Review by Vicaris
People hype this game a lot, but never mention the bad gameplay and poorly resolved plot.
I gave it a five because this game is half satisfying. The setting, the style, some plot elements, some events, the narrative, are all very interesting. But this game fails at some important points.
tl;dr version: plot tries to be complex but is poorly handled, battles are abnormally repetitive and boring.
The first is the plot. There is no such thing as "too complicated" when criticizing a plot. But if you are going to add several elements to the plot, you got to know how to handle them. Xenogears does not. It gives you little parts of the plot so vague and separated from each other that it gets confusing. You can't expect the player to remember a small detail from some dialogue that at the time did not sound meaningful or was so vague that you weren't able to capture anything useful from it. That's what xenogears does, it attempts to have a complex plot but it has a hard time conveying it.
Plus, it borrows some elements from psychology and abrahamic mythology, but it deals with them in very shallow ways . It does not put a new light on Lacan, Freud or the christian-judaic concept of God, it just takes superficial elements from these themes and stamps them on the game.It makes use of things that it denies to discuss or interpret, it remains isolated in its own alienated sci fi story.
And the biggest problem with the plot is that it was rushed. The developers had to rush the plot in the second disc of the game, to try to make sense out of everything. The second disc of the game has very little gameplay. You just read as the story is unsolved. It uses very little cutscenes to tell the plot, relying most on texts, even to describe interesting events. During the second disc you barely play the game, you only take control in a few boss battles.
So if the first disc had a problem with dealing with the monumental plot it was building just because it was too big and convoluted, the second disc fails at realizing what could be an interesting story and it tells the rest of the plot in a rushed and sloppy way.
But the worst thing isn't that, since even though it fails with the plot, it still manages to be more interesting than most games. The real problem is with the battles.
Xenogears made three mistakes with the battles.
The first one was with the incredibly low enemy variety and enemy group variety. That is, of all the random encounters, in each dungeon you'd have a variety of 2 or 3 entirely different encounters. No more than that. So it got repetitive.
The second one was that the battles always played in the same order. In most games there's some random factor for the other the characters attacks. Speed plays a role, but also some small variety, which made the battles less predictable. The random factor makes a battle a lot more exciting. In xenogears that did not happen. Once you had fought a battle, you'd fight the EXACT same battle over and over. So you'd choose the exact same actions in the exact same order every time.
Now for the third mistake. The variety of actions was really poor. For an instance, the combos. You gain several combos as you advance through the game. The combos are your regular attacks. Instead of each combo presenting a new tactical choice, they are just a more powerful version of each other, you just gain a damage upgrade, no new functionality. Having combos in the end is just a gimmick, as it wouldn't make any difference in the gameplay if you just had regular attacks like in other RPGs. Only the final combos were different in their elemental properties, but that happens really late in the game and played a small role in battles. The special actions were mostly useless except in boss battles, as you'd be better off just attacking and killing everything ASAP.
So when you put together these three aspects, you have: repetitive battles where there's no incentive to try and find different ways to beat them. Basically, once you had won a battle against an enemy group, you'd win that battle the same way always. It gets boring.
That really, really crippled the game. Like, really hard.
Just to better illustrate what I'm trying to say, I'll compare Xenogears to other games.
The breath of fire series is an example of good turn based battles. In BoF3, there is a satisfying enemy variety, the actions are useful and offer distinctive results, which stimulates the player to find different tactics, the battles aren't all predictable and the enemies are interesting. Final Fantasies with ATBs too. FFV for an instance, the ATB makes the battles less predictable, and the variety of actions makes you find different and useful tactics all the time.
Xenogears did not have any of that, and it just failed. Pretty hard.
Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Product Release: Xenogears (US, 10/20/98)
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