Review by sfou
In two words: Freakin'. Cool.
So, what's the true essence of a good RPG? The immersing storyline? The interesting gameplay? The *giggle-giggle* graphics? The soundtrack?
Let's be honest with ourselves: without all of these things (and more), an RPG is nothing. Very few games in history have achieved a good balance between all these elements. Can anyone count the times they reached halfway through a seemingly very good game, only to get to the famous "second half", where the presence of most party members in your team becomes optional and thus removes them from most cutscenes? This famous "second half" when you finally understand the villain's true intentions and suddenly realize most of the storyline is exactly like this other RPG you just played?
Now I'm not saying every RPG is like this... but since these games, nowadays, are so inclined on storytelling, as opposed to old school RPG's in which kickin' butt was the most of the fun, it's sad that budget cuts and sloppy production bring very good games down about halfway (think Final Fantasy VIII, the most obvious display of this).
Enter Xenogears, the new masterpiece from (pre-Enix, thank god) Square. Alongside the Final Fantasy legacy, preceded by great works such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII, there is much to expect, and the game itself seems quite bland when looked at from outside. Mechs and martial arts... what an odd mix. You pop the disk in, watch a stunning opening sequence (hey, she's naked?! what a miracle this game didn't get censored!), then read a short prelude to the story... Then you're done for. The game has you now, you can't help it. Forget Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger; now, you're playing Xenogears.
Did you ever watch a REALLY good anime? Or read a very good book? One with a controversial standpoint that questions the very basis of human philosophy? One that literally made you grow up and see things differently? Well, Xenogears does that, and far better than what you could expect from a video game. Why, it even seems to question our own non-fantasy world... but I won't spoil the story.
So, here's the real review. And, believe it or not, it's unbiaised.
Alright, you pop the disk in, and as soon as the climatic opening is over, you get confused as you watch distorted... sprites? running across a red and black pixelated background. Graphics really aren't Xenogear's greatest asset. Don't worry, you'll soon get used to them; but, however simple and great the mix between sprites and 3D environments is, it wasn't quite perfectly achieved in Xenogears. However, these graphics are very effective, gameplay-wise (I'll get back to that later). They're also very handy when it comes to cinematics, what with varying camera angles and all.
Those were the field graphics. The battle graphics are another story. They still are based on the sprite-on-3D concept, except they are far more detailed and active. Remember those beatiful monster sprites from SNES Final Fantasies? Well, they have 'em in Xenogears, except they're in fully active motion. Wow. The gear-sized battles also look pretty good, with their enhanced menu that mimicks the mech's cockpit. Now, on to the gameplay.
Field-wise, the gameplay is good enough. You can walk and run, you can jump up to places and even on people's heads *giggle-giggle*. Since the environments are fully rotatable, you can explore hidden passages and experience multi-leveled dungeons that pre-rendered backgrounds don't usually allow. Some little flaws mark this system, however. When a random battle is loading, you can't jump, which will sometimes have you fall down and fail an awkward jump. Also, some doors are hard to open, and you'll have to push the button several times, in different angles, to get through. But these glitches are quite minor, compared to the overall quality of the game.
Menu-wise, the system is effective enough. The only thing that annoyed me was the absence of a "sort" command for items. Also, equipment items aren't shown in the same menu than regular items, which is sometimes confusing for figuring out whether this thing called "Sonic Wave" is a weapon or an item.
The battle and ability system is quite innovative and refreshing. Attacks are initiated by pressing controller buttons which are assigned to weak, strong or fierce attacks. By pressing certain combinations, you can learn 'Deathblows', which are very powerful techniques. By attacking less, you can conserve the action points you are given every turn to later unleash a combo of these 'Deathblows'. Combos such as these are very useful against enemies who constantly heal themselves and who thus need to be taken down in one or two turns. There are also simple spells, which expend MP and serve various purposes such as healing yourself or inducing elemental (and thus tactical) damage to enemies.
Every character has unique spells and abilities, which will rejoice those who disliked the Materia or Junction systems which removed the tactical importance of choosing party members. In Xenogears, your strategy will change according to which characters you're using; will you use a fast but weak character with offensive elemental spells, or a physical powerhouse with attribute-adjusting spells, or a worthless weakling with an extremely powerful Gear? Oh right, the Gears!
Xenogears has a second battle system in which you fight using Gears, your characters' personal and unique fighting mechs. The Gear fights work about the same way as the normal fights, except Deathblows aren't dealt in the same way. Instead of being free to use every turn, the Deathblows need to be built up and prepared by attacking normally for a few turns. There's also the fuel, which you need to carefully manage in order to stay in the fight until the end. Fuel can't be refille outside of towns or shops, and if you keep using your most powerful Gear moves, you'll run out of fuel during the next boss fight. The downside to the Gear system is that the Gear's stats are entirely dependent on its equipment. In other words, unless you reequip your Gear, it'll stay weak even if you fight a gazillion battles in it.
-SOUND & MUSIC 9/10
Everything's perfect in this department. The music is incredible and sounds as if it was played by a real orchestra, unlike in most RPG's synthesized soundtracks. Oh, and Grahf has the most kickass villain track ever. It even beats Kuja's... and it hurts to say so! As for the sound effects, they're all pretty impressive, especially during Gear fights. Characters and monsters actually have voices that change depending on the moves you use. The only thing that keeps the sound from getting a 10/10 is the horrible dubbing Square did for the anime sequences. Luckily, these are sparse.
I covered this point already in the intro. The story of Xenogears is extremely complex and enthralling, and every single character (yes, even Chu-Chu) has good depth and is likable. The relationships between some characters (such as Fei and Elly) are much deeper than what you've ever seen in an RPG, or in anything for that matter. Oh, and did I mention how philosophically disturbing the plot is? However, the plot is not for everyone. People who have very strict moral etiquette might be offended by its content. Also, it's very complex, so if you just feel like playing a good kickass RPG without getting too much brain damage, Xenogears isn't a game for you. But, heck, if you're not happy, just don't play it...
-Deep and enthralling story that'll keep you interested until the very end
-Innovative, simple gameplay that allows strategical planning
-Very good soundtrack
-Chu-Chu grows huge and kicks a robot's ass
-Complex and controversial story that'll offend or bore some players
-Annoying field glitches
-Limited character customization
Now, get off of your butt and go buy your copy of Xenogears... if you can still find one. You won't regret it.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
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