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Xenogears (PlayStation) artwork

Xenogears (PlayStation) review

"Being a roleplayer immediately signifies your intelligence over casual gamers, because the ability to read dense text and make simple statistical based decisions requires far more mind power than split second reactions and nerves of steel seen in nearly every other genre. "

Elitism is rampant throughout the core of RPG geeks on the internet. They see their own chosen caste as the only bastion of sanity in a sea of *gasp* casual gamers! Being a roleplayer immediately signifies your intelligence over casual gamers, because the ability to read dense text and make simple statistical based decisions requires far more mind power than split second reactions and nerves of steel seen in nearly every other genre.

I know this because for many years I was John Q. Rpgbeater, arguing the for genre’s superiority over all others. AS I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that many of the beliefs from the previous paragraph are complete crap. Hear the outcry if you should compare a RPG to game out of its genre. Give any monkey a calculator and a set of rules (i.e. heal when only ten percent of your health is left) and he’ll beat most of the games on the market.

However, the most grievous crying is reserved for those who dare to review a RPG before completion. “Surely you jest! Story and plot development matter more to the true RPG fans!” Yet nobody from this crew would bat an eye if I had only played Madden 2004 for a few hours before reviewing it. After all, that’s only a game with thirty-two different perspectives with hundreds of options per play. Comparing that to the mythical RPG which goes from crap to Shakespeare in hour twenty is pure lunacy!

Sadly, I prescribed (double dosage style) to this philosophy while playing Xenogears. Endless dialogue should not be confused with quality dialogue, and an innovative combat system is only as good as the entertainment and balancing behind it. If I had played Xenogears today, I would not have fallen prey to the “all RPGs must be beaten” logic trap, and saved thirty hours of my life from tedious text scrolling.

Your adventure begins in Lahan, as you play the role of Fei, a stout young lad of the village. You are an orphan, but the village adopted you long ago (funny how that happens). Preparations have begun for the wedding between your best male and female friend. However, events soon spiral out of control when an enormous robot crashes nearby, and a beautiful orange-haired girl named Elly makes her first appearance.

Sounds okay so far, right? My thoughts exactly at this point. However, as you advance through Xenogears, you’ll notice that characters sure do have a lot to say, and aren’t shy to say it. Everybody seems to have an issue they need to deal with; too bad most are frighteningly dull. It’s hard to differentiate between major and minor characters due to the amount of text involved from all characters. A hero with a shadowy past and identity crisis, a brewing love between the two leads, a genetic freak dealing with his place in life, a religious conspiracy, and a utopian nightmare are all plot angles which shouldn’t need much elaboration, given the frequency with which they appear throughout popular culture. Therefore, why must I be force-fed painful amounts of text to learn something I already know from simple logic and deduction? Too much character development can occur when the pacing of a game is thrown off entirely.

The gameplay of Xenogears is a mixed bag. It is a traditional turn-based system with combination moves to spice things up. In addition, each character can also pilot a gigantic robot, known as a gear. Neither form of combat is pulled off flawlessly, though.

Traditional fighting relies upon the combination moves too heavily. The sequences are executed by three buttons in combination, which then launches an impressive looking attack. Each button is linked to a certain type of attack - quick, medium, and hard. The higher level attacks require charging up, which is achieved by defending or cutting your previous attack off early to save energy up. New combinations are unlocked by mastering those which you already know and gaining levels. Ether replaces the magic command in Xenogears, but works on the same principle.

This would be all well and good if there were major differences in combos besides elemental damage, but this is not the case. Simple button mashing is enough to kill everything but bosses. If you do chose to use the combos, plan to do a lot of sitting around and watching while the actions are carried out. Normal combat quickly turns into a game of press and wait, with occasional breaks to use ether or items.

Unfortunately, gear combat is not any better. Just picture standard combat, but inside of a giant robot instead! Whoa, fun eh? Not especially, since the important aspect which makes Xenogears unique, combinations, is scaled back, and your time is occupied by mundane tasks like charging energy up. Gear combat continually feels like something that was just tacked on. “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if they could fight in giant robots? Yah dewd put it in!!!”

Character balance is another issue of Xenogears. Frankly, there are quite a few characters that are worthless in combat. At one point you acquire a powerful fighter who is so slow that you’ll be lucky if you get one attack for every two rounds. Another character is loaded with ether commands that do little and a weak physical attack, effectively crippling their offense. On the other end of the spectrum, Fei is too powerful (as most main characters are) and another gets all of the best ethers in the game. Unless you are forced to use certain allies, half of your team will simply not be used, due to their deficiencies and the supreme strength of others.

It is odd that I chose Xenogears as my venue for arguing against RPG completion, since there actually is a significant gameplay twist. On disc two, the world map is sealed off, and the game proceeds with a narration from one of the main characters before letting you loose in an area. This format switch is highly questionable, since there’s really no good reason for it happening; nothing occurs which couldn’t be done with the traditional RPG interface present throughout the rest of the game. Just like the endless dialogue, the abrupt switch in gameplay destroys what little flow is built up by confining you to one place.

There is one other gameplay flaw which must be mentioned - the adventure elements. In Xenogears, there are obstacles which you must avoid, usually by way of the jump button. However, late in the game you must make nerve-racking precision jumps in a tower or risk falling to the ground and losing an hour of progress. Once again, this sudden reliance upon jumping seems to come out of nowhere.

One of the mantras of the RPG zealot is that presentation values do not matter (see the praise for Dragon Warrior 7) as long as the gameplay is good. This has always struck me as silly; there is a wealth of RPGs with gorgeous graphics, beautiful sound, and exemplarily gameplay. Why would one willingly chain themselves to a game with one-aspect when so many alternatives are available? Xenogears is the inverse of this traditional RPG mantra, as it provides excellent presentation values but not much quality gameplay.

Basically, the reason Xenogears has such a wide variety of scores from site to site is due to its plot. Some people think it majestic and grand. Others believe that it’s far too much mindless prattle and worn out storylines. Whatever side you come down on, this does not change the unbalanced gameplay mechanics and negligent game design. Even if I exclude the plodding text, Xenogears is still just below average, and I’d recommend a slew of other games before this one.

sgreenwell's avatar
Staff review by Stephen Greenwell (August 30, 2003)

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