Review by Relle
Mechs, God and martial arts...groovy.
The Playstation was a wealth of RPGs, thanks in a large part to Square and their sudden insurgence of new, innovative and often quality titles. Xenogears began from humble beginnings, but soon grew to become one of the few RPG legends alongside such titles as Chrono Trigger, Suikoden 2, Final Fantasy VI and others. The seamless insertion of mechanized combat suits into an otherwise medieval RPG setting alongside a battle system that more closely resembled a fighting game came together with a story that was deeper than the entire galaxy to form one hell of a game.
As with all things, it is prudent to start at the beginning. As with so many titles (it seems...) you begin things in a small village as a man named Fei. One day, a Gear (this game's name for giant mecha) flew over the village, bringing down a sudden warzone. Cue Fei being thrown out of the village for bringing about such destruction (small towns blame their own) and beginning his adventure.
Though, that isn't really where it begins. As soon as you start a new game you'll be treated to a lengthy anime-drawn cutscene in which bad things happen to a spaceship, and ending with a naked woman on a beach. Not a bad way to kick off an adventure, huh? That particular scene, however, doesn't come into play until much later in the game, so it's no wonder people often think of Xenogears' story as confusing. Well, they also think that because it is, in fact, confusing.
Though that makes it my favorite aspect of the game by far. It certainly helps that the gameplay moves it along at a brisk pace, but I'll get to that later. Without giving anything away (I hope) the story is, in so many words, engrossing, engaging, all-encompassing and in a single word, long. You could translate Xenogears and all its events and dialogue into a novel and it would beat out War and Peace for a total page count. It always kills me to hear people complain about Xenosaga's long cutscenes, yet they always praise Xenogears' story when really, what you'll spend a good deal of your time doing in this game is reading.
While that may not seem at all exciting, bear in mind that this is no ordinary game. As I said, it can be likened to a rather gripping sci-fi novel, only without chapter breaks (except for disc 2...) The characters grow over time, and transform from flat, two-dimensional entities to rounded people with thoughts, feelings and emotions you, as the player, can identify with. Though, if you identify with Fei, you may need psychiatric help. No spoilers...
It gets to be even more confusing near the end, though fortunately that's where everything gets tied together. Suddenly what seemed like an obscure bit of information told in passing on disc 1 becomes a vital clue as to what happened to that ship you saw at the beginning, not to mention why the world is in danger now. Xenogears is one of those games where you'll actually have to pay attention to what's going on if you hope to understand future events.
Fortunately, the game itself is no slouch. Sporting sprited character models alongside 3D environments, you're given what I believe to be the most fun ability in any RPG: the ability to jump, leap onto inanimate objects, and fall off high places without taking damage. Hey, it worked for Super Mario RPG.
Otherwise, I feel I must speak of the battle system, as I have not seen its like lately. Battles are turn-based, with each character's speed stat determining who goes first. You have your basic RPG battle commands, such as Attack, Item, Ether (this game's form of magic) and whatnot, but attacking is a process in and of itself. Upon selecting to attack, you can throw out a string of blows that are, in fact, player-controlled. The triangle button initiates a weak attack with high accuracy, square fires off a medium attack with like accuracy, and X unleashes a powerful attack with slightly lower accuracy. How many of these attacks you can use is determined by how many action points they use up. Weak attacks use one AP, medium attacks use two, strong attacks use three. You start out with three AP and gain up to seven as you progress through the game.
There's more. Stringing together a certain combination of attacks will unlock deathblows, powerful finishing moves that deal added damage. Each character has their own set of deathblows, and these powerful moves take up no EP (ether points) but they're often the key to dealing damage to stronger enemies. Not only that, but you have the option of only delivering a weak attack, then canceling your turn and saving the AP you didn't use. The point of this is that should you save up a lot of AP, you can use one turn to release a series of deathblows depending on how much AP you saved. Painful for the enemy, fun for you.
And of course, there are the gears. These mechanized behemoths use an entirely different type of battle system. Rather than combinations of attacks, you choose one attack (weak, medium, strong) and that ends it for your turn. The difference, then, is how much fuel each attack consumes. Your gear is powered by fuel, and should it run out, it won't be able to do anything. Gears have deathblows as well, powerful attacks that can be activated depending on a gear's 'level' in battle. Depending on your type of gear, one regular attack will send your level up from zero to one. From there, you can either attack as per normal or use a level 1 deathblow and be sent back to zero level. The same goes for levels 2 and 3, though you won't be able to attain such strength right from the beginning. Like all things, it takes time.
Otherwise, Xenogears is your standard RPG. You fight random battles, gain experience, level up, and eventually, buy new weapons, armor and equipment for your gears. Of course, it isn't long till you're sent into a whirlwind of events that toss you here and there around the world, along with a number of mini-games. My personal favorite has to be the gear battles in the arena. These take place outside of the ordinary battle system and instead give you a full real-time opportunity to beat the circuits out of an opponent's gear. It all takes place in a huge 3D arena, and battling itself is a simple matter of going up to your opponent and tapping a few buttons to unleash a combination attack, or firing an ether blast that deals extra damage. Of course, the latter will cause your mech to quickly heat up and eventually take damage, but hey, you've got ether power, might as well use it.
If I had to name a fault in the game, I would have to say the ether system is it. It acts as the game's magic system, but there's really no need for it. Even the most powerful spells pale in comparison to the stronger deathblows. There are defensive spells that have their uses, but the game provides items that do the same thing, for a cost. Likewise, any ether abilities in gear form are just oversized versions of your regular spells, so your time is better spent simply attacking and dealing deathblows.
Okay, one more fault. While the first disc provides a wealth of battles both in gears and on foot, the second disc primarily deals with gear-on-gear or gear-on-gigantic-****ing-monster battles. Rarely will you get to fight on foot after you plop that second disc into the Playstation, which is a shame because it's at that point when you're able to get your most powerful deathblows. Still, these are relatively minor details in the grand scheme of things. Gear battles are not nearly so horrible that you'll begin to hate them, there just should have been a little more variety.
I suppose I might as well mention what happens when the game is over: nothing. Aside from playing through to better understand the game's story, there's no real point to a second play-through unless you really like the game. Which you might, I just tend to meet a lot of people who play a game once and then put it away if there's no difference the second time around, no matter how much they liked it the first time. Fortunately, Xenogears is a pretty massive game. The first time around took a solid 80 hours and change for me, and the second play (knowing what to do and where most of everything was) took somewhere around 70+ hours. The game bombards you with something new: the game. While you can spend some hours playing in the gear arena or trying a high-stakes, high-speed card game, the majority of your time spent playing Xenogears will actually be playing. This game is what I like to call legitimately long, as opposed to other games that try to pad their length with fetch quests and whatnot. Such is the way of Square's golden age, I suppose.
So, that's about it. The fact that Xenogears is spoken with such high regard in RPG circles originally sent me out looking for a copy. While my word alone might not be enough to convince you to buy it, there is sufficient evidence in the game itself to warrant its purchase. Yeah, that sounds like a catch-22, so let me put it this way: if you like RPGs, if you like a good story, if you like good games, give Xenogears a try. And don't blame me if, 60 hours later, you're on your way to saving the world and have no idea where your pants are...
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
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