Fei Fong Wong is a peaceful man, who loves his small town life, enjoys painting and teaches martial arts to the kids around town. Yet Fei can only remember the last 2-3 years of his life, and is told he was brought to the village unconscious by a mysterious man during the middle of a heavy storm. Where he is from and what he is capable of is a complete mystery to him. He is about to find out everything—about not only his own past, but the past of his entire world. Who he is, who his father is, why the two great nations of his continent have been at war for 500 years, even about man and God and the fate of the world…
Xenogears is an RPG for the Playstation, and one of an epic scale. Often hailed as one of the greatest RPGs of all time (and similarly reviled by others), Xenogears pushes the envelope on not only games made before its 1998 release date, but even games that are considerably newer. It was also one of the hardest games to get one’s hands on, as few copies were ever printed and Squaresoft put little financial backing into this game, instead choosing to focus on its more financially lucrative Final Fantasy series. What copies were distributed were quickly bought up and often resold over and over as collector’s items, and many people (such as me) paid way too much for the chance to play this game. With the announcement that Xenogears would join Sony’s best seller list, however, will be a massive reissuing of the game, with a beautiful MSRP of around $20 dollars. It already seems like it would be an easy recommendation, but how does the game play?
Well, for starters, Xenogears features two battle systems, one for your characters, and one for the gears that they pilot (gears are huge mecha robots that heavily figure into the plot). The two are somewhat intertwined, with identical interfaces and because the stats and skills your characters gain skills (especially deathblows), their gears gain more powerful attacks to match the skills. Combat is performed through a standard RPG menu in active time, except when attacking each character gets to perform a combination of light, medium and heavy attacks up to a certain number of points allocated (which goes up with leveling up). Certain combinations result in powerful deathblows, and these too must be earned and committed to memory. By the end of the game, you get to pound out some pretty heavy carnage using the various combo systems.
The control for the rest of the game does not fare quite so well. It serves its purpose for the most part, but the inventory system is a mess, with no way to organize and no central location to see every item/weapon/armor/etc that you have collected. The only way to see what weapons a character can use is, for example, is to actually go into his/her equipment screen and start changing out equipment. Figuring out where all the various statistics are, such as how far a character is from earning another deathblow, are a pain due to an unintuitive menu configuration, and some things, such as what armor a gear is wearing, can only be found out at a shop while buying new armor. The interface is not a major hindrance to the game, but it could certainly use some polish.
The game itself is not difficult, however. The dungeons are relatively small and hard to get lost in, and only twice did I find the need to map anything. Some boss battles are insanely hard and I died multiple times, sometimes after not having saved for an hour or more. Needless to say, there definitely were some very frustrating moments. These were rare, however, and most of the game proceeded very nicely, with enough challenge to keep me engaged but not so much as to drive me crazy. Once you reach the end, however, the game provides no overt reasons to play again. The replay value comes from the incredibly deep plot, which is all but impossible to soak completely in the first time around. And after a realistic 50-65 hour count to beat this game (which is probably the longest RPG I’ve played yet) and the deepest RPG plot I’ve come across (which I’ll discuss below), I really felt that I had gotten my money’s worth. Once through is pretty satisfying.
The look and sound of Xenogears are a mixed bag. The visuals, while not outright impressive in today’s age of high-count polygon pushing and real-time texture and lighting effects, are still very enjoyable to look at. The use of sprites harkens back to the 16-bit era, and in many ways this game is a seriously overgrown Super Nintendo game, but with a freely rotatable camera and impressive looking backdrops (especially with texture smoothing enabled on the Playstation 2). A few “anime” scenes are scattered around in the game, mostly at the beginning and ends of each of the 2 discs, but the voice acting in those are so atrocious that I was grateful that 99% of the plot advancement proceeded in the main game’s interface. The intro was by far the best of the anime scenes, with the most convincing voice dubs. The other sounds in the game are perfectly acceptable, although a little cheesy by today’s standards. They serve the game well, though, and never truly become annoying.
The music in Xenogears, however, is truly something to treasure. Yasunori Mitsuda’s score is heavily influenced by the 16-bit era of RPG music, with a few subtle, almost non-existant hints at a few themes from Chrono Trigger (one of Yasunori Mitsuda’s previous works at Square). As such, almost every track is very listenable and catchy, rather than subtle and ignorable as many of today’s video game scores tend to be. Some of the tunes, such as those of Lahan village and Margie’s/Nisan’s theme, are so catchy that I found myself hanging around in those towns just to hear the music. The intro deserves special mention, with an amazing piece of music accompanying it. It’s unfortunately completely drowned out by all the action, and I did not fully appreciate it until I heard it on the soundtrack. Finally, there are two vocal pieces by Joanne Hogg, both in English. Stars of Tears is not heard in the game, but accompanies a short music video that is only viewable with the infamous “Lunar disc-swap trick.” Small Two of Pieces, however, is an amazing song, and now my favorite vocal theme of an RPG. Its beautiful lyrics, lush instrumentation and the highly emotional and moving singing of Joanne Hogg are awesome.
Of course, the real focus of Xenogears is the plot. After all, that’s what everyone plays this game for. And what a plot it is! The player is teased in the beginning with a short anime clip that seemingly has nothing to do with the story. After that, we start in a small village with a man who is about to attend the wedding of his two best friends when his village is the accidental battleground of a long standing war between two nations. The plot literally explodes from that point, with twists and turns everywhere, tons of interesting characters and exciting locales, and a back-story going back more than 10,000 years that is slowly revealed. This game tackles politics, war, religion, science-fiction and more, and does it all well with a refreshing lack of the “been there, done that” sense. Despite being a 50-65 hour game, the player is rewarded frequently with plot, and the constant sense that s/he has only part of the answer at any given time.
Disc 1 does this admittedly better than disc 2, however, and the first 3-5 hours of disc 2 can be somewhat of a pain as plot secrets are spilled everywhere and the game attempts to catch up with itself. I at first thought that the development team had run out of time and hastily put together a pseudo-game for the second half of the Xenogears, just to be sure they could tell the rest of their amazing story. Disc 2 levels out, though, those who stick with the game to the end are treated with a great resolution of all the mysteries and a pretty satisfying (if somewhat too short) ending. Unfortunately, Xenogears suffers from the same problem that many other RPGs are plagued with, and that is the inclusion of great secondary characters with profoundly interesting back-stories that never get resolved adequately in the end. I would say this is overlookable, however, since the only games I’ve played that have avoided this trap in recent memory are the Lunar series and Skies of Arcadia (and of course the venerable Final Fantasy VI), and because the main character is so interesting, with such a great back-story (not to mention one of the most convincing RPG romances yet).
With such a plot, it’s really a shame that the localization wasn’t done better. The dialogue itself is riddled with uses of “this” and “that,” and hyphens are used like crazy to over-accentuate important words. (e.g. “He must have used –this–, in order to further the progression of –that–!”) The dialogue often comes across as stiff and somewhat mangled because of this, and this game really deserved more. This game’s translation and dialogue could use a facelift, which probably won’t happen at Square since practically the entire Xenogears team quit Square to form Monolith Soft after the execs at Square refused to properly promote Xenogears or give the team funding for a sequel, deciding to pour all its money into Final Fantasy instead. Luckily, Monolith Soft plans to remake Xenogears (sort of) as part of the larger Xenosaga story, and I’ll be looking forward to Xenosaga Episode 5 when that comes out in 2007 or whenever…
“Stand Tall and Shake the Heavens!” proclaims the back of the game case, and strangely enough, the catchphrase matches the game extremely well. At the heart of this game is the story of one man learning to stand up on his own two feet and fight for what (and who) he cares about, and the effects of his efforts change the entire course of the world by the end on a scale that few “save the world” plots manage to ever gain sight of. With such an amazing plot and wonderful characters, a dynamic battle system that rarely ever gets old, and fun visual plus an amazing soundtrack, Xenogears is an easy recommendation. Don’t be scared by the few negative comments I make in this review—Xenogears is a great time, and especially now at around twenty bucks, it is a steal.