Warning: Today’s rant is a bit raw. I mostly just tried to get everything I had to say out and didn’t worry too much about making it feel refined and well-organized. I doubt anyone cares overly much, but I figured I’d let you know ahead of time.
Yes, it is that time once again: Xenosaga Rant Time.
So what should I speak about today? Xenosaga still has so many flaws and nonsense that I could rant about. Maybe I should examine just how necessary it was for KOS-MOS, during the in-the-past-sort-of escape from Kevin, to smack Shion and knock her out--she does it to subdue the obnoxious twit and get her safely away from Kevin, but considering that KOS-MOS is a monstrously strong battle android and Shion is just a (whiny, overbearing) human being, she could have struggled all she liked and not given KOS-MOS the slightest trouble in carrying her off. Or I could point out that it doesn’t make much sense that the shockwave from Abel’s Ark can cause everything it touches to disappear, even planets, yet the Elsa, a small freighter ship, is totally unaffected by it. Or perhaps I could…
...No. You know what? I think I’ve done enough. Since beating Xenosaga 3 and closing out the series, I’ve made 9 rants about the stupidity of Xenosaga, and in nearly all of them I’ve not only examined the flaw(s) that the rant is actually about, but also listed several other ones that I could just as easily have ranted on. I’ve put forward dozens of Xenosaga’s mistakes to you all, and there are plenty more I could add to them. And perhaps I will some day. But with all this criticism at a glance and at length, on all these various flaws, there’s only one conclusion that you, the reader, could draw: that I hate Xenosaga. And, well, that’s just not true. Oh, sure, there are parts of Xenosaga that I sincerely hate, no question. Shion’s pity parade during the finale, MOMO’s last words to Jr., Kevin, the utterly disgusting way Shion’s abusive relationship with Kevin is glossed over as bad ONLY because it hurts other people and NOT because it hurts her...huh, I guess each of the moments of Xenosaga that I truly hate come from the last game. Hadn’t realized that before.
Anyway, my point is that, yes, there are a lot--a LOT--of problems with the series, and yes, there are even some parts of it which are just unforgivably loathsome. But while I don’t like the series as a complete product...well, I don’t hate it. It’s like when your parents tell you that they’re not angry with you, just disappointed. I’m not happy with Xenosaga, especially with the way it all turned out, but I can’t just dismiss it completely, either, because it had potential, and for all its terribleness, it still maintained a few of its good points throughout. This is a series that at least could have been good--even if it wasn’t.
I mean, consider the voice acting. Yeah, as I’ve mentioned, in Xenosaga 3, the voice overs are just a mess of incorrect emphasis and tones that just don’t work within the context of the characters’ intent. But back in Xenosaga 1, the voice acting was pretty consistently decent, enough to make it clear that this cast did know what it was doing when properly directed. And the voice actors themselves fit the characters very well, by and large! Hell, even when they have to change voice actors for some characters between games, the new ones still work very well! The proper matching of actor to character type by itself is enough to lend life to the characters, even if the confusion of lines constantly read in the wrong way later in the series messes that up. This is voice acting that could have been good from start to finish.
Take a look at the graphic style of Xenosaga 1. Now, you know I don’t care about visuals when determining how good or bad an RPG is, but that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge the difference between good and bad quality. Xenosaga 1 rolled out with a clean, interestingly simplistic yet distinctive artistic style for its characters and universe. Speak to a player who’s experienced all 3 main titles in the Xenosaga series about which style of KOS-MOS sticks out the most in his or her mind, which grabbed his or her attention the most and is the most interesting, and I’m willing to bet the answer will most of the time be the style from Xenosaga 1. It was different enough to grab and keep your attention: deformed but not chibi, bright but with plenty of darkness to contrast, clean but not undetailed. And then, Xenosaga 2 came around, and...the art style was completely different. For reasons best described as “moronic,” Namco decided to ditch the unique style that otherwise would have become a recognizable signature of the series and adopt, for Xenosaga 2, a much more dark, so-called realistic art style that was far more conventional for anime-styled JRPGs of that age, and in being far more conventional, was also far less interesting and thus did not hold one’s attention as well as before. And then they switched the style up again for Xenosaga 3, but this next change was a smaller departure from its predecessor, and in the end still doesn’t stand out in any particular way from other RPGs. I do know that there are some people (a minority, I believe) who liked the art styles of Xenosaga 2 and/or 3 better than that of the first game, but even still, I think most of them would have to admit that first game’s style was more distinctive--and while visuals have no effect on me, that’s something that can count for a lot with some audiences. Lose the distinctive look, you lose the benefits of novelty. This is a series that started out with a good look, and could have kept that good style to its end.
Listen to the music for the series. Both the composer for Xenosaga 1 and the composer for Xenosaga 2 and 3 are clearly talented and creative. The music of Xenosaga 1 does its job competently nearly all of the time, and there are a few tracks that I consider to be excellent. For an example, there’s only 1 single battle theme throughout the entire game, whether for regular enemies or bosses, and yet even though I heard it hundreds of times during the course of playing through the game, I still love it, and keep it in my personal song collection. It’s fast-paced yet not frenzied, common yet so very epic, promising the intensity of battle while embodying the idea that this is the first tentative step in a grand saga. The composer of Xenosaga 2 and 3 does just as well, providing solid music accompaniment to the entirety of both games, and I have to say that there are some themes of Xenosaga 3 that are just AMAZING to listen to. The theme playing while exploring the forest during the game’s foray to the past, the music that plays during Pellegri’s death scene, the background theme of the Dabrye Mine...absolutely lovely stuff. Not everything with these games’ music is a hit, but there’s certainly no noticeable failing, either, and enough stand-out moments of excellence that the soundtrack gets my endorsement. This is good music to set an epic tale of space, emotion, and drama against, and Xenosaga could have been really good if everything had been as consistently decent and occasionally great as its music is.
Watch the cutscenes of the Xenosaga games. Xenosaga 1 has a good number of FMV sequences that are very engaging, full of gripping action, and compelling suspense and drama. The scene in the first game wherein KOS-MOS saves Shion for the first time from the Gnosis starts off intense as Shion’s fading in its clutches, and becomes cool and impressive as KOS-MOS gets to work, an epic first combat for this iconic character. And what about the hyperspace chase and battle in Xenosaga 1? That whole thing is awesome and thrilling! It’s action-packed, it’s suspenseful at all the right times, it knows exactly when to cut in with comedy with the reactions of Hammer, Allen, and what’s-his-name, the commander guy below decks, it’s a great first meeting of these still-new characters and a chance to really show their personalities as they work together for the first time, it’s inventive and interesting...this is everything a sci-fi space battle should be, combined with a skillful use of the characters involved that’s thrilling from start to finish. Xenosaga 1 knows how to make good use of its exorbitant cinematic budget. Xenosaga 2’s good for a while in the same field, too--the initial battle between Jin and Margulis is very well done, and the car chase early in the game is exciting. But eventually, as the series plot and events becomes too heavy and bloated to support itself, the FMVs start being more long than interesting, more over-the-top than actually exciting. The last cinema sequence of the series that I feel is really particularly good is Jin and Margulis’s confrontation in the second half of Xenosaga 2. From that point on, the FMVs are either just not very interesting, or are advancing a story and/or characters that no longer grip the audience. Even the videos in the latter part of the series that do seem kind of interesting to watch, such as the fights between KOS-MOS and T-elos or the scene in Xenosaga 2 where KOS-MOS awakens to save Shion, are riddled with stupid elements that ruin them (see my rants on Voyeuristic Paralysis Syndrome, Xenosaga 3’s finale, and space motorcycles). Xenosaga could have had memorable cutscenes throughout its entire course, if it had kept up the same quality as it started out with.
Let’s move on to the more important stuff, though. Xenosaga had great potential where it really counts--the plot, the themes, the characters.
Recall the pacing of Xenosaga 1. It was just as it should have been. We were introduced to important characters at a carefully measured pace, never too many too fast, and for the most part, the characters who had a special allotment of time stayed relevant enough, long enough that the amount of time and importance the narrative afforded them seemed well-spent. The details and lore of the story and universe developed at a brisk pace, but not so rapidly that we couldn’t keep up, and although these factors and ideas kept getting thrown at us steadily right through to the game’s end, it wasn’t a problem, because it was obviously the beginning chapter of a much larger series. It’s okay to keep adding right up till the end of the first part of your saga, it’s expected. It means you’re building extra material in to be dealt with later on.
But after Xenosaga 1...well, the pacing doesn’t slow down at all; it only keeps speeding up! Ideas and details and terms and characters of all kinds keep getting crammed in, too many too fast. You can no longer keep up comfortably with all the complications and plot threads building up, too many huge events are being resolved more quickly than they should while too many small plot arcs are given more focus and time than they’re due, and even as the games try to settle the matters that they were originally building up in the first game, they’re adding more complications. And, of course, it doesn’t help that an entire half a game’s worth of events are summed up in a “this is what happened” speech in the middle of Xenosaga 2, and then another full game’s worth of events are just entirely skipped over between Xenosaga 2 and 3, known only to you if you spend the time reading up on it in Xenosaga 3’s codex. Too slow, too fast, too much stuff thrown in all at once, huge important parts missing or related as a dry, dense monologue that breaks immersion...the only consistent thing about the pacing of Xenosaga 2 and 3 is that it’s just terrible. I’ve mentioned before that the biggest contributor to this was that a 6-part series was suddenly condensed into 3 games, and I’ve gone over the stupidity both of trying to do such a thing AND of expecting to have a guaranteed 6 games to tell your story in the first place, so I won’t go into this any further. Still, Xenosaga 1 shows that the narrative pace of the series could have been fine and easily followed, instead of frenzied and too full of nonsense.
Think about the characters of the series, and how they interacted with each other early on. When you look at the main cast of Xenosaga, you’ve got a genuinely interesting and diverse set of personalities being put together, one that commands enough interest to initially get you invested in them. Initially, MOMO is cute and friendly but not in a way that’s grating, KOS-MOS is cool and robotic but in a way that brings into question the possibility of a humanity hidden below, Jr. is fun and rambunctious, Ziggy is brooding and straightforward but not in a tedious way, Jin balances being a regular guy with some quirks and being a very private and intense person, chaos is secretive yet open and outgoing, and Shion...well, actually, Shion’s never particularly interesting. Still, she doesn’t start out being a psychotic, shrill, repugnant harpy, so you could say that even she was good, early on. I guess. I dunno. The other cast members could at least make up for her, at any rate.
Anyway, the thing is, the Xenosaga cast is one that...it’s hard to describe, really. My sister, whose insight and feedback contribute immeasurably to these rants and I should really mention and credit her more often, puts it best: they’re characters that you want to like, characters you want to see, know, and learn about. Obviously everyone has their own reactions and prejudices, but I have to say, I’ve interacted with a lot of gamers who have played at least the first Xenosaga title if not the whole series, and it’s funny, but I encounter almost no one who did not have at least a little enthusiastic interest in the cast at first. It may not have lasted--sure as hell didn’t for me--but I think that Xenosaga’s cast is special in that practically all of us start on the same page of an initial interest in KOS-MOS, chaos, Ziggy, MOMO, Jin, Jr., and Shion. And there’s some decent depth to them that could maintain that interest, if was properly developed and worked with.
Additionally, I think the way they interact with one another, the dynamics between the major cast members, are, for a time, pretty neat and enjoyable. I like the connection Ziggy and MOMO share. I like the way that Shion and Jin have trouble with meaningful communication. I like the deep bond between KOS-MOS and Shion, the implicit trust and emotional openness Shion has with KOS-MOS and the way she tries to determine just what sort of humanity KOS-MOS hides within herself, and I like the way that this seems to be, for a time, working its way into a romantic angle for them. I like the puppy dog romance of Jr. and MOMO. I like the way Ziggy and Jr. treat each other as respectable equals. For the first half of the series, possibly even a little longer, the Xenosaga team feels like a genuine collection of individuals brought together, their personalities bonding with and bouncing off one another. It feels a lot like several other games with really good, interesting casts that become close-knit as time goes on, like Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, or Tales of Legendia (although not nearly as good as the latter, mind).
Unfortunately, this potentially great aspect of Xenosaga, like so many others, does not last. The character development for some characters becomes too over-dramatic and confusing (not to mention, at times, incredibly stupid--particularly when it comes to Shion), becoming, as with so much else in the game, far too much nonsense stacked up at once. Said character development also becomes too much of a solo act, with the other cast members having little real influence or input while it’s happening. Eventually the relationships and interactions between the cast members are, almost universally, dictated by the plot--by and throughout Xenosaga 3, dialogue is almost entirely restricted to reactions to the plot and forwarding it; gone is that sense of a friendly, interesting team from earlier in the series. Some aspects of relationships are just destroyed completely to make way for more convenient, plot-friendly concepts, like the clear and obvious Shion x KOS-MOS love subplot being utterly supplanted by the terrible Shion x Allen one. And since the plot that’s now dictating their interactions and character development is such a ridiculous pile of nonsense that it actually makes the Star Wars prequels look almost not totally horribly incompetent by comparison, this drags the cast down with everything else. This is a set of characters that could have really been a special, memorable, and iconic cast, if they hadn’t had to stumble along to the breakneck pace of a ridiculously overblown, convoluted plot.
On a similar note, take the villains. Frankly, not a single villain in the whole trilogy is all that good, but a few of them at least had potential to be decent. Margulis, for example, is just this perpetually antagonistic, egotistical asshat that keeps being played up by the cinematics and narrative as someone more important than he actually ends up being. But if we’d gotten some time devoted to giving the guy some honest backstory, or a few scenes that better showed us and emphasized Margulis’s religious fanaticism, he could have been a lot more compelling. We’re told, not shown, that he’s a diehard fanatic, and the only other character traits assigned to him are a rivalry with Jin originating from a history between them that’s never properly delved into, and a propensity for grandiose, frustratingly vague scheming via speeches and monologues. And the latter quality doesn’t count, because pretty much all of the Xenosaga villains, and even plenty of the good guys, do that. With a little care, Margulis could have at least been a little noteworthy, but as is, he’s just a plot mouthpiece who really makes no impact.
Pellegri’s another one. Given her history with Jin and the terms under which they went their separate ways, she could have been a really compelling individual. But the games just never go into any real detail of her old feelings for Jin, never show us what things were like between them, never give enough emphasis to the way her blind adherence to Magulis’s crusade shut out the other things, good things, she had in life. We don’t see her appreciation of the things she had then, we don’t see her regret or conflict at losing them, we just don’t see anything REAL about Pellegri. She’s little more than a rag doll wearing a sign on her head reading, “JIN’S TRAGIC PAST,” existing solely as a foil for him and not even doing very well in that capacity.
Xenosaga could have made Margulis and Pellegri actual, interesting villains. It could have dialed Albedo’s insanity back enough to make him as sympathizable as the games want him to be, and made his brotherly love for Jr. schtick more believable and realistic--as it is, this main point of Albedo’s character depth comes off more as another piece of psychosis than anything legitimate. It could have revealed Wilhelm early enough and well enough that the guy could have better explained his position and the plots he masterminded. It could have given Yuriev the time and effort to develop the idea of his fear of U-DO and better examine how it relates to the human condition, and all sorts of good jazz; there was some real potential in there! It could have given us more recollections (and better ones, for that matter) of Kevin so as to properly show why Shion would have such conflicted feelings late in the last game, so he doesn’t seem like such a one-dimensional dick that we question how Shion can have any attachment to him. So many villains in the Xenosaga series could have been good, or at the very least decent, if they’d been used and developed well.
Let’s also contemplate some of the concepts of Xenosaga’s story. There are a lot of interesting ideas to the games, such as KOS-MOS being a robotic reincarnation of Mary Magdalen. Yeah, that’s bizarre, but I feel like it’s odd enough that they really could have made it interesting and neat if they’d handled it right. They could have used the scenario to explore the character of Mary, and allowed for the contrast between her and the growing personality of KOS-MOS to give them both more depth. But the KOS-MOS-is-Mary stuff is only shoved in at the end, so nothing much can be done with it (despite how overly complicated it winds up being), and Mary’s only used as an odd plot device, not as a character. KOS-MOS could just as easily have been a reincarnation of 1 of the 12 Apostles, or Adam, or Eve, or Lassie the Dog for all the difference it makes--there’s no actual connection to the character of Mary here, so anyone could have been used in her place. Anyone in history and/or theology could have completely and inexplicably been handed God’s keys to the universe, anyone could have been retconned to have Shion’s previous incarnation as their ambiguous BFF-maybe-lover-maybe-not, and absolutely nothing would be changed.
These concepts and scenes that really could have been something good are littered through the second and third Xenosaga titles. Shion’s suffering as the greatest of all the universe, for example. I love the idea overall, that when Shion witnessed her mother and father brutally murdered on the same night that her friend Feb died and all Hell broke loose in a terrifying military battle in her city, her pain was so great and unbearable that it tore the very fabric of reality and called forth the wayward lost souls of the universe’s despondent and rejected. That is compelling and epic stuff! And yet, so much of the plot of Xenosaga 3, particularly regarding Kevin, Shion’s personal conflict, and the themes of starting over or pushing through the seemingly inevitable destruction of the universe with the hope of a better tomorrow, all comes back to the pain of Shion, and the game just doesn’t know how to make use of that all-important plot point. The problem is that while we can believe that child Shion felt that pain, over the course of the games adult Shion, the one we’re familiar with, has never given the slightest inkling of someone still carrying torment that could tear the universe asunder. I mean, she’s not a bubbling mass of happiness or anything, but she never seems to be suffering particularly, either, for the entirety of Xenosaga 1 and 2, and even the first half of Xenosaga 3. She’s just a regular character. Hell, even when the final game’s suddenly realized it has to actually start showing that Shion has some issues since they’re suddenly the most important thing in the world, Shion’s introspections and interactions seem more listless and bratty, respectively, than they do like she’s seriously hurting. Come on, Namco...you want to base the major elements of your series’s plot around the painful baggage Shion’s carrying around, you need to show us that it’s there somehow. Batman carries his parents’ murder with him in everything he does and says, and we see it and we believe it. The Nameless One of Planescape: Torment carries the torment of his lost mortality with him in everything he sees and everyone he encounters, and we see it and believe it. But as awesome a concept as Shion’s pain breaking the universe is, it’s never shown until way too late to believe in it, and even that last-minute effort is mostly just a testament to Namco’s lack of understanding when it comes to the emotions and reasoning of human beings.
Another example, while I’m thinking about it--remember 1 of my very earliest rants, about the stupidity of the space motorcycle scene in Xenosaga 2? Of course you don’t; nobody actually read this thing back then (practically nobody does now either, heh). But in a smaller way, it’s another example of this. Like I said back then, the scene SHOULD actually be good--it’s KOS-MOS hearing Shion’s cry for help across the void of countless light years, and despite being turned off, despite not even being in working order, the need to protect Shion is so compelling to her that she awakens and rushes to the rescue. It’d be pretty inspiring...but then, the silliness of a space motorcycle hits you. It’s about as pathetic and obvious an attempt to seem cool as Poochie the Dog, except that Poochie is MEANT to be a ridiculous icon of parody.
The death of Pellegri is a bit similar to that--again, it’s a scene that should be really noteworthy, and it almost is. The music that plays, the concept of her simply having gone too far along a path that ended in failure, the fact that her death is painful for Jin...it’s done well, and provokes some sadness from the player. Yet, as I outlined in the rant about Xenosaga 3’s finale, this scene’s worth is overshadowed by its immense stupidity--Pellegri’s reasoning just doesn’t make sense, and it lessens her character depth considerably by forcing her into a throwaway villain niche. The quality of what’s happening in the death scene is overpowered by the stupidity of why it’s happening. Anyway, I’m digressing a bit too much. Whether because they weren’t utilized and developed properly, or were just poisoned by really dumb elements, a great many of the concepts and scenes of the Xenosaga series could have been quite great, both emotionally charged and thought-provoking, but in the end, very, very few managed to live up to their potential.
Examine the overall themes and intended meanings and messages of the Xenosaga series. There’s actually all sorts of great things that the games are meant to explore through their plot and characters, themes like the significance of the fear of God (represented through Voyager and, more so, Yuriev), like the idea of becoming greater than the sum of one’s parts through devotion to another (KOS-MOS and, in some tiny way, Allen), the idea of whether one can choose to go against the purpose of their existence and the consequences for doing so (shown through KOS-MOS, Canaan, Jr., Gaignun, the failures of Pellegri and Margulis, and many more), and of course, the concept of personal and divine will, how to live with it, how to use it, what it’s capable of and the forms in which it exists. Xenosaga takes many strong ideas for its plot that stem from real-life great works and minds of human culture, such as the Bible, the Torah, and most notably Friedrich Nietzsche (the full titles of the games are even named for his concepts). The seeds for greatness are definitely scattered throughout the series in its many underlying themes and ideas.
Of course, the problem is that those seeds just never have a chance to sprout into something more. Essentially all of the great themes are buried 6 feet deep underneath a tightly-compacted morass of over-complicated details, poorly written characters, bad pacing, grandiose and completely unnatural speeches and exposition, and military-grade insane nonsense, far too deep for the seeds of greatness to ever have a chance to break through to the surface without some serious digging on your part, narrative digging which is effort way beyond what an audience should be expected to put forth. Many of the great themes are simply too unexplored before the crisis point of the character they’re linked to--like Yuriev’s fear of God thing. It’s practically unmentioned until its major moment in the story is upon you, which lessens how much of an impact it can make, how much narrative importance that you can give it. Some discussions earlier in the game on the subject--REAL discussions, not incredibly vague, poorly-written hintings--would have gone a long way to giving the concept its narrative due, and the same is true for so many of the themes of Xenosaga.
And hell, it doesn’t even seem like Namco got a lot of the deeper concepts they borrowed from others like Nietzsche right--though I’ll let smarter people than I explore and explain that here and here.
But make no mistake: Xenosaga may have bitten off way, way more than it could chew and lacked the narrative skill to make proper use of its grand, intelligent messages and themes, but they were there, just nearly inaccessible through the mountains of chaotic foolishness. It’s like a brilliant philosopher with no tongue, no computer, and atrocious, illegible handwriting trying to share the incredible things within his mind. The Xenosaga series could have been fascinating and intellectually meaningful, even on par with the best that the Shin Megami Tensei series can offer, if only its writers had been able to effectively convey their ideas.
And that’s essentially all I have to say on the matter. I could probably keep going, but I think this covers pretty much all the bases. From the small matters to the greatest, Xenosaga had the potential to be a really great series. Great science fiction, great characters, great ideas, great themes, great execution. It could have been something absolutely incredible, it really could have, and that’s why, despite its incalculably numerous flaws, in spite of all the criticism I’ve heaped upon the series (particularly its final installment) in my rants, in spite even of the disgust and animosity that I do feel towards some of its truly vile aspects (Shion’s motivations in its finale still make me shake with loathing)...in spite of everything, the fundamental truth of the matter is, as I said before:
I don’t hate Xenosaga.
It may be less sensible than Final Fantasy 8. It may be more of a disappointment to itself than La Pucelle Tactics, and have just as hasty and ill-thought-out a love story for its protagonist. It may be as idiotically over-complicated as Chrono Cross. It may be almost as much a waste of a good cast as the Kingdom Hearts series’s decision to focus more on its own bland original villains than the Disney rogues available to it. It may be more confused about what it’s doing and how to get to its plot destination than Dragon Age 2, and have a finale almost as stupid and terrible. It may seem as groundlessly self-important as Final Fantasy 12. And it may have been as screwed up by its parent company’s time and budget constraints as Xenogears. But you know what? Xenosaga started out solid and good, and it carried the potential for greatness. If you dig, you at least find and recognize those seeds of quality that never germinated; you can’t say the same for most of the games I just named. And honestly, in spite of the massive incompetence at Monolith Soft and Namco and whoever else was involved in the creation of the series, I have to say, rarely does it feel like the writers weren’t trying, weren’t giving their ideas and desires for the story a sincere effort, and at no point does it feel like the writers didn’t honestly think that these ideas were worth conveying. Which again is not the case of several of the aforementioned titles.
So maybe I’m dissatisfied with the Xenosaga series. Maybe it makes me angry often, and maybe it disappoints me because it started off so well. Maybe it’s made poorly enough that it’s a very easy target for my derision. And maybe...maybe I don’t even actually like it. But I don’t hate Xenosaga, either. And I don’t resent it, and I don’t feel like it was a true waste of my time to play, not like many of the other RPGs I criticize here often. Xenosaga is a failure, but it failed trying to do something worthwhile, and I’ll always respect that too much to ever hate or fully dismiss the series.