Xenogears is the story of a young martial artist/painter named Fei Fong Wong, who came to the village of Lahan 3 years ago. He cannot remember his life before then, but it doesn’t matter to him. Fei is perfectly happy in his simple life, content to spend his days in the study of martial arts and painting.
As the game begins, it is a time of celebration in the village. One of the village girls is getting married, and the village elder asks Fei if he would go to the nearby house of inventor/scientist, Citan Uzuki, to bring back a camera so that the event could be captured on film. Though Fei gets the camera with little trouble, upon returning to the village he finds a horrific scene. Giant mechanized suits of armor, called “Gears”, from the country of Aveh have landed in the village in pursuit of the rival country, Kislev’s, newest model Gear. They give little heed to the safety of the villagers, killing those that get in their way. It is then that a mixture of anger and unconscious forces causes Fei to leap into one of the Gears to fight off the invaders. However, his blinding range causes him to run amok and kill almost all the villagers, even decimating the village itself.
When he comes to, Fei is exiled from what remains of the village and is forced to wander the land, eventually meeting up with an Imperial Soldier, Elhaym Van Houten, the Sand Pirate (and exiled prince of Aveh) Bartholomew Fatima, and a host of other characters. Soon he gets caught up in the fight to rid the world of the Floating Empire of Solaris and discover the mystery of the creation of life on earth.
The plot twists like an Appalachian Mountain Road for the game’s over 60 hours of play and, while riveting and totally entrancing, is sometimes confusing, requiring a lengthy explanation. Fortunately, that explanation is usually provided by Citan, though even then it is sometimes difficult to understand what is going on, as the plot frequently deals with science, metaphysics, and complex religious concepts.
This brings me to my next point, which is the “controversial” nature of the plot’s treatment of the Judeo/Christian religion. The game often makes reference to Biblical figures and symbols such as God, Noah’s Ark, the tower of Babel, Angels, Cain and Abel, and even crucifixion. However the game’s depiction of these religious ideas is often confusing and are mostly there to give the game an educated, philosophical air (something that Square has been trying to accomplish, usually with little success, since the original Final Fantasy). I often thought that the writers devised aspects of the plot after smoking a bowl and watching the Discovery Channel, but nonetheless, the story is unique and probably the most complex and interesting of any RPG I’ve ever played.
Moving on to gameplay, a notable feature that Xenogears sports is its original fight engine. Each character is given a number of Ability Points, or AP, that they use to execute attacks. Each form of attack (weak, medium, or fierce) takes up a certain amount of that round’s ability points (weak taking 1, medium 2, and fierce 3). By using different combinations of attacks, the player can build up powerful combination attacks called “Deathblow” attack which inflict greater damage than the regular kicks and punches, proving the old adage that the whole is more than just the sum of its parts. In addition, if you save AP by only using low powered attacks, your AP bar builds and you can eventually combine the Deathblow attacks into a powerful super attack useful against some bosses.
There are a few problems with this battle system, however, the first being that it’s not very exciting. There really is little advantage over the standard attack select of games like Final Fantasy and Breath of Fire. Plus, while the battle system does employ a time bar between character actions, the player has unlimited time to pull off the attack after it has been selected, making the execution of the attack boring and almost phony. And I never once made use of the Combo attacks afforded by building up the AP bar. The other problem with the battle system is that, while all characters have magical attacks, they are really not that effective or useful. I always opted for a physical over magical attack.
There is another facet to the battle system, however, and that is in the form of Gear battles. These are situations in which you fight in your Gears rather than on foot. Instead of an AP gauge, attacks are based on upgrades to the gear’s weapons and armor, and how much fuel is in the gear. Each move takes up a different amount of fuel which is drawn from your tank. When fuel is depleted, you have to charge up the gear for a turn or so before you can attack again. Though the combos allowed are shorter (3 buttons max), you can still build up for Deathblows. I found the Gear battles to be a nice change from regular battles, sometimes requiring more strategy, especially against certain bosses.
Weapons and armor are all handled in the usual way, though there are a lot of interesting and, yes, USEFUL items in the game, unlike in a lot of RPGs I’ve played. There is also a lot of dungeon-crawling, and if you’re not in a town, you’re in a cave or forest or dungeon of some sort, at least until you get the trademark RPG vehicles.
There is also a puzzle element to the game as well. Often you’ll find yourself in a situation where you have to open a door or remove an obstacle, and it’ll take a fair amount of brain power to do it. While not of the caliber of the puzzles in games such as Wild ARMS, you’ll still be taxed, especially later in the game.
Something needs to be said about the control in the game, though. While it is, for all intents and purposes, a lot like most other RPGs, it has one feature in particular that blows all other non-Action/RPGs out of the water: a Jump button. If it sounds like a minor detail, it is… until you use it and realize that it changes the usual 2D world into a true 3D one where you jump up and fall down in order to get to certain places. The vertical component of this game is truly a blessing and gives this game a high rating on the control scale.
Graphics is another important part of a game, and Xenogears has as much of a montage of graphical styles as it does gameplay elements. The world your characters move in is made up of 3D polygon landscapes like in Final Fantasy 7. Unlike FF7, though, you have the option of using the L1/R1 buttons to spin the camera 360 degrees allowing you to view hidden passages and chests that you would have missed otherwise. This feature can get annoying at times, so the programmers included a helpful compass that shows you which direction you and the camera are facing. I’ve found this item to be a tremendous help when navigating some of the more complex mazes.
The backgrounds in the game are texture-mapped polygons ala Breath of Fire 3, while the characters are mostly sprites (except for the Gears). While polygons and sprites are blended almost seamlessly with one another, close-ups of the characters are horrible, as they pixilate too much, making them look as blocky as sprites from the old NES days. This may be because of the PlayStation’s lack of sprite processing power. Fortunately, all the characters animate quite well, as do the Gears, and the world presents itself to the player well.
Then there are the cut scenes in the game. While rare, Square implements Computer Generated movies as well as anime into the game. These scenes are impressive, but so short that I began to wonder why Square even bothered to include them. Hopefully, though, we’ll see more of this in the future.
The anime, though also rare, is well drawn, and the Voice Acting is very well done (a rarity in most games). Unfortunately, the lip synch is horrible, leaving the characters’ mouths moving after their lines have been spoken. If more anime had been added this game would have given Working Designs a run for its money with the high quality of its anime and VA.
Finally, there’s the sound and music. It’s usually very difficult for me to appreciate the music in a game the first time I hear it. Usually I have to have it drilled into me a few times or hear it orchestrated to appreciate the complexity and feeling within a piece. However, Xenogears has some particularly beautiful tracks on it that range from inspiring to heart wrenching. The most notable themes, in my opinion, are the music box theme, Big Joe’s Shop, and Elly’s theme. Square really outdid itself with this title’s music, and yet it was the first Square RPG I’ve played that didn’t have musical notable Nobuo Uematsu as a contributing composer.
The only problem I have with the music, though, is that a lot of it was very similar, in both style and composition, to Chrono Trigger. The theme for the floating city of Shevat is extremely similar to Schala’s theme from CT, and the music box theme is very reminiscent of the music box theme in CT as well. Of course, it could be said that since the same person wrote the music for Xenogears that co-composed the Chrono Trigger soundtrack, that the pieces are similar for that reason. However, Shevat, Queen Zephyr, and the wise men, Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, so closely resemble CT’s Zeal, Queen Zeal, and Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar that it’s almost obvious that Square borrowed from its own game. I guess they can’t really be faulted for this, but the lack of originality here was kind of disturbing.
So how does Xenogears rate in the final analysis? My overall opinion of Xenogears is great. I consider Xenogears to be one of the best RPGs of all time, plotwise, and I do not rate lightly. The plot draws you in and keeps you playing even when it gets confusing, and the music pulls at your emotions. The only thing I could possibly ask of this game is more; more cut scenes, and more depth to the battles. Also, the majority of the game is contained on the first disc, and so little is done with the second disc that the game should have had more in it spread over both CDs.
Xenogears is a must for any RPG lover, regardless of your views toward Squaresoft. With its depth and creativity, Xenogears is my choice for RPG of the year.