Squaresoft's Xenogears was foretold to us over a year ago. In FFVII, a delirious Cloud Strife would mumble words that at the time seemed like gibberish. He said, "Xenogias…is coming". Little did we know that a year later Xenogias would arrive in the form of Xenogears, a traditional RPG from a development team that was partly responsible for the classic Chrono Trigger on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
There was a time when it was highly doubtful that this game would come to North American shores or be in an uncensored form. Square was concerned about a backlash from religious groups over the game's content. With support from numerous fans that signed petitions and a distribution partnership with Electronic Arts, Xenogears is here intact and I couldn't be happier. It is an incredible game and one of the most intriguing role-playing games ever made.
"You shall be as Gods"
Xenogears focuses around the adventures of a young man named Fei Fong Wong, an amnesiac from a small village named Lahan. He has a mastery of the martial arts as well as an artistic skill obviously attained from a master. After a tragedy in Lahan, he is forced to leave and find a new life. Filled with despair, he sets out into an unfamiliar world unsure of how long he can continue before giving in to his guilt and sorrow.
Thus begins Fei's adventure that will take him to numerous locales around the world making strange allies and numerous enemies who hate him for reasons he does not know. He must face his own demons in order to find an identity and defeat his past sorrows. He must learn about love and life in order to survive the trials ahead.
Xenogears' story is tremendous in scope and uses foreshadowing to an extreme. There are mysteries that won't be solved until the final credits roll. The intro itself in which a giant spacecraft is forced to self-destruct appears to have nothing to do with the story until the game is almost over. The story touches on so many subjects and handles them all extremely well from religious belief to the depths of psychoanalysis. It also tells a love story that transcends time and for the first time Square's writers handle romance properly. While the dialogue still tends to run toward soap opera quality, they at least focus on it beyond simple infatuation.
The religious content that was supposed to cause great controversy is really nothing to be concerned about. It touches on Buddhism, Catholicism and most strongly on Judaism. In some ways it justifies these religions while creating a slightly different slant as to the realities of them. Like any good science fiction story, Xenogears takes accepted reality or belief, justifies it and then twists it to its own purposes. From reincarnation to Noah's Ark, nothing is taboo but nothing could be considered an offense to these beliefs. The only person who could possibly be offended is Charles Darwin, but he's in no position to complain.
Another underlying aspect of the story is that it is a tribute to some great science fiction films as well as some very well known anime. Neon Genesis Evangelion plays a heavy role in the main plot from a replica of NERV in the intro to the Omnigears, which could pretty much be considered Evangelions. Certain psychological aspects of Fei's personality can easily be traced to Shinji Ikari of Eva. Other tributes range from Voltron to an excellent science fiction movie starring Charleton Heston, and I don't mean The Planet of the Apes. Any fan of sci-fi or anime will really enjoy playing through this one and picking out all the tiny tributes scattered throughout. They even snuck in a Stephen King reference that I really enjoyed.
The story is not without problems though, and many of them stem from the vast scope of the story. The biggest victims are the secondary characters who receive very little attention beyond the one or two times they come into the focus of the story. And a lot of questions surrounding them are left unresolved when the game is over. Even some small reflections by the characters near the end of the game would have at least provided some needed closure.
There is also the issue of the dialogue. It borders on obnoxious at times and is far too self-important. It tries to be Shakespeare but falls way too short to be anything but melodrama. It is such an extreme difference from the well thought out plot that different writers must have handled it. Or different people who have a better grasp on simple yet effective dialogue should have handled it. A plot is only as good as the glue that holds the pieces together. People don't spout long, over-baked speeches in the middle of a heated battle or talk to their friends like they're lecturing them. Not all of the dialogue is bad and certain scenes are handled very well, but it is inconsistent. The weak dialogue combined with no option to speed up the text cause the plot to become extremely plodding at times. There is a lot of dialogue and story sequences in the game and when they aren't handled well, and you have to go through them at a slower speed then you would like, it really becomes annoying. The translation is decent but begins to fall apart on the second disc as mistakes appear more and more frequently. The story ends up being a mixed bag with an extremely well conceived exterior, but an inconsistent interior.
"Paint a Pretty Picture"
The graphics in Xenogears will appeal to the most jaded fans of 2D and 3D alike. The backgrounds are entirely made up of polygons and are extremely detailed and atmospheric. From lush organic forests to extremely high tech cities, everything creates a deep atmosphere. It is an achievement in design as technology and architecture from multiple eras and cultures are mixed together in a convincing way. Lesser talent would have ended up with a surreal hodgepodge instead of the congruent mixture of a world that they present to us in Xeno.
The character graphics are made up of 2D sprites. The sprites are large and while they do get pixilated up close, they animate more fluidly than many 2D fighting games. Watching Fei run, his ponytail swinging behind him, is something I thought impossible on the PSX in a game this big. Watching the characters in battle is even more incredible as some combos may use more than 50 frames of animation with no load time or slowdown. It's an amazing achievement and shows that 2D still has room for improvement and doesn't need to disappear in the wake of 3D graphics. The gears you also battle in are made up of a large number of polygons and are extremely detailed and very well designed. They move smoothly and quickly and push the Playstation's 3D power with as many as 6 giant Gears on screen at once.
The FMV is a mix of hand drawn anime and CG FMV. The two work together extremely well but there is far too little of it. The intro and ending FMV are very long, but the rest are barely longer than 10 or 15 seconds and tease you more than they enhance the game. The anime is some of the best I've seen this side of Ghost in the Shell, but there simply isn't enough of it.
The soundtrack for the game is one of the best I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. If I only get one thing for Christmas it will be the soundtrack to this game. The music is emotional and beautifully composed. It mixes new age and classical in an exciting way that always fits the moments of the game. It helps take emotional scenes to new heights and it is simply a joy to sit back and listen to the score for awhile. It is, in my opinion, the best role-playing game soundtrack ever made. I'm sure many will disagree but I can't help the fact that this one hit me so deeply. The quality of it cannot be denied and the composer never tries to beat us over the head with his ingenuity. It's beauty like this that makes me love RPG's more and more every time I play one.
The FMV scenes use voice acting and this is another time I wish they would just subtitle these games. It would save time and money and let the quality stay high. A few of the actors are decent but some of them just don't belong there. And the synchronization of the voices with the mouths of the characters is atrocious. They should have modified the dialogue or just kept the original voices and subtitled. You're watching extremely emotional scenes and all you can think about at times are poorly dubbed Godzilla movies.
The game play follows your traditional RPG with dungeons to explore and battles to be fought in-between story sequences. The dungeons aren't very complex or take long to get through and the story takes up the majority of the game. Depending on the dungeon you will have to travel in or out of your gears and sometimes you'll need to do both to get through. A few of them have some very interesting puzzles to figure out that involve both deductive reasoning and some basic mathematics knowledge. The only thing I would have liked to be different in these areas is for the dungeons to be more complex and be a larger part of the game. By the second disc they are almost all but eliminated in favor of story and boss battles.
The battle system is initially very intriguing and will keep you thoroughly entertained. Attacks consist of three basic types, similar to a Street Fighter game. Weak, medium and strong attacks can be combined in numerous ways depending on your number of attack points. Each attack costs a number of points to perform and certain attacks are better against different opponents. Attacks can also be combined in specific patterns to do a Deathblow, which does massive damage to an opponent. You can also save up attack points, up to 28, to perform combos. All of these combined add a new level of strategy to menu based battles. Unfortunately, even with all these options the random battles still become repetitive after awhile. The boss battles are still some of the best ever though.
Battling in Gears is similar but strategies take a different turn. Your attacks are limited to one per round and deathblows are performed with one button after you've built up your attack levels in a few rounds. Attacks use fuel instead of attack points and you can run out of fuel if you aren't careful. Gear battles bring in even more strategy, as you have to balance attacks with charging to replenish fuel. Healing also uses fuel and in some boss battles it can become a very delicate balance. The gameplay and challenge overall is extremely well balanced and tests you without forcing you to level up. A better strategy is usually more important than a few more hit points and this makes the boss battles in the game some of the best I've played. They never seem repetitive and challenge you without the frustratingly unfair difficulty in some games.
Magic is specific to certain characters, but unfortunately is pretty much useless in the game. There were only one or two battles in which I used healing magic instead of items as the items in the game are cheap and work better than the spells. One item actually heals all hit points and is extremely cheap. I'm still not sure whether this is an error in the game or intentional. In a few battles it will be to your benefit to use elemental magic, but they are few and far between and brute force usually works better anyway.
Another problem is the complete lack of customization in the game. This is something that Square usually goes above and beyond with but there is no controller configuration or even an option to speed up text. The text option is sorely missed, as there is such a large amount of text in the game. If you forget to save and have to go back through a long story sequence it can be an extremely painful process. The only other problem is that the camera is totally useless. You can only rotate to four different directions and there is no option to zoom in or out. There is no excuse for not having this in a 3D game. And far too often your characters are obscured and no good camera angle is available. This is very hindering in towns and some dungeons as you can easily get confused or spend a long time trying to get into a door that you can't see. Either more options are needed or the camera needs to be smarter in giving you better angles. Sometimes it moves on its own to angles that are worse than the one you had before and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it.
Despite some basic design flaws and the typical repetitiveness of random battle RPG's, Xenogears is still one of the best ever. It takes story lines to new depths of complexity and maturity. Most of the problems are easily remedied and a few minor changes in customization, dialogue and the random battle system would place this game on a pedestal all its own. I can only hope that the team who made this game stays together and delivers another adventure that stimulates both sides of my brain like this one did.