Xenogears (PlayStation) review
"And there were plenty of moments like that throughout the game that kept me wanting to keep playing so the countless number of questions I had could be answered. Why did imperial commander Ramsus have a serious grudge against Fei, considering that Fei seemingly has no clue as to who the man is? Why does Citan (the doctor you visit in the game's beginning) seem to know so much about virtually everything? What is the connection between Fei and the ominously threatening Grahf, who constantly preaches the joys of utter destruction?"
Xenogears has quite the ambitious plot -- perhaps too ambitious for those in charge of releasing this PlayStation game by Square. Players control Fei Fong Wong during a really huge quest that starts out when he attempts to save his hometown by commandeering a big robot and, in the process, eradicates the village, as well as a couple of really good friends of his who were about to be married. Whoops! From there, he (along with an ever-growing collection of allies) finds himself involved in a really complex series of events that forces him to face dictators, megalomaniacs, robot-operating super-soldiers, split personalities, the concept of reincarnation and just about anything else Square could imagine. By the time I'd overcame the game's big winner-take-all fight with the all-powerful Deus that caps off the two-disc RPG, the main thing I was thinking was, "Just what the hell's been going on here?"
Part of that might have had something to do with how the game collapses under the weight of its story during the second disc. Throughout the first disc, I found myself playing a pretty fun and epic RPG that, while a bit dialogue-heavy at points, was keeping me quite entertained. The game's world seemed huge and everything seemed to flow together well. That flow completely disappears during the second disc as Fei and his friends warp from one place to another, fight a boss and immediately jaunt to their next destination while chattering inanely about the importance of what they're doing. The vastness of the world ceases to be a factor as the game suddenly becomes completely linear, sending you on rails from one big fight to the next.
And then Deus appears. One of the definitions of the latin term "deus ex machina" is an improbable character or a contrived device or event suddenly introduced to untangle a plot or resolve a situation. Let's see.....Xenogears has a few different factions that are in conflict with each other in a pretty complicated plot. All of a sudden, due to the efforts of a couple villains, Deus pops onto the scene and the plot immediately shifts from the story it was telling to more of a standard "OH MY GOD!!!! We have to stop that thing and save the world!!!!" RPG final act. Deus shares more than just four letters with "deus ex machina".
Which is too bad, as throughout the first disc and even some parts of the second disc, Xenogears was pretty entertaining considering that from the way I've described it so far, you'd be excused for thinking the game's a train wreck from start to finish. While some aspects of the game were pretty dull (like the beginning, where you get to control Fei as he.....walks around town and visits his doctor friend on a mountain), there were a number of segments that just felt epic -- where it seemed like the characters I was controlling really were at the center of monumental events.
Square did a good job of giving these people personality, which led to some parts of the game having the ability to resonate in my mind even now -- a few years after beating it. I vividly recall one point, still reasonably early in the first disc, where Fei and his companions were going on their separate missions against the forces of the "evil" empire of Xenogears. Fei's job was to lead a diversionary fleet of gears (the game's word for "big fighting robots"), while the rest of the team invaded a major city in an attempt to depose the figurehead dictator Shakhan and the imperial forces giving him his power. For me, the half hour or hour it took to get through this chapter of the game was loaded with dramatic tension as both sides moved closer to their goals.....only for things to go wrong, which set up other momentous events.
And there were plenty of moments like that throughout the game that kept me wanting to keep playing so the countless number of questions I had could be answered. Why did imperial commander Ramsus have a serious grudge against Fei, considering that Fei seemingly has no clue as to who the man is? Why does Citan (the doctor you visit in the game's beginning) seem to know so much about virtually everything? What is the connection between Fei and the ominously threatening Grahf, who constantly preaches the joys of utter destruction? Oh, and just what the hell is wrong with Fei? It doesn't take that long for players to figure out something's a bit askew in his brain, but it does take quite some time to find out how serious his issues really are.
While the actual battling didn't blow me away, it didn't detract from my desire to solve those mysteries. Many of the big robot fights are pretty fun and memorable, with the dramatic situations leading into the fights more than enough to keep my mind off the somewhat simplistic combat system. Basically, character have three levels of attack (weak, medium, strong) and can discover more powerful attacks called "deathblows". Gear fighting works much the same way, but all attacks cost fuel and the number of attacks a gear can perform per turn is determined by both how much fuel it has combined with how much its controlling character has been used. A character with few deathblows won't be particularly effective in his or her gear, while one who's found all of theirs will be able to bludgeon the snot out of foes.
This means you'll want to be doing a good amount of out-of-gear fighting in order to gain those deathblows and improve your characters' in-gear capabilities. This really isn't a good thing, as most of these battles are every bit as dull as the gear-versus-gear boss fights are epic. After helping your guys smash the crap out of Ramsus' elite Element squad, it just isn't that thrilling to find yourself fighting wolves and goblins for the next 30 minutes.
Still, regardless of its flaws, I still have positive emotions about Xenogears. Hell, the simple act of writing this review has provided a strong temptation for me to drop the umpteen games I'm soldiering through to pick this one up again just to experience its high points one more time. Maybe the story gets overly complicated, maybe the second disc is little more than a movie where you sporadically control the action and maybe a good deal of the fighting was dull, but when I think about Xenogears, those aren't the main things that occupy my mind. I remember Grahf seducing one villain after another with the promise of immense power. I remember Ramsus' obsessive desire to defeat Fei in order to prove he isn't "trash". I remember engaging in one dramatic fight after another in order to save a city marked for destruction by the imperial forces. Flawed or not, this game has enough memorable moments to make it well worth playing.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (November 11, 2008)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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