Review by Jeff Zero
Reviewed: 07/26/04 | Updated: 07/26/11
"Stand tall and shake the gaming industry."
Howdy, GameFAQs. It's been six long years since I originally submitted this review and after glaring at it for roughly five-and-a-half of those years I decided I'd finally go ahead and update the thing. You see, I wrote the original back when I was sixteen and I can't help but feel like I gushed entirely too much. Oh, don't get me wrong, I still love this game with all my being. It's a damn fine game and it stands the test of time even now, thirteen years after its release. And it will continue to do so for as long as I have access to a form of hardware that runs it.
It's not a game without flaws. My original review touched upon these flaws quite briefly but flew past them in favor of relentlessly bringing up the positives and I think it's high time I fix that. So first-time "Wandering Squires" and returning "Dragon-Slaying Boxers" alike, welcome to the second iteration of my review for a game with the best story you'll ever find on two black-bottomed discs.
Don't let the slightly-less-than-perfect score fool you: Xenogears tells the best story I've found in the entire industry. It's the kind of tale that you find fascinating but perplexing at eleven, you play it all the way through ten or more times in the following twelve years and then you find it even more fascinating and brilliantly complex at twenty-three. And you're still asking yourself a few questions about matters here and there, pondering the hidden real-world metaphors involved in the various plot points.
It's a remarkable feat and it shows you just how much creators Tetsuya Takahashi and Masato Kato poured into what must have been some seriously deep brainstorming sessions. At the risk of sounding like a broken record on the matter you just don't see this kind of attention to detail in game-based storytelling very often at all these days -- it was a big bold step in 1998 and by more modern standards it would be nigh-unfathomable to put this much stuff into a project. The amount of time it would take to present the plethora of plot twists and locations found in Xenogears using the graphics engines of today would be... well, there's a reason we still haven't seen a remake of Final Fantasy VII as of this writing.
A particular portion of the game's story -- specifically the fact that much of the second disc's events move forward at breakneck speeds and will no doubt confuse many first-time players -- is in and of itself proof of how difficult it must have been to attempt to tackle the massive undertaking that was Takahashi's vision.
After a well-crafted opening movie depicts the chaos of a giant starship whose crew has lost control due to the interference of some form of artificial intelligence, the game opens with a lengthy text-based introduction to the continent of Ignas on a fictional planet and cuts to a spirited and seemingly-simple lad by the name of Fei Fong Wong, the central protagonist of Xenogears. Between the science fiction of the anime cutscene, the politics-meets-giant-robots of the introduction to Ignas and finally the quaint nature of Fei and his quiet village life, it's a lot to take in during the first five minutes of the game and seems almost at-odds with itself. You're going to be a bit confused... relax, that's the idea.
Xenogears then proceeds to throw a few dozen plot threads at you over the course of a very long, very satisfying adventure. Takahashi paves a truly grand epic filled with well-executed sci-fi tropes, very literal lessons in psychology and philosophy, burning questions and appropriately-scaled answers. For the most part the story is paced very impressively with enough time between pivotal moments of truth and consequences for the player to feel at home in the well-crafted world. The entirety of the first disc runs at an even clip and will more than likely make you feel like you're involved in an ongoing television drama with its pauses to focus on specific characters and occasional world-shaking events.
This brings us back to the point concerning the second disc, however. Even if you haven't played the game you may have heard the collective sigh of Xenogears' legions of devoted fans on the topic of the infamous Disc Two. For over a decade the game's fans have gathered together scraps of information on why various aspects of the latter portion of the game move so quickly and seem to race past scenes which would have been given significantly longer play time to soak in if they'd occurred earlier on.
Myself, I'm actually of the opinion that the second disc's permanent 'Haste' status is rather exaggerated; while no doubt true that things happen abruptly and there are alarmingly few gameplay areas until right before endgame the heart of the story takes place on constantly-criticized ol' Disc Two and I definitely can't knock more than a few tenths of a point off of this category just because bad pacing screws things up a bit. I really do hate to use such pretentious terms as 'true fan' but honestly, if you come to find yourself half as heavily-invested in all the glory of Xenogears' immense plot as I have then you're going to love the thrilling resolutions to the various threads -- even if several of them appear astoundingly truncated. Budget constraints, time constraints... whatever the case may be, none of them kill the game. It remains great straight through the cast roll.
That's probably the highest score I'll ever find myself giving a game in this department and for very good reason. Even BioWare can't match the strong cast found in Xenogears. Fei Fong Wong is a three-dimensional man with positives, negatives and ten thousand little in-betweens. Elhaym Van Houten, the game's female lead, goes through just as much trial-by-fire and develops every bit as much as Fei. Watching the two most central characters grow into the people they become by the final stretch of the plot is especially enjoyable.
Much of the remainder of the long list of protagonists, antagonists and everything in between is filled with stronger and more well-rounded folks than you'll find in most any other game ever written. The knowledgeable Citan Uzuki, the gung-ho Bartholomew Fatima, the troubled Billy Lee Black and the enigmatic Emeralda are favorites of mine, each of whom receiving good doses of characterization and a few twists and turns along the way.
Even several important NPCs who will fight alongside you along the way manage to leave a tremendous impression, from the scholarly Maison to the damn-near leet-speaking Hammer to the fun-loving-but-wise Jessiah to the downright absurd Big Joe and beyond. I'd speak more on the villains too while I'm at it but this is something you don't want spoiled for you in the slightest. The who's-who of the baddies in Xenogears is extensive and genuinely thought-provoking. Suffice it to say you'll find no group of malefactors more involving across the industry. You probably won't find a group so big in very many games, either.
So what's holding the score down ever-so-slightly, then? Simply put, there are a couple of playable characters who get quite the short end of the stick developmentally. It's not surprising in the least given how much happens to so many other members of the extensive cast but it is a bit disappointing. I won't name names because doing so would rob first-time players of the chance to have fun without dwelling on these aspects but it's definitely a slight issue. One party member in particular could have used a hefty dose of relevance later on -- blame this one on the aforementioned speed at which late-game story continues.
Here's where things take something of a nosedive... but an 8.0 is still a very decent score. There's nothing particularly wrong with an 8.0, it's just that there's relatively little in the way of amazing too. Get my drift?
Xenogears is a fairly standard Squaresoft-made JRPG from the mid-late 90s; that is to say that for the most part the story progresses via traversing a world map and arriving at a large number of locations, then traversing said locations on your way to the next objective. There is much battling in-between, be it on the map, within sometimes-loosely-defined 'dungeons' or even in towns on certain occasions.
One thing that separates Xenogears from the vast majority of its genre brethren is the fact that there are, in a sense, two battle systems.
In the first the player will control the game's characters and spend up to a particular number of points every round combining 'weak', 'strong' and 'fierce' attacks with the 'triangle', 'square' and 'cross' buttons, building toward various 'Deathblows' in so doing. Deathblows are essentially turn finishers; sometimes elemental damage is employed but apart from this you'll typically find that the only major differences are the increase in damage potential as you gain more of them. Working on acquiring more deathblows requires specific button presses in battle as well as achieving a certain level. Fidormula's Deathblow Learning Guide is useful for understanding the system to the fullest. There is also 'Ether', the game's form of magic, as well as 'Combo', in which you can build up a stockpile of leftover points per character and unleash a volley of Deathblows.
The second manner in which conflict will be resolved is through 'Gears', Xenogears' semi-titular giant robots reminiscent of Gundam, Macross, MechWarrior and several other notable influences. Although combat is still a turn-based endeavor and 'Deathblows' and 'Ether' remain at your disposal, the individual moves are often rather different in this mode and there are several other commands and functions. Your Gears will consume fuel, adding a degree of strategy to the proceedings. 'Special Options' will sometimes become available as the game progresses, allowing the player the choice to drop a silo from their party's ship on unsuspecting enemies or turn one Gear into a kind of makeshift cannon for another and so forth. It is this mode which is so often identified with Xenogears -- after all, plenty of JRPG enthusiasts very much love the notion of taking charge of giant robots and wreaking havoc. Who can blame them?
Neither one of these battle systems is terribly deep and both of them could have used some serious fine-tuning but they definitely get the job done. Equipment is purchasable for both the characters and their respective Gears and outfitting one's mechs with the right weaponry, engines, armor and accessories is a tad addicting even if many of the choices are incredibly obvious.
Dungeons can sometimes frustrate; there are a few locations in particular that get a lot of flak for not being the most user-friendly areas in the genre. A sewer, a tower and some shafts -- be on the lookout for these places and brace for some frustration. The game definitely could have benefited from some finer design choices here but there's nothing overly bad; just fairly irksome is all.
Minigames aren't as plentiful as can be found in the bigger-budget Final Fantasy installments of the day but there are a few of them, one of which is actually kind of fun. A battle arena for Gear battles pits one player against an AI or two players against one-another (or even two AIs against one-another) in an action-based romp. It's nothing worth writing home about but it's pretty entertaining and much later into the game it nets the player some sweet rewards.
Yasunori Mitsuda first came into the JRPG fandom spotlight in 1995 when he composed much of the music found in the timeless Chrono Trigger. Since then he's done several more soundtracks which have further propelled him into becoming a kind of pseudo-deity in the video game music industry, most consistently-mentioned of which being 2000's Chrono Cross. Between those two related titles, however, was his soundtrack for Xenogears, and it doesn't disappoint.
The soundtrack was made using many traditional, Irish and Arabic influences and plenty of songs will remind the player of this style all throughout. Not a single track is ill-fitting, although some may seem to overstay their welcome through repeated usage due to the long story not benefiting from the shear number of tracks received in the bigger-budget Final Fantasy installments of the time.
A few tracks are given splendor by the usage of a 41-voice choir known as The Great Voices of Bulgaria and two more songs are beautifully boosted by Irish singer Joanne Hogg and Riverdance musician Davy Spillane. Unfortunately, only one of the two songs is heard at any point in the game itself despite both of them having files stored on the discs.
The only real weak points to be found in the entire album are the regular battle theme's tendency to feel rather repetitive very quickly and the complete lack of victory fanfare, although the latter is more a point of preference than anything. Boss battle themes (indeed, there are a few of them) are all excellent, atmospheric tunes bring all the locales to life and the emotionally-charged tracks are easily some of the best.
Audio clarity is impressive for the time, with the soundtrack strengthened by some of the highest standards found on the PlayStation console. Sound effects are crisp, vibrant and quite memorable. All in all, it's a right fine showing.
Xenogears didn't exactly make the biggest splash graphically when it arrived on the scene in 1998 but that's not to say it wasn't fairly well-appreciated. The pixelated sprites are rather rough around the edges and were noted as such even at the time but many early players compared them favorably to Final Fantasy VII's overly blocky character representations. Considering that this was a game that came out before the Squaresoft follow-up that blew the world away with its visuals (Final Fantasy VIII, that is) most players were generally receptive to the improvements found here, even if some noted that 3D still hadn't quite caught up with 2D in terms of overall detail.
The occasional anime cutscenes (and the occasional CG-based cutscenes as well) courtesy of Production I.G., the studio responsible for such works as Blood: The Last Vampire and Ghost in the Shell, are always a fun treat. The voice acting found in the sporadic anime portions is a bit on the spotty side though -- but hey, a few long-lasting Xeno-memes are the end result.
Environments can sometimes tend to flicker a bit if the player rotates the camera at odd angles but they're pretty well-detailed for the time. Yasuyuki Honne, the game's art designer, does an exemplary job conveying a unique feel for the world while character designer Kunihiko Tanaka gives the cast rich flavor in presentation.
The Bottom Line:
Fans of the RPG genre really owe it to themselves to experience Xenogears at least once. Although its gameplay isn't the best out there it's still more than serviceable and provides a few neat twists on the standard fare. Where it shines is its story: rivaling whole book series and television epics in scale, the game grabs players by the collar and doesn't let go. Originally intended as a possible Final Fantasy VII scenario, Squaresoft deemed the game too dark and complex for the series. Considering FFVII isn't exactly light and fluffy itself that should tell you what you're in for with Xenogears.
The plot will hook you, the cast will stick with you, the music will delight you and even with a rushed second disc rucking up the otherwise-perfect pacing you'll get your money's worth ten times over. So what are you waiting for? Get this game and prepare to be blown away. And if you've already played it then play it again -- we both know it's worth it.
Final Score: 9.0
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Xenogears (US, 10/20/98)
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