Review by YusakuG

Reviewed: 06/15/03 | Updated: 06/15/03

In the beginning...

A lone spaceship drifts silently through the vast universe. All seems well, until, the ship's sirens begin to blare throughout the halls. A cryptic message, perhaps a warning, that only states ''You shall be as gods'' over and over appears on the screens of all of the ship's computers. The Captain tries to regain control of his vessel, only to find that a mysterious force has taken over it. As the many people on board head for the escape pods to flee the ship, the Captain is horrified to witness his craft gaining a mind of its own, and turning its own guns on the fleeing pods, killing his crew. Realizing that his fate is sealed, he sits alone, waiting for the ship to take his life as well. Moments later, the vessel self-destructs, falling to the planet below. As the smoldering ruins of the once grand ship lie on a sandy beach, a mysterious woman rises from the ashes, looking up toward the sky...

This tragic and cryptic sequence is what opens Xenogears, easily Square's most ambitious and most talked about RPG in the company's history. Who knew that a brief little throw away line in Final Fantasy VII ('' coming'') would foretell of a massive RPG experience unlike any other at its time. Xenogears is full of ambition, including strong gameplay, an epic and deep storyline that dwarves just about anything else before or since, and heavy religious themes very rarely seen in mainstream video games. Unfortunately, the game is held back from the perfection it strives to achieve by the fact that it almost collapses underneath its own weight before its end. Perhaps Xenogears is a bit too ambitious for its own good. Even so, it remains one of the best RPG experiences you can have on the Playstation.

After the previously mentioned opening sequence, we meet Fei Fong Wong, a young martial artist who is currently living peacefully in the quiet village of Lahan. Although Fei enjoys the peaceful village life, where he idly spends his days painting, he is haunted by dreams and forgotten memories of his life before he arrived in Lahan. It seems that Fei was brought here late one night by a mysterious man, and he has no memories of what happened before. Fei tries to ignore his visions and live peacefully, but he soon finds he cannot hide from his past forever.

It all begins the fateful night some giant robots known as Gears come flying by overhead, land right in the middle of the village, and begin fighting with each other, destroying Lahan in the process. As Fei tries to lead the other villagers to safety, he suddenly is overcome by a mysterious feeling. He stands before one of the giant Gears, almost as if he is drawn to it. Fei blanks out, almost as if he is possessed by an unknown force, and climbs inside an abandoned Gear.

The next morning, when Fei comes to, he is horrified to discover Lahan in ruins from the battle the night before. What's worse, most of his friends were killed in the fight, and it seems that Fei is somehow responsible for it. He does not remember anything from the moment he stepped inside the Gear, and wonders to himself how this could have happened. For the safety of the few surviving villagers, Fei decides to set out on his own to discover the truth about his past, and the mysterious Gear he seems to be linked to.

Fei's search for the truth will take him to the farthest reaches of the world. The journey is certainly a massive one, spanning around the 60 hour mark or so for even the most seasoned RPG veterans. Xenogears is a tale of a young man's search for himself, and the people who become involved in his journey. It expertly mixes human drama, sci-fi action, tragedy, and even a touch of parody with obvious references to anime and classic sci-fi. The story is much deeper than most video games, featuring religious themes and complex characters who grow and change throughout the quest. Although the story does kind of grow annoying during the later half when it almost completely takes over the game (more on that later), it is interesting enough to keep you playing.

Of course, even with the best written storylines, a RPG still needs gameplay to support it. Xenogears is a fairly traditional RPG with a few innovations, mainly in the battle system, to keep things interesting. You guide Fei and his party through various towns and dungeons throughout the world in a fairly linear storyline that guides you from place to place. However, Square has beautifully fit the giant Gears into the gameplay. Many of the people who join your group pilot Gears as well, and you can usually board or disembark them at any time in you quest, unless it is pre-determined by the storyline that you can't use them. Many of the dungeons feature puzzles and instances where you are required to use your Gears in order to proceed. What makes exploring the environments so much fun is that, unlike most traditional RPGs, you have total control over your characters, and can make them jump up and down cliffs and chasms. This adds a level of interactivity to the various locations you visit.

When you encounter one of the game's many random battles during your travels, the game implements a very unique battle system. Each character in your party has three different attacks assigned to one of the buttons on the controller (Weak, Medium, and Strong). You must create a series of combos by combining the different attacks at your disposal. Some of these combos lead to special attacks, almost like in a fighting game, that your characters can learn over time. Each time you use one of the three attacks, you use up ''Attack Points'' which are shown under your character's HP. You can save up these Points to string together a series of powerful combos that can be very damaging to enemies and bosses.

The battles follow the same basic rules when your characters are in their Gears, but there is an added level of strategy. Each attack you enter uses up a certain amount of fuel in your Gear. You must try to complete the dungeon or area you're currently exploring by conserving as much fuel as possible. Run out of fuel, and your Gear will be out of action until it can be recharged. That's definitely a situation to avoid, especially since many areas require the use of your Gears.

Xenogears' gameplay is certainly fun, but it's not without its faults. Some of the dungeons can be fairly short and disappointing, especially later in the game. It can also sometimes be hard to judge jumps you're forced to make, due to the game's camera angles. You can adjust the camera with a simple push of a button, but it can sometimes be hard to find an angle you're comfortable with. Also, although a few of your characters have access to magic spells, you hardly ever need to use them, which makes the inclusion of spells kind of pointless in the end. Despite these faults, Xenogears has about all the gameplay you could ask for in a RPG.

When it comes to graphics, Xenogears seems heavily inspired by Game Arts' Grandia for the Sega Saturn, and later the Playstation. Like the previously mentioned title, it uses 2D sprites on 3D rotatable backgrounds. The look of the game is smooth, although when the camera zooms in on scenery or a character, it can turn pixilated. You really can't complain too much, though, as there's a lot of attention to detail. The game's fantasy world is large and diverse, featuring areas with a wide variety of motifs and themes. The character sprites are large, well designed, and even feature some good animation, such as Fei's ponytail swinging back and forth as he runs. The giant Gears move very fluidly as well, especially in battle. Even when there are 5 or more Gears on a battle screen at one time, the game never slows down or stutters. The game even includes some beautifully drawn movie-quality anime cinemas at key points. These sequences are sparse, however, and I wish Square had used them more.

In terms of sound, Xenogears carries one of the best soundtracks I've ever heard in a RPG, or a video game in general. Famed composer, Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, Legaia 2), has written a hauntingly beautiful score that ranges from new age to symphonic classical. Each track fits the mood of the scene perfectly, but the songs would stand strongly on their own. Xenogears' soundtrack CD is one that just about any fan of game music should seek out. The sound excels in other areas as well, featuring powerful sounding blows from your attacks in battle. The only area where the sound falters is in the dubbing during the anime scenes. Not only is the acting strangely wooden and emotionless, but the lip-synching is horribly off, giving the impression of a bad Godzilla movie. Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, these movie sequences are sparse, so it is not a big problem.

The problem that does ultimately prevent Xenogears from scoring a perfect 10 with me is the fact that the game loses all resemblance of gameplay during the later half, and literally turns into a virtual novel. During the game's second disc, you spend more time reading text than you do actually playing the game. You often find yourself reading 30-40 minutes straight of text, go through a very short dungeon and a boss battle, and then are forced to read yet another half hour's worth of text. I don't know, maybe the staff was rushed near the end of the project, but I have never seen a game start off so brilliantly, and then just fall apart so miserably. Many gamers are likely to lose patience long before the story reaches its end. It's a shame that Square was unable to carry out the level of gameplay quality through the entire experience.

Despite all this, however, Xenogears stands firmly as one of the top RPG experiences for the Playstation. It has all the drama, character development and (at least until the later half) gameplay you could ask for. The worst thing I can say about this game is that it's an A+ title, when it could have been and should have been a triple A+ title. We can only hope that the future installments of the ''Xeno'' series (now being handled by Namco) can live up to the original's lofty aspirations.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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