The provocative, challenging, and staggeringly epic story of Xenogears has gained such a legendary status with the role playing community that discussion about the actual “game” part of Xenogears has become rather scarce. And while its famed story, for all of its late game flaws, generally puts in more effort and ambition than any JRPG I can think of, it is an excellent game as well, with an interesting world to explore, tons of thrilling set-pieces, two exciting battle systems for the price of one, and some excellent pacing during the first disc. There’s no doubt that Xenogears is rough around the edges, but many of its flaws are a result of the game’s ambitions, which helps stem some of the frustration that inevitably arises.
Because the story of Xenogears is so complex and detailed and because discovering the game’s huge revelations is an integral part of the experience, I’m only going to give a vague summary of the beginning. You begin the game as Fei Fong Wong, a painter in the small pastoral village of Lahan. In typical fashion, Fei has amnesia, but what initially seems like a cliché is given more depth later on in the story. Anyway, one day, Fei’s quiet life is disturbed when a battle, waged with military weapons called Gears, suddenly finds its way into the village. Being the hero he is, Fei attempts to defend the village by piloting an empty Gear, but instead the Gear---which he mysteriously know how to pilot---causes him to go into an uncontrollable rage, resulting in the deaths of most of the people in the village. After being banished from the village, Fei sets out on a journey to understand why he can control Gears as well as his role in a large-scale conflict between Aveh and Kislev, the two nations that did battle in Lahan.
Although the above summary makes the story sound typical, it is anything but. What initially seems like an ordinary conflict turns into something bigger than you can ever imagine, something that spans millennia and calls into question the very fabric of existence, challenging conceptions of just how large the scope of an RPG can be. It also heavily incorporates religion, psychology, and philosophy, particularly Christianity (though several world religions are represented), Freud, and Nietzsche. What’s so impressive is not that it bothers to incorporate these things, but that it doesn’t incorporate them in the half-hearted way that other games do. When Xenogears does anything, it goes all the way, for better of for worse (usually for better). I was particularly impressed with its treatment of dissociative identity disorder, which ended up being a huge part of the development of a key character. The fact that that this disorder makes its way into the actual gameplay (via a supped-up form of your Gear) proves just how committed Xenogears is to its surprisingly sophisticated ideas. Much in the same way, players are asked for their commitment as well. The story in Xenogears is challenging, often confusing, and it requires players to be attentive. Often I had to consult online summaries to make keep certain details straight (people with good memories will probably get more out of Xenogears than others), which can be daunting, but the game has enough of an emotional core and relatable enough characters that the story can still be enjoyed even if most of it is going over your head. Similarly, the story is filled with enough epic set-piece moments that the game can also be enjoyed as a thrilling adventure even in spite of constant forays into strange and complicated territory.
While story is undoubtedly the game’s strong suit, there are a couple problems with the narrative. One of these is the somewhat awkward translation, which makes an already difficult-to-grasp story a little harder than it needs to be. The characters talk in vivid and distinct ways, but the game’s writing lacks naturalness and crispness. This doesn’t end up being too much of a problem and reading slowly helps a lot, but much like the abundance of story details, it can make one feel a bit overwhelmed. The other more glaring problem with the narrative is the second disc. The first disc is nearly pitch perfect in terms of narrative pace, with a perfect mix of character development, lore, conflict, mysteries, and action, but disc two, which mostly consists of reading text with the occasional dungeon or battles thrown in, too often falls into the trap of telling but not showing. Several events that should be shown in detail or directly experienced are relegated to a few lines of text over static pictures, which comes across as a distinctly boring way to tell a story, especially considering that exciting moments are something the game does extremely well. To be fair, disc two is nowhere near a bust since it is home to most of the game’s more crazy revelations and it is mostly here that the game takes on the mindblowing scope that makes other RPGs look hopelessly small, but the telling-but-not-showing makes the storytelling feel very disjointed at times, like an almost finished painting that looks like a sketch in some places. Not to mention that where were so many times when I thought “This would be so much cooler if I actually got to see or play it!”
As I said at the beginning of this review, the gameplay of Xenogears is not something that is often discussed, which is a shame because it is very good. Like many of the Final Fantasy games, the progression of Xenogears doesn’t settle for the tired town to overworld to dungeon format. Instead, the story determines the pacing, and as a result, no dungeon or town visit seems gratutitous or without purpose. What you’re doing always feels exciting and consequential, which takes the sting out the a-little-bit-too-high random encounter rate or the fact that some of the dungeons are centered around the game’s extremely awkward jumping mechanic, which is compounded by the generally serviceable but sometimes wonky rotatable camera. Apparently somebody didn’t send the developers the memo that platforming is not suited to these types of games, but at least you always know that something cool story-wise is around the corner and you’re not suffering through some of the more frustrating dungeons for no reason.
The game’s combat deserves special mention since there are two unique battle systems. The first of these is the on foot battles, which can feel a bit underutilized. The game uses the famed ATB system, which means that you can only act when your time meter has filled up. Strangely enough, the timing never feels urgent in the way that it does in Final Fantasy games. Sometimes you forget that the game even uses ATB, which is fine because it is not the battle system’s main draw. What makes Xenogears’ battle system stand out are death blows. Unlike other RPGs, Xenogears is not too concerned with magic (the game does have magic, but it’s mostly used for buffing and healing), but rather focuses on physical attacks, which have an extremely cool-looking martial arts aesthetic. To pull off these moves, you press the square (middling attack), triangle (weak attack), and x button (strong attack) in various combinations; x attacks can only be used sparingly because they take more action points to pull of than square or triangle attacks. Anyway, the point is that these combinations result in death blows, which are super powerful moves that look absolutely amazing and they never get boring because you’re constantly learning new ones. The game encourages you to experiment with different button combinations to add death blows to your repertoire. That being said, I found the on foot combat to be a little bit on the easy side, which makes them feel not quite as deep as they could have been with a little more challenge.
Most of the game’s combat depth comes from the excellent gears battles, which were far more challenging and rewarding and seemed to take center stage. In this mode, death blows are executed much in the same way as the on foot battles, but the main difference is that every action consumes fuel, which gives these battles a tense, sometimes frustrating, but often exciting element of resource management. Furthermore, you are not allowed to heal your Gears until you’re quite a ways into the game, forcing you to be smart about the degree to which you exert your Gears. In the Gears-based dungeons (yes, Gears have their own dungeons), I found myself escaping from random battles so that I kept my Gears in good shape for the boss. This might sound annoying and in some of the more frustrating dungeons, it was, but on the other hand, it forced me to choose my battles wisely, which I found to be a refreshing change from the usual slaughtering of everything that moves in other RPGs. And while one might worry that they are missing out on valuable experience, you’ll have to escape from quite a bit of the encounters to really disadvantage yourself. My experience was that the game required very little grinding. Honestly, I didn’t grind once and my levels were more than sufficient to take on the final dungeon and bosses.
Part of this can be attributed to the fact that the final dungeon was entirely Gear-based. In a wise move from the developers, Gears don’t level up in the traditional the way that their corresponding pilots do. Instead, you purchase fuel, frame, and armor upgrades, which increase your HP and fuel capacity. Furthermore, you can customize your gears with new weapons and parts. I thought that outfitting my gears with new parts was immensely rewarding: there are so many different parts with so many different effects that figuring out what parts will prevent what kind of damage or will give you the greatest advantage can be highly strategic. Admittedly, accessorizing your characters in off foot combat is similar, but it never feels as essential. So while the combat and customization on foot is perfectly fun, it’s clear that more nuance and attention went into the gear combat.
One major gripe that I had with the combat portion of the game was that the game has a tendency to string boss battles together. What I mean by this is that you’ll fight one boss and you might barely win, only to find out that there’s another boss after it with no opportunity for you to save the game or restore HP and fuel. And then if you beat that boss fight, there might be another one after it. In my opinion, this was really unfair and sometimes I felt that the developer was creating artificial challenge by doing this. It doesn’t help that you can’t skip the very lengthy cutscenes and will have to scroll through tons of text to try battles again.
Xenogears is not exactly known for its visuals, but I thought they were excellent on the whole. Unlike Final Fantasy, Xenogears doesn’t use pre-rendered backgrounds, but instead features fully 3D environments in which you can fully rotate the camera. In spite of this, the environments are surprisingly detailed, full of character, and show a remarkable lack of repetition. Granted, the game has very muted, washed out colors, but this actually aids the visual style, giving it a very mature, sophisticated aesthetic that suits the bleakness of the game’s events, rather than detracting from it. The character designs are extremely memorable and subtle and though the sprites (yes, the game combines sprite character models with 3D environments) can get extremely pixelated and blocky-looking up close, they look great from afar. Furthermore, the game’s frequent action sequences are done justice by extremely ambitious cutscenes that really show off the remarkable Gear models. The lovely anime sequences, which are used during some of the game’s most memorable moments, round out what is one of the stronger visual packages on the PS1.
Sound quality is excellent across the board. The soundtrack is stunning, with a slightly earthy quality and warm melodies that beautifully contrast some of the more sci-fi elements of the story. At the same time, there are plenty of dark moody pieces to punctuate some of the game’s more unsettling moments, and sometimes the game uses silence and ambience to excellent effect.
Side content feels a bit thin in Xenogears, but the story was so ambitious and the game was so lengthy that I didn’t care too much. There’s at least one side quest worth your time as it gives you access to an abandoned city and some interesting story details.
Xenogears has plenty of issues, but considering the amount of effort that must have went into building its brain-meltingly epic narrative and the myriad details of its uncommonly intriguing world, the flaws just never seem that important. If you’re tired of games that underachieve and want to play something that stretches the boundaries of what the medium can take on, Xenogears, which is still provocative and unusual even today, is a must play.