Xenogears: An Alternate Review
an alternate review about a turn of the millennium science-fiction epic
It was the late 90's, role-playing games were dominated by Squaresoft, who had basically pioneered the genre. They were releasing around fifteen titles per year including many that would later become PlayStation Greatest Hits. Somewhere in there, a group of visionary developers presented us a fraction of a fifteen-thousand year long mind-bending Manga story into the form of a PlayStation game/movie musical picture book with a faithful, yet original Square RPG "recipe". Playing this extremely complex tale demands an attention to detail and an unprecedented level of patience. Save points feel like placing a bookmark in a paper-back more than saving a great deal of exploration; much of the progress is done by expanding on the tale through very long cut-scenes and elaborate story-telling. Let me put it this way: If it were made into an animé t.v. series, it would be lengthy and epic in the likes of the Dragon Ball saga.
Some of the story's major turning points can be difficult to comprehend, since reincarnation is a major essence and also because nearly everyone in the game are not who they seem to be. It must be known that Tetsuya Takahashi (Xenogears' director) stated that the game is only episode V in a VI part epic drama. It is also important to know that Xenosaga and Xenoblade are NOT part of the Xenogears story. Yet ideally, one must have played Xenogears to fully understand the events and meanings of Xenosaga. Since they share the same philosophy but each have their own time lines, it is understandable that many people are confused about all the Xeno titles and their relations to one another. But I digress...
While constantly shedding light on many subjects spanning from episodes I to IV, some of the game's story may seem irrelevant and incomplete at times. Some of these enlightening facts of the full story are easily undiscovered while playing a "beginners' play-through", and have to be accessed via SERIOUSLY obscure side-quests. A great example occurs near the end of Disc II, by bringing Emeralda in the Zeboim ruins' subway station beneath the Lighthouse. A series of important events from Episode III are explained in these scenes that elaborate on Dr. Kim Kasim and Emeralda's story.
As presentation goes, we have to acknowledge that Xenogears was a more discreet and less funded project developed alongside Final Fantasy VII, therefore one can expect a noticeable lack of finesse in the usually important factors of a typical RPG. At the time, according to Squaresoft, "the game was due for its release" and an unpolished Xenogears (if I may) finally hit the shelves in Japan more than a year after FFVII. It is safe to say that the game was released in North America by luck. It received a rough English translation and in the end, never made it to PAL regions due to many offensive philosophical and religious overtones, and more obvious ones like the passage about priests and some kids for "their pleasure"?! Or whatever that was at the Ethos dig site? Also who could forget the crucifixions...
Nevertheless, 15 years after its release, curious gaming devotees are still astonished by its enchanting beauty while most thoughts about it are sadly often negligent and exaggerated. The majority fail to recognize Xenogears' more powerful aspects, true meanings and full cinematic elegance. This can be blamed on the explosion of technology development and fast-paced media in the last 20 years. Unfortunately, a noticeable result is that most post-90's kids do not have the proper attention span and patience to comprehend Xenogears as a whole. At least not in their first few play-throughs.
Squaresoft's masterpiece is one of the purest RPG experiences every produced. It requires the interest to replay it over again, because that is EXACTLY what this game is; the thick plot is left to the gamer to fully comprehend by really reading and paying attention. Even after multiple play-throughs, one can still discover new scenes and important information that were missed before. The time finally came, Takahashi finally released this epic conglomeration to an unsuspecting gaming world and must have always known that some would love it, some would not, and even fewer would truly understand it...
STORY & DEVELOPMENT (9/10):
The story of Xenogears begins somewhere in our universe, on an unknown planet about 5000 years into the future. A 3.9 Billion year old monolith referred to as a 'magnetic abnormal material' is discovered deep within a bed of sedimentary rock beneath the earth surface. Scientists, holy figures and political powers all debate its origin and what to do with it...
The opening sequence of the game depicts the events that took place aboard the interstellar war ship Eldridge shortly after the military ordered the monolith's exile to a different planet. The year was 2001...
The game's story takes place much later within the Xenogears timeline, approximately 10,000 years after the discovery of the monolith. During an age of religious supremacy, the two countries of Aveh and Kislev are in a 300 year-long dispute fought with ancient fighter frames called "gears" that are excavated over the land. In the quiet village of Lahan on the eve of a wedding, a horrible incident is about to occur and an inevitable "awakening" will ensue...
Xenogears uses symbolism and an engrossing metaphorical approach to its unique fantasy of the Genesis. Widely considering the unknowns of the subconsciousness and the meaning of existence, it speaks of trust, death, forgiveness, knowledge, power, love and hate. It prominently demonstrates great technological advancements, science and mathematics and the precious life lessons that the planet's inhabitants shamelessly ignores over the years. Characters such as Fei and Dr. Uzuki repeatedly dwell on the inhumane idea of war, and many other virtues of the world. There is a lot of middle-Eastern and Renaissance-era architecture and decor, strange laboratories, artificial intelligence and genetically-engineered demi-gods. There are mysterious floating cities, staggering futuristic machinery and pirate activity. The world feels very organic and is brimming with majestic landscapes, yet most of its memorable locations are settled deep underground. As are many answers to our questions...
The English translation was either rushed or misinterpreted by the translators, since right in the game's opening sequence, the captain says "Damn! So they are planning on attacking". The fact is, he already knew what his ship was carrying and would not have referred to it as "they"! This just means that along with various grammatical errors throughout, some passages in the story might not read with the intended meaning of the authors. For its humour (which is a main element in the original Xenogears manga), one has to be fully committed to a conversation to clearly pick-up on the dainty Japanese humour, otherwise it will just seem like incessant dialogue. As will most of the story if one does not fully engage in its surfeit of complex meanings.
The story really starts to gather momentum at ~25 hours into the game, when our hero is granted new abilities and learns a great deal about the 'bigger picture'. But throughout the journey, many of the pivotal points in the story often raise more questions and confusion. Many conversations really drag-on and we unfortunately cannot the speed up the text during those more monotonous 20 minute-long conversations. To differ with every other review, the text DOES read quite fluidly. It appears on the screen faster than most people can read, and is at times automatically rushed through or slowed down to express the character's immediate feelings.
The only real unfavorable change in game-play is most of disc II. It must be acknowledged that a great deal of the story was "rushed" for the game's release. This definitely gives second disc and distinct sense of epic story-telling and deep Japanese expressionism. For long durations, we have virtually no freedom to roam around and explore. The whole disc is like a book that plays on the screen. We are unsuspectingly thrown into some of the most intense fights of the game, then into long story segments, more fights, more story and so on. Although we are presented many stunning action sequences, daring religious imagery and the story development is phenomenal at this point, it simply does not feel like a game. For at least half of the second disc, instead of being allowed to travel the lands and exploring towns and dungeons, our characters sit in chairs, engage in insanely long but really important and meaningful monologues about their adventures. Many memorable enemies are fought during this part of the story, such as Ft. Hurricane and G-Elements.
As mentioned above, FFVII hogged a nice big chunk of Square's budget at the time of its development, and it is most noticeable in this department. The graphics are mediocre at best and very pixelated when viewed closely. This downside is expertly taken advantage of, which I explain below in the 'Visual Experience' section. It was never clear to me why certain individuals thought that Xenogears had better graphics than Final Fantasy VII. It is obvious that FFVII has WAY better graphics, but the beauty of Xenogears' pixelated world is that everything can rotate. Coming from a 32-bit console with the merest of processing power according to today's standards, one must understand the sacrifice in graphics when opting for a 3D-rendered world opposed to static backgrounds and structures.
Through cinematic innovation and trick photography, it redeems itself grandly. For example, in bigger-budget RPGs, dialogue cut-scenes will generally be in motion with higher-definition objects filling up the screen to give a more dynamic and graphical experience. In the case of Xenogears, we often engage in 10+ minute dialogues with only one or two, yet visually spectacular backgrounds accompanied by a series of clever camera effects throughout. Sometimes there is only a single color used. Each cut-scene is like observing a three dimensional painting from various angles for an extended period of time.
In conclusion, the overall graphical rendering of Xenogears seems to have a limit set below the expected average, but the environments are overwhelmingly detailed and the vibrant colors often create appealing schemes from being in strange contrasts with one another. Even down to the ghostly dark purple color surrounding the text and the startling hand-drawn animated cut-scenes help set the never-ending mysterious tone of the game. Finally and most importantly, the graphics are what we should expect from a 15 year old video game.
Xenogears is composed of the usual RPG "recipe" that Squaresoft mastered over the years. This means that we have our open-world map with many fantastic locations to explore, side-quests, "grinding", various vehicles (and gears :P) to obtain, ultra-rare items and so forth. The 9 playable characters are charismatic and are all well developed throughout the massive story, each having their intriguing motives to assist our protagonist in his journey. To complement the point stated earlier about the "organic" feel of the game, their movements feel very natural on screen as their hair and clothing gracefully flow in the wind adding a distinctive touch to simple mobile visuals.
What makes the game-play experience so unique is the use of a fully rotatable camera along with the ability to jump. These two simple features add a whole new dimension of exploration. Early examples in the game are Dr. Uzuki's house on the hill and the mountain path leading to it. Their layouts are an introduction to the intricate overpasses, stairs, hidden doors and passages that constantly demands us to rotate the camera and click on everything that looks like anything. Many objects can be interacted with, while sometimes the result is no more than a bit of humorous or informative text, or a small visual or sound effect. Nevertheless, the abundance of detail in Xenogears is an experience in its own. On a side note, if gamers have not been impressed with the story, music, sound effects and gameplay by the morning following the Lahan incident, then Xenogears is definitely not for them.
While exploring the many venues, certain objects at the same height as the camera intentionally obstruct our view from treasures or as part of a puzzle's attempt to increase the difficulty. But for the more thorough and (more importantly) the creative gamers, the level of freedom and the amount of close-ups allows us to create strange images as we travel along, encouraging us to consider the more artistically incognito aspects of the game's camera control.
A lot of the design is built vertically and often requires us to jump up on objects and down into holes, swim through underwater channels, climb buildings, adjust the camera and swan dive across high obstacles to manoeuvre around the environments. Puzzles also incorporate the need to explore and think in all three dimensions. People that offer our characters rare items often hide in the camera's blind spots and some that discloses parts of the story or engages a side-quest can be found in very secluded places in the world. Also, some rare and very missable items can only be found at specific times during the game.
The fighting is a blend of martial arts hand-to-hand combat and giant gears with an attack setup resembling the one from Chrono Cross. Exclusive to Xenogears, the characters learn physical combat "deathblows" by stringing together Triangle, Square and Cross button combinations costing 1, 2 and 3AP respectively. Learning up to 5-button deathblows comes from a system driven by an extremely complex algorithm. Various 'chi' and 'ether' energy spells are acquired by leveling-up characters and the gear's attributes have to be tuned-up by purchasing parts at a mechanic shop.
Later during the story, our heroes symbolically escape the surface of the planet to be enlightened, some are given new weapons and all are granted the ability of 7AP! This refreshes the game's combat wonderfully, lets the characters learn their new elemental hyper-deathblows and introduces many new visuals to the fighting. Gears can now reach 'infinity mode' with access to unparalleled power and more devastating deathblows. After long excursions, this entertaining combat does get repetitive, but many other combinations of buttons offer non-cinematic attacks that consume less time during fights.
Items have an original Greek alphabet theme like the Alphasol, Omegasol, Zetasol and some with the derivative symbol like the Aquasol DX, while gears have parts like Drives, Alloy Armors, Fluid Cylinders, Circuits and Filters installed to them.
The game-play is engaging and very action-oriented, from the gear and character martial arts battles to the three dimensions of its design. The abundance of detail sometimes create insignificant glitches or minutely slow-down the game-play. Also, as random battles are about to initiate, the music stops and our characters lose the ability to jump. This transition issue may be blamed on the console's lack of RAM, but it gives a surprising feeling that the enemy is 'grabbing' and halting our characters dead in their tracks. To conclude this section, it can be said that, if one possesses the simple ability to ignore these minor flaws, one can truly appreciate Xenogears' bold artistic presentation style in all its glory.
MUSIC (8/10) & SOUND EFFECTS (10/10):
The music is nicely arranged in a style where they all have a definite collective and haunting science-fiction air to them, and sound as if they were all composed by the same artist, which they are. Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Series) created a very well-balanced, up-lifting and emotional score for this title. It has a variety of music styles that span the globe along with some divine choirs like inside the Babel Tower, and more eerie melodies that immediately set the mood, as it does in the gloomy Blackmoon Forest. Rather too often during our long adventure, certain tracks (usually the more uplifting and less 'science-fiction' melodies) do get a little repetitive while engaging in long conversations. That is the only reason why I marked the music 8/10. Everything else is great. Some of Squaresoft's best music is featured in Xenogears.
What separates Xenogears' overall sound experience from other games is sometime its COMPLETE and lengthy absence of music (which is good in this case)! What this does is it creates a mysterious and deeper feel for the scene, which is way more effective than if typical and rather blatant music was playing. Whenever they are heard, ominous tones always bring an air of suspense, while nature sounds such as flowing water, gentle gusts of wind and birds singing greatly accentuate the outdoor settings.
A good example is in the Stalactite Cave, early in the game. There is NO music. All we hear is the echoing sound of water drops as we creep along the rocky path. All is peaceful and quiet and then suddenly *mirror breaks* and we engage in a fight! This adds a thrilling tension while traveling across uncanny dungeons. An other interesting sound-effect used might be the sound of a waterfall fading-in. If the camera is then rotated, and we have a proper surround sound setup, the sound of the water will follow the camera's movements accordingly. Many more sounds like large machinery or the light clicking and humming of computer hardware help achieve a fuller sound and more intriguing environments.
The sound effects in the game are very crisp and well delivered. Fighting sequences sound like old kung-fu movies and are very satisfying. The characters deliver their blows along with verbal shouts (like "kia" in karate used to contract the muscles and channel energy). You can almost feel the sound of a punch connecting to your opponent's face. Some sound effects in Xenogears such as heavy explosions and critical-hitting physical blows (especially Fei and Dr. Uzuki's) have a way of "swooshing" down to a deep bass that hits the ear in such a peculiar way, it makes it sound all so powerful and convincing. Gear fighting sounds exactly like it looks; massive metallic hand-to-hand combat, and it's equally as pleasing.
VISUAL EXPERIENCE (11/10):
This is what makes Xenogears such an unforgettable game. There are MASSIVE amounts of zooming in/out, panning, rotating, tracking, fading and brilliant uses of lighting and colors. It might even remind one of Stanley Kubrick's directing style, with his long exposures and many angles, all while having a genuine animé pride. In fact, the events at Babel Tower pays direct tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Furthermore, a specific series of appealing cinematic tricks can be witnessed when the Yggdrasil first docks at the Thames (along with the following hour of the story).
There are plenty of 45, 90 and 180 degree increment camera-shifts to give the player unique and active perspectives while cut-scenes are taking place. More dynamic visual features often come from highlighting the characters' verbal disputes. For example, the camera might pan in a random direction while focusing on a subject, say the enemy's gear. Our character then says their final punch line before the fight, the camera pans even faster in the same direction and suddenly stops right behind our gear's shoulder! It keeps the target in view but the character's punch line was just visually emphasized much like in animé films. Several emotions throughout the story are skillfully expressed by means of this technique.
Some other effective visual effects come from certain cut-scene shots from inside the gears. They are confined and distorted one-point perspective views of the cockpit with an often very claustrophobic feel. Other times with a sensation of eternity in every direction, and are generally accompanied by natural sounds and tones. Speaking of gears, the arena battles were another great visual experience. Also rendered in 3D with a huge Colosseum-style map to battle your machines across and containing the most fast-paced action in the game. Similar to other 'open-concept' fighting games like Dead Or Alive, these battle tournaments were an impressive and unexpected feature.
The use of many shapes and patterns are often part of the structures' layouts. From the Yggdrasil gear hangar's straight lines and Dazil's arches to the maze-like city of Bledavik and circular and spiral design of Shevat. Elsewhere, we might find ourselves entering a new screen to a long and bright-colored octagonal hallway with an uninviting silence. Nothing else! Extremely minimalistic one might think, but while walking through the area, the camera angles change and seem to eerily follow the character thus defining a stalking atmosphere of helplessness and paranoia. We can also notice a plethora of symmetrical patterns found throughout the world. Sometimes the symmetry of a room or a background can only be fully appreciated by rotating the camera at a specific angle. Many cut-scenes throughout have certain parts of a structure or even characters levitating in front of black backgrounds, creating occult displays and illusions.
Other original uses of geometrical shapes come from dizzying infrastructure and even whole cities. Here is also the interesting way that the cities are presented as we visit them. As we enter them from the world map, the camera simply zooms-in to a smaller city map, with all the actual parts of the city that we can furthermore zoom into and actually explore. It constantly gives a perspective of an infinite universe. What lies within the atom? What are the farthest reaches of space?
It was ahead of its time then, and still is now. It is difficult to grasp and is very distinctive. Its lack of quality graphics were expertly substituted for striking photography and amazing uses of camera angles, lighting and colors. It can't be stressed enough that Xenogears' cinematography is much more powerful than 1080p graphics and that an HD
Xenogears is definitely a "cult-classic". It has a similar feel as David Lynch's Dune and definitely found inspiration from many classic science-fiction tales such as Star Wars, Akira and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This game is not even for everyone who likes RPGs, but for the more patient and artistic individuals who are looking for an "avant-garde" type of story with a long complex story. As stated above, the linear part of the story seems to hide the truth from us. These mysteries are left to the gamer to discover on their own. One must thoroughly explore every nook and cranny of the world to engage in very obscure, yet very important side-quests.
Cheers to the readers who understood this review and know exactly why Xenogears is such an unforgettable journey. It is definitely not for its amazing graphics and non-stop action pace. It simply is because it visually dominates every other RPG in such a unique way and has a very dark story so unconventional that is not afraid to speak-up. It reigns as an undying subliminal piece of science-fiction art that should be played without any voracious hope of an unnecessary high-definition remake, which would completely ruin the whole artistic sense of the game.
Since its release, Xenogears has single handedly proved to the more open-minded group of gamers that the quality of graphics have absolutely nothing to do with how memorable and timeless a video game can be. It is achieved with unforgettable characters and events, through spectacular images each worth a thousand words and the powerful magic of cinematography. Just remember one thing, video games don't always have to play like video games...