Xenogears (PlayStation) review
"Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. "
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
An amnesiac boy is brought to a small rural village by a mysterious hooded figure. He’s accepted among the citizens and raised into a respectable young man. He practices martial arts and loves to paint. He’s made friends with the villagers and is happy with his life, but something inside of him wants to get out and learn more about his veiled past. On a fateful day, two of his best friends are preparing to get married, and the man makes a run up the mountain to fetch his buddy, a calm, mild-mannered inventor and technology expert. When they return, they find that the village has been overrun with mysterious invaders that are tearing the place apart. The man tries to help, but an accident blows the entire village to oblivion. When he recovers, the man sets off into the world find answers and perhaps become engulfed in an epic struggle for world power among warring nations and corrupt minds.
Yeah, yeah. Now imagine the writing talent it must have taken for this not to sound like the world’s biggest cliché. Welcome to Xenogears, a game that wouldn’t have worked had the execution of its story not been so unbelievably fantastic.
Here are the details. The man in question is Fei, and he lives in Lahan. The bride is Alice, who we learn, in a brief but touching scene, isn’t exactly following her heart with this marriage and may actually be in love with Fei. This could have set the scene for a blossoming romance that spans the entire adventure, but we’ve already established that Lahan is doomed, so let’s wait and see. The invaders are Gears, large human-piloted robots that are actually fighting amongst themselves but have chosen Lahan as their battlefield. Fei of course wants this nonsense to come to an end, and spots a Gear that nobody is using. He climbs in and tries fighting… but then loses control and somehow triggers an explosion that annihilates the entire town, Alice included. (So much for that.) The survivors blame Fei for the incident, and Fei leaves with no destination, no objective, no reason to live.
Maybe this still sounds generic, so allow me to elaborate. Lahan is the kind of quiet, peaceful fantasy village you usually see at the start of big RPGs like this. The arrival of Gundam-like robots, if not entirely unexpected, is still an odd juxtaposition and sets the tone for one of Xenogears’s underlying themes: Technology. The world Fei knows, though advanced in some ways, still has a ways to go before it evolves into the kind of futuristic civilization that should contain giant mechanical Gears. But above these “land dwellers” there lies a world they are nearly unaware of, in which two sky-based nations, Shevat and Solaris, are constantly at odds. It is this world that Fei has to blame for the Lahan incident, and though he doesn’t know it at first, every step he takes leads him closer to this wonderland in the sky.
His one connection to the world above him is Elly, a young woman Fei meets in a forest not long after he turns his back to a ruined Lahan. Elly comes from Solaris, an invisible city in the sky that isn’t even revealed until a good forty-five hours into the adventure. At first, Fei is perplexed by Elly, who looks, talks, and acts differently than anyone he’s ever met. But over time, as their paths constantly cross both as enemies and allies, it becomes apparent that she hasn’t quite fallen victim to Solaris’s propaganda. Their relationship – which isn’t so much between lovers as it is between very good friends – is the centerpoint of the story, and it’s fascinating to watch how much they learn from each other throughout the course of their quest. Soon after they meet, they see the enormous flying city of Shevat floating over their heads. Fei’s sense of wonder matches ours, and it’s immediately clear that there is much to learn about the world of Xenogears.
The story is packed with themes, relationships, revelations, twists, and all the typical elements you’d expect to find in an epic fifty-hour Square RPG, and my hat goes off to the writers for taking such a story-heavy game and not making it boring in the slightest. Let this be a lesson to all of you: Good writing can fix just about anything. Even the smallest, most insignificant details are fleshed out enough that we actually care about what’s going on, and I’ll give you an example of that. One of your possible party members is a teenager named Billy Lee Black, who, despite having the coolest name ever, isn’t particularly important and doesn’t serve much purpose, even in combat. When we first meet him, we’re brought up to date on his extensive history – you know, his mother was killed and his father is an asshole and he’s taking care of his mute sister and he wants to avenge his blah blah blah. Who cares, right? But that’s the thing – they make it interesting. So rather than shaking your head and complaining about how generic the whole thing is, you think, damn, this guy had it bad!
So there’s really no question as to whether or not the plot is compelling. The question becomes: Can you handle a LOT of it? Xenogears often gets so caught up in its epic story that it’ll often go on for lengthy stretches of time – close to an hour – without giving the player any control beyond pressing X to flip to the next box of text. It becomes especially punishing when you defeat a major boss and aren’t given another chance to play, not even to save, for a very long time. I was so caught up in Fei’s adventure that this was not a problem for me, but that doesn’t mean you will feel the same.
If Xenogears has too much dialog for you, then by all means stay away from the ever-so-short second disc, where the developers either got lazy or ran out of time. You READ through this disc rather than PLAY through it, and a somewhat unexciting finale (unforgettable last fifteen minutes aside) is one of Xenogears’s few shortcomings. You’ll notice places where there were obviously supposed to be dungeons, you’ll scroll through long, drawn-out conversations, and when it’s over you’ll wonder how such an otherwise great game took such a nasty turn in its final moments.
But the lengthy first disc? Absolutely priceless. The draw of many great RPGs is the battle system, and where the guys at Square could have taken a lazy route they instead implemented intuitive, multi-layered combat both on foot and in Gears. Both revolve around “deathblows,” which are essentially attack combos activated by three face buttons, each delivering a weak, medium or strong attack. You can mess around and throw out any combo you like, but certain combinations lead to extensive damage and an elaborate animation that delivers more satisfaction than one would expect from a battle option that uses no magic and does not feature some giant creature swooping down and walloping your opponents with a wall of fire or whatever. Xenogears has a magic system, but you’ll rarely use it.
Every character has his or her own Gear, and it’s in these super-powered bots that many of the adventure’s key encounters take place. Whereas the standard on-foot battles are exciting but seem simple enough to be used for minor disruptions, Gears throw in such complications as attack levels and fuel management to further heighten the level of strategy. It’s still turn-based combat that plays with ease once you get into it, but watching the steel giants clash – accompanied with appropriately extravagant effects – really gives you a sense of scale. That the power of your Gears depends very little on your level and very much on the amount of money you spend on it also underlines one of Xenogears’s favorite recurring themes: That characters in this world are only as powerful as the machines that drive them. Imagine George Carlin’s “bigger dick foreign policy theory,” but with penises replaced by enormous humanoid robots.
There are dungeons in Xenogears as well, and they expand beyond the overcomplicated mazes that dungeons usually were in the RPGs of that era. The designers at Square were able to combine platforming, puzzle solving and combat into a number of dungeons that are lengthy and challenging, and serve as a break from the overdose of plot you’re usually treated with when there’s no action. These moments are an occasional reminder that, hey, this game is fun, too!
The presentation of Xenogears is phenomenal from beginning to end, noticeably in the amine art style, which is actually quite endearing and fits the game well. But I was particularly blown away by Yasunori Mitsuda’s soundtrack, which is daring and emotional, and manages to shift its tone at potentially awkward moments to match the situation the game is covering. As you walk through the beautiful floating city of Shevat for the first time, there’s this mystical theme in the background that seems to mirror your sense of amazement. Later you’ll enter the nightmarish, dystopian Solaris, accompanied by the kind of music you’d expect to hear in a merry-go-round which really helps to illustrate how creepy and messed up the whole thing is.
And you know what? I never talk about music in reviews, so take that as an example of how magnificently Xenogears is pulled off in every way. It feels like the work of an expert, which it should, since it is. So in the world of PSX-era RPGs, screw Final Fantasy VII – THIS is Square’s crowning achievement.
Well, unless you count Vagrant Story.
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