Review by Jlop985
But a shard of the mirror that it could have been
Xenogears is a classic from the Playstation that gamers even at the present day can play and appreciate. It less well known than the ubiquitous Final Fantasy, Square's flagship project, but it is a classic all the same.
Before going on to read the review, do note that Xenogears is not for everybody. This game is geared towards serious Japanese RPG fans. Not to say that others would not like it, but the game may be overwhelming for those not familiar to the genre. Also, people sensitive about religion may be uncomfortable playing this game. Xenogears is not sacrilegious, but only people mature in their religious beliefs should play it. That stated, devout and atheist alike can enjoy the game.
Xenogears' gameplay is fun! Often times, gameplay is but an afterthought of RPGs. There are two types of battles- character and gear. Character battles are the standard RPG fare, with a twist. Characters have a number of AP points that they can spend on attacks each turn. There are three types of attacks- weak, strong, and fierce. The game encourages mixing up the attacks, in order to learn deathblows, which are comparable to combos in fighting games. It is a great synthesis of fighting game concepts and RPG combat. There are other familiar options during battle, such as magic ("Ether"), items, and escape.
Gear battles figure heavily in the gameplay, as well as the storyline. A gear is pretty much a giant mech piloted by a character. Gear combat mechanics are analogous to character combat, but the strategy is very different. Fuel is required to do almost anything with a gear, including healing. If a gear runs out of fuel, it can charge, skipping a turn to obtain more fuel. However, fuel is very important to gears, and this defines gear combat. Gear attacks are similar to character attacks, except that a gear can only do one normal attack at a time, whereas characters can attack multiple times per turn. Gears can use deathblow combos if a character has learned the corresponding one. A defining factor of gear battles is that, whereas in character battles anything can be beaten through leveling, gears are limited by the equipment that they carry. Gears cannot level. This makes for very strategic gear battles, and makes this game rather challenging at times.
Outside of normal battling, there are a few distinguishing factors for Xenogears' gameplay. Characters can jump in this game, which is rare in an RPG. There are some minigames, including a gear fighting game with a typical fighting (non-RPG) interface. Also, the camera is fully rotateable, with some minor exceptions throughout the game. Noticeably absent is a first person view, which would be very useful at times.
The story in this game is amazing. It is the best story ever shown on a gaming medium. Many RPGs start off slowly, until the "hook" that makes the story interesting. Xenogears has no such "hook." The story is gripping from the first minute of the game. There will be no spoilers in this review, because it is vital that every person playing Xenogears experiences the game's events as they unfold. Xenogears examines fundamental beliefs of humanity, and is as intellectually stimulating as it is emotional. The game will elicit laughter, tears, chin-stroking, head scratching, and even cheers from its players. There are points within this game that will make the player wonder why the story took such a turn for the worse. However, the game masterfully turns what could turn out to be a lowering in the quality of the storyline into an even more compelling narrative. Several gameplay elements taken for granted in RPGs figure into the Xenogears plot. Even the gears, those giant battling mechs, are not just gameplay gimmicks, but they are central to the story.
There is one problem. The story in the latter part of the game, while still as gripping as ever, is not shown through gameplay, or even cutscenes. It is simply narrated. This is a shame, as Xenogears could have been the best gaming experience ever. This does not detract from the quality of the story itself; it is the presentation which could have been so much better. Even through the latter part of the game, the story alone is compelling enough to go on.
The soundtrack in this game is nearly as amazing as the story itself. The composer, Yasunori Mitsuda, put quality into each track that plays in this game. The music ranges from the joyful ("My Village is Number One") to the sad ("Shattering the Egg of Dreams") to the mysterious ("Omen") and everything in between. The music not only conveys atmosphere, but also helps drive the plot along. The music is also excellent to listen to even without having ever played the game. The song "Small Two of Pieces," sung by Joanne Hogg, is among the most beautiful songs ever composed, and set the stage for later video game ballads like "Eyes on Me."
The only downside to the musical score is that there is not enough tracks. This game features only 44 tracks, meaning that many of the songs are reused over and over again. This game could definitely benefit from more songs. This does not detract from the overall quality of the music, though.
Xenogears features limited voice acting, present during battles and certain cutscenes. Hearing the characters' battle cries is a nice touch during the battles. During the cutscenes, the voices and do not match the lip synching. This is usually not a problem, but at times, it can be hard to ignore. The game's sound effects are not very spectacular, but they get the job done.
This game is heavily influenced by anime and manga art styles. In fact, certain cutscenes are hand-drawn anime sequences. This can be a turn off to certain people, but much of the game's soul can be seen in the graphical art. The main characters' drawn faces appear within the dialogue boxes. A very nice and subtle touch is that the characters' facial expressions in the dialogue boxes change depending on what is going on in the story. This does not happen all the time, but it is used to great effect when it needs to be done, making the story even more compelling. During gameplay, the characters themselves are two-dimensional sprites, set in a three-dimensional background. The characters' styles harken back to the days of the Super NES. The anime sequences in Xenogears are expertly drawn, and would not be out of place in an anime series. The artistic style is very endearing.
However, as a technical matter, Xenogears' graphics are not very good. Considering this game came out after Final Fantasy VII, the graphics could have been much better. The graphics are pixellated, and this is jarring at first. Despite all this, the graphical problems are ignored relatively easily.
This game shows what could have been. Xenogears could easily have been the best game of all time if the events in the latter part of the story were fully playable, and not just narrated to the player. It is very obvious that this game was rushed to completion by the publisher. Considering the brilliance of the first portion of the game, this could be an unforgivable move on the part of Squaresoft. Even more frustrating is that Xenogears is supposed to be episode 5 of a series, yet the series was not fleshed out. It goes to the developers' credit that, despite being forced to cut short their ambitious project, they still managed to create a masterpiece of a game. Even this broken piece of the beautiful mirror that could have been Xenogears is one of the most powerful gaming experiences ever created.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
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