Xenogears: Probably Square's most controversial release. To think that this epic was just a hair's breadth from never making it to our side of the Pacific. Regardless of your sensibilities on the topic of religion, I don't think anyone can argue with the fact that Xenogears is one of the greatest RPGs to ever hit the Playstation.
The plot of Xenogears is focused on Fei Fong Wong, a young artist from the town of Lahan with a propensity for martial arts and a totally unknown past. Although nobody has any idea what kind of person Fei was prior to his arrival in the town several years ago, he has become a popular member of the village community. Initially, Fei and the villagers are totally content with their peaceful, carefree lives.
Needless to say, all of this peace and quiet lasts about six seconds. Following a tragic accident, a shaken Fei is forced to leave Lahan, and it is then that the story begins. Fei's journey quickly leads him to an encounter with a beautiful soldier, an alliance with a group of desert pirates, and a confrontation with the sinister elements of his past. This story is quite possibly the most intricate and interesting of any of Square's RPGs, and that is certainly saying a lot.
The plot does come to a grinding halt, however, when those four fateful words show up on screen: Please Insert Disc 2. The second disc of Xenogears is painfully underdeveloped: the plot becomes somewhat murky, the gameplay takes a serious hit, and the major change of pace may pull many gamers out of the whole experience. Also, the plot seemingly spirals so far out of control at times that some people may find it difficult to really get a grip on what's going on.
Regardless of these problems, the plot incorporates countless difficult elements extremely well, including everything from psychoanalysis to the dangers of technology, and even the foundations of religious beliefs. The problems that the game sometimes has with plot presentation only detract slightly from the story, and they are really the only things keeping the Story aspect of the game from a perfect score. I would hate to reveal any of the brilliant events and plot twists in Xenogears, so I'll leave it at that.
Most of the characters are extremely well developed (with only a few glaring exceptions). You will meet individuals like Citan Uzuki, a wise doctor who constantly seems to be hiding something from his companions, Rico Banderas, a tough but good-natured demi-human, and Elly Van Houten, a confused but powerful woman with a mysterious bond to Fei. The characters are very dynamic, and their development over the course of the game is really touching.
The story also has a focus on large humanoid fighting robots called 'Gears'. The Gears are one of the downright coolest aspects in this game (or any game, for that matter). One could almost argue that Weltall, Fei's Gear, is as much a character in the game as anyone else.
The Gameplay of Xenogears is the first thing you'll notice as a departure from Square's Final Fantasy series. The environments you enter in Xenogears are more open and interactive than those in most RPGs. You'll actually enjoy wandering places like the dingy streets of Kislev's slums and the hectic bazaar of downtown Aveh. This interaction is aided greatly by totally 3D environments (not the pre-rendered ones found in FF), a 360o rotatable camera and *gasp* a Jump button!
Side quests are somewhat limited, but the few that are present have a major impact on the gameplay and plot. Mini-games are more plentiful than in most FF games, and include such high points as a fast-paced card game. Coolest of all, you will eventually find a Battle Arena where you can duke it out in your Gears in a fighting game-esque environment.
Battles prove interesting as well, incorporating a more dynamic system than is included in most RPGs. The system is based on three levels of attack (weak, strong and fierce), each taking up a different amount of Ability Points. Eventually, you'll learn powerful Deathblows that you can execute when certain button combinations are performed. You can also conserve your energy and perform a devastating string of Deathblows. Most of the characters learn about ten Deathblows, and they are always a joy to watch.
The Gear battles are done in a similar manner, except only one or two actions may be performed per attack, and all actions consume Fuel. Fuel doesn't recharge after every turn like AP, and you're definitely in trouble if you run out of Fuel. Fortunately, you can take a few turns to recharge if the need arises.
Your characters gain experience in the usual RPG fashion, but your characters' levels are ignored for the most part when the action shifts to Gears. The power of your Gears rests mainly on the parts you equip on them. This makes all of that level boosting seem pointless later on, as the battles focus almost exclusively on Gear battles towards the end of the game.
The Ether (magic) system, sadly, is somewhat neglected. You'll find yourself using curative spells fairly often, but attack magic is usually less effective than a good string of fierce attacks. However, I did find myself using Elly's Ether spells to great effect. With the right items equipped, Elly can wreak havoc on certain enemies.
There is no complicated learning system for Ether spells, you'll simply learn them as you gain experience. While I have heard some complaints about the game being too difficult, I only had a great deal of trouble during three battles. Overall, though, the game is harder than many other RPGs, and I found it to be a refreshing change after the way-too-easy Final Fantasies VII and VIII.
The graphics of Xenogears are 3D polygons merged with 2D sprites, and most of it is done extremely well. The environments are very lush, but the Playstation was not really designed for sprites. As a result, the characters sometimes look extremely choppy, and appear deformed during close-ups.
The beautiful Anime that has been incorporated into the game is by far the high point of the graphics department. Character portraits are very well done, and really add to the game's depth. CG sequences are very few and far between, but they are really impressive while they last. Probably the biggest gripe I have about the graphics is the fact that the Anime sequences suffer greatly from poor dubbing. Characters will actually keep moving their mouths for a full five seconds after their dialogue has ended, which can be very distracting, especially at the end of the game. Regardless of this, Xenogears is still rich in visual beauty, even almost three years after its release.
The sound in Xenogears is pretty standard. The sound in dungeons, towns, etc. is pretty well done, and it really adds to the ambiance of many environments. The in-battle noises are good enough, but there isn't really anything that will strike you as excellent. The voice-overs are only so-so. Elly's VO's are the best of the lot, but a few of the voices (especially Bart's) don't seem to fit. And I swear, the guy who played Krelian is the same guy who voiced Leonardo on Ninja Turtles.
The music in Xenogears is another high point. The various battle themes, for example, sound very dangerous. The game's countless other pieces will evoke and enhance every mood and emotion that the story requires, and are always congruent with whatever's going on on-screen. The complex scores are brilliant at times, and even seemingly simple tracks such as "Torn Apart" are very well done. The game's music is done by the same musician who did the music for Chrono Trigger/Cross, Yasunori Mitsuda, so some of it will seem familiar.
For anyone squeamish about playing this game after hearing all of the negative hype regarding the plot, I'd just like to say that the so-called "questionable" themes in Xenogears are not nearly as bad as they were made to sound. If you weren't offended by Final Fantasy Tactics, you'll make it through Xenogears with your sensibilities intact. And yes, there is a small amount of nudity toward the end of the game. There isn't anything offensive about it, as it seems very natural when you consider what's going on at the time. You'll understand what I mean when it happens. Besides, you don't really see anything anyway.
The small problems that come up at times in Xenogears don't really detract from the experience as a whole. There is no reason for anybody with any interest in RPGs not to play this game. I have played through it a full three times now, and it is one of my all-time favorites. I ask everybody who reads this to give Xenogears a chance. You won't be disappointed… provided you can find a copy, of course.