Review by Kwing
There is such a thing as trying too hard...
Xenogears is a celebrated RPG of the late 90s, known for its deep storyline, which unfolds over the course of 300,000 words of dialogue and narrative. Wanting to lose myself in a big, epic adventure I figured I would try it out and see if it was good.
Xenogears is a fairly standard RPG. In traditional Square fashion, you have health, magic points (called Ether in Xenogears), leveling up, abilities, and equipment. These are fairly simple and streamlined. A more unique aspect of the game is the Deathblow system. Every turn you have a certain amount of ability points (AP) which are expended to attack an enemy (3 AP at the start, 7 AP by end-game). Upon pressing attack, you can press triangle for a light attack, square for a medium attack, and X for a heavy attack, which cost 1, 2, or 3 AP, respectively. Pressing X after almost any combination of buttons will be the input sequence for a Deathblow (for instance, TX for 4 AP or SX and TTX for 5 AP). Repeatedly using these combos allows you to learn corresponding Deathblows. Using the same button sequence after learning the Deathblow allows you to use it. While a neat idea, the fact that you can use Deathblows for free means that the player has no reason to use a variety of them, rather than simply using the strongest one for every attack. While excess AP can be stored up and released all at once for a super combo, this is really only useful to use against bosses that have a tendency to heal themselves, and honestly I only ever used this strategy against one boss.
Xenogears also incorporates giant mechs, called Gears, into the battle system. While you're in a Gear, fighting is mostly the same, only your attacks are limited by an attack level. Normal attacks will increase this level with each turn, while performing stronger two-button combos will lower it back down. Movement also costs fuel, which presents a gigantic issue if you run out as you waste turns charging it at a very slow rate. Gears cannot be repaired by normal means, making fighting somewhat precarious, especially during longer chapters. That said, I feel the game was balanced quite well and never made things too difficult for the player to the point where you risk getting stuck. Also note that Gears cannot level up, so you are completely dependent upon shop upgrades for that.
Balance-wise the game isn't too hard. It's a little easy to over-level and there are a few abusable features, as well as some useless party members that make the game slightly more biased than it should be. There's one (otherwise useless) character I kept in my party most of the game due to a single attack that could kill many bosses in one hit. I was slightly frustrated by how linear (most of) the gameplay was, too. "Want to explore the world map? Go ahead. Hey look, there's a cave! Let's try going inside! Nope, nothing here, I guess I have to wait until it has plot involvement. Now let's do that thing that we were supposed to do." Open world, my ass.
It's also somewhat annoying that while most characters have instances of being mandatory to use, Emeralda and Chu-Chu are not given this luxury, making it entirely too easy to forget about them altogether. Disc 2 is full of all kinds of these issues, playing more like an e-book with periodic boss fights than anything else, but the bottleneck of information in Disc 1 was the real problem and made me welcome the shorthand format of Disc 2 with welcome arms, helping me drag my feet through the ending of the game.
Finally, the game incorporates a couple minigames. Aside from some very basic ones at a fair, there's a card game (Spit/Slam/Speed to anyone familiar) and a real-time fighting minigame. I liked these a lot, and I just wanted to take a paragraph to acknowledge that these break up the gameplay.
Xenogears begins with an artist, Fei, in a small town of Lahan, during a political climate of a massive eons-old war between two countries that cannot even remember why they are fighting. After a mishap in Lahan, Fei leaves the town to find his own path, tries to stop the fighting, and ultimately discovers a greater enemy whose threat is on a larger scale than either of the warring territories.
While the game has its unexpected moments, one thing that stood out to me was a lack of twists. One particular faction betrays you only an hour or two after you having become associated with them. With such little emotional involvement in said faction, would you really care? You find out about all kinds of horrible problems the world has, but nobody really changes sides or affiliation except for one character, and it's obvious throughout the entire game that they are going to eventually join you.
Thematically, Xenogears deals with a lot of stuff. Drug addiction, psychological disorders, class warfare, and human experimentation stand out more than anything, however there are cultural references to Sigmund Freud, Soylent Green, Kurt Vonnegut, Star Wars, and a bunch more that I can't think of off the top of my head right now. The character interactions also take a lot from Japanese media and culture (unsurprisingly) with the mechs being the most obvious tipoff and some of the more sappy character interactions following close behind.
Maybe it was the budget issue that interfered with Disc 2, maybe it was a somewhat verbose translation, but the excessive amount of philosophical jabber in this game left me unsure as to what the writers were actually trying to say. There is such a thing as trying too hard.
The real issue with the plotline is that the game has you dawdling through 25 hours of abject boredom, gains some slight momentum over the next 5 hours, then beats you over the head with all of the interesting content in the game simultaneously. By the time you actually get a grip on what's happening the bad guys are gone and love is victorious, ultimately making it seem as if the game has just taken a very long and complex route only to say the same things as so many other games. All dialogue aside, however, this game does get pretty grisly.
The graphics are inverted from Final Fantasy VII's vector characters and 2D map. This time around you get 2D characters running around a 3D world. It's strange at first but ultimately works better, mainly because the characters don't look as awkward while the environment feels more authentic. The only issue here is the camera is centered too vertically above your character, making it hard to see ahead of you as you run around.
There are a handful of anime FMVs that are gorgeous and boast outstanding animation and voice work, but aside from this, the animation during cutscenes is awkwardly bad.
The music in this game is very good, but it's also quite redundant. As with many RPGs, the tracks that you fall in love with at the beginning of the game become stale after hours upon hours of playtime.
This game took me 50 hours to beat the first time around. I was slightly over-leveled and did everything except a couple side quests. I would like to replay it to absorb more of the story, but I'm not sure I could make the time commitment and I really don't want to sit through the first half of the game again.
If you're interested in Xenogears already, this game is worth trying. Its gameplay is on par with most any other RPG and its story is far better than any main-series Final Fantasy game (aside from VI, but that doesn't take much away from Xenogears does it?) I've railed against the game a lot in this review but it IS a good game that DOES have a lot to say. Unfortunately an awkward execution makes the process of enjoying it somewhat demanding.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Xenogears (US, 10/20/98)
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