Review by Kane

Reviewed: 01/04/02 | Updated: 02/02/03

Enfant terrible

Note: This video game review is not meant to offer a derogative vision of religion. Every reference that may seem controversial is purely unintentional. Feel free to address any complaints to the author of the review himself.

I hate Xenogears.

I hate its strange mix of terrible gameplay and supremely involving, thought-provoking plot elements. I hate its ambivalence, embodied by its repetitive experience and outstanding variety. I hate it, because I love it and don't know how to review it.

You see, Xenogears owns me. Very much like religion itself, the game has a hypnotic, almost fantastical effect on human beings despite numerous glaring flaws (or not, depending on the angle you look at it from). It's not so much that its assets ultimately make up for its issues, but it's just that while other games tend to vanish from one's memory after a few weeks, Xenogears just stays there as an enigma, as if ready to release yet another mind-blowing revelation, ever present and unforgettable.

So yes, this is a ''love or hate'' role-playing game, to use a popular and widely spread image. It's not your usual Square product. Either you'll feel a different man and will look at gaming differently after completing it, or you'll loathe Square for even allowing such a daunting game to be made, and wish you never spent such a substantial length of time on it.

The plot is magnificent. Marvelous. Sublime. It shares a similarity with almost all the great works of this century: the opening of the plot is rather slow, but this consequently strengthens the proximity between the player and the characters, to an almost unbearable extent. And when it truly starts taking off, Xenogears (what a wonderful name) delivers its inspirational message with defiant eloquence. Saying that Tolkien himself wouldn't have disliked the story and that some of the lines seem to deal with existential questions with a vividness rivaling the works of most renowned Jamesian authors wouldn't be exaggerating much, really.

Protagonist Fei Fong Wong's incredible voyage from his defunct native village to the perilous headquarters of an evil empire he'll eventually have knocked of its pedestal appears as Herculean, to say the least.

You'll shiver every time a new evil crosses the path of the aforementioned martial artist and his knowledgeable mentor, the mysterious Citan Uzuki. You'll smile interiorly as the love story between Fei, the young painter in search for his lost identity, and Elly Van Houten -the beautiful and tormented female soldier- shapes itself and develops into something rarely seen in a videogame. You'll cry when you hear the touching life story of Billy Lee Black, the young orphan priest persecuted by undead reapers, and the one of Rico Banderas, giant demi-human whose strong physical appearance is only a broken reflection of his mind. But when out little party decides to fight the condition and rule the skies -and space- aboard their Macross-like giant combat robots (referred to as gears), you'll die a happy man.

Like a Greek tragedy, Xenogears handles its plot eminently, with its fair share of pathos, heavy suspense and symbolism. In the end, it gathers every cliche in role-playing history but tries to take them further while giving them a reason to be, and it works extremely well. Intermixing controversial religious themes, ultra-kitsch Japanese mecha culture and daring elements of Freudian psychology Xenogears displays a truly inspiring tale well worthy of being considered as a masterpiece. Not to mention the religious theme, not as controversial as it could've been, but still a daring enterprise: as Fei decides to ''stand tall, shake the heavens'' and take on a god, the plot takes a dramatically interesting turn.

Yet, the storytelling itself is hugely flawed. Not only will Xenogears drag your poor self in uber-long conversations that somewhat break the flow of the game (an understandable choice, since Xenogears is at its zenith when dealing with story matters), but it'll also regularly struggle at providing you with the right amount of information at the right time. The largest part of the story is not even depicted in the game, and this is certainly confusing for the conformist player. Furthermore, the rushing of the second disk, direct result of a significant and sudden cut in the budget allowed to the development, further emphasizes on the tremendous literary aspect of this title.

Because Xenogears often struggles to defend itself as a game.

There's no doubt that the battle system is awfully tedious. The promising combo system, supposed to mimic the vastly accessible fighter genre, soon turns into a fresh piece of excrement. At any rate, the idea of giving the player action points is actually brilliant, and the deathblow attacks -sort of limit ersatz- are dynamic enough to prevent the player from falling asleep while playing. Most attacks cost different numbers of points, but this is made futile by the fact that some combinations are much more effective than the rest. It gets much worse when you realize that the spells don't become important until near the end of the game. What fun is there to mash the buttons to witness the exact same special effect about a hundred times? None.

Similarly, the gear battles, which have apparently been thrown in there for the sake of variety, are nothing but a facade. The sole difference with the regular fights is that the player is forced to take into account a deplorable fuel system, whose only merit is to make some of the later encounters near impossible. Instead of creating a strategic dimension, it generates a fake tension that, although it fits certain aspects of the game, appears sometimes as far too artificial and simplistic when applied to such a dull engine. Add to the mix an insanely high battle frequency and you've got yourself an engine that'd ruin almost any role-playing game known to man: however, this is not a normal rpg. Alas, where a prodigious Xenogears failed to offer an innovative and enjoyable battle system, even an overall sub-par Chrono Cross later succeeded.

The customization of the characters is particularly limited, whereas the controls are sometimes infinitely annoying during exploration scenes, and more precisely the jumps. Although the original, fully-rotatable polygonal representation of the environments contributes to the character of the game, it can reveal itself to be a nuisance when one needs to time his movements accurately, which is precisely what happens during the frustrating Babel Tower episode toward the end of the game.

Strangely enough, the visuals are marked by a certain discrepancy. Blocky character models constantly contrast the genius character design -whereas the gears look just fine-, and the stunning anime introduction is pure bait: they are very sparse over the course of the game. By far, the game is at its worst when it shows its ugly world map. Nevertheless, the two-dimensional sprites used during battle scenes have a certain refinement and decent animation, while the game showcases such graphical variety and originality that it’s easily forgettable. Let's face it: despite charming and detailed aesthetics, Xenogears looks somewhat outdated when compared to the most recent productions.

The music is arguably the best part of the game. Unlike the story, it manages to keep a necessary absence of pretense. The simplicity of the tunes provides them with a sentimental touch that genuinely highlights the symbolical value of each character. On the other side of the spectrum, the originality brandished by the large majority of the tracks stays unmatched to this day, in the same way Grahf's theme may very well be the greatest song ever dedicated to a villain. Fortunately, the soundtrack creates another figure of the game as an unexpected intertwining of diametrically opposed elements, with its sentimental melodies full of life.

Sadly, the same can't be said about the voice acting. Not only is the dubbing extremely poor during anime scenes, the voices themselves are also unseemly and corny at times. It's a shame, because the rest of the sound effects are fine otherwise, and perfectly convey the peculiar ambience of the Xenogears universe, whether it's the gear parts clinging onto one another during the battles, the singing of birds in a remote forest (namely Black Moon) or the incessant noise generated by the Yggdrasil, pirate sand cruiser that will reveal itself to be most useful for our heroes on numerous occasions.

On the other hand, it's hard to find any fault in the immense environments contained by the first CD. As in most Final Fantasy games, the exploration of the world map is overwhelming and plays a major part in the appeal of the game, next to the story. There are lots of things to do in the game, and the flow of events isn't as restrictive as it first seems to be. Moreover, Xenogears offers a massive experience (approximately 75 hours), and even though some may think that it should've ended up much shorter, few games feature such a prominent adventure. Playing through it more than once for any motive other than clearing up storyline points isn't a must though, as the scenario is unequivocally fixed and there are few side quests.

And yet, you'll keep playing, because the apparent simplicity of the gameplay nicely contrasts with the incredible story, allowing you to focus exclusively on what's important here. So why only a score of seven? Because once you find out the great number of flaws the game presents, it appears increasingly clearer that it could’ve been much, much better. But after all is said and done, don’t let a mere numeral cloud your judgment. Think of Xenogears as a rough diamond, free from any kind of polishing.

Still, I can't help thinking that the final form of the game is close to the original project the developers had in mind, despite Square's unforgivable betrayal. Believe me, there's nothing quite like Xenogears out there. Almost four years after its original release, it stands still as a unique monument in a plethora of soulless role-playing games. And while it doesn't exactly shake the heavens, it does a remarkable job at sucking your life away and making you forget the tedium of dusty everyday life, while immersing you in a virtual Garden of Eden nothing short of paramount. Xenogears, like the tree of knowledge, taunts you with its exquisite fruit. But playing it is not a sin.

I love Xenogears.

That's enough.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

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