Review by BlkStarr

Reviewed: 12/13/04

A masterpiece in every phase, Xenogears is THE genre defining title

DISCLAIMER: Since the site won't allow me to put decimals in my score, I went ahead and rounded up to 10. This however doesn't mean the game is perfect, as nothing is, but instead that it is a pinnacle of gaming that should have a score reflecting that.

A beautiful dream… An elaborate realm consisting of wild fantasies that boggle the mind in their innate complexities… An experience that ends far too quickly, but seemingly lasts for an eternity… The resulting thirst becomes too horrendous to ignore; the body, no the mind, yearns for more of what can never be replicated. This is the very essence of Xenogears, Squaresoft’s 1998 epic role-playing game, that in every aspect of its execution places itself among the elite in the company’s history; maybe even gaining some of those spots in the meanwhile. Xenogears is undoubtedly one of the greatest games to ever grace the interactive medium of video games on any platform, and everyone would be wise to partake in it.

While Xenogears’ strongest aspect is its profound, and thought provoking storyline, the tale has very modest beginnings. It begins simply enough after the opening CG/Anime movie (which is beautifully done by the way) with a brief glimpse of the immediate future preceded by being granted control of the game’s main protagonist, Fei Fong Wong, in his home village of Lahan. Lahan is a peaceful little country that is in the boondocks of the Ignas continent that the game takes place on and as a result the few people are very close to one another. Fei is a bit of an outsider, as for the past 3 years he has been taken care of by the village elder after being brought to his doorstep by a mysterious man on one fateful day with no memory of his life beforehand. At the beginning of the game, the town is alive with anticipation of the upcoming wedding of two of Lahan’s residents and good friends of Fei, Alice and Timothy. As the initial plot progresses, Alice implores Fei to go to the local Doctor’s, Citan Uzuki, home and borrow a camera for tomorrow’s big day. Without ruining too much of the initial plot of the title, once Fei begins his return to the village with the borrowed goods he realizes that Lahan is in danger and being attacked by Gears. Fei runs to the rescue as soon as he can and once returning decides to enter a gear that the owner of has been killed in the battle. He is quickly overwhelmed, and this coupled with the death of his dear friend Timothy, causes him to unleash a power that overwhelms not only the opposing forces, but also destroys the village. Left with no recollection of the event prior to its occurrence, Fei is reprimanded by the few who are left with no homes and loved ones now, and is exiled from the land that once treated him like family. He now embarks on a mission of finding his worth in this world. From there the tale of Xenogears continues to get more and more complex and surprisingly remains fresh and full of unforeseeable twists throughout. Even more notable are the deep philosophical and religious tones that are explored within this title; from religious exploitation to the inherent dignity of all human beings. On this account, the title never ceases to amaze those who are devoted enough to listen intently and have their minds’ opened to a whole new paradigm. The story and characters of Xenogears will not disappoint. There is a downside however, and perhaps this would be that the story is NOT for everyone and can be at times a little hard for people to follow, especially those who are used to the usual single-layered plot of the average RPG. The game can be a little too complex for its own good, but it is better to have too much than to come up sorely lacking.

At its base level, the battle system of Xenogears is combo-reliant, turn-based experience that is still unlike many of the RPGs that exist in today’s flooded genre. Characters are allotted a certain amount of “AP Points”, starting with 5 and ending with 7 as certain levels and circumstances are reached, that allow them to mix and match button inputs until the queue is filled. Each of the PlayStation controller’s buttons corresponds to a certain type of blow that costs an according amount of AP points; Triangle is a weak blow that costs 1 AP, Square is a medium blow that costs 2 AP, and X is a strong blow that costs 3 AP. Each of these can be strung together in a number of different fashions to do different combos, but the real depth of the system comes from the Deathblows. Deathblows are the special attacks of Xenogears that each player learns by using a certain pattern of buttons in succession until the progression level of that move reaches 100%. When executed, the deathblows not only put on a nice little show, they do damage to back it up. However, in most normal battles, the deathblows are not needed as the enemies are rarely difficult enough to sustain a few strong blows. It is still in the best interests of the player to build up deathblows as quickly as possible as they are directly responsible for the damaging power of the player’s Gears (which will be explained shortly). Another aspect of the battle system is the “Combo” feature, which allows for the player to string together multiple deathblows, provided that they have enough AP points. Each time the player leaves points in the AP queue at the end of that character’s turn, they are rolled over to the next turn and so on until the battle ends. Provided that the character has enough points together in the AP queue, they can string together multiple deathblows; this becomes more useful in some of the later on-foot battles. The battle system of Xenogears also includes the genre staples of Magic (called “Ether” or “Chi”), Items, Escape and Defense. I suppose there is no use in fixing what is broken and these all serve their purpose well. The Magic system has the prerequisite healing, offensive and stat-boosting/lower spells and each of these looks fantastic as is usual Square fashion. (However, none of the effects go over the top in this title as the company is QUITE known for doing.) The real highlight of the game’s battles, and the place that you’ll spent more than the majority of the game fights in, are the Gear battles. As I mentioned earlier, the Deathblows learned by the characters directly impact how much damage the gears can do since while they still have the Triangle, Square, and X attacks they run a little different. First of all, each of these attacks takes a little bit of fuel from your gear, 10, 20 and 30 respectively, and by themselves aren’t enough to defeat nearly anything. The real strength comes from building up the attack levels of the gears that come in a variety of Level 1, 2 and 3, by attacking the enemy. Each level gained corresponds to a different set of special attacks that can be done by pressing the button that goes along with it. These attacks are only half the battle in Xenogears though, as the rest depends on how well you upgrade your gears in every opportunity you get. This is often the difference between either struggling to beat a boss or demolishing them. Outside of the battle system though, Xenogears is a little different from the standard RPG fare. The player has the ability to leap around with the press of the triangle button, which opens the door for some very well done dungeons with secrets scattered about. Because some of these jumps can be difficult to line up, the camera is always at the full control of the player via the R2 and L2 triggers. Although the game does a good job at handling the platforming aspects, it wasn’t employed as much as I would have liked and sometimes resulted in some painfully annoying jumps having to be made and missed repeatedly. This becomes a problem when you are constantly being interrupted by random encounters. All in all, the overworld play is functional but obviously is a far cry from Super Mario 64.

With the graphical engine behind this title, Square apparently decided to try something different and it is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand the town environments are consistently bubbling with NPC life and complex building schemes that ensure no two places look even remotely alike. But on the other hand, the sprites used for all the game’s people are severely lacking, even for its own time. The concept is very noble, and should be applauded for its individuality, but Square should have no doubt been able to do better than they did. Often the characters appear to flicker and have parts of them seemingly messing. In addition to that, the models are all low-res which makes them look worse than they could have been. As bad as those look however, the gear sprites look even worse and it makes it a pain to bear them in the few cinemas they are in with 3D bosses and dungeons. The one place that the development team overwhelmingly succeeded however was with the outdoors environment though. From Blackmoon Forest to the very last few dungeons of the title, each area looks as if Square had actually done on location mapping for them. The forests’ give an appropriate height discrepancy and really create the feeling of danger being right around the corner for the player. Also, the Nisan temple is noteworthy as it features extremely beautiful architecture. The dungeons also deserve mentioning as they use effective texturing and structure to create a truly different environment and somehow manage to each maintain their own individuality. All in all, the only true problem with the graphics of Xenogears lies in the characters themselves; somewhat ironic as they are main reason the game itself is such a masterpiece. With just a little higher resolution on the models, the game’s most least polished aspect could have contributed a little more to whole but as it stands the rest of the package makes it more than sufficient. What isn’t acceptable however is the butchering job that Square did on the dubbed anime sequences, which are few and far between. This is both a blessing and a curse. The anime cinemas of the game are simply beautiful and the art is amazing, but the voiceovers are so out of sync with the lip movements that it becomes painful to watch at times. There are literally several instances in the game where there is a 3-5 second separation between the end of the spoken line and the time when the character’s mouth has stopped moving. From such a prestigious company as Square, this is unacceptable. There is no reason that such beautiful art should have been marred by this oversight. This, like the character models, keeps Xenogears from reaching its full graphical potential.

Aside from the astounding storyline, perhaps the most impressive part of this game is in the insane sound quality, both effects wise and on the soundtrack level. In this game, Square took a true generational leap from the bleeps and bloops they had employed over the last decade for the 16-bit gen to the digitalized sounds they used for menus and in battle sounds in Xenogears. The step up is one that can be greatly appreciated by both sound aficionados as well as even the casual gamer and this makes an apparent difference in the overall presentation of the title. Even more impressive however, is the outstanding soundtrack spearheaded by the always impressive, Yasunori Mitsuda, but this time he has outdone even himself. Part of the experience in a good video game resides in the message relayed by the music and on that note, Xenogears takes the cake. Nearly each song in each area of the game is instantly catchy and does a good job of conveying the tone of the environments. Also, almost all of the characters have an individual theme that does an excellent job of fitting the unique personality of each of them. When playing this game, it is easy to see why Xenogears’ soundtrack is considered to be right alongside Chrono Trigger for Mitsuda’s highest achievement. There are only minor complaints here to be had as well, one of which is only one overworld theme. Although “Emotions” is a more than adequate tune to be played during the exploration of the Ignas continent, there is an apparent difference between the world of the start of the game in an earlier stage and the world when you return to its map towards the ending. Again this is a minor complaint, but when such an excellent job is done it becomes difficult to find aspects to criticize.

When all of the elements of Xenogears are meshed together as a whole, it is easy to see why it is considered a classic by those who have had the honor of experiencing it. The story, characters, gameplay, graphics, and sound of this title all come together in a way that is rarely accomplished in this industry and even in this day of high technology remains virtually unparalleled. Although the title isn’t without its problems, notably the sometimes hard to follow storyline, battles that seem far too easy on occasion, the HIGHLY debated quality of Disk 2, and the overworld controls, these are negligible in the face of such quality. Saying that this game is for everyone is foolish however, as some may find its sometimes preachy story to be too pretentious for their tastes. Others may think that the battle system was too flawed for their tastes. I would implore you to give this excellent title a chance for yourself. For both RPG fans and those who are looking for a fine game to occupy upward of 60 hours of their lives, there need be no other game to fill this void. Allow yourself to be enveloped in Xenogears, you’ll find that in this case the fact does live up to the legend.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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