Written by  :  Cor 13 (174142)
Written on  :  Sep 01, 2003
Platform  :  PlayStation
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Ye shan't be as gods if ye pilot mechs with German names

The Good

Xenogears became famous for its enormously complex story that tried 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 few, if any, parallels within the medium. The gradual, relentless development of the story is singularly impressive, and the amount of plot twists mind-boggling. The story starts as a more or less conventional tale about war, but what grows out of this is a remarkable (though not particularly successful) attempt to analyze the nature of faith and religion, trace back the origin of mankind, and face unanswered questions.

The game has an overwhelming amount of characters, each with a well-developed background and importance to the plot. The smaller quests - personal stories of the characters - are organically 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, and most of the supporting characters are interesting, colorful, and varied.

Xenogears is not exactly all story and no gameplay. The experienced developers managed to invigorate traditional Japanese RPG gameplay with some 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. The really original part of the gameplay, however, is gear combat, where your characters fight while piloting large mechs. Nearly a half (or perhaps more) of the game's dungeons can be accessed only with gears. Gear combat doesn't work the same way as hand-to-hand battles and requires different tactics. Your gigantic armored suits can't level up, and you upgrade them only in shops or at certain points of the game. They also lose fuel each time they attack. Gear combat can therefore 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.

A large part of Xenogears is spent on exploring areas, and some of them are actually quite generously designed. One of the game's major cities is a map of its own, divided into several districts. An interesting feature 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 a few arcade-like sequences in the game, even some trap-avoiding and such. You can also rotate your view and do other nice things for a change, which add a slight real-time flavor to this adventure.

Visually, 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.

The Bad

Xenogears has quite a few serious gameplay-related issues. For starters, its system is nowhere as flexible as in Final Fantasy games. Characters have neither pronounced class traits nor allow any kind of free-form customization; they automatically learn some fairly meaningless spells when they level up, and that's it. They can execute and store combo moves, but this never surpasses the level of a harmless gimmick because no tactical thinking is required: the game is too easy. On-foot combat is generally utterly forgettable, not in the least due to its disproportionally low difficulty; gear battles are a bit better, especially in the later stages. But overall, there is almost no challenge in the game.

In fact, it seems that combat system and much of the gameplay were added to the game as an afterthought, to accompany its monstrous story rather than the other way around. The game masks its linearity fairly well during the first half of the game, where you explore large areas and where setpieces are varied and progression is dynamic. It all, however, goes downhill in the second half - which is where Final Fantasies usually open up and provide optional areas and access to secrets. Sadly, there is too little of that in Xenogears, and it comes too late, just before the final confrontation. The rest of the second disc consists of long text blocks unabashedly summarizing events that should have been shown through gameplay, interspersed with streamlined dungeon romps in a most weirdly artificial, disjointed fashion. The game is generally fond of lengthy cutscenes done with the engine, with little cinematic handling and plenty of averagely translated, overly verbose exchanges between characters. Only a few cutscenes are presented as anime-style movies.

Finally, the ambitious story of Xenogears is not all good. First of all, like with most anime-influenced narratives, 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 serious treatment of very risky material. Unfortunately, said material is often handled with irksome nonchalance. Biblical topics are being thrown around with next to no coherence, and the developers' comprehension of religions is revealed as roughly matching the ravings of a confused adolescent who has just discovered the romance of mythologized philosophy from a book written by a nineteen-century amateur. Basically, it's all a giant mess, albeit one the writers clearly tried to infuse with creativity.

The Bottom Line

Xenogears is an overblown, messy game that treats its own gameplay with unjustified negligence. And yet, one cannot quite help being affected by the megalomania of its creators. The sheer complexity of its plot, the passionate presentation, and the several good gameplay ideas that survived the onslaught of the gargantuan story make playing it a strangely fulfilling experience. Also, for what it's worth, it's probably the most successful incarnation of sci-fi anime spirit in a video game.