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Xenogears (PlayStation)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168605)
Written on  :  Sep 01, 2003
Platform  :  PlayStation
Rating  :  4.6 Stars4.6 Stars4.6 Stars4.6 Stars4.6 Stars

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I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end

The Good

Xenogears became famous for its enormously complex narrative that tries to deal with deep psychological and religious issues.

The game's main hero is Fei, an orphan who was found abandoned in a village. Most of the time you control Fei or his party (whose members change all the time). Fei will start his journey once he is chased away from the village, but soon he will find himself involved in a war between two kingdoms. This is, however, just a beginning of an incredibly complicated and rich plot, that outdoes pretty much everything I've seen before in Japanese RPGs or any other kind of video games.

The amount of psychological, social, ethical, and religious problems raised by Xenogears has no parallels in the world of video games. The gradual, relentless development of the story is brilliant, and the amount of plot twists mind-boggling. The story like a huge puzzle - only near the very end all pieces of this puzzle come together, and you finally realize what the whole thing was about. There is no end to sudden twists and revelations, and the suspense is so great that they deliberately dedicated almost the entire second part of the game to story development, leaving gameplay somewhat in the shadow, to tie all the loose ends and explain everything that was unclear.

The game has an overwhelming amount of characters, each with a deep psychological background and importance to the plot. The story starts as a more or less conventional tale about war, but what grows out of this is a remarkable attempt to analyze the nature of faith and religion, trace back the origin of mankind, and face "unanswered" questions.

The "smaller" stories - personal stories of the characters - are wonderfully woven into the main plot, and every character brings with him a piece to the puzzle that will be solved only at the end of the game. Fei is easily one of the most complex video game characters ever. All supporting characters are interesting, from the brave "pirate" Bart to the priest Billy who has lost his faith. Perhaps the most interesting characters are your supposed enemies - Commander Rasmus, Krelian, and such mysterious figures as Grahf or Miang. The sheer complexity of their relationships is absolutely formidable.

The game dares to explore the most "forbidden" issues, and analyzes almost every aspect of human existence. It is also very rich mythologically, with heavy references to various parts of the Bible. The story Xenogears is an attempt to explain what lies behind mythological symbols, and pose again the eternal questions: where do we come from? Is there God? What is the meaning of our existence?

But don't think that Xenogears is all story and no gameplay. The experienced Square managed to enhance traditional Japanese RPG gameplay with some very interesting ideas. During regular battles, you can perform various combos by pressing square or triangle buttons instead of simply attacking. If you cancel one of the combo attacks, you "save" a point for your next turn, and can unleash a more powerful and devastating combo. You learn various combos by using them and simply by leveling up. Beside physical attacks, you can use Ether, which is pretty much the same as magic.

The most original part of the gameplay in Xenogears is gear combat. Gears are large robots that can be piloted by your characters. Nearly a half (and perhaps more) of the game's dungeons can be accessed only with gears. Such are major locations like Babel Tower and the last dungeon. Gear combat doesn't work the same way as hand-to-hand battles and requires different strategies. Gears can't level up, and you upgrade them only in shops or at certain points of the game. You also lose fuel when attacking with gears. Gear combat can get quite tricky, especially during the last portion of the game and the final battles, where fuel is precious and you have to think about preserving it all the time. The gear design in the game is absolutely cool and is sure to excite any giant robot fan.

A large part of Xenogears is spent on exploring areas, and one of its very interesting features is the ability to jump. While in most other RPGs the characters jump automatically (if at all) when jumping is necessary, in Xenogears this action is controlled by the player. There are some arcade sequences in the game, even some trap-avoiding and such. I really don't mind those arcade parts and find them quite refreshing. You can also rotate your view and do other nice things for a change, which add an action flavor to this adventure.

Graphically, the game is certainly not dazzling, and I suppose its graphics could annoy somebody who is not used to anime style. The game's characters are simple sprites, with large pixels visible even when you sit farther away from the TV. The battle animations are also far from being as spectacular as in Final Fantasy VII. But the world is done in real 3D, and I think they did a really good job in designing it; for an early 3D game, the graphics are quite detailed. Some (unfortunately very few) cut scenes are presented as anime-style movies. I absolutely love this style, and I could only wish there were more of them.

The music of Xenogears was composed by Yasunori Mitsuda or Chrono Trigger fame. I'm a big fan of his work, and the soundtrack of Xenogears certainly doesn't disappoint. I was whistling and humming and singing and playing on my piano the Lahan tune until I got sick of it.

The Bad

As ambitious as the narrative of Xenogears is, it still has typically Japanese weaknesses; as with most anime-influenced stories, one should take it cum grano salis. An example is the determination of the Japanese to include "cute" characters in every story. Personally, I didn't "hate" Chu-Chu as much as many other people seem to have; but I can understand how annoying such characters and similar instances can be for someone who expects coherence from the narrative.

I loved the anime movies, but there were so few of them! The second CD was basically cutscene after cutscene, but most of them were made with in-game engine, which significantly weakened their dramatic impact.

The Bottom Line

Xenogears is probably the most successful incarnation of anime spirit in an RPG. It is worth playing just for its insanely complex, metaphysically challenging story; but gameplay-wise, it is also very entertaining and rewarding. Xenogears is a treat for fans of Japanese RPGs, and one of the most interesting games created in this genre.