Genre: Sci-fi Fantasy RPG
The Playstation was a system known for its RPGs. Many were good. Some were bad. A few were flat out flops, and still others were fantastic, really a cut above the rest. They spanned all genres, though fantasy and sci-fi fantasy tended to rule the day. When Xenogears was released, there was a new trend happening in Japan – there was this thirst, this desire for religious and intellectual themes, psychological references and some really heavy topics. Two anime come to mind in particular that exemplified this, Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Xenogears is one of the few games I would honestly recommend someone brush up on their humanities before diving into it.
It’s hard to even begin writing about this game. It’s massive. There are an enormous amount of places to explore, the game reads like a novel, and the storyline often ends up being nuanced and convoluted. The summary of the plot is… hard to explain. It mainly revolves around an amnesiac painter named Fei Fong Wong, as he struggles against forces from his past – governments, secret societies, even deities. His hometown of Lahan is invaded by an army, and he sets off with the village doctor after he accidentally destroys it. There are ancient civilizations which have left behind advanced technology beyond modern understanding, including one of the most relevant of technological marvels: Gears. Gears are like Gundams. Giant robot suits that your little human meatsuit connects into, in order to brawl gigantic enemies, or other people in meatsuits.
Part of the reason I mention Gears specifically is that they play into the plot heavily. Fei is a fantastic fighter, and a natural pilot of his gear, Weltall. In a cliched manner, he is reluctant to enter his Gear, and reluctant to fight in general, even when it would be deemed necessary. The cliches that the game has are overshadowed by the more ephemeral references written in. Our protagonist begins the game as wanting to become The Last Man, a placid and happy creature, yet he is nudged into becoming the Übermensch by events as they transpired. This is helped and hindered by his dual nature – his id and his ego have very different ideas on what is best for Fei, resulting in dissociative personality disorder (similar in nature to split personality disorder).
Confused yet? I hope not. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve barely described the first thirty minutes of this title using the philosophy and psychology they have packed in there. Over the course of the game, Xenogears delves into Nietzsche, Jung, Freud, Gnosticism, some deep ideas lifted (and cleverly executed, I might add) from the Christian Bible, and a vested interest in the duality of man and women, human and machine, the responsibility of power and a general dichotomy found throughout the story that cam get hard to keep track of.
Graphically, the game is pretty good. For an early 3D RPG, it looks nice. They put in a lot of extra rooms and buildings just to show you that people live in these places. You can wander into desert towns and go into peoples homes, and find bedrooms that are there just to show you that people sleep. You can wander around on ships that have endless floors of cargo space, like ships should. A lot of thought was put into the landscape for those that enjoy exploration. So the graphics aren’t top notch, but they do look nice. That’s not including the cutscenes – they commissioned a company to do some graphic anime cutscenes, with some solid voice acting. The music is pleasant and fitting, it’s well orchestrated, and yet was apparently not recorded, but played through the Playstation’s sound chip.
The fighting in the game is something I personally am a sucker for in JRPGs – it has a combo system. An interesting combo system using square, triangle and circle, which can result in death blows, and allow one to combine death blows, if one is wise in how they spend their attacks. You also have ‘magic’ (ether) attacks, which cost MP. On top of all of this, fighting inside of a gear is different. Your gears never level up with you, they can only be upgraded with equipment. Except for executing combos in them, you can only attack once, which costs different amounts of fuel, or use your machine to channel your Ether techniques. This all sounds much more complicated written out, but trust me, it flows nicely during battles. Fighting inside of your gear is usually done against similarly large opponents, and is a battle of endurance more often than the fights done as your normal party on foot.
There are some bad aspects about the gameplay. As great as the story is, and as enjoyable as combat can be, the 3D platforming elements of the game are just abysmal. There are small margins of error for jumps and poorly timed camera angles. Be prepared to be patient, as you have to run back up to where you were beginning to jump across things. This alone takes away from enjoyment of the game to a noticeable degree, though by no means diminishes the good parts, so much as introduces its own bad part.
Other than Fei, the cast of the game has an array of great characters. There is also an obligatory terrible mascot (which doesn’t even get its own gear, but instead will somehow grow to gigantic size). As all needless, silly, cutesy mascots are, it’s pretty terrible. Other than Chuchu, may the gods curse its name, the characters are all interesting in their own ways: from a soldier trying to balance her friendship against the prejudices and orders she grew up with, to an expert gunslinger raised in a religious order, the cast will have characters for everyone’s tastes. Villains aren’t the cackly world destroying types, but master manipulators that work with armies, religions and nation states, often with their own deep seated convictions and ideas behind doing the bad things they do.
So I mentioned a couple of things that stick in my craw about this game. I’ll expand on a couple others, that are tied together. The first disc is, while a bit rough in some aspects, an amazing game. The second disc…. the second disc is a bunch of descriptions and dialogue that are tied together, along with one, maybe two boss battles and an equal number of dungeons. I don’t know what sort of deadline the games creators were put under, but Disc 2 feels like a hackneyed, cobbled together rush job.
On top of that, they wanted to make this a genre spanning game of epic scope and scale; Xenogears was supposed to be part of a six-game series installment. They wanted to expand into books and anime as well. We’re talking a level of disappointment that, while not on the level of Shenmue, is certainly up there on the scale of ball dropping. Xenosaga Episodes 1, 2 and 3 were all created by series creator Tetsuya Takahashi when he left Square and joined Namco, along with another developed spiritual successor, the Xenoblade Chronicles (though I have played a little bit of this title, I actually haven’t seen any references outside of the games name. I’m dubious about how strong this connection is). Xenosaga: The Animation also happened, but it was all just… not the same. None of these tied in to the degree and vision that everything was originally planned for, and it fell apart. Individual pieces weren’t bad by any means, but when held up against Xenogears, they don’t shine nearly as bright.
I’ve gushed about this games complexity, and I’ve ranted about the disappointing aspects of the game. I mostly included the rant just to prepare you for the reality of what this title is. If the platforming would take away from the story too much, it would be best to find a plot summary. It’s excellent if, like myself, you are well read in the humanities. This game is beautifully written, with a complex and engaging plot. If you are a fan of JRPG’s, this rare gem was sorely underrated in the past, though I am sure most have at least heard of it. There are some glaring flaws, but overall, this ambitious title is worth checking out.