armor.

    At no point is KOS-MOS ever overtly sexualized. She kicks asses from start to finish and that's that. What else should Monolith have done?

    I'd say that it's fair to argue the point in 3, where her outfit got a lot more stylized and lost a fair bit of coverage (while gaining a lot of pointless add-ons like... whatever is going on with her boots), but not in the first game.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #21 bobservo 3 years ago
    @KaiserWarrior I think it's a pretty embarrassing outfit for a female character so we'll have to agree to disagree.
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  • Avatar for MonkeyDSomething #22 MonkeyDSomething 3 years ago
    @daysofstatic65 I...didn't like Xenoblade. It just didn't draw me in at all. It's far less flawed than Saga or Gears, but Gears completely drew me in (even if it let me down) and Saga seemed to get better as it plodded along to eventually win me over. I didn't care at all about Blade's characters or stakes. It just wasn't there for me. It's actually my least favourite Xeno-entry, even though it's also the least problematic.
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  • Avatar for daysofstatic65 #23 daysofstatic65 3 years ago
    @MonkeyDSomething When you say that Gears let you down, I suspect you mean with regards to the second disk? I haven't actually gotten that in the game myself (though I plan on returning to it in the coming months).

    Also, I put 10 hours into Blade recently before stopping, and I have little regrets about never going back to it. It feels like a paint-by-numbers RPG, sort of like how Ni no Kuni felt to me.
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  • Avatar for BrianClark #24 BrianClark 3 years ago
    Deleted April 2015 by BrianClark
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  • Avatar for BrianClark #25 BrianClark 3 years ago
    @Mister-Raven Baten Kaitos has one of my favorite plot twists ever in a game.
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  • Avatar for SpecialNewb #26 SpecialNewb 3 years ago
    Wait, Xenoblade is actually I the Xenogears/saga universe? I had no idea.
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  • Avatar for SuperShinobi #27 SuperShinobi 2 years ago
    Sales-wise Xenoblade Chronicles X ended up being a failure though. It sold only 85K units during its debut week in Japan and sales quickly stalled after that. In the UK it entered the charts at a lowly #28 and vanished after the opening week.
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  • Avatar for Dastuun #28 Dastuun 2 years ago
    This is an excellent piece. Well done.
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  • Avatar for MonkeyDSomething #29 MonkeyDSomething 2 years ago
    @daysofstatic65 Yep, that's the one. That disc...just a disaster. If they didn't waste so much time on some of the more pointless aspects of the game (Kislev), we might have had something really, really great.
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  • Avatar for daysofstatic65 #30 daysofstatic65 2 years ago
    @MonkeyDSomething I suspect that Xenogears' occasional aimlessness (along with its obsession on story and its controversial second half) is part of why the game managed to garner much of its lasting cult appeal. Rather than being a paint-by-numbers game, Xenogears (and Xenosaga to a lesser extent) feel like games made by a craftsmen.

    I guess what I'm trying to get at is that Xenogears is still great, but not by conventional metrics. And really: I doubt that it could have ever been anything other than what it had become.
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  • Avatar for DedicatedDark #31 DedicatedDark A year ago
    Unfortunately, Xenoblades and Xeonoblades X feels holo. Xenogears still remains his greatest work, I do hope he makes a comback. Xenoblades and X are just sad MMO's with abstract concepts.
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