Review by KerntheGerm
Xenogears would have been great . . . if it had been finished.
Xenogears is one of the most incredible and amazing games I've ever had the opportunity to play. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most boring and regressive ones as well. The problem arises from the fact that Disk 1 was made when the devteam had a lot of money, and Disk 2 was made after the devteam didn't have any money. This lead to an obvious and shocking decline in quality once the second half of the game begins, and it ruins some of the better parts of the first half.
You traverse the story in the role of Fei Fong Wong, a young man with amnesia. Neighboring countries are at war with each other, and the primary weapons are immense engines of destruction known as Gears. A new type of gear crash lands in Fei's village, and some other gears are fighting over it. Fei, not exactly knowing what he's doing, climbs into the gear to protect the village. This event marks the beginning of one young man's incredible journey . . . and his inevitable confrontation with the terrible and awesome power of God.
The first half of Xenogears' story is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. There are a variety of unexplained NPCs using unexplained terminology in boring narrative sequences that mostly serve to confuse and alienate the player. The characters you control are completely ignorant of the complex processes in motion around them. It all clicks together eventually, but most of it is meaningless jargon at first. It's supposed to "create a mystery that draws the player deeper into the game," but instead it makes the player distance himself rather than break his head trying to figure out what the hell they mean when they say "the contact is transmigrating to the antitype." Apparently, the strategy here is to not explain anything at all and use as many confusing phrases as possible.
The second half of Xenogears' story is where they explain everything. Budget cuts forced Square to do a rush job of slapping together all of the story into long cutscenes where there is just a character sitting in a chair, running his mouth on the story instead of actually letting the player play it. So contrary to what we had in the beginning of the game, we now have a variety of well-known characters using slightly explained terminology in our boring and hollow narrative sequences, and now these sequences can sometimes last as long as thirty or forty minutes of straight jabbering. The problem is, no one ever acts like they've learned any of it. All of the characters continue to use the same stupid and existential pseudo-religious psycho-babble that they've been using the entire time, even the characters who knew the truth from the beginning of the game! I'm sort of glad that budget cuts made disk 2 so short; I don't know what I would have done if I had had to wait any longer for the story to finally start making sense. But the fact that no one ever learned anything from any of the explanations kind of irked me and cheapened the narrative effect.
Trying not to spoil too much, I'll say that the ending leaves much to be desired. The way everything is resolved and neatly wrapped up in the end sort of ruins the point of all the mystery of the beginning. Bottom line? Square tried too hard to break the typical RPG storyline mold, and ended up shooting themselves in the foot with a nonsensical and incoherent jumble of a story. Worse still is the fact that they had already broken the typical RPG storyline mold in some of their earlier games.
Again, this was also ruined by the budget cuts.
I thought the deathblow system was awesome. The good news first: The good points far outweigh the flaws, as many flaws as there are. I thought having a bunch of attacks at my fingertips was a lot cooler than just having one standard attack like in most RPGs. With fewer useless features and more balance, I think the Deathblow system could really work. The coolness of the Deathblow system is the only reason Gameplay scores as high as it does. But every silver lining has a dark cloud, and Xenogears' Deathblow system is no different.
Deathblows take way too long to execute. They seem to last forever. I'm not using these moves to see how cool they look, all I care about is how powerful they are. If they look good at the same time, so much the better. But the last thing I need is some SFX technician wasting my time with a bunch of long and flashy techniques.
Some of the features of the Deathblow system were downright superfluous. Admittedly this is a minor point, but I found the medium attack button to be rather unnecessary. If I want to kill the enemy, I will just use the strongest attack, and if I don't, I'll just use the weakest attack. There's really no reason to be having a medium attack button at all, other than to give you more deathblows that you aren't going to use in the end anyway. I feel that the system could have been done much better with just two buttons.
The proper button combinations for your dozen or so deathblows later in the game were a bit difficult to keep track of, and since of your early deathblows are completely useless once you get your stronger ones, I see no reason to have included so many attacks in the first place. The "Combo" system whereby you could save your action points during your turns to chain together a bunch of deathblows later in the battle might have saved the early deathblows from being useless, except that the Combo system in and of itself was useless anyway, and (aside from a few special battles) you could finish a battle more quickly by simply using your strongest deathblows repeatedly.
And it's not just your early deathblows that end up being useless, either. Your other attacks, Ether attacks, are almost completely useless when compared to the power of deathblows. There's usually little reason to use them at all. In addition, they take even longer than deathblows to execute, so you end up not using Ether-based characters at all.
But then disk 2 comes, and it ruins everything. As mentioned, most of Disk 2 is spent in long narrative sequences separated by the occasional boss battle that you fight in your gears anyway, so you stop getting any real use out of your characters' Deathblows. Even the few dungeons in the last half of the game are designed to be traversed in gears only, so you don't get the opportunity to use your characters even then. And since character stats are irrelevant to your gears' power, it becomes meaningless to level up as well. Your characters simply stop being people after a while and just turn into talking gears.
But the gear system is cool, too. Gears have much, much higher stats than your characters, usually around ten times the power of your characters at any given point. But there's one caveat: Gears have a limited supply of both Fuel and HP. Every attack command you input while riding a gear consumes a portion of its fuel, and when a gear runs out of Fuel, you must recharge it before you can attack again. Gears are also impossible to heal by conventional means, so if you fight a lot of battles in your gear and have to fight a boss before you have a chance to repair, you're SOL. This forces you to carefully monitor and regulate your gear usage, lest you find yourself wounded and out of fuel at a critical moment. Fortunately, there are a few methods to refill your gear HP and fuel later in the game, and this gives you tons of opportunities for varied attack strategies.
But then disk 2 ruins this aspect as well. More than any other RPG, Xenogears' final few dungeons are nothing but chances to wear your characters down before the the boss, especially the dungeon before the final boss. At least in other RPGs, I can pick up powerful and rare weapons and armor from treasure chests littered around the dungeon and build up my characters in all the fights. Xenogears allows neither of these, as Gears can only be made stronger by spending exorbitant amounts of money to upgrade Gear parts. So you're no stronger at the bottom of the dungeon than you were right before entering it. If anything, you're weaker because of all the irreplaceable Fuel and HP you've used in fights on the way down.
Add to this the fact that all the rooms of any given dungeon look exactly the same, and you have a huge problem. Unless you have some sort of perfect spatial memory or are mapping the dungeon on graph paper as you go, most of the time you'll have absolutely no idea where the hell you're going. It amounts to a great deal of aimless, almost endless wandering, and the incredibly frequent random battles only exacerbate this problem.
The puzzles are pretty fun, though. If only I wasn't being attacked every 5 steps.
Because of the halfass way Disk 2 was handled, dungeons and battles were needlessly ten times more annoying than they would have been otherwise. Budget cuts absolutely butchered this aspect of the game in particular. If Square had had the money to do it right, I'm convinced that they could have done a much better job with it.
Controls are decent. Nothing particularly good, and quite a few number of flaws. Still, the lack of anything particularly confusing like 5-deep nested menus was nice.
As mentioned before, deathblows can sometimes be a bit hard to remember. Even later in the game I was still having problems remembering which button combinations did which deathblows. The buttons you pressed had little to do with the deathblow you were executing, other than to give it a unique combination. By the end of the game, you can't remember if the Ice Deathblow you wanted to do was Triangle Triangle Square X, or Or Square Triangle Triangle X. It was all very unintuitive and confusing.
But one control problem really ruins the game. Right before you're about to get into a battle, the 'Jump' button stops working. So here's what happens: You're near the top of a long dungeon and you need to make a jump. So you press Triangle. But it doesn't work, and you fall all the way back down to the bottom of the dungeon, only to get into a goddamn random battle when you land. Absolutely infuriating to say the least. Now you have to climb all the way back up to the top of the dungeon through all the jumping puzzles and dozens of Fuel-sapping random battles, praying all the while that it doesn't happen again. I can't tell you the number of times I almost put my controller through the wall over this glitch.
Music and Sound: 5/10
Nothing much to say about the music. None of it was bad enough for me to hate, neither was much of it good enough for me to love. Most of it was bland and forgettable background music, but there were a few really great tunes that stuck in my head, so music gets an above average score.
Sound is the same way. Not good enough to love, not bad enough to hate, but enough really cool sounds to make it good. Most of the gear battle sounds were really great, as they put the player perfectly into an anime mecha fight. Which is essentially what Xenogears is: A story that was supposed to be an anime but was accidentally made a game instead.
But then there's the voice acting. Good during the battles, bad during the cutscenes. None of the anime cutscenes were properly cut and synched to the English voices, so they all ended up coming off as very halfassed and slipshod. Budget cuts strike again. Lots of points lost for the terrible voice acting.
Make no mistake: Xenogears has excellent graphics. Square has far refined their techniques since FF7, even in such a short time. Colors are bright and bold, textures are complex, and towns and dungeons are varied and convincing. The Gears in particular are very impressive.
But the graphics get a little too big for their britches. In its quest to make complex and organic towns, Square unfortunately sacrificed navigability. Most buildings with the towns all have the same architectural style, but this makes it almost impossible to differentiate one building from another. It quickly becomes impossible to tell which building you're supposed to go to, and equally impossible to find your way back to the building you just came from in order to refresh your memory! It's sort of the reverse of the problem most RPGs have where it's easy to find your way around town, but all the towns look the same. In Xenogears, all the towns look different, but once you get inside, all the buildings look the exact same!
The sprites are not so good. Sprites and 3D simply do not mix. The sprites are good and detailed enough . . . until you zoom in on them, which the game does rather frequently, and it looks terrible. The sprites are also designed to face in the 8 cardinal and subcardinal directions, which is plenty enough directions . . . until the camera rotates, which not only does the game do rather frequently during cutscenes, but the player does rather frequently in the towns and dungeons. Rotating the the camera makes the sprites turn in a choppy and jumpy way, and it doesn't look good at all. I realize that the only solution to this, adding in 4 or 8 more intermediate angles, would have been far too taxing on the system. But if intermediate angles were only given to at least the standing, walking, and running animations of the characters, I think the rotating look would have been vastly improved for little increase on the system requirements. Hell, I'd even take a hit in the rendering quality of the 3D surroundings to make the sprite effects blend better with them.
Not necessarily an average, but I think the math is right anyway. Xenogears had the potential to be great, perfect even, but it failed to fulfill that potential, ending up being only average. Xenogears would have been much better off as an anime rather than a game.
Intriguing gameplay, great graphics
Some imbalances in both gameplay and graphics
Budget cuts leave you with only half of a game.
Rating: 2.5 - Playable
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