Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
The word ‘epic’ is thrown around a lot these days. Thanks to the proliferation of internets slangz, everything from the latest Batman movie to a Wendy’s chicken sandwich can be called ‘epic.’ While sadly the word has lost some of its impact as a result, some of us still know exactly what sort of experience to which ‘epic’ actually refers. With that said, let’s not mince words:
Xenogears is epic.
Even if the story were complete dreck, Xenogears’ unique battle system and gear customization are so much fun that they would carry the game just fine. Combat is turn-based, like many Square games; only this time, instead of one attack button, there are three: weak, medium, and strong. Each uses a different amount of AP, with individual characters’ total AP amounts increasing with level-ups. As you gain more AP, the length and variety of attack combinations increases, and characters begin to learn deathblows. Deathblows are set attacks initiated by a combination of attacks that ends with the three AP strong attack. They have a unique animation and are usually much stronger than a standard chain of attacks.
Even cooler, you can save unused AP after each turn and use the stored points to set up a massive combo of deathblows. This is easily one of the sweetest things to watch–Citan or Fei unleashing five or six deathblows in rapid succession thereby vanquishing an annoying boss.
And all of this just covers the ‘attack’ command, which in most other PS1 RPGs was simply select the command and move on. Xenogears also has magic and abilities that use EP (ether points, basically the same as magic points) and your standard item and retreat commands. But really, it is the gears that put the action over the top.
“Gears” in Xenogears are your standard Japanese anime giant robots, only you can call them mid-battle and they can use the characters’ deathblows in giant -size form. Later in the game, various gears develop special abilities and gain the super sweet “omni-mode” enhancement, which lets you unleash super powerful combos for a set number of terms. To add to the challenge, gears use fuel with each turn, and running out of fuel is extremely possible in longer dungeons. If you are not worried about fuel for a particular battle, you can use the gear’s booster, which grants extremely high agility at the expense of burning more fuel.
Customizing gears between quests is one of the more fun parts of the game. It can be stressful financially, since the parts gradually get more expensive. I happen to think the price is just right, since it makes you prioritize and think about your team. You can upgrade your gears’ frame to provide more HP, improve their engine for higher attack power, add new armor for higher defense, and buy new weapons and ammo as well as various accessories. Whether you set up your team with strong status ailment protection, fuel-burning healing systems, or extra armor is up to your strategy. While other SRPGs may certainly have deeper levels of customization, Xenogears is just right for a JRPG. You will not need to spend hours obsessing over equipment, but you have the freedom to customize characters and gears in so many ways that you will not get bored.
There are not many big criticisms I can think of. There are some minor control issues with the overhead camera. You can rotate it in ninety-degree segments, but you will still find yourself trapped behind objects in the environment during some of the platforming sequences. Also, I do not think that the game really suits the PSP. The pacing of action and story sequences demands a few hours of comfortable sit-down time in a clean, well-lt area. It does not work as well for fifteen-minute quickies on the subway as say, Portable Ops. Also, the PSP’s screen has a tendency to become basically a mirror if there is any kind of glare or sunlight overhead, which made many early sections frustratingly difficult to see. Hence, playing the PlayStation Network downloadable form may be better suited on a PS3.
These minor issues aside, Xenogears is top-tier among PS1 RPGs in terms of gameplay alone.
Simple 2D sprites, very nice looking giant robots for a PS1 game, sweet anime cut scenes, and decent character art for dialogue scenes. It’s not the prettiest PS1 game on the block, but it is certainly well designed. I liked the sense of scale used for cities, with large maps and specific areas to explore. The various chapels and ruins look quite good, though some dungeons are little more than repeating hallways of grey. Textures, especially the surfaces of natural objects, are not terribly detailed. You could complain about the graphics, but that would be kind of like complaining about the food on a rocket trip to the moon–you’d be missing the big picture.
What can I say about Xenogears’ story that has not been said by thousands of fans already? It is in a league of its own. There is every other JRPG story, and then there is Xenogears. There is your typical spiky-haired teen goes off and kills the evil emperor, and then there is Xenogears. There’s your typical Hollywood action movie, modern romance novel, network drama, and then there is Xenogears. This level of writing is not good “for a videogame.” It is just plain excellent story-telling, no qualifications necessary.
I do not even want to outline it, as many other reviewers attempted when the game first came out. There is no way I could do it justice, so I’ll just mention a few things. You have the main character, Fei, who is a tragic figure on multiple levels. He destroys his own village, killing his only family and friends, and then spends much of the game being hunted and manipulated by others. Fei is an excellent protagonist because he is both believable and symbolic at the same time. His inner struggle with the coward and his own id are relatable to any individual human psyche, yet the specific character of Fei is distinct and memorable.
In fact, none of the major characters are weak or one-dimensional. Everyone is more than meets the eye. Elle, far from your typical JRPG heroine always standing cheerfully at the hero’s side, has a dark side of her own, and she spends much of the game as Fei’s enemy. Bart is not your typical reckless leader. Rico isn’t just the tough big guy. Billy’s loss of faith is not superficial or cliché. Jesse and Sigurd are excellent supporting characters.
Even the bad guys are awesome. Part of you will root for Ramses, the genetic “reject” who can never seem to beat to Fei (he should play Metal Gear Solid and learn that genes are not everything). Grahf, if you take the time to fully understand his back story, is very deep and unique as far as super villains go. Krelian, in particular, is not even really a villain if you consider the full context of the world in which he lives. There is so much philosophical craziness going on that you may not be sure who is and isn’t a villain at certain times.
It is a challenging story, to be sure. This is not your typical find the magic sword, kill the evil sorcerer type quest. The narrative references the ideas of Freud, Jung, and Nietzsche. There are numerous biblical allusions and moments of profound social commentary dealing with racism, poverty, war, and human psychology. It is challenging without being pretentious. If you prefer games that do not ask you to worry too much about story, do not get this game.
The pacing is very good throughout what was the “first disc” of the original game. One thing I noticed, which perhaps most people realized intuitively, is that there are zero fetch quests. Every time you go off to do something or go through a dungeon of some kind, it pushes the plot forward. There is an excellent sense of progress that is unfortunately lost on the “second disc.” From there, the game goes into very long narration sequences followed by short dungeons and battles leading up to the end of the game. Now, I do not criticize the story here because it stays extremely compelling and well-written. Yet as a game, it is flawed, since you are no longer in the driver’s seat. To the extent that I can criticize the story itself, it is really a matter of moral and philosophical differences I have with some of the ethical premises suggested by the plot, however that is not even really a criticism since so few games are even worth thinking that deeply about.
The plot remains challenging for me on this, my third play through. This was also my first time playing in Japanese, which added another challenge. Having lived in Tokyo for a few years now, I read and understand enough kanji to play most Japanese RPGs with little difficulty. However, Xenogears is on another level. Think back to the original version and you may know what I mean; even in English, the game uses some difficult terminology, including a number of religious and philosophical references. It is likely that many people could not quite follow everything even in their native tongue. Thus for me, the Japanese version had me scrambling for my dictionary several times, often only to find that the needed term wasn’t even there. Upon showing said word to my Japanese friends, more than a few times I got the classic head tilt to the side reaction followed by an “ehhhhh!!?? Nani sore?” (Translation — “lol I dunno?”).
I have played a lot of RPGs. I mean, A LOT, and Xenogears remains hands down the best single story I have seen in any video game, full stop. It is one of the few RPGs that I would recommend to people who do not even like the genre simply because the game contains such an interesting story.
Xenogears has the best soundtrack of any PlayStation RPG. Clear enough for you? There are other challengers, to be sure (Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story) but Yasunori Mitsuda trumps them all with this single work. Whether it’s the poetic story theme “Chain of Ocean and Fire,” the bittersweet “Gathering Stars in the Night Sky,” or the darkly playful “Solaris: Eden of Heaven,” Xenogears’ soundtrack is full of memorable works. I can think of not one bad or annoying song; I can think of over a dozen sublime ones.
Voices and effects are also sharp. The Japanese voices are generally better than the English ones, especially in the animated sequences. Taken as a whole and most especially because of the music, the sound work is another reason why PSP ‘half-time at the baseball game’ style play does not suit this game. This level of work deserves a decent sound system and a good environment where one can appreciate it.
Xenogears remains one of my top three RPGs of all time for the simple reason that the game is superlative in multiple areas simultaneously. The battle system is marvelous, the character and gear customization mechanics are simple yet deep, the music is some of the best you’ll hear in any videogame, and the story is without peer. Whether it’s the PlaSstation original, the PS3 download, or on PSP (with the above caveats in mind) Xenogears is an unforgettable gaming experience, one that is likely to become a benchmark for how you judge future games. Playing it again after all these years certainly brought some sharp contrasts to my mind when I look at seventh generation RPGs and where the genre has gone. There are few gamers I envy more than the young RPG fans who have not yet played Xenogears and will now the chance to go through it for the first time.