The fact that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 exists and, moreover, has been treated as a distinctly high-profile title for Nintendo’s Switch platform is nothing short of remarkable.
The Xeno series as a whole has been around for quite some time now and has been fairly consistently well-received by those who have played its various installments. But it’s been a long road for it to achieve the mainstream levels of acceptance and awareness it now enjoys. And a pretty interesting story, to boot.
So, before we dive into the game proper over the course of the next month, let’s look back at what it means to be a Xeno game, and how we got to where we are now.
The Xeno series is the creation of Tetsuya Takahashi, who, prior to kicking the whole shebang off with Xenogears for PlayStation in 1998, had worked for both Nihon Falcom and Squaresoft. His most notable works prior to Xenogears were primarily on the visual side of things; they include the distinctive design of the Magitek Armour in the opening sequence of Final Fantasy VI, and the overall graphics direction on Chrono Trigger. Quite the pedigree, for sure.
During his time at Square, Takahashi met and married Kaori Tanaka, better known under the pseudonym Soraya Saga, and the pair would go on to work together on the Xeno series right up until the second episode of Xenosaga. Prior to that, Saga, like Takahashi, had worked on a number of Final Fantasy titles, with her most notable contribution to the series being the overall design and characterisation of Sabin and Edgar in Final Fantasy VI.
With the pair having both played important roles in the development of Square’s flagship series, it’s no surprise to learn that they both submitted a proposed script for Final Fantasy VII, the development of which began almost immediately after the release of VI in 1994. The script was rejected… kind of. While Square regarded Takahashi and Saga’s story as too dark and mature for the Final Fantasy series — an interesting development, considering how often the series has explored darker and more mature themes, really since VI onwards — they weren’t prevented from working on it as its own distinct project.
The couple initially flirted with the idea of adapting their story into a Chrono Trigger sequel — Chrono Cross didn’t begin development until after Xenogears’ release in 1998 — but subsequently chose to adapt it as its own original idea, without attempting to rely on anything else that came before, at least in terms of games. In terms of narrative, Takahashi and Saga cited their key influences as being the writings of Jung, Nietzsche and Freud, particularly the themes of our place in the world, our purpose here and what our future might hold.
Interestingly, despite what a cult classic Xenogears would go on to become, we nearly didn’t see it in the West. Squaresoft was initially hesitant to contemplate a localisation at all, citing the game’s heavy use of religious themes as grounds for it potentially not being well-received overseas. While this may seem strange today, given the number of Japanese role-playing games we’ve seen since that are rather on-the-nose about their criticism of organised religion — not least subsequent installments of the Xeno series — it’s important to remember that Nintendo’s dominance in the console gaming market throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s had, for better or worse, positioned video games as family-friendly entertainment or even children’s toys in the eyes of the general public.
While the PlayStation era had done a great deal to help establish gaming as something “cool” that people over the age of 12 engaged with, and popular Mature-rated PS1 games such as Resident Evil (1996), Alien Trilogy (1996) and Doom (1995) had certainly helped with this, Xenogears was proposing a different kind of “mature”. Rather than blood, violence and/or boobs, Xenogears’ narrative promised “maturity” in the sense that younger players simply would likely have difficulty grasping and understanding its core themes — and aside from that, there was the implied assumption that the more evangelical Christians in the States might have something of an issue with the idea of “killing God” at the game’s conclusion.
The localisation eventually went ahead, though it proved to be a troublesome and challenging project. It was significant for Square as a global organisation, however, as it represented the first time the English localisers at the company’s US branch Squaresoft had worked directly with the original staff. It wasn’t an easy ride at all, though, and many of the original localisation team either quit or requested reassignment due to how challenging the project was.
Eventually, it ended up in the hands of one Richard Honeywood, who would retrospectively describe working on it as “pure hell”, but would also end up as one of the most respected and influential people working on localisation. Indeed, the challenges Xenogears presented would prove to be very important in shaping Square’s overall company culture and strategy when it came to worldwide releases going forward; the fact that, say, Final Fantasy XIV’s localisation teams work closely with the Japanese developers can likely be traced back to Honeywood’s experiences on Xenogears.
“As a translator, I wanted to respect the game’s creators and keep the content as close as possible to the original,” explained Honeywood in an interview with Final Fantasy Compendium in 2004. “Even the non-controversial parts were hard to translate — all those scientific concepts and philosophies. I look back and wonder how we ever finished it. I guess my naivety at the time was a blessing in disguise. If I knew then what I know now, it would have been a totally different game.”
Xenogears set the mould for what we would subsequently come to know as the Xeno series, combining elements of fantasy, sci-fi, religious themes (particularly those from Abrahamic belief systems such as Christianity) and philosophy to produce something very distinct from Square’s other work. While Takahashi would subsequently describe the Xeno- prefix on the games of the series as something of a “director’s signature” more than anything, its literal meaning as something strange or foreign to a group is also relevant.
In the case of the first game, it is relevant in a number of ways. Firstly, there’s the distinction between man and machine, which is explored both thematically over the course of the narrative as a whole, and mechanically through the markedly different way in which the game plays according to whether you are on foot or in one of the giant bipedal robot suits known as “Gears”.
Perhaps even more importantly, it’s relevant to the game’s main protagonist Fei Fong Wong, who was adopted into the village of Lahan as an outsider, and subsequently ends up accidentally destroying it with a Gear while attempting to defend it from an enemy invasion. As the story progresses, we discover that the various aspects of Fei’s personality are markedly distinct from one another, with the most dangerous being a violent persona known as “Id” after the Freudian concept. Id is initially presented as a completely separate existence to Fei — something strange or foreign, remember — before later being revealed as his split personality.
But I digress; to explore Xenogears’ narrative in its entirety is somewhat beyond the scope of today’s rundown of the series’ history.
Despite Squaresoft’s misgivings about localising the game, it went on to do well in both Japan and North America, enjoying both critical acclaim and commercial success. As of March 2003, the game had shipped 1.19 million copies worldwide. The majority of these were in Japan, but it achieved sales of 280,000 abroad — very respectable for a somewhat niche-interest game of that era, particularly considering its localised version didn’t come out in Europe, a fact which, as a Brit, I’m not at all bitter about, no sir. Since that time, it went on to be rereleased as a Greatest Hits title, as well as a digital download for PlayStation 3 consoles in both Japan and North America. Still no love for Europe, though.
Xenogears was actually designed in the context of a much larger narrative that spanned several millenia; out of the proposed six episodes in total, it was effectively “episode five”. The remainder of the backstory and plot can be found in the Japanese-only book Xenogears Perfect Works. A direct game sequel (or prequel) was never developed, however; although the game performed well for Square both domestically and abroad, the company subsequently decided to focus the majority of its efforts on its flagship Final Fantasy series rather than more inherently risky prospects. Takahashi disagreed with the direction the ship appeared to be sailing and subsequently decided to leave the company to form Monolith Soft alongside around 20 of the other Xenogears developers in 1999.
Takahashi knew that mistakes had been made during Xenogears’ development, most notably the game’s notorious second disc, where there is markedly less gameplay and the majority of the story is delivered via narration from lead characters Fei and Elly. Although this was assumed by many to be the result of budgetary constraints, Takahashi subsequently revealed in conversation with Kotaku that the explanation was much simpler; the development team of 30 people was, on the whole, inexperienced in projects of this magnitude, and was unable to complete the actual “game” side of things in the two-year development period. Rather than leaving the game unfinished at the end of the first disc, they instead chose to compromise by telling the rest of the story primarily through hands-off narrative sequences, with a few interactive components at key moments.
With the lessons learned from Xenogears in mind, Monolith Soft was formed with the intention of continuing to develop the concepts of Xenogears. Working as a more independent entity would doubtless allow the team more creative freedom than being under the Square umbrella, but there was still a need for funding.
Enter Namco, who provided funding for Takahashi and Saga’s new endeavour, initially dubbed Project X. Once again planned as an ambitious six-part series, what would eventually become Xenosaga began development in 2000, with a team over double the size of that who worked on Xenogears.
Although not related directly to Xenogears, Xenosaga was obviously a spiritual successor. The games once again explored a number of philosophical and religious themes, and indeed went so far as to subtitle each of the eventual three episodes in German after a number of Nietzsche’s works. More explicitly sci-fi than Xenogears, Xenosaga once again incorporated an ambitious blend of giant robots, Biblical mythology and influences from both Jung and Nietzsche. The games are particularly fondly remembered for KOS-MOS, an android character designed by Takahashi to reflect an inversion of how we normally depict humans.
“We tend to depict human characters as a strong will in a fragile flesh and blood,” explained Saga in conversation with Siliconera in 2010. “So we wanted KOS-MOS to be a complement to it by being the delicate pieces of soul in an unbreakable vessel.”
The series initially proved popular, with its first installment enjoying strong week-one sales both domestically and internationally — though again, Europe somehow managed to miss out on all but the middle episode — and putting Monolith Soft well and truly on the map, both for the public and for Namco, the latter of whom would come to regard the team as on a similar level to its own Namco Tales Studio Ltd. (formerly known as Wolf Team prior to Namco becoming its majority shareholder in 2003).
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go so well with the second Xenosaga episode. Takahashi stepped down as director in order to allow a team of younger developers to work on the series, with him continuing to act in a supervisory capacity; Saga, meanwhile, remained on scenario duty, but would find herself laid off after the game’s release. The new developers decided to take on board player feedback and place a greater emphasis on gameplay than story this time around, but as it transpired, this did not appear to be a popular decision. The second game underperformed commercially, achieving only just over half of Namco’s sales target despite being the only installment to release worldwide rather than just in Japan and the US. Despite this, it was still received well by critics.
Episode III would prove to be the final installment in the series rather than it continuing for its originally proposed six-episode run. Saga, looking back, attributed this to the “unexpected gap that was generated in Episode II” and the fact that the “subsequent plot had to shift its course to some extent from where it was supposed to be; there were many changes, but what’s done cannot be undone”. In other words, with the mediocre sales of the second installment, it was do-or-die time for the series.
Episode III would go on to again be well-received by critics but perform poorly in sales, having the dubious honour of the poorest debut figures in the series. It was regarded as a solid conclusion to the series, but the overall underperformance of Xenosaga had caused morale at Monolith Soft to drop considerably, and the newly formed Bandai Namco seemingly being rather more risk-averse than the Namco of old didn’t help, either.
The team sought advice from Shinji Hatano, an executive director at Nintendo; his advice was for them to continue developing innovative projects despite Bandai Namco’s apparently growing reluctance for them, and this proved to be a turning point for the company as a whole. Deciding to break away from their prior publisher and benefactor, Monolith Soft opted to become a Nintendo subsidiary, being provided with considerably more creative freedom in exchange for Nintendo exclusivity.
The first fruits of this newfound partnership saw the team set aside the Xeno series for a while, releasing Soma Bringer for the DS and Disaster: Day of Crisis for the Wii. During the development of the latter, Takahashi was finally struck with inspiration once again; this time, the more abstract premise of creating a game whose setting was the bodies of two frozen gods; eventually this became fleshed out as the distinction between the lush landscapes and human population of the Bionis, and the mechanical inhabitants and drab landscape of the Mechonis.
Given the go-ahead to begin development of what would eventually become Xenoblade Chronicles in 2007, the project was intended as both an attempt to restore morale after Xenosaga’s failure, and to experiment with a new balance between story and game. Takahashi acknowledged that there was a need to balance what he described as the “X-axis of the gameplay” with the “Y-axis of the story”; speaking with the late Nintendo president and CEO Satoru Iwata shortly prior to Xenoblade Chronicles’ 3DS port, he admitted that he felt one had begun “overtaking” the other in many JRPGs — including his own — since the SNES era.
“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,” he said. “We released three games in the Xenosaga series, but they weren’t very well received. It was really mortifying. All of the young team members felt that way, not just the leaders. So we all decided, ‘next time we need to make a game that players will enjoy’. So that made the atmosphere during the Xenoblade Chronicles development very different compared to other games.”
“Sometimes experiencing adversity like that can turn into a step up to success,” said Iwata in response. He cited an example of something similar happening at Nintendo with the evolution of the Animal Crossing series; he acknowledged that the Wii installment wasn’t as well-received as DS title Wild World, and noted that the team involved, rather than getting discouraged, used what they learned to make the 3DS version New Leaf a big success. He also noted that one of the team members involved went on to make Splatoon, which became one of Nintendo’s biggest success stories in recent years.
“In a way,” added Iwata, with his characteristic positive outlook, “when it came to making Xenoblade Chronicles, it actually turned out to be a great source of strength that the development team had faced problems with the previous three Xenosaga games.”
As it happens, Iwata is actually the reason Xenoblade Chronicles didn’t release under its original title Monado: The Beginning of the World, and instead formed part of the Xeno series. “We decided to call it Xenoblade to honour Mr. Tetsuya Takahashi, who poured his soul into making this,” explained Iwata when officially announcing the game, as reported by Wired in 2010.
One of the things Takahashi and his team kept in mind while developing Xenoblade Chronicles, besides that all-important balance between “X-axis” and “Y-axis”, was the concept of working within deliberate constraints rather than simply sprawling in every direction — something which Takahashi had, by this point, learned on two previous occasions was often a sure-fire route to getting overambitious and potential disaster.
“With an animated feature, there are time restrictions, and you have to create a drama that will fit within those designated limits,” Xenoblade Chronicles scenario writer Yuichiro Takeda explained to Iwata in a separate Iwata Asks interview closer to the original Wii release of the game. “[In games,] there are very particular issues that come into play due to the fact that the player is controlling the action himself.
“For instance,” he continued, “when working on the scenario for Xenoblade Chronicles, I considered the idea of having one of the hero’s allies, who had always stood beside him, becoming the enemy you face at the end. But when I floated this idea to Takahashi-san, he thought that it would be pretty galling in a game if an ally that you had been through all sorts of adventures with, and constantly worked on building up their experience, ended up leaving your party and becoming your enemy. It might be easy to make that kind of plot development work in an animated series, but video games present a range of difficulties due to their interactive element.
“No matter which medium you are working in,” he concluded, “there will be particular restrictions inherent in that medium. By thinking of this in terms of being bound to the medium by certain conventions rather than being hampered by limitations, I was able to enjoy creating the scenario for this title.”
Indeed, Xenoblade Chronicles presented a markedly different approach to Japanese role-playing games than we’d ever seen before; while it still had a linear main scenario to follow, in between it featured the sort of open world that Western developers had been starting to experiment with, and with it came the opportunity for both emergent narrative through gameplay as well as the sense of “living” in a virtual world, rather than simply proceeding from cutscene to cutscene.
“When I actually came to play the game,” said Takeda, “I’d see all these elements that had grown out of the main story, things that hadn’t been in the scenario, such as the overall atmosphere, the villagers’ appearance and so on. I felt like I’d written a huge volume of material, but it actually only amounts to one section of this vast world. I found that really overwhelming.”
“I wanted to make it so that even if you went to the far edge of the map, you wouldn’t find it empty,” added Takahashi. “I wanted to ensure that wherever you went, there would be something there waiting for you, be it something you’d been seeking, a quest or a fearsome monster. In certain places, I also wanted to have secluded spots where players would think ‘wow, there are beautiful areas like this here in this world!'”
This attitude persisted in the subsequent installments in the Xenoblade subseries, particularly the somewhat divisive Wii U follow-up Xenoblade Chronicles X, which deliberately tilted things slightly more heavily in favour of — appropriately enough — Takahashi’s “X-axis of gameplay”. Rather than being nudged through an epic quest that eventually took you around the whole world as in the first Xenoblade, X instead presented you with a much more open setup: you and your comrades had crash-landed on an alien world, and it was up to you to explore it. Exactly how you went about that was up to you; while there was a main scenario to follow that was explicitly signposted as such, in many ways it was the least important part of the experience — a fact which led some fans of the original game to perceive it as a “worse” game, when in fact it was just very different, both in tone and structure.
Xenoblade Chronicles X was a game that truly gave the feeling of exploring and learning to survive on a strange new world. The sharp contrast between the urban environment of your converted crashed spaceship and the disparate natural locales outside the safety of the “city” walls really gave a feel of setting forth into the unknown, and the combination of standard RPG elements such as levelling up and learning new skills with more dramatic unlockable elements such as the bipedal robot “Skells” (a deliberate callback to Xenogears) helped you feel like you were growing in confidence as well as capability as you spent more time on planet Mira. It’s also perhaps one of the best examples of that original core theme of Xeno to mean “strange” or “foreign” — you can’t get more foreign than not being a native inhabitant of a planet!
Ultimately Xenoblade Chronicles X, as the company’s first true high-definition game, allowed Monolith Soft to refine its skills on the modern platforms of the day, and the game’s focus on mechanics and exploration rather than explicit narrative allowed them to decide what worked well and what needed to be rethought for future titles. The game provided a solid base architecture for subsequent titles, and as such development for Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on Switch was able to proceed at a much faster rate than previous installments in the series.
And so we arrive at the latest game in the series at the time of writing; much like Xenosaga alternated between being story-centric and mechanics-centric with its three installments, so too has Xenoblade returned to emphasising the narrative side of things with its third title.
That’s not to say it neglects the mechanical side of things, mind you; in many ways, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 represents the best balance of Takahashi’s two “axes” to date, with both a strong narrative and a compelling array of systems to explore and discover.
But those are both things to explore in more detail another time…
More about Xenoblade Chronicles 2
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