This Rewind Review Week was a great opportunity to check out a game I missed out on back when it was new. Xenogears is a PlayStation era JRPG published by Square. It is the most ambitious JRPG I've ever played, although at times the game falls short of those ambitions. However, it is still a worthy attempt and it makes me curious to check out Xenosaga and Xenoblade, which were made by the same team of developers after they split from Square.
Let's start with the combat. Xenogears uses a turn based system not too different from Final Fantasy. It has basic commands to attack, defend, use magic, or use items—all of which should be familiar to fans of the genre. One big difference in Xenogears' system is the usage of combos when dealing physical attacks. Evey turn you have a number of points available to use light, medium and heavy attacks. Over time you can learn deathblows, which are specific combinations of attacks which will deal massive damage.
There are also certain points in the game where the characters fight in gears, which are giant bipedal robots piloted by humans. The combat is fairly similar to combat outside of gears, but one major difference is that you now have to manage the gears' fuel. Light, medium and heavy attacks all consume different amounts of fuel. You can also turn on a booster which allows a gear to get its turns more quickly, but it uses up a little bit of fuel each turn. You can also take a turn to charge, which will give you back a little bit of fuel. Overall, the combat system in Xenogears, both with and without gears, offers some interesting decisions for the player to make.
The protagonist of the game is martial artist and painter, Fei, who lives in the village of Lahan. Lahan isn't his original home, but Fei has amnesia and can't remember anything from before he was taken in by the villagers. Amnesia is a pretty common plot device, particularly in RPGs, and yet this game still has an interesting twist on it. Late in the game, when the cause of the amnesia was revealed, it was something completely unexpected.
Lahan is just a backwater village of no significance to the large warring nations of Aveh and Kislev and is mostly ignored by them until the start of the game. One day, some Kislev gears show up in the village to retrieve an empty gear that fell into the village. Fei decides to go into the empty gear to defend the village but ends up losing control and accidentally destroys the village himself. While it's very common for an RPG protagonist to have his home destroyed by the villain to provide the impetus for his heroic quest, this game offers something a little bit different. Fei's quest begins not because he's setting out to stop some great evil but just to run away from his own mistake.
This game reminds me more of a novel than any other game I've played. It has numerous plot threads that are introduced throughout the game which come together nicely. It explores religious and philosophical ideas. It introduces the player to actual psychological concepts as plot points. It even has moments of real tension and surprise. Most importantly, it has interesting characters with serious, and believable, internal conflicts that they need to work out. Unfortunately, late in the game the pacing changes drastically and the game falters.
Imagine Fei sitting in a chair giving long-winded narration of some events that happened, and in the background there is a still image relevant to what is being narrated. This is a huge part of the final section of the game. There are some boss battles thrown in, and even a couple of dungeons, but the bulk of it is just endless exposition. This lends credence to the theory that the game had budgetary problems and the ending was rushed. For the majority of the game you don't see anything remotely like these narration heavy sections, and then suddenly at the end it's the primary form of story-telling. Something must have changed.
It really wouldn't be terribly surprising if the development team did run out of money. In terms of length, the game is about Final Fantasy and a half. It's possible that the creator had an idea too big and too ambitious to be fully realized with the money that was available. Whatever the reason, the final section of the game is a real disappointment. Up until that point, it was one of the best JRPGs I've ever played.
Adding to the emotional gravitas of the game's plot is an amazing soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda. If you've ever played Chrono Trigger or Chrono Cross you should be familiar with his work. While I don't consider it to be the greatest RPG soundtrack by any means, and none of the songs seem particularly memorable, they still work very well to set the mood of the scene; whether it's a tense battle, a joyous celebration, or a moment of sadness.
This should come as no surprise based on the age of the game, but the graphics in Xenogears are not very good. This is a game for the original PlayStation after all. Early 3D graphics really do not hold up well. While 3D models are used for the buildings, environments and most of the objects in the games, the characters and enemies are represented by 2D sprites. The models have very low polygon count and look very primitive by today's standard and the 2D sprites are incredibly pixelated. Nobody is going to be playing this game today for the graphics.
Despite its flaws, Xenogears is still an amazing experience. I highly recommend it to any JRPG fans. It offers some interesting twists on the traditional JRPG combat as well as a story unlike anything I've played before.
This game was purchased by the reviewer and reviewed on the Playstation.