Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse

One of the benefits of writing about obscure video games is that I get to enter these games with a clean slate. By that, I mean that with a lot of big name games people know about, there’s a strong chance the game’s reputation will precede the game itself. This was certainly the case Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Without even knowing anything about the game (or the larger series around it), I already had some idea of the narrative the fandom invented around it: the first Episode I was a work of artistic genius that Episode II bungled, only for Episode III to redeem the series’ potential with an outstanding conclusion. It’s a tidy little narrative, but one that requires further interrogation. After all, not only did my personal experiences with the game not line up with this narrative, but they ran directly against it. What I found wasn’t an artistically compromised game, but one that was strong enough to stand face to face with its predecessor.

Why was Episode II maligned in the first place, though? The obvious answer (or at least the first answer I thought of) was marketability. From the beginning, Xenosaga projected an auteur ethos to the public: its creators envisioned the series as a grand space epic spanning six colossal titles. So when news came that the game’s publisher demanded certain changes to the project, it was easy to explain whatever faults Xenosaga II had as the result of corporate interference. Although there’s some legitimacy to that explanation (that I’ll detail shortly), it’s still lazy thinking that doesn’t hold up to greater scrutiny. Framing Xenosaga like this assumes a clichéd tension between moneyed interests and artistic expression, one that wouldn’t make sense when applied to a major JRPG franchise from one of Japan’s most prominent video game publishers. But to keep the discussion grounded in what Xenosaga II actually does, many of the changes honestly make it a stronger experience. The art style looks better, for one. At least when it’s working with its own redesigns, the characters look more flexible and natural than the stiff plastic dolls that perambulated throughout the previous game. And as I’ll explain much later on, the battle system benefits greatly from the changes made between this game and its predecessor.

gsdx_20151229163638In actuality, the game’s problems have more to do with prioritizing plot over theme, rather than any marketability issues. The first Xenosaga was a very high minded game with complex questions on its mind, yet what made it impressive was its implicit guarantee to the player that those questions had a worthwhile answer. The game might not have given the player those answers directly (the questions were too big for a simple solution like that), but it promised them that there were answers. Xenosaga II, on the other hand, either refuses to acknowledge those answers or has given up looking for them altogether. It signals as much in the story’s beginning moments: our view of the world is a chaotic one. A desperate Miltian government is struggling to contain the war and terrorism that threatens to overpower this futuristic city. Our heroes are initially free from this suffering, but only because they take to the skies and fly above all the world’s worries. It’s as though they’ve risen above a sinful earth that has long since wasted its chance at redemption.

Yet it’s not just the beginning that has to deal with this new focus. Unsurprisingly, that focus structures a lot of the story to follow. Much like the previous installment, Xenosaga II sees Shion Uzuki and company navigating a series of plots and conspiracies the universe sees fit to lay out before them, like the Y-Data, the Immigrant Fleet, the U-TIC Organization, the Testaments, etc. That’s where the similarities end, though, because Xenosaga II takes heavy influence from Kojima’s work (Zone of the Enders especially) to employ a more horizontal method of storytelling than its predecessor. By that, I mean that while the narrative is absolutely dense with detail and plot, it doesn’t appear to use any of those details to signify greater ideas. For as much as our understanding of the world (its history, the various factions vying for power over it) improves because of them, those details are understood as worth striving for on their own. Maybe they are, but this set-up must have been frustrating to fans of the first game, given how much it sidesteps a lot of the questions it posed. At best, it must have felt like Xenosaga I’s desire to find meaning and purpose had been corrupted into a singular focus on conspiracy as its own end.

Which isn’t to say that Xenosaga II doesn’t have its own reasons for doing presenting itself this way; just that those reasons are spotty, in practice. Looking at what the game has improved on, we see a lot of lush, vibrant environments that Xenosaga I wasn’t as interested in rendering. The world the game presents feels like one people could live in, not only because you see people actually living their lives in this world, but also because the world itself is designed to be more inviting. It’s defined by features like open spaces, lush greenery, and bustling activity, each of them asking you to walk through these places and take in all the gorgeous scenes. The Yuriev Institute is particularly skilled at rendering a world that feels inhabited. In any case, it’s all a marked departure from the cold isolation that dominated the previous game.

gsdx_20151229191300And looking at what Xenosaga II botched, there’s the Global Samaritan Campaign (GS Campaign for short). To its credit, though, this series of sidequests has a narrative justification that the Segment Addresses always lacked. Unfortunately, the problem is that narrative justification. Early in the game, you’re selected as a sort of government agent whose job is to collect data on people by doing good deeds for them. Ignoring the obvious logical problems this program presents (like what “global” is supposed to mean in a galactic context), the biggest problem with the GS Campaign is just how cynical it is. Its purported goal is to encourage you to see the world’s citizens as actual people, but by gamifying random acts of kindness, the game has ensured that will never happen. You’re not going to see them as people you should be interested in for their own sake, but as little more than tools to help you get the latest toy. And all the while, the framing device that is the GS Campaign is there to tell you you’re a benevolent person for taking time out of your busy day to help these people with their problems. This isn’t even detailing how odd a lot of the campaigns are. Examples include:

These scenarios may present you with interesting gameplay challenges, but given how much they clash with the rest of the game’s tone, their presence only detracts from the quality as a whole.

Still, for as much as Xenosaga II appears to stray from its predecessor’s focus, I feel like it’s a misnomer to say it completely abandons the Xenosaga ethos. If anything, the game is just developing that ethos in newer directions. That much is clear in how much the cinematic techniques have evolved: Xenosaga I was already notable for its strong cinematic direction, so its sequel is able to refine that through a greater fascination with color and set pieces and camera techniques. However, the game’s strengths shine brightest in the psychological angle the story takes. It’s also no coincidence that this is where Xenosaga II finally justifies its unique approach: by moving away from grand questions about man’s place in the cosmos, the game is better equipped to comment on more particular questions like, “What is humanity’s nature at the psychological level?”

The results are well worth the effort, as the game thoroughly explores these questions in every facet of its narrative. MOMO, for example, has to navigate a tension between understanding herself as both her own unique being and as an object through which those around her can fulfill their own desires. Meanwhile, Jr. has to deal with his own psychological issues regarding Albedo, all of which go back to the curse of individuality and the pain that comes with living a mortal life. Both of these arcs come through most strongly during the Subconscious Domain sections of the story (which form a significant chunk of the plot), but by no means do the game’s questions end at those sections or even at those arcs. They manifest all throughout the game. You see when it while exploring the Ormus Stronghold, making your way toward its center until you encounter a woman who locks herself within its deepest depths to seal herself away from the world’s wretched sin. You see it when exploring Old Militia, dusting away its literal cobwebs to unveil the deep truths humanity has hidden from itself for so long. You can even see it in the way the story is structured: the heroes continually dive through layers of consciousness to get to the heart of things, just like the first game saw them aimlessly wandering the universe in search of meaning.

gsdx_20160106122923It’s how these themes manifest during the battles that I’m most interested in. To be perfectly honest, the battle system is basically the same as it was from the last game (I recommend reading the review I linked earlier), just with minor modifications. Characters can change position to gain a tactical advantage, for example, and combat puts a greater emphasis on striking an enemy’s zones in a certain way to exploit their weaknesses. These changes all have one thing in common, and it’s something that works well with what the rest of the game is doing: a stronger emphasis on teamwork. Consider the boost system and how it interacts with enemy zones. You needlessly limit what your characters are capable of by using only their individual attacks, forcing you to link them together through boosts. But that alone doesn’t guarantee victory; the system is designed to weed out mistakes. The best way to win these battles is through conscious teamwork that’s aware of each character’s abilities.

Yet even those individual abilities are incorporated into this line of thought. As much as a character can achieve using their own spells and attacks, there are still some things that are impossible to do without other people. Important things, too, like powerful healing spells (more powerful than any one character can learn) and incredibly useful techniques. The message the game sends through all this is clear: one cannot realize their full potential on their own; they must reach out to those around them if they hope to realize that potential. Obviously, it’s a message that resonates incredibly well with the humanistic focus the game already promotes in other areas. This is especially true for the Subconscious Domain portion of Xenosaga II, where MOMO’s damaged psyche can only be repaired through the aid of her friends (Jr. and Shion especially). The progression system also does something similar, using a clever planetary metaphor to link the characters’ personal growth to something universal.

So it’s unfair to devalue the game for not holding to its predecessor’s vision, although I can understand why people would be upset over that. Given how much it modeled itself after games like Metal Gear Solid and Zone of the Enders, it looked like Xenosaga had given up its unique identity in favor of playing follow the leader. But that’s far from what actually happened. Approaching the game on its own terms, it’s clear that it both had good reason to deviate from the previous game and the ability to realize its new vision. And really, that’s how we should approach video games: accepting them for what they are, warts and all.

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