Review by plasmabeam
Reviewed: 07/28/05 | Updated: 07/16/06
An Unbelievable RPG Experience
I've played a ton of RPGs throughout my life. Because of that, I have come to expect a lot from each one that I play. Xenogears is one of those rare games that just rises high above my expectations. The game combines one of gaming's best stories with likable characters and a fresh turn-based battle system. I spent over 70 hours in my play through of Xenogears, and most of the time the game held my attention with an iron grip.
Xenogears begins with an anime cut scene that introduces a few of the game's characters and sets up the massive plot. After the cut scene you meet the main character. Fei Fong Wong, a young man who has little memory of his past, is living in a peaceful village. He is excited about an upcoming wedding, but that excitement turns to terror when Gears attack the village. Gears can simply be described as giant human-shaped robots. These Gears are attempting to attack the village, but Fei hops into a Gear and fights them off. However, in the process of scaring the enemies away, Fei completely annihilates the town and most of its inhabitants. Throughout the game, this memory of destruction haunts Fei.
Now you may be thinking "What...?" That's just what the creators want you to think. The game's story keeps you guessing throughout the entire game. The juicy plot details unravel over the span of 2 discs. Until you reach the ending credits, you're still missing out on some important plot twist. People die, friends betray you, villains may be just pawns in the big picture. I could go on and on about all of various story details, but I don't want to spoil any major parts of the exciting plot. It's quite possibly the greatest story in any video game.
I couldn't help but love the atmosphere that Xenogears produces. Feelings of uncertainty and suspense were constantly thrown at me. You learn that you might be fighting for the wrong people and not to trust everyone. Although I couldn't actually make decisions for the characters, I felt quite engrossed in the world of Xenogears.
Xenogears offers a wide variety of characters, each with his or her own reasons for joining up with you. Characters such as Fei clearly develop over the course of the game, while others are not used up to their potential. It's a little disappointing to see a few of them go to waste, but luckily only one character feels "tacked on." There is also a superb cast of villains, but going into detail would spoil the story.
I'll be one of the first to admit that a good story alone can't carry an RPG to excellence. Xenogears is armed with a unique and enjoyable battle system, both on foot and while riding Gears. All of the battles are turn-based, and this offers one of the better turn-based battle systems. Don't expect to be mashing the X button for hours, because Xenogears makes use of three buttons to form combos and learn more combo abilities.
Before you start to worry about timing combos, like in a fighting game, don't bother sweating over it. You can take as much time as you need to link up Triangle, Square, and X attacks. Each attack costs a certain amount of points (Triangle is 1, Square is 2, X is 3). Your points regenerate fully each turn, and you can only use 4 points each turn at the start of the game. Later your point limit will increase.
There are two ways of using attacks: You can press buttons freely or press buttons in a special order to put together a powerful combo, called a "Deathblow." You can use a Deathblow constantly throughout the game, but in order to learn more you must attack freely. There is an advantage and a disadvantage to both ways of attacking, which helps balance the battle system and make combat a bit more interesting and addictive. The variety of attacks keeps the battle system fresh throughout the entire game. Besides the unique way of using Deathblows and attacking, nothing else is new. In addition to regular attacks, the usual RPG options are here as well. You can use magic to attack enemies or heal allies, and your characters can defend, use items, and escape from battle.
As in most RPGs, you need to improve the traits of your character through leveling up and by purchasing equipment and weapons. You level up quite quickly in Xenogears, and I recommend you don't spend too much time leveling up if you want a challenge. Most of the non-Gear battles in Xenogears are pretty easy. I think there were only a few points in the game where I died in normal battles, while I got thrown around a bunch of times in Gear battles.
As for equipment and weapons, the game offers three slots for equipment. Usually you use one for armor, one for headgear, and one for another accessory. Surprisingly, only a few characters use weapons. Fei himself fights with his bare fists for the entire time, and most of the other characters do as well. There is one character who uses guns to battle, and you have to buy new guns and new ammo for him. It's not as complicated as you might expect, and it's actually somewhat interesting to obtain new types of ammo and such.
Fighting in your Gears is quite different from battling on foot. Your Gears have much more HP than the characters do, and Gears also rely on fuel to attack. Each attack drains a certain amount of fuel from your Gear. If a Gear runs out, it can't continue fighting. Luckily, you can restore fuel during battle by using the "Charge" option. This not only recovers fuel, but also lets your character defend until the next turn. You can use some of your magic attacks, which may have different results while used in Gears. There are "Special Options" that are exclusive to Gear battles. As you progress through the game, you can obtain parts that restore your Gear's frame (Health Points). There are also Special Options that only certain characters can use. However, you need to reach a specific point in the game, where the characters learn how to execute these special moves, in order to use them in battle. All of the Special Options cost a great deal of fuel to use, so you can't overdo it.
Instead of pressing a few buttons to link up moves, you can only attack with one of the three buttons on your first turn. However, after your first attack you gain an "Attack Level" which allows you to use a Triangle combo. You can also do another basic attack to get to Attack Level 2 for a Square combo (assuming you learned enough Deathblows in regular battles). One more basic attack gets you to Attack Level 3, as you might have already guessed. This is the basic fighting process while battling in Gears. It's less fun than regular battles, since you simply keep using your most powerful moves until the battle is over. Although there is some strategy involved in boss fights, I would've appreciated something like the Deathblow learning system for Gears as well as characters.
To make your Gears stronger you must tune them up and purchase parts at Gear Shops. Gears can also be re-fueled at these shops. There are three main upgradeable parts of a Gear: Engine, Frame, and Armor. The Engine includes the output (strength) and fuel capacity of a Gear. Frame is the HP capacity, and Armor is simply physical defense. Tuning up your Gears is a necessity, because they don't get stronger through leveling up like the characters do. It's also important that you buy parts for your Gears. These can improve defense, allow you to use new abilities, and protect you from certain types of attacks. Some Gears even use weapons to fight, so obtaining strong weapons is quite important too.
Visually, Xenogears is quite ugly for a PS1 game. The characters look like they belong in a Super Nintendo game, and the environments aren't worth gazing at either. A few flashy attacks don't make up for the sub par visuals. Although the game looks awful, it at least further proves the fact that graphics aren't important in a video game. Throughout the game there are a few cinema scenes. Most of them are anime, but there are a couple realistic looking ones to help with the storytelling.
As for the music, I'd say that Xenogears has extremely average tunes. Outside of the battle theme and one or two other tracks, most of the music is forgettable. The music isn't bad by any means, but comparing it to Final Fantasy soundtracks makes it look like a joke. Sound effects are decent, with most of them being heard in battle. There's also voice acting in some of the special cut scenes, but it's very minimal, and it doesn't help or hurt the game.
Xenogears is one of the best gaming experiences that I've ever had. Combining an outstanding story with a solid battle system, Xenogears is a must have for any RPG fan's collection. One of the few complaints you'll hear about this game is that Disc 2 is boring. For the first few hours it is, but a few plot twists give it a good boost all the way until the end credits. Don't let that stop you from trying out this masterpiece.
Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
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