The time has come for my first review. For such a special occasion, I have chosen one of my favourite games of all time, Xenogears. Before I start, it should be known that my rating scale is in the 0-10 range, with 5 being average. I also do not give high scores very easily – for instance, only about 25 games I’ve played have earned a score of 9 or more in my eyes.
Platforms: PlayStation; PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation Vita (PSOne Classics)
Original release: 1998
Territories: Japan, North America
Xenogears is a science-fiction RPG by SquareSoft for PlayStation. The main writer and mastermind behind the game is Tetsuya Takahashi, who later also became known for the Xenosaga series and, more recently, Xenoblade Chronicles. The game is considerably long, even for an RPG, taking 60-80 hours to beat. It is a considerable investment of time.
Xenogears is also a complex game. But, even if you are not a big fan of games that make you think, do not let that scare you away. Playing an RPG, one expects a considerable focus on the story. In Xenogears, that is also correct, of course, but things are taken one, no, many steps further.
THIS STORY WILL BLOW YOUR MIND
It is an impressive achievement in itself, regardless of medium, and for games, it is easily one of, if not THE best ever crafted. Tetsuya Takahashi really gave it his all, building a story covering many various aspects of human personality. Psychological, philosophical and religious tones are all through the game, making you think about the very existence and goals of mankind. The characters are memorable and unique, representing different personality types that mesh very well together. The main character, Fei, Elly and Citan, are truly one-of-a-kind, with the support cast also being very solid. And the part that impressed me the most personally is that talking to “random villagers” throughout the various locations in the game will enrich the world very much, showing you the world through their eyes and the reasons and consequences of all the massive changes your party fights for to the average citizen.
Add to all that an overall fun gameplay (with some minor issues which I will mention in this review) with a solid battle system, attempting some new things for the time successfully, an engaging, diverse and beautiful world, and an absolutely astonishing soundtrack by a top artist like Yasunori Mitsuda, and you know you have a very special game, even if, as a Square RPG outside of the Final Fantasy series, Xenogears was always doomed to play second fiddle in terms of sales, popularity and critical acclaim. Not that this is necessarily a net loss – I imagine such a game would not be so easy to stomach for everyone.
An important thing I cannot omit in the introduction is that the second disc of the game offers considerably less gameplay than the first. Most likely due to time and budget constraints, the Xenogears team decided to tell the whole story in its entirety at the cost of having long cutscenes and only several dungeons you get to play. Compared to the first disc, it felt inferior, but considering the possible alternatives, it was probably the best solution for the player, as at least the final dungeon was the real deal and a great challenge like it should be.
THE XENOGEARS WORLD – NOT THE BEST PLACE TO LIVE, BUT CAPTIVATING NONETHELESS
The Xenogears world is torn by war. The Kislev Empire to the north of Ignas, the world’s largest continent, is fighting the southern-located Kingdom of Aveh and is close to winning the war until a mysterious military force called “Gebler” intervenes on the side of Aveh and things start turning around. Gebler is actually the military of Solaris, the land in the sky, the heavenly “shepherds” keeping the land-dwelling “lambs” under control. Fei, the protagonist, suffers from amnesia and lives in the village of Lahan, near the border between Kislev and Aveh. While life in the village looks serene and peaceful initially, at such a location, war is never too far, and disaster strikes soon when Elly, a Gebler commander, suffers an accident and a highly valued Gear (gigantic battle robot) that she had just stolen from Kislev, crash-lands in Lahan. The inevitable consequence is Lahan becoming a battleground and Fei is forced to take action to protect the village and his friends.
The world is much like our own – with various terrains like forests, caverns, deserts, villages (like Lahan and the religious sect stronghold of Nisan) and larger towns (like Bledavik, the capital of Aveh, and the massive Nortune, the Kislev capital), vast oceans with small islands in them… The average citizen that I already mentioned really gives the world so much life – people have their own problems, detest the war that’s taken the lives of many of their friends and relatives, often live in constant fear or just choose to drown their sorrows in drinking… But they still persevere, trying to not only survive but also make a decent living running a stand at the market, a restaurant or even a Gear repair shop. They have their small ambitions and desires, sometimes coinciding with the party’s goals and thus very useful.
I am sure you are already excited even just by this description, and it is barely scratching the surface. Many mysteries lie behind Kislev, Aveh, Solaris, and the church of Ethos, the main religious organisation in the world, closely resembling organised Christianity. And how exactly is the mysterious opening movie taking place in a gigantic spaceship related to the Xenogears world and the events in the game?…
CAN A GAME MAKE YOU CHANGE THE WAY YOU LOOK AT LIFE?
I already said a bit about the story, and here’s the place to elaborate, even if that’s not that easy when trying to avoid spoilers. Frankly, the story is amazing. There are so many layers to it, so many twists, and everything strings together nicely, nothing feels forced or just added for shock value. The driving forces behind the war, the ambitions clashing within the two warring nations and even atop the highest levels of power in Solaris, everything is there for a reason. The world is as it is after thousands of years of civilizational history, the events of the past having shaped it. Technology of mysterious origin in Gears has become the most powerful weapon in war. And nobody is questioning how and why Gears exist – they just use their toys of destruction to win the struggle.
Various influences on Takahashi show throughout the story, with Nietzsche, Freud and Arthur C. Clarke being most obvious. There are even references and homages to more recent popular culture works such as Star Wars. Add to that the typically Japanese storytelling and the anime-influenced themes such as the giant battle mechs. Xenogears is often compared to Gainax’s Neon Genesis Evangelion anime series, but, in essence, the similarities end at the giant mechs and the philosophical nature of both works. There is no denying it – Xenogears will make you think and maybe even reevaluate your life views.
Aside from the already mentioned reduced gameplay:story ratio in the second disc, the pace of the game is phenomenal. Heavy action segments are followed by more serene episodes that allow you to catch your breath, enjoy the atmosphere and interact with the world and its inhabitants. There are several twists in the story, some implied, others finding you completely unprepared. There is never a dull moment throughout the game. As long as you keep moving forward, fascinating things will keep happening. Little by little, the smoke clears and you start to understand why things have happened the way they did, leading up to an incredible conclusion that leaves you breathless.
One of the things I remember most fondly is how, in the course of playing the game (took me a few months to beat it), the story made me think about it, analyse it and guess what would happen next very often when away from the game. It is like a great weekly TV show – you can’t wait to find out what happens next week (in this case, in your next Xenogears session). There were so many of those little moments in the Xenogears world, events affecting random townspeople or even just architectural details, which were insignificant in the big picture, but were incredibly emotional or profound, leaving an impact on the player.
A GREAT CAST MAKES A GREAT STORY TRULY SHINE
The game’s characters also deserve much praise. Of course, the main cast must be mentioned first. Fei, Elly and Citan are all quite complex characters with very interesting origins and past history. You see them fleshed out through the course of the game, you follow their actions prompted by their ambitions and desires, you see the interaction between them and how their relationships develop. There are many psychological sides to the characters, you see how their mentally cope with and overcome the problems their world is faced with. The story between Fei and Elly is especially beautiful, probably one of the best, most lifelike love stories ever presented in games. From the initial very fundamental difference – Fei being a land dweller, Elly being from Solaris, there is a very long road for both of them to go, but they do so wonderfully, with no moment in the development of their relationship ever feeling unnatural or forced.
The supporting cast adds a lot, as well. Bart, Billy, Rico and Maria all have their reasons to join Fei and the others, they all have interesting backgrounds and add a lot of character to the game. One could say they fit into certain stereotypes often seen in Japanese RPGs, but I would say that they’ve got enough unique qualities to them to overlook that. There are also the token “only in Japan” playable characters in Emeralda and Chu Chu. While the latter is a sheer joke mascot, providing several hilarious moments and reminding the player that this is, after all, just a game and it does not take itself 100% seriously, Emeralda’s mysterious origin is very connected to the overall plot and her very existence offers much food for thought.
No great story is fully complete without impactful antagonists, and Xenogears is quite stellar in this aspect, too. In most games, and especially in Japanese RPGs, there is a clear division between good and evil, you’ve got the protagonist and his friends, and you’ve got the evil guy you have to reach and eventually destroy in order to save the world. In Xenogears, things are considerably different, the division between good and evil still being clear enough, but the antagonists having their own motives and being characters one could relate to, instead of the tired “I want to destroy the world and kill everyone because I’m evil.” And yes, I did use plural there. There is not one clear antagonist in Xenogears, and that is one of the impressive points of the game.
In various stages of the story, you have to fight different adversaries, some ultimately mere pawns in the hands of those with more power. Of course, there is still gradation, the two that stand out most are Grahf, who repeatedly stalks Fei and monitors the extent of his power for his own purpose, and Krelian, one of the most powerful men in Solaris, responsible for the oppression of the land dwellers, but neither of them could be compared to, say, Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII. Their motives for doing what they do are entirely different, and, once you understand them, you could see the Xenogears world through their eyes and realise why they have come up with the solutions they seek.
And last, but not least, I already mentioned several times that the NPCs in towns add so much to the atmosphere of the game. Since it is a very rare sight to give so much attention to them in a game (even in RPGs), I could not help being incredibly impressed with this. The Lunar series is the only other example I’ve encountered that comes close to Xenogears in this respect.
ENTERTAINING GAMEPLAY WITH SMALL PROBLEMS
Even an amazing story wouldn’t be that special in a game if it wasn’t told through good gameplay. Xenogears succeeds in this aspect, but not with flying colours as in the story and cast. Movement in towns and on the world map is from an isometric perspective – certainly nothing we had not already seen by 1998, but it works quite well. The controls are intuitive, you can rotate the camera and you can even jump, unlike in a vast majority of RPGs. This allows for some fun little platforming segments in some of the dungeons – they are never made a big point, but they add to the overall package. The dungeons are all very well made and fun to go through, with the final one being particularly impressive and one of the most memorable final dungeons in gaming. They are also very varied, from the sewers of Nortune, to the gigantic Babel Tower.
The battle system is innovative for its time and quite impressive. There are two types of battles – “on-foot” ones, where you use the characters and their own fighting abilities, and Gear battles, where characters pilot their Gears and use the power of the enormous machines to defeat their foes. Both are based on a “weak/strong/fierce” system of attacks, each mapped to a different button. You have a certain potential of attacks to do per turn (for instance, 3 points), and each attack type takes a different part from that potential to execute (for instance, 1 point for a weak attack, 2 for strong, 3 for fierce). So, in the given example, you could execute 3 weak attacks, 1 weak and 1 strong, or a single fierce one, in the order you desire. In addition, by stringing different chains together, you can learn special attacks which not only deal more damage, but are quite impressive to look at.
Unfortunately, in contradiction with one’s expectations, Gear battles are more streamlined and take less strategy than “on-foot” ones. I expected piloting such complicated machines to offer more tactical options than just using Fei’s kung-fu skills, but I was mistaken. There is still some tactical ability to be employed in Gear fights – for instance, conserving your Gear’s fuel is often very essential for victory, but I felt they could have put more effort into this. Nevertheless, the various abilities the Gears posses still do not let this more streamlined approach to fighting ever feel completely dull.
The other problem with the game’s battles is an age-old problem with JRPGs – random battles and, more specifically, their often occurrence, especially in certain parts of the game. I was quite affected by this in the early stages of the game, in the areas just outside Lahan, it felt like you had to fight every 5-6 steps you took. It can be aggravating, but bear with it. Besides, it is a chance to start learning the various chain attacks early, if that interests you.
Aside from these two problems, though, gameplay was very solid and helped make the game more enjoyable. One of the most interesting parts of the game is the battle arena in Nortune, where you can use your Gear to fight others in a format very similar to a basic 3D fighting game. It also offers a 2-player option in which you can battle a friend if the Gears each of you select. The interesting mechanics of this mini-game provide for many fun moments, and while it is far from perfect in itself, it is a very special addition to the game. Another fun mini-game is the card game apparently called Speed, which is source of countless frantic moments.
IMPRESSIVE VISUALS BY 1998 STANDARDS
As I already mentioned, outside of battles, the game takes place from an isometric perspective. The game is built on 3D environments, using 2D character sprites. This is a very interesting approach, contradictory to Final Fantasy VII’s 3D characters on 2D pre-rendered backgrounds. I guess Square wanted to give both a try and see which worked better. Both have their own strengths and weaknesses, but Xenogears’ approach probably works better, considering the PlayStation’s technical limitations. And let’s not kid ourselves, sprites hold a certain charm, especially to people having grown up in the 8- and 16-bit eras.
One thing I have to emphasise when talking about graphics are the incredibly detailed Gear models. These would be impressive even today, and are an astonishing sight for the time. The gigantic mechs consist of hundreds of polygons, helping every small detail in their design become clearly visible. There is even the option to behold your Gears while they are in the hangar, and it’s there for a reason. The game’s various towns and dungeons are quite atmospheric, each holding a certain charm, giving the player different emotion from the serene leisure of a small village to the fear and uncertainty in a dark, cold dungeon with cliffy terrain.
Xenogears also contains numerous anime cutscenes, complete with voice acting and adding even more charm to the story and characters. From the mysterious opening movie to the ending one revealing the conclusion, the anime work is spectacular, the spirit of the game followed completely instead of these scenes feeling tacked-on. Some symbolism is also present throughout the game, especially Christian motives. The game is not without its artistic touch, evident already in the very beginning when you find out Fei’s hobby is painting and are given the chance to look at some of his works.
ONE OF THE FINEST SOUNDTRACKS OF ALL TIME
Yasunori Mitsuda, known for the amazing work on Chrono Trigger for the SNES, shines again in Xenogears. Whether his work here surpasses his work on the 16-bit masterpiece is arguable, but I will assure you that this is one of the best game soundtracks I’ve ever come across. The tracks mesh together perfectly with the mood of the game at all times, with some cheerful music in villages, more brooding tunes in dungeons, fast-paced music when you need to hurry up and complete a task… The Babel Tower, while an amazing, awe-inspiring dungeon in itself, would just not be as good without the aid of Omen, the song that plays in it and also my favourite in the game (you can listen to it below). And who could forget the boss battle theme? Very few games are supported so strongly by their music as Xenogears is.
As a Bulgarian, I am also proud of my country’s participation in this masterpiece – The Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria folklore choir performs in some of the songs in Xenogears, with the a capella The Beginning and the End standing out the most. The song and the style also correspond nicely to the messages the game is trying to convey.
To sum it up, Xenogears is easily one of the best games ever created, and, if you enjoy Japanese RPGs, you certainly cannot go wrong with this one. In recent years, it became quite expensive to get a hold of a physical copy of it (I paid quite a bit for a used one that I can’t even play on my PS3 because the game hasn’t come out in Europe. Of course, loving the game so much, I just had to own a copy, if only for collector’s purposes). However, with the game recently having been made available on the US PlayStation Store for a price as low as $9.99, it is much more easily accessible to everyone. And I do mean everyone, not just Americans – it is easy to buy a US PS Store pre-paid card on Ebay and elsewhere, and you can use that with an American account you can easily create (you just need to specify any address in the US).
Xenogears is a masterpiece on par with very few works in not just games, but art as a whole. The different ideas it presents are thought-provoking and combine perfectly to create a complete, satisfying product. Once you complete it, it will stay with you throughout your life.
So please, do play Xenogears… You owe it to yourself as a gamer, nay, as a human being!
FINAL SCORE: 10/10