Why Xenogears Remains Enduringly Popular on its 20th Anniversary

Looking back on a crazy but enduring entry in the RPG canon.

Feature by Kat Bailey, .

I guess it's only appropriate that I happen to be watching Neon Genesis Evangelion as I sit down to revisit Xenogears, which celebrated its 20th anniversary on Sunday.

Animator Hideaki Anno's classic mech anime had a disproportionate impact on Japanese pop culture, making it suddenly cool for anime to focus on darker themes like depression, religion, and Jungian psychology. And games were not immune to its impact.

You had to be there.

It appeared at a heady time for game developers. The popularization of polygonal engines allowed for movie-like camera angles, and for the first time cutscenes could depict the full breadth of a developer's vision. Freed from the perceived shackles of sprite-based storytelling, auteurs like Hideo Kojima suddenly had access to a much larger canvass.

It was in this period that Tetsuya Takahashi was first handed the reins of development. Having come up in the 16-bit era, Takahashi had worked under Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi on many of Square's best-known 16-bit games, including Final Fantasy IV and Secret of Mana. By 1996, Sakaguchi had moved into a senior post with SquareSoft, allowing a new generation of game developers to step up, including Takahashi.

Takahashi and others like him had been frustrated by the constraints of the 16-bit era. More than that, they wanted to make something other than Final Fantasy, which had been the studio's bread and butter since the late '80s.

"If someone displayed leadership skills, they would be given the independence of having their own team," Sakaguchi recalled in an Iwata Asks interview. "At the same time, they would often ask me: 'Is Final Fantasy all this company can let me create?' I used to worry about that."

Takahashi and his wife Soraya Saga had originally submitted the idea that would become Xenogears as an idea for Final Fantasy VII, only for it to be rejected for being too dark. Upon forming his own team, he and Saga repurposed it for a new game: Xenogears.

Saga recalled in a 2010 interview with Siliconera, "The works of Nietzsche, Freud and Jung happened to be part of common interests I shared with Takahashi. Xenogears is basically a story about 'where do we come from, what are we, where are we going.' In that respect, we were inspired by those concepts a lot."

The story they developed featured an amnesiac painter named Fei Fong Wong who falls into the cockpit when his village comes under attack by Gears—the mechs of the Xenogears world.

It's initially your fairly typical story of a band of renegades battling an evil empire; but as the layers of Fei's personality are progressively peeled away, the scope of the story steadily expands until it encompasses the entirety of human history, ultimately explaining why the first cutscene shows a starship seemingly going berserk and killing its own passengers.

While hardly a direct copy of Evangelion, it's not hard to see the similarities between the two. Both lean heavily on religious iconography, from crucifixions to the Lance of Loginus. They also delve deep into the psychology of their protagonists, Asuka's flashbacks to her mother's descent into madness mirroring Fei's own... troubled... family life. They even had similarly troubled production histories, with Evangelion resorting to abstract sketches for its final episodes, and Xenogears relying on text to finish its infamous Disc 2.

Not surprisingly, they appealed to similar audiences. Anime was unquestionably on the rise when Xenogears was released in the U.S. Final Fantasy VII had successfully popularized console RPGs in the west the year before, turning a whole new generation onto the look and feel of anime. Pokemon was in the process of exploding in the west. Gaming audiences were hungry for complex Japanese-developed RPGs with strong anime influences, and Xenogears fit the bill perfectly.

Xenogears' sprites have allowed it to hold up better than many other games of its era.

That it almost wasn't released at all only added to its mystique. In late 1997, a Square spokesperson told IGN that "there were issues concerning religious themes" that would prevent its release. Behind the scenes, localization specialists were leaving Xenogear due to its controversial content, ultimately leaving the script to just one translator—Richard Honeywood. Honeywood had worked on SaGa Frontier and Parasite Eve, but the Xenogears script was absolutely massive.

"It was the project from hell," Honeywood told 8-4 Play in 2011. "Translators walked off it. One [reason] was that it was too technical... and....the other was the religious content. It was a game, where, at the end of the game you basically kill God. And—a secret thing—back then, they actually called it Yahweh."

The name of the final boss was ultimately changed from "Yahweh" to "Deus."

In hindsight, it was a miracle that Xenogears came out at all. But when it finally did make it to North America, its controversial roots lent it a certain amount of cachet. Final Fantasy VII had been big and complex, but Xenogears was even bigger. And in the late '90s, having a labyrinthine story loaded with complex symbols was considered a badge of honor.

Xenogears was ultimately released in North America in October 1998. In Japan, Takahashi was still recovering from its brutal development cycle. Square's strict deadlines had forced him to cut much of the game's second half, and the push to get it out the door had taken a physical toll on him and his staff.

"It's already been a quick six months since the launch of Xenogears," Takahashi said in Xenogears Perfect Works. "Looking back on it now, it's been absolutely chaotic, and there are some things about the game and some things I've said I find almost unbearably embarrassing."

Xenogears' compromises would ultimately become a topic of heated debate among RPG fans. Detractors have called it messy and pretentious, with Disc 2 being the point where it completely falls apart. Supporters acknowledge its flaws, but praise its willingness to wade so deep into the waters of religious symbolism, philosophy, and psychology.

Twenty years later, we're still debating it.

The Legacy of Xenogears

I ultimately finished Xenogears in 2000, roughly a year and a half after its initial release. I was taken with its scope, but frustrated with its execution. One of my enduring memories of Xenogears is wrestling with the platforming, falling time and again as I missed my jumps in the Tower of Babel.

Even then it was apparent that Xenogears was a budget project. With only a small, inexperienced team and a limited budget at his disposal, Takahashi had to make due with sprites rather than a full-blown 3D engine. Interestingly, this compromise has arguably allowed Xenogears to hold up better than the likes of Final Fantasy VII, mostly because sprites are timeless.

I was taken by its look, mostly because sprites were fairly rare in big releases in 1998, and even more taken with its battle system. Like the rest of Xenogears, it was messy and convoluted, and its system for unlocking Deathblows—Xenogears' combo finishers—was poorly explained, but I enjoyed the fighting game-like feel of it. Compared to the menu-driven RPGs of the time, it felt flashy and immediate. Amusingly, I actually preferred the ground battles to the more technically impressive Gear fights, if only because I preferred the satisfaction of landing a Deathblow. I cheered whenever I fought a boss on foot.

Chu-Chu died for your sins.

When it started to get immensely weird in the latter half of the first disc, I accepted it as par for the course. I had only recently played Final Fantasy VII, which had messed with concepts as fundamental as identity, even going so far as to feature a sequence in which Tifa helps Cloud reclaim his shattered personality. Xenogears felt like an expansion of that with the nearly hour-long cutscenes (!) in which Fei reunites his id, ego, and superego being at the very cutting edge of game development.

Xenogears ultimately received glowing reviews when it came out. In a period of experimentation, Xenogears was at the bleeding edge of video game storytelling, or so we believed. It was only later that the tide began to turn a bit, with USgamer alum Jeremy Parish being among those to point out its plodding plot and numerous other problems. In recounting the history of the Xenoverse back in 2015, Bob Mackey referred to it as a "lost opportunity."

Nevertheless, Xenogears has managed to remain enduringly popular even today. On Metacritic, it enjoys 55 positive user reviews to only two negative ones. One fan wrote in 2017, "An unbeaten, powerful masterpiece even today. The music, the characters, the amazing plot, the dual-battle system, the places and the feeling that you have been playing something really enormous and epic. Drop the controller and you will keep thinking about the plot. But this is not a game for any player. True RPG lovers and purists will enjoy this game like nothing else even after so many years."

Today, Xenogears is as much a symbol as anything. It hearkens back to a time when anime was still getting its foothold in the U.S., and Square was still the acknowledged king of gaming. For gamers of a certain age, it embodies a very particular period in the medium's history, and it carries with it a certain hardcore cachet that goes a long way with gamers.

I can't really say that it holds up, not when it has a scene where the mechs are literally crucified, but it's still lodged in my memory. How many games span thousands of years of history? It was a world so big that Takahashi at one point said it was the fifth chapter of a much larger series.

We can't help but be drawn to messy but singular works of art, whether Evangelion, Xenogears, or even Michael Cimino's infamous Heaven's Gate, which has enjoyed a bit of a revival of late. Often their flaws only serve to accentuate their soaring creativity, their sweeping ambition pushing the artists who work on them to the limit. Yasunori Mitsuda, arguably the best video game composer ever, produced what might be his finest soundtrack with Xenogears.

It remains an indelible part of the RPG canon—a unique, crazy, and beloved part of gaming heritage. A game that borrowed from everything from Soylent Green to Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End to, yes, Neon Genesis Evangelion. Failure or not, we won't soon forget it.

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Comments 31

  • Avatar for killias2 #1 killias2 7 months ago
    Great retrospective Kat!

    " It was a world so big that Takahashi at one point said it was the fifth chapter of a much larger series."

    It's actually tagged as Episode 5 in game at some point, but I can't remember when, haha.
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  • Avatar for bobbywatson #2 bobbywatson 7 months ago
    Xenogears is one of those games I really want to replay, but will only do it if I can get the cheat that makes the text display faster working.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #3 Vonlenska 7 months ago
    I know it's not a well-liked game around these parts, but Xenogears was one of the most important games in shaping my tastes and showing me what was possible with the medium. And sure, it's really long, the platforming was a dumb idea and Disc 2 is what it is, but for all its flaws, I think it remains underrated and in many ways badly misunderstood.

    For instance, the Honeywood bit about killing God is one of the most infamous and well-known things about the game, and it's just wrong. Xenogears is an odd anomaly in JRPG theology for having a pretty positive view of Christianity and monotheism; it's just that the game favors a Gnostic worldview, with a remote Absolute transcendent of creation and a deluded false demiurge mired in it. Its depiction of a God/Absolute/Ultimate Reality is positive, and even Deus isn't "evil" so much as lost and ignorant.

    That's one of the bigger disconnects, but I see the game just failing to click with the average gamer on so many levels. It comes with a whole set of references, ideas and in-jokes that are a little more idiosyncratic than the average game, which go either unnoticed or held up as obnoxious namedropping. I can't even really wrap my head around that attitude. As a kid raised more on Philip K. Dick, Grant Morrison and Robert Anton Wilson than Tolkien and Star Wars, Xenogears was JRPG catnip for me; but even when I'd come across a reference I didn't get, I'd think, "Cool, something to look up!"

    It's an idiosyncratic game, and I guess my point is that's a good thing. Too many games already pander pretty hard to a very narrow-band of "geek" referents; it was cool then to see something breaking outside that mold as hard as Xenogears does. Its mix of robots, deep time, Gnosticism, psychology, philosophy, reincarnation and matryoshka narratives, transhumanism, Russian and classic sci fi, film etc. married to deep characterization and no small amount of silliness... made it something unique. It remains unique; and unique is often more interesting than universally beloved.

    Xenosaga would continue a lot of what made it interesting, but something got lost in the serial format and higher seriousness. I think part of what makes Xenogears work so well for me is the way it comfortably blends fairly high concepts with stuff like the captain. Big ideas are exciting in games; but a little levity goes a long way in bringing a story back down to a more warm and personal scale.

    Anyway, I never, ever want a remake. Or a sequel. Or a spinoff. Go back to sleep, Square-Enix. Shhhh. Edited February 2018 by Vonlenska
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  • Avatar for TheWildCard #4 TheWildCard 7 months ago
    Xenogears is one of those games I debate going back to, but I'm afraid the flaws are going to be even harder to swallow than they were at release, and I'm guessing the edgy content is just going to elicit eyerolls.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #5 Vonlenska 7 months ago
    Also, eff it! I'm gonna do it! Stand back.

    Courtesy of The Dark Id's LP that I've been yoinking images from...

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  • Avatar for SkywardShadow #6 SkywardShadow 7 months ago
    I can laugh and poke fun at Xenogears, but it's still one of my favorite RPGs.
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  • Avatar for januaryembers19 #7 januaryembers19 7 months ago
    There’s plenty I could say about Xenogears and such, but I’m glad Mitsuda’s soundtrack was referred to as one that might be his best. It’s such a shame that whenever he’s mentioned, most people just mention Chrono Trigger, which while good, doesn’t hold a candle to his work on Xenogears or Chrono Cross.
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  • Avatar for Wellman2nd #8 Wellman2nd 7 months ago
    Not enough JRPGs have legit giant mecha. I mean the anime flare is another factor but giant mecha is something that few games even with mecha as the focus get right.
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  • Avatar for moochan #9 moochan 7 months ago
    Feel Disk 1 of Xenogears holds up really well. It's just Disk 2 that everyone seem to debate on. There are some clumsy aspects of Xenogears but I feel that is also what I really love about it. It's made by I guess you could say B team of Square who was given the chance to make something of their own. Sadly Square forced them to finish the game before they had to chance to properly make the content that would be Disk 2. It will never happen but I would love to see them kind of remake it just with a proper Disk 2 just to see how people would react to it. Guessing it wouldn't hold up well since it's a game that could have only been made in the late 90's and be beloved by people who was all in on anime and video games in that time.

    Let us all just be thankful that Takahashi after moving to Namco and having the same issues with Xenosaga (forcing him to finish his project sooner than he would like) he was able to find a home at Nintendo.

    And really that's the biggest shocking in this crazy tale. In the end the company that enbraced the Xeno series is the company that hammered out any religious content in their games more so than any other company.
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  • Avatar for jmsebastian #10 jmsebastian 7 months ago
    Great we write up, Kat. I was one of those kids who got sucked into the world of RPGs via FFVII and was hungry for whatever Squaresoft could throw at me.

    Xenogears always felt more impressive to me as an experiment than a game. I loved the art and overall presentation, but just could not get into how combat for the Gears worked, and found it frustrating to play. I might just go back and try to finish it now, though.
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  • Avatar for Drachmalius #11 Drachmalius 7 months ago
    I only played Xenogears on the Vita a couple years ago and it held up pretty well. It was great as a handheld title since I basically just took my vita everywhere and played it on break at work or whatever. Really glad I played it, it has one of the best stories I've seen in an RPG.
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  • Avatar for docexe #12 docexe 7 months ago
    I have read (and for that matter, watched) a lot about Xenogears along the years (to the point that I pretty much know already what the story is about), but I haven't really played it yet.

    That's definitely one gap in my gaming experience that I have to remedy one of these days. It's definitely on my list of games I shall play before I die.
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  • Avatar for discohospital #13 discohospital 7 months ago
    @Vonlenska Oh, man. Thank you for this.

    Xenogears is one of the greatest victims of overblown hyperbole becoming received wisdom in the history of western appreciation of Japanese RPGs (and it's not lacking for competition in that regard). The second disc always comes up, seemingly out of habit. I don't have an issue with it personally, and I loved all of the game's dungeons (including the sewers) - and that goes just as much for the second disc, which isn't just "one long cutscene" as many would have it. I guess it just says something when hyperbole (or sweeping generalization) is employed so often, again and again, as a means of dismissing or criticizing a particular work. The critical response described in the article was, I'm certain, a backlash against a perceived uncritical cult of fandom surrounding Xenogears, but I don't think fighting fire with fire engenders a lucid view of the work in question in this case (...or ever).

    It's interesting how thin the line between frustrating and meaningful challenge can be, especially in hindsight, with video games. Babel Tower remains one of the most memorable portions of any video game in my mind, and for me it's the latter - I don't think an easy, quick ascent with no real danger of loss of progress, etc would really suit something called Babel Tower, especially given its particular significance in the game. I'm sure it would be done differently now, perhaps employing the kind of "honest" difficulty that's often brought up with the likes of Dark Souls, or perhaps just making it less clunky with regard to landing certain jumps. But it's not something I ever thought to pay much mind to before the internet told me it was a problem.

    As to the Evangelion comparisons, the same. It certainly shares elements, but what it's doing with them ultimately is rather different. It's pastiche in a lot of ways, but popular culture is strangely ambivalent and at times contradictory about what constitutes good pastiche or bad pastiche, and where and when it's appropriate.**

    Something else it shares a lot with (but sees with different eyes, perhaps), and which will not have been on the minds of most western gamers until well after: Shin Megami Tensei. It's here you can start to get a broader picture of a zeitgeist that was written all over much of Japan's cultural output, and was reaching its zenith around the time Evangelion and Xenogears hit. The former was arguably as much a product of this wider zeitgeist as it was an influence on particular media that would be most familiar to western eyes. It's often associated with the soul-searching that occurred in the wake of the Aum Shinrikyo incident, but if you look at something like Shin Megami Tensei, for example, you might get the impression that it was in some ways already brewing. Or indeed a film like Sogo Ishii's Angel Dust, which can be seen in post-Aum hindsight as eerily portentous. The soul-searching, and in particular the concern with questions of identity, were fairly new to Japan, and there's no shortage of dark, existential horror-tinged exploration of identity in Japanese cinema of the mid to late 90's, perhaps most prominently in the work of filmmakers such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

    I've read that in Japan, Xenogears has often been nicknamed "Ura FF7". Appropriate in many ways, I'd say. If Manny Farber had been a video game critic, he might've called Xenogears the Termite Art answer to FF7's White Elephant*. I'm still waiting patiently(?) for video game criticism to exit its "but flawed" phase.

    (*Although I shouldn't be too hard on FF7, as I do like it as well, and FF as a whole is rather messy and termite-ish if seen in a certain way. But I can't resist an opportunity to engage in somewhat-deserved iconoclasm that's at least a bit less hyperbolically off the mark than some of the criticisms of Xenogears!)

    **EDIT: Additionally, Japanese culture doesn’t traditionally view originality as a primary value in the way that the west does. If something has cultural impact, quite a lot will pick up on that and begin to work certain elements “borrowed” from it into new and ever more differing variations and contexts. It’s the same thing that happens everywhere, really, it’s just that Japan generally seems to demonstrate no outward recognition or acknowledgement that it’s happening nor any hesitancy to assimilate and normalize ideas that strike a chord culturally. Edited 4 times. Last edited February 2018 by discohospital
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  • Avatar for Mr.Spo #14 Mr.Spo 7 months ago
    Really interesting retrospective. I've never played Xenogears or Xenosaga, but love the Xenoblade series. Takahashi finally has the backing of a publisher that allows him to finish his games, but I find XBC 2 in particular still has things that need polishing- though reports from Japan suggest just 40% of Monolith Soft's Tokyo studio did the bulk of development while most of their staff helped with Breath of the Wild. That being said, it's great seeing some of his ambition and ideas more fully realised.

    Who owns the Xenogears/Xenosaga IP? Any chance of a re-release or PC port? Now that Takahashi is more experienced and has the backing of Nintendo, it'd be great to see a Monolith Soft developed remake.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #15 riderkicker 7 months ago
    Interesting how Xenogears had a fraught localization history, something Shin Megami Tensei avoided entirely because nobody wanted to sell a video game that's literally about summoning demons in America for a stretch of time. But that's sort of a chicken and egg situation, as without the former and the praise for it, we wouldn't have gotten the latter series.
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  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #16 AxiomVerge 7 months ago
    In a world of constant remakes... I'd like to see a version of this game with the 2nd half realized as it was intended.
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #17 Nuclear-Vomit 7 months ago
    Yes, I am one of the few that enjoy that ending song to Xenogears (Small of two pieces). I occasionally hold a karaoke session in the privacy of my car.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #18 cldmstrsn 7 months ago
    @killias2 Its at the end of the credits.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #19 cldmstrsn 7 months ago
    @Mr.Spo Square owns Xenogears while Namco/Bandai owns Xenosaga.
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  • Avatar for yuberus #20 yuberus 7 months ago
    The number one thing I remember about this game was that at the local anime night, people would get together in the mech battle arena in it and play it like a fighting game. It was a strange time.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #21 cldmstrsn 7 months ago
    @yuberus I did that too with a bunch of friends. I still wish to this day they had a mode you could choose from the menu for that.
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  • Avatar for Arvis-Jaggamar #22 Arvis-Jaggamar 7 months ago
    You're an amazing writer, Kat.

    As for Xenogears, I loathe its pseudo-intellectual, armchair existentialism SO MUCH, that it is really tough for me to look back at it with fondness. It's so distasteful that it really ruins everything else for me, save perhaps that incredible, GOAT-tier soundtrack.
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #23 benjaminlu86 7 months ago
    As always, I like the *idea* of Xenogears far more than I like the game itself. The ambition and vision of the game is much stronger than the final product. If I could go back in time to give Takahashi the budget he wanted for the game, I would. As it stands Xenogears (and Xenosaga) serve better as examples of what could have been, rather than what is.
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  • Avatar for LunarFlame17 #24 LunarFlame17 7 months ago
    I really need to play Xenogears again. I played back around when it came out, give or take a couple of years or so, and loved it, but I only played it the once, and I barely remember it now. I have it on my Vita. Really oughta fire it up again...
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  • Avatar for Thad #25 Thad 7 months ago
    It's a game that could really benefit from a ground-up redesign. It'll never happen, of course, but I'd love to see it.
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  • Avatar for mos8580 #26 mos8580 7 months ago
    @discohospital You and@vonlenska killed it with those comments, now I want play Xenogears again...
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  • Avatar for GameALot #27 GameALot 7 months ago
    I didn't watch anime at all growing up. Eventually, I watched Evangelion, but it was about a decade after playing Xenogears, and I vastly prefer the latter. Xenogears and Final Fantasy Tactics had a major impact on me. I wish more games of that caliber were released. The Square of today (well, and most major publishers) are unwilling to take risks. Even with some non-FF and Dragon Quest products, they play it safe, and simply iterate. I wish Perfect Works was released here officially. I eventually went and watched some of Xenogears' influences such as Soylent Green and Solaris. It's been about 8 years since I last played Xenogears and look forward to revisiting it when I get the chance.
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  • Avatar for discohospital #28 discohospital 7 months ago
    @mos8580 Haha. Actually, I think@Vonlenska kind of ended the thread. Probably the only thing I've ever read that hits the mark dead-center on what might be called the elephant in the room regarding Xenogears' reception.

    Honestly, my post was more or less a couple of decades' worth of frustrations being aired somewhat opportunistically, with some stuff thrown in about 90's Japan that probably doesn't make much sense as is and which I'd probably need an essay's worth of space to fully work out, and this isn't really the place for that.

    Admittedly, Xenogears is one of those things that I have a lot of trouble viewing from a genuine critical remove, but I do plan on revisiting it this year (for the first time in probably over a decade) and seeing what happens.
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  • Avatar for garion333 #29 garion333 7 months ago
    @Vonlenska "As a kid raised more on Philip K. Dick, Grant Morrison and Robert Anton Wilson than Tolkien and Star Wars"

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  • Avatar for toddblackburn23 #30 toddblackburn23 5 months ago
    Xenogears was the Renaissance of jrpgs. Better than any jrpg being released now which is full of kiddish characters, cookie cutter plots , etc
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  • Avatar for prgr #31 prgr A month ago
    I wanted to like this game so much. I think the story is very interesting. Besides the second disc, which honestly didn't bother me too much, I just couldn't get fully into it. There were times I was interested and curious what would happen next, and a couple times surprised, but I found this game just dragged and dragged (and I do not mind long games). I also never empathized with these characters. I don't know how they could have condensed the story, as there seems to be a lot more to it than what's in the game, but as a video game I did not enjoy this or think it was all that great. I really wanted to and still wish I did. I'm interested in a remake however, even though I enjoy older games more than new ones.Edited 2 times. Last edited last month by prgr
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