In the long respite between Final Fantasy games, Square has been consistently releasing titles to a growing audience of RPG fans. But with some less than stellar releases such as Parasite Eve and SaGa Frontier under its belt, the holiday season sees Square releasing this year's pinnacle title within the genre.
Xenogears follows the story of a young man named Fei, who against his will is entangled in the middle of a raging war between two nations. With no memory of his past and having to cope with the loss of those who took him in, Fei embarks on a journey. It unfolds much like a mystery or puzzle, and will reveal not only his true identity, but also the inner workings of the world's political system, religious beliefs and fate. It's an incredibly complex plotline that draws in the player from the first instant the game begins, and includes evenly paced character progression as well as an interesting cast of allies and enemies.
At times, the foreshadowing in the plot may seem confusing to players because of the amount of fictional jargon used to construct a universe filled with its own beliefs systems, but gaping questions are all answered throughout the course of the game. The subtlety with which the game handles somewhat heavy-handed issues (religion, death, abandonment, etc.) also keeps it from seeming too dark or overbearing.
The gameplay within Xenogears features highly innovative elements that far surpass any other console RPG. It completely immerses the player in the game's world and gives the player a high level of interaction with the game systems (there is a far more free-form play style than the usual drag-them-by-the-nose style in console RPGs).
The combat system features not only the trademark Active Time Battle gauge, but the ability to enter in a string of attack commands that are then carried out by the character chosen in real-time. These attacks can be either paired together manually to perform learned combos for extra damage, or they can be automatically unleashed on an enemy by powering up your AP meter before hand. This feature in combat is not only refreshing in a turn-based RPG, but gives players a higher level of interaction during battle.
After a certain point in the game, characters can also fight enemies while controlling large "Gears" or mechs. The controls for these combat sequences are almost the same as regular battles, but they incorporate a different type of strategy that is dependant upon the amount of fuel and the Attack Level of the character's mech. The result of such variety in combat is a completely unique experience only matched, perhaps, by the battles in Sega's Panzer Dragoon Saga.
Visually, Xenogears presents a mix of old and new by placing highly detailed sprite-based characters into polygonal 3D environments. With a good frame-rate and responsive controls, character movement within any terrain is fast and fluid. Characters can also jump, climb and swim during certain episodes and provides a good sense of flexibility for navigating different areas. This is key to giving what is usually the fairly static chore of exploring areas outside of battle a rather active feel.
But, beyond the technology and graphic flair of Xenogears, at its heart the game spins a wonderfully written tale. It's comforting to find a game of this caliber can still be made and released based more on its merit than on fanfare, and Xenogears definitely delivers. With an epic, involving storyline and highly innovative features, this title deserves to be heralded as Square's pinnacle achievement of the year.
The Bottom Line: With more gameplay than hype, Xenogears quietly emerges as the best console RPG of 1998 that absolutely no fan of the genre should be without.