Review by Genjuro Kibagami

Reviewed: 03/21/07

Une Année Sans Lumière

Apt martial artist and painter Fei Fong Wong lives a picturesque life in the village of Lahan. Abandoned years ago and suffering from amnesia, Fei was graciously accepted by the local culture and lives among them as one of their own. On the eve of Fei’s best friends Timothy and Alice’s wedding, he is sent into the mountains to see the unusually well-informed Dr. Citan Uzuki. But before leaving, we’re treated to a touching scene where we find out Alice is actually in love with Fei but can’t follow her heart due to local customs. But upon returning, he finds the village torn asunder by a squad of Gears, gigantic bipedal robots piloted by humans. Finding a lone unmanned Gear, he boards the craft in attempt to save his village but is overcome by the image of a swinging emerald green crucifix with a glimmering ruby affixed in the center. A hellish wave of energy blasts from Fei’s Gear vaporizing everything it touches. In a fully hand drawn anime scene, we see Alice’s final moments as she sheds a single tear before dissolving to nothingness.

This is all roughly in the first hour of Xenogears. From there game director Tetsuya Takahashi produces roughly another 49 hours filled with emotionally charged sequences, out of this world plot twists, and even philosophy. What makes Xenogears awesome is Takahashi takes your average RPG story elements and amplifies them to ridiculous, overwhelming, but mostly awe-inspiring levels.

Xenogears revels in its extravagance and massive plot. Fei eventually encounters a young female military office of Solaris, a xenophobic and fascist empire from the skies, named Elly. The two become close yet later find themselves as enemies after Fei and Citan join up with a band of sand pirates led by Bart, a whip-totting youth struggling to reclaim his usurped kingdom. Elly harbors a deep dread of combat and an unwillingness to harm others, but she faced with a dilemma similar to that of Arjuna’s discussion with Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. She must still do her duty to Solaris in spite of her feelings for Fei and thus administers DRIVE, a psychotropic drug, into her blood stream to unleash her bloodlust and strange inner powers. The fact is this entire conflict is a just a footnote in the entire saga, and even then it leads to an incredible revelation. When all these plot threads interweave they form one gigantic, satisfying experience.

The level of emotion seen in the game’s characters is just moving. After leaving Lahan as an outcast, Fei wanders into a nearby forest blaming himself for killing his loved ones. At the zenith of his self-loathing, Fei is surprised by Elly, who quickly brandishes a gun and tells him not to move. He then begs Elly to hurry up and end his miserable life. At another point we see a dilemma in Rico, a behemoth demi-human. Rico has lived in the same city for his entire life. He’s always hated where he lives – a slum filled with bigots that view Rico as a pariah. When Solaris threatens the sprawling city Rico calls home, Fei grudgingly boards his gear Weltall, the same that destroyed his home, and asks for Rico’s help. At first Rico refuses remembering all the pain and aguish of his past, but as he sees the place he grew up engulfed in flames, Rico decides he needs to save it. He may not like his home but it’s his home, which we can all relate to. Probably the most endearing is the suave pirate Bart’s friendship with Fei. We learn that Bart doesn’t actually have any friends. Initially Bart respects Fei for his power, but throughout the game Bart becomes more and more attached to Fei and demonstrates legitimate care and concern for his well-being.

There are also philosophical, religious, and psychological aspects to Xenogears. No doubt somewhere you’ve heard people claim the plot is deep because of the inclusion of such topics. It’s not true at all. This is nonsense created by fans that don’t understand why they enjoy the story, and it’s not an accurate representation of the game. If you’re expecting anything that will make sophisticated commentary on Nietzsche’s works, the Bible, or Freud’s theories, you’re going to be disappointed (even then it’s preposterous to think any modern day philosopher would use a 50 hour RPG to convey such propositions). Simply Xenogears uses topics like Nietzsche’s revival of eternal recurrence, Jung’s theory of anima and animus, Freud’s theory of the divided psyche, and the origins of man and God to craft a wholly entertaining and unique story. To think this is just peddling the ideas of greater men is far from the truth. It’s no different from when a Final Fantasy rips names out of the Qur’an, the Bible, or Indian mythology and slaps them on summons only Takahashi took it to another level by making them more than passing references.

When not engaged in lengthy yet wondrous cutscenes, Xenogears follows typical RPG fare of dungeon and town exploration yet with a not so typical combat system. While controlling your standard party of three, you’ll utilize a three tiered attack system using the Triangle, Square, and X buttons where stronger blows will eat up more AP – a full meter of which is given to your character at the beginning of the turn. As your party grows, they learn powerful Deathblows that are activated by simple button combinations like Triangle, Triangle, X or Square, Triangle, X. While they are powerful, Deathblows are delightfully flashy and fun to watch. It's a wonderful sight to see Elly harness a 10 foot bolt of electricity and constantly slam it into an opponent or Citan defiantly stand with his back toward his foe, thrust his blade backward, and stab his enemy while cherry blossoms delicately waft to the ground. Another interesting feature is the Combo command. By stopping your attacks before using up all of your AP, you can stock what’s left over to use a turn to execute multiple Deathblows. This cool feature comes in handy quite a few times. For example some enemies will employ fierce counterattacks against Deathblows while others constantly cast healing spells. By stocking up and unleashing combos, you’ll be able to dispatch these troublesome foes more easily. The game also has genre regular commands like spells, defending and so on.

But then things get more interesting when in Gear battles. Here the three tiered attack system returns only you may only select one weak, intermediate, or strong attack rather than combining blows. In addition each attack consumes precious fuel from your machine. By making simple one button attacks, you’ll accumulate AP to unleash small two button combos to deal astounding amounts of damage while eating up a chunk of fuel. Gutsy players can even activate their Boosters, which will speed up your Gears ATB bars but burn off fuel each turn. Fortunately there is a Charge command to use a turn to regenerate small bits of fuel.

Gear battles also have other interesting differences from the more “normal” on foot battles. For example Gears are powered up by buying new engines to determine power and replacing the frame to upgrade your HP and fuel amounts. You’ll also have a whole three slots for a wide variety of sweet accessories with effects ranging from boosting defense, halving beam (a frequently used element from enemy Gears) attacks, or unlocking extremely powerful special Gear Deathblows that consume little fuel. Just mixing and match all the parts is cool in its own right. Gears are also different in that they can’t regain HP with simple items or spells. Each machine starts with a ridiculously large HP total and can only regain fuel by equipping Fix Frame accessories and consuming significant chunks of fuel to complete the process or by paying to refill both your HP and fuel at shops and the traveling service robots that hang around each dungeon.

As fun as each battle is, it takes a lot to reach one sometimes. The main selling point on Xenogears is going to be whether you can handle all the cutscenes. The reason this one can hit 50 hours is because it’s really more of a normal 30 hour RPG with an extra 20 hours of story added on. There are times when you’re watching over 30 consecutive minutes of cutscenes with a lot of text and no voice acting. This is not a game for the impatient at all. Furthermore the story is so massive and complex that you’ll need to pay close attention and carefully read every line to avoid becoming lost and confused. If you love the story like I did, you won’t even realize how many hours you’ve wasted watching the game. Otherwise trying to finish Xenogears is going to be one of the most painful experiences of your life.

And if you love the story the game’s stellar presentation is only going to enhance the experience. The hi-res, fluidly animated 2D sprites for the characters and on foot enemies are gorgeous and interact seamlessly with the flashy 3D effects for their attacks. The use of polygons for all the large machines and Gears is pretty well done – you really have to look hard at the Gears before you notice how blocky they are. Besides, giant robots being blocky makes a hell of a lot more sense than the “lego people” seen in this game’s older cousin Final Fantasy VII. Battles are made even more exciting thanks to dramatic battle cries and thunderous metallic sound effects as Gears clank and clash. Yasunori Mitsuda also contributes what I consider his magnum opus: a beautiful, Celtic inspired soundtrack.

As much as I my heart oozed with love both times I played through all 50 hours of Xenogears, there was one thing that would have made it better: it needed to be longer. Once you hit disc two, another 15-20 hours of the game is compressed into about 5 hours, and most of it consists of the characters talking about going to dungeons and such against a black screen. The pacing is completely shattered at this point thanks to the team probably running out of time and money. Fortunately 90% of the game is on the excellent first disc, so it’s not too much of a disappointment. And by then the story had me so hooked I really didn’t notice how little of the game actually required more than hitting a button to call up the next dialog box. Xenogears was perhaps an overly ambitious project for Takahashi, but despite its problems it proudly remains on my shelf as a personal favorite.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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