In defense of Xenogears

This is a column by Jason Schreier dedicated to the analysis (and occasional mocking) of his favorite genre, the Japanese role-playing game. Whether it's because they're too antiquated or just too niche, he believes JRPGs don't get enough attention in the gaming industry today. It's time to change that.

When it comes to grandiose adventures, there are few games like Xenogears. Few games' stories are as stirring, as twisty, as poignant. Few games' characters are as bizarre and entrancing.

But fans have skewered the sci-fi masterpiece for its second disc, a potpourri of cutscenes and monologues that may have been the consequence of rushed development. While the game's first 50 hours gave you access to a world map filled with towns, dungeons, and secrets, Xenogears' final act was more book than game, unfolding like a visual novel with very little player interaction outside of the final dungeon and a few boss fights.

Gamers took umbrage at this sudden shift in pace. As one GameFAQs reader points out, "Xenogears would have been great... if it had been finished."

Which is too bad, because I loved every minute of it.

I have a lot of conversations with people who don't like JRPGs. When I ask them what they don't find appealing about the genre, the answer is usually something along the lines of "monotony."

This is a fair point. JRPGs can indeed be monotonous, and it can be tough to connect to a story's characters and situations while following the town/dungeon/rinse/repeat formula. Some people have fallen in love with that routine over the years, but it's not for everybody.

The second half of Xenogears twists that trope. After a long, sprawling journey that takes you and your party through towns, dungeons, turn-based combat and all that other stuff you've seen before, the game suddenly shifts Gears and turns into story-story-story.

Some found this disjointing; I found it refreshing. After 50-something hours of the JRPG formula, it was nice to change things up a bit. Don't get me wrong: Even when it's at its most formulaic, Xenogears is an excellent game. Its towns are chock full of personality and its combat system is a blast to play around with.

But I can only take so much adventuring before I start to get worn out. By the time I swapped discs in my PlayStation, I was just as exhausted as protagonist Fei and his ragtag party. I was invested in the story and I really wanted to see how the twists and turns would play out, but I'd been raiding dungeons for a very long time. I almost called it quits.

Then I inserted the second disc, watched Fei and his compatriots start jabbering, and proceeded to experience something different entirely -- a series of scenes that skipped all the gameplay in favor of talking heads and pictures. It was energizing, a much-needed triple espresso shot just when I was about to doze off and stop playing.

I get why people have ripped these segments apart. It's a tease to show us dungeons and events without letting us explore and play through them. But for me, the change of pace was more than welcome.

Maybe Xenogears was rushed. Maybe budget restrictions and time constraints led to some cuts and omissions. (In fact, intrepid fans have dug deep into the game's code and found all sorts of cool stuff that was left out of the final product.)

But the game is still stellar, an experiment in divergent game design that still managed to convey one hell of a story. In a genre with a reputation for stagnancy and monotony, I think the sudden shift and rapid-fire pacing of Xenogears' final act is more than welcome.

Jason Schreier is a freelance writer/editor based out of NYC. He's a contributing writer for and occasionally writes for a number of other sites and publications, including Edge Magazine, the Onion News Network and G4TV. You can follow him on Twitter at @jasonschreier.