Review by GameTitan83
Perspective Changes with Time
I was in EB Games in the late 90’s when a really cool anime video of a fearless captain hitting the self-destruct on his spaceship to destroy a menace within diverted my attention from looking for new games to buy. Then suddenly, after a lovely and long purple-haired naked lady was shown gazing across the sea after exiting the wreckage, the movie faded to a title screen. “WHAT?!” exclaimed my elated inner gamer, who knew nothing beyond the SNES he owned, “This is a VIDEO GAME?!” And then I cried a little on the inside since I didn’t have a Playstation. In the years since then, I’ve heard continued stories about this game. Xenogears co-pioneered the RPG genre in ways that are easy to lose track of today. While Final Fantasy 7 wowed us with pre-rendered videos and yet still played traditionally on two dimensional backdrops, Xenogears took the leap into fully realized 3D modeling, and brought us into the midst of its world in ways that were new and exciting at the time. All the same, the game still plays traditionally, and won’t confuse anyone who has played other classic RPGs. Meanwhile, I prefer the combination of pixel character art and rotatable polygon backgrounds in Xenogears to the watercolor stills and blurry polygon characters of FF7.
Xenogears starts out with a storytelling bang, dropping you into the tragic life of Fei Fong Wong and letting you get a feel for the game’s structure right before his life goes horribly awry. From that point on, Xenogears never fails to keep you pointed in the right direction, dropping you in and out of battles, castle infiltrations, story expositions, and of course, mech combat. First and foremost, Xenogears is about piloting giant mechs (AKA gears) and letting loose against giant bad guys in a total Godzilla vs. Transformers type of way. What could possibly go wrong?
A fair amount, unfortunately. I know I’m going to take heat for giving this game some knocks, but playing it for the first time now in 2019 is quite likely a different experience than it was in 1998, and I’m a little (okay, maybe a lot) less likely to look past its faults. I’ll get to its good points (of which there are also plenty) before finishing this review, so don’t freak out yet, but if someone is about to invest 70-90 hours into this game, I think it is my due diligence to inform them how their time is about to be spent.
To start with, let’s talk about divided experience. It is typical in an RPG with multiple characters that you’ll play the game of wondering who you should spend time leveling up, knowing that you might eventually lose them or not be able to play them upon the whims of the overall plot (and trust me, that is definitely at play here), but in Xenogears, there is a whole new caveat of possible wasted investment. Since you spend time fighting both on foot and in the gears, it is frustrating that powering up one or the other is not tied together. It’s realistic, sure (I get it - my physical brawniness wouldn’t help the giant mech I’m piloting throw a harder punch), but it doesn’t make for great RPG fare. Like a typical RPG, your dude gets more powerful as you grind out experience, but in Xenogears this only helps him on foot. Once you step into a gear, all of that means nothing, and no matter how much experience you accumulated, that gear gets no better. In fact, it is slowly depleting its fuel with every attack you use, and not even a save point is going to get that precious liquid back. What WILL get it back, you ask? Well, the same thing that will make it stronger: Money, and lots and lots of it. Roamed deep into a tough area and realize you can’t hack the boss? Guess what, if you want to have a chance, you’ll have to leave the area with the gold you’ve acquired, go find a place to buy gear parts, and pony up the cash. Low on fuel and can’t dish out enough attacks to finish off the boss? Same thing, only now you have to run from every battle on the way out because once you run out of fuel, you can’t attack. Sure, you can charge 50 fuel each turn, but when you’re total fuel is 4000 and a good attack takes 100 fuel, that’s not really a solution.
The other aspect of this divided nature of battles is that many of your skills acquired outside of your gear don’t always work inside it, and vice versa. Honestly, the death blow mechanic outside your gear is pretty cool, and I loved it. But once I stepped into my gear, I had to earn my death blows a totally different way. I had ether abilities to heal while on foot, but inside my gear, it only heals my character, not the gear that keeps taking massive damage. Sure, I can eventually repair the gear with an equipped item, but it costs so much fuel that I hesitate to use it lest I run out of fuel prematurely because I don’t know when the next gas up will be. Speaking of not knowing, it is also important to note that you never really know if the next section of the game will have you on foot or in your gear. This can be frustrating if you just spent a lot of cash to upgrade your gear only to be on foot for the next five hours, or if you grinded on foot for hours and acquired a bunch of cool deathblows and then ended up in your gears until the next disc. No joke, I reached level 80 while in my gear and finally unlocked Fei’s most powerful death blow, and was excited to use it next time I was on foot, but it turned out that there were no more such sections beyond that point before the game concluded. I never bothered to go back and reload my save so that I could leave the final dungeon to see it, either, so I still don’t know what it looks like. Oh, and did anyone else notice how useless the combo system was? You have this ability to stockpile attack points for later in order to chain your death blows, but in most battles the enemies die from a few good hits and the points don’t carry over to the next battle, so they just go unspent. Only during the occasional boss encounter did I ever take advantage of these combos, but I’m pretty sure I can count the number of bosses I fought outside of my gear on one hand.
Now, lets just get this out of the way; I confess I played the PS3 downloadable version of the game, so when I say that sometimes the audio didn’t match the scene or the enemy encounters lagged behind the actual trigger point, that may just be bad emulation. Maybe the PS1 disc plays better. However, that doesn’t excuse the fact that Xenogears plays slow in general. Long animations for both enemy and player attacks make the pace of battles frustratingly slow, and in most areas, the enemy types and even how many you encounter don’t really vary much. Since the game likes to make a maze or a puzzle out of many of its dungeons, expect to get really bored of the enemies you’re fighting, especially if the party you chose isn’t particularly effective against them (I remember being in a dungeon once where no matter what ammo I equipped to Billy, his attacks GAVE the enemies health, rendering him useless as an attacker. The same thing happened to me with Elly once as well when she was in a gear, and I could not figure out what weapon or armament was causing it). Also, Xenogears likes to think it is a platforming game (as well as a fighting game at one point, actually). Yes, it is cool that the 3D areas allowed me to actually jump around horizontally AND vertically, and it was clever that Square went for this considering that most RPGs keep map movement simple, but in execution it could be quite frustrating, as my ability to see exactly where the game thought I was standing was often suspect, and gauging my position while airborne wasn’t easy. Meanwhile, some of the jumps just seemed plain glitchy. A few such jumps ended up being crucial, leading to several minutes of re-tracing (and re-battling as my fuel slowly drained) when I missed them. Overall, Xenogears kept me moving and generally showed me where to go, but inside of dungeons it could be absolutely maddening to try to figure out what the game was expecting me to do, which often involved a switch on the wall that I couldn’t see with the old pixilated graphics.
And that brings me to my last gripe. The 3D environments are great, but since they can only be rotated, sometimes a bevy of tall objects would obscure objects, areas, and characters from sight, no matter where I put the camera (I do get the feeling they did this on purpose occasionally to hide secrets). I kind of chuckled when my mother in law couldn’t find the down-screen doors in Final Fantasy 3 when I played through it with her on the SNES, but after Xenogears, I laugh less, because I understand how she feels!
Now, get ready to have a laugh of your own at the irony of what I’m about to declare. If you’ve heard anything about the making of Xenogears, then you know that it was rushed to completion, causing the second disc to lack some of the material that the creators intended to include. The friend who recently told me to play this game even lamented, “The first disc blew my mind, but then it all kind of goes downhill on disc 2”. Well, considering all my gripes (which my wife shared as she watched me play the game), I reached the end of the first disc after 62 hours and straight up asked my wife if we should continue if we might have just as long a road to go as we had already traveled. But when we looked online and found that the second disc is only about 15 hours long, we decided to press on. How glad we were that we did! You see, I had just figured that my friend meant that the PLOT went downhill or was cut short on the second disc due to a rushed development time frame, but I came to find that what he meant was that the PLAYABLE AREAS were limited on the second disc, which consists largely of boss fights, anime movies, and story expositions (which were actually more interesting than on the first disc, in our opinion). As far as my wife and I were concerned, the second disc was the best part of the game, as the pacing of the story’s delivery improved, and the amount of time we spent lost in dungeons was severely reduced.
Now, I’m not going to criticize the story for its possible plot holes or confusingly detailed obsession with emerging scientific discoveries of the late 1990s, but I must warn that it is quite heady, and I’m sure that most people would be more than happy to see it condensed a little. However, the characters and twists and turns of the adventure were in fact the thing that kept us playing. Oh, and the music! Square never disappoints with its soundtracks, and you’ll be humming music from Xenogears just like the rest of them long after you’ve finished the game.
In the end, I did enjoy the game play, too. There is a lot of opportunity to customize each character in the way you want to play, such as setting them up as damage dealers, hit-takers, or protecting them against special attacks. The characters vary enough by their unique ether (AKA magic) abilities or skills to set them apart, and once you acquire all of the characters, you can usually hand-pick at least two of them consistently if you start to know who your favorites are. However, with how many characters I eventually acquired, I found it difficult to acquire enough money or battling opportunities to keep them all in tip-top shape while fighting only three at a time, and I would have liked to have had at least four in the party for battle variety and strategy’s sake. Most of the time I could only strategize when fighting a boss for the second time, usually after dying from an unexpected enemy ability or unique attack that had capitalized on me equipping the completely wrong gear parts for the battle, since I obviously didn’t know what was coming. This would be less frustrating if the game didn’t make me watch a cut scene and read lots of dialogue before I could get back to the battle. Ugh…sorry (sigh). I guess even when I start describing the silver lining, I still see the clouds.
The bottom line is that when I look at Xenogears as an RPG, it just feels bland. Strip off all the 3D elements, anime movies, great music, and flashy exterior, and Xenogears is mostly about pushing lots of button combinations to just deal a little more damage. You don’t usually out-smart or out-play enemies – you just over-power them with brute force. That force is executed in all sorts of stylistic, unique, and interesting ways, but it’s still just basic damage dealt. You can strategize by what you equip, sure, but that is done before battle, and it implies you know what is coming. Usually, the most strategic decision I made inside battles was whether or not I was willing to spend the extra fuel to activate my booster and get more turns. Although I had skills that could bolster my defense, inflict status effects on the enemy, or protect me against certain attacks, I felt that due to the ticking clock of fuel, battles usually devolved into exchanges of hits, as I hoped my foe would die before I did, very much like how Dragon Warrior on the NES used to feel. I suppose that’s okay, because I liked Dragon Warrior well enough, but that doesn’t make Xenogears a great game. It is most certainly a classic and unique game, and I’d be comfortable saying it is interesting enough to warrant a play-through, but I still won’t call it “great”. Now, I’m positive that in this age of remakes, Xenogears could certainly BE great with some re-coding, the addition of more characters in battle, some clarification of the dialogue, and a better tutorial system that guides you through how deathblows, certain skills, and abilities actually work (I’ve seen PAGES written about the complexities of Billy’s ammo). However, in its current state Xenogears remains memorable but flawed, which is not so terrible because few games are perfect. However, considering the time required to finish this epic, one should know that the experience is not as tuned as the mechs you will find yourself piloting. Honestly, there are better games out there, so only those seeking to uncover the past need apply. For everyone else who picked up the game on PSN and hasn’t gotten around to playing it yet, boot it up and watch the awesome intro and then be done with it. It’s still the best part of the game.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Xenogears (US, 02/22/11)
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