Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181424)
Written on  :  Sep 01, 2003
Platform  :  PlayStation
Rating  :  3.6 Stars3.6 Stars3.6 Stars3.6 Stars3.6 Stars

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Ye shan't be as gods if ye have more cutscenes than gameplay

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 the beginning of an incredibly complicated 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 necessarily 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.

The one interesting aspect of the gameplay 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.

The Bad

Unfortunately, Xenogears is just not that good of a game. It is a classic example of a late-nineties Japanese RPG where plot matters more than gameplay. The creators of the game crammed huge amounts of cartoony plot twists and uninspired dialogue into the game, but forgot about what matters most.

For starters, the game's 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 way 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 very few cutscenes are presented as anime-style movies, and they are very short.

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

In the end, Xenogears is an overblown, messy game that treats its own gameplay with unjustified negligence, and collapses under the enormous dead weight of its freakish narrative. The storytelling megalomania of the game's creators cannot compensate for its lackluster and chunky gameplay.