An extremely epic tale, with some unfinished systems
There are certain parts of Xenogears that are beyond anything I've seen (and still haven't) in a video game. But then there are a few things that drag the game down from being the perfect being, and that literally crushes my soul so hard that I cannot ever forgive Square-Enix for rushing this game. I say "ever" because I'm confident they are never going to come back to this franchise and do it right, and that is what is crushing; that I'll never get to experience the true Greatness that this game could have been.
Xenogears is truly unique. Never before has such a main-stream game touched on the topics of Religion and Creationism. It was actually so controversial that the game was almost never localized in North America due to the heavy Christian influence that our country has. Just touching on these subjects wouldn't have been enough, only a truly great story can tie these together along with a dozen other themes and make an intensely interesting story. That is because of the way they planned out the "series". You can read all this on the Giantbomb Xenogears page, but the game was actually planned to have 6 parts. The game represents "episode 5", as shown in the end credits. They had a story ready to be told that was 6 parts long... you start to understand that there is a MUCH deeper lore surrounding this game that exists only in text because the other games never got a chance to be released.
If you haven't heard or read anything about the Xenogears lore or universe before playing Xenogears, there are parts that are going to make little if any sense. But that is totally okay, its the deeper mystery that you can't grasp that makes you so interested in this other "lore" that you just HAVE to know. Once you finish the game you will immediately be sucked into this universe, wondering what the hell happened before the game actually started. After finishing the game I spent nearly an entire day(not an exaggeration) just reading about the "back-story", if you will, to find out everything about it. It will consume your life, until you accept that Xenogears as a series is over.
That is the power this story has. The story is the main focus of this game and it has something special that I'll probably never see again in a video game. I'd like to get into the specifics, but I feel I'd just be telling the story itself from beginning to end. And that's not really appropriate for a review so let's move on.
Sort of a tie into the Story section of this review, I thought it be wise to talk about the characters a little. I don't want to just list all of the characters and explain each and everything about them.
Each character has a deep conflict within them that they are trying to face throughout the course of the game, but the unique thing about this is these conflicts all involve the other characters on a personal level, not just "big picture" stuff. The story dealing heavily with the theory of Reincarnation, there are conflicts that exist in 2 of the characters that are from previous lives, which all are a part of the bigger ultimate story; main conflict that is facing the Human race and the fate of the planet they are on.
The game also steps into forbidden territory with having "godlike" characters in the form of The Wave Existence, and Deus. Without spoiling too much, you actually talk to The Wave Existence. Which doesn't even understand what it is itself. It subtlety asks a deeper question which gets into the 'taboo' Religion: "How did it all begin?" Never does this Wave Existence answer any real questions, only analyzing the current path humanity has taken and what may be the ultimate end, helping the Main Character understand what he truly is. Further solidifying the Wave Existence as basically God.
It gets pretty deep with these characters. Another reason this game is unbelievable.
Story Conclusion and Perfect Works:
It may seem like there are a lot of missing pieces to the Story in this game, but if you think about it as a 6-part series it starts making more sense. Although the other 5 stories were never told in video game form, they exist in a book, that was released after the game. Once you have read those, those parts of the game suddenly make more sense and you start understand really how deep this all goes. And that is an amazing feeling. And what makes the story so interesting, is that there are a lot of "hidden" parts that ,once undestood, fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Only its probably one of the best pictures on the jigsaw puzzle you've ever seen.
A lot of Xenogears backstory is told in the book: Xenogears Perfect Works . Which was only released in Japan. This book details the history of the Xenogears universe from the discovery of the Zohar to the start of the game. The Xenogears game is the Fifth chapter in this story as a whole, and the other chapters are told in this book. There are fan translations of this book available on the internet. If you really want to read them, you can look them up on Google, or I think there is one on GameFAQs.
Graphics and Sound:
The Graphics were nothing to write home about, but they were tasteful for the PS1's standards. Instead of opting for extremely 'blocky' characters made from polygons, they went for sprites to better convey the character's emotions in a more "anime" style which works well. The environments are still 3D as well as the Gear fights. And that actually feels really solid, even with the low polygon count. It was simple, and it worked. That's all graphics need to do.
The music score however was a different story. It was done by Yasunori Mitsuda of Chrono Trigger fame. And it is top-notch. The soundtrack still today is considered by many to be the best Square-Enix game soundtrack to date. The many themes of this game are covered by the extremely varied music that Mitsuda came up with for this game. From intense battle themes, to soft-but-epic preludes accompanying the various stories told by narration or the characters. It's all amazing.
The game is an RPG, so you expect all the traditional aspects to be present, and they are. Equipment, Stats, Levels, etc. There is also a set of those for your Gear, a giant robot fighting machine used to either War, or Archaeology. Though the Gears you pilot are all Combat Gears. You get to explore a world map like any Final Fantasy, an eventually get an Airship to fly around as you please. All the other aspects such as mini-games and NPC conversations are all there as well.
The combat is where the game starts to slip up. This might be long, but bear with me. It's broken down into 2 different types of battles in Xenogears: Character battles in which you fight normally, and Gear battles which are fought in Gears. Each one is different enough to make it interesting, but overall these Mechanics were not polished to what they should have been. It is entirely Turn-based.
In Character battles you can choose either: Attack, Item, Ether, Combo, Run, Defend and Get into Gear(which isn't always available). Selecting Attack opens up 3 more options: Strong, Medium, Weak attack options; each costing different amounts of AP. You start each turn with a set number of AP, which increases over the course of the game. You can choose any combination of attack options provided you have the total AP cost of them.
For Example: You start your turn with 6 AP.
You perform 3 Weak attacks, 1 AP each, totaling 3 AP. You have 3 AP left.
You perform a Strong attack, which costs 3 AP.
Now you've exhausted all your AP for that turn, and your turn ends after you deal that damage. Depending on what combination you used, or if you've learned it, you perform a Deathblow; the bread and butter of the Character battles. A Deathblow is an extra attack after your input of attacks that deals a bunch of extra damage and includes a unique animation. You can learn roughly 15 of these throughout the game for each character that can perform Deathblows. Each one requiring more and more AP to pull off. These are actually really fun to do, and reminds me a lot of a fighting game.
Onto Combo, which where things start getting weird. For each point of AP you don't spend, it goes into meter called AP (underneath your HP). So instead of performing the maximum AP deathblow each turn, you can choose to save those points and use them for a Combo later in the fight. Say you fill up the AP meter to 26(the max) you can perform 26 points worth of Deathblows in one turn. While that sounds okay, the battles rarely require you to do this. You give up your turn basically to execute the attacks all at once later in the fight. Only when enemies heal, or have counter-attacks does this really come into effect. Which if i remember correctly is like 3 fights in the whole game. Interesting concept, but not polished enough to affect much else in the game.
Ether is your magic, which is even worse than the Combo feature. You have EP(basically MP) that you can spend to use these. Some are attack buffs, some are heals, and some just do damage. Using an EP skill, takes your whole turn. Unfortunately these EP attacks that deal damage do not do nearly as much damage as a Deathblow which costs the same, one turn. So you mainly use the EP to heal with certain characters, and sometimes buff if you have EP to just waste because you can. Ether skills seem like something an RPG should have. But again not polished enough to be of real use throughout most of the game.
Item, Run, Defend, and Get into Gear all function as you'd expect them to. And cost a turn.
Gear battles are supposed to be the main focus of this game, so you expect them to be a little better than character battles. But it falls short once you understand what exactly is limiting you while in a Gear.
You have a similar set of commands for when you're in a gear. You have Ether, which uses EP, but your healing spells turn into Defense restoration instead of HP restoration. Meaning if someone lowered your Gear's defense, this is how you bring it back. Which doesn't happen all that often. The EP attacks again do not really compete with the damage you can do with just attacking. So the usefulness of EP in gear fights is severely lacking. More polish on this would have been nice
Choosing attack gives you your 3 attack types again, only the attacks that branch off from here are based on what Deathblows your character can perform on the ground. Each costing a different amount of Fuel, instead of AP. But Fuel is not AP. In fact its more like Mana that does not regenerate throughout a dungeon, so you have to manage it correctly. Waste too much fuel overkilling your enemies and you are going to be in trouble later. To perform the Deathblows here, you have to have an Attack Point, which you gain by not performing a deathblow the previous turn. The Strong-type Deathblows take 3 Attack Points, Medium-type take 2, and Weak-type only takes 1. You're stuck again saving up 'points' to perform your main attacks every other turn. A little better polish, and this mechanic could have been much better.
You can restore a very small amount of Fuel by choosing Charge, which is identical to Defend on the ground. You take less damage for a turn, and regenerate a very small amount of fuel.(30 out of 1200 to start to be exact, and you have WAY more max fuel end-game). And eventually late in the game you can use your Fuel to Restore your Gear's HP, although it is a hefty cost. You're better off trying to avoid as much Gear damage as possible when going through a Gear dungeon.
So in conclusion on Gear battles, you're limited by how much fuel you have. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just can get frustrating sometimes when certain enemies can drain your fuel! (there is equipment that prevent this, but still dangerous). You USUALLY get a point where you can re-fuel and save right before a boss fight, which makes it less of something to stress about. I can't help but feel the Fuel system could have had been more finely tuned if they had the chance.
Gameplay Conclusion and Second Disc Fiasco:
Starting to see a Trend? The game feels very unfinished. Which is definitely confirmed when you reach the Second Disc. Instead of the normal game you have been playing already, you start off hearing(reading) a monologue of one of the characters as they basically Narrate the game instead of you playing it. The amount of in-game 'cut-scenes'(parts where you see the story but don't actually get to play) increases dramatically, and you cannot explore the world on your new Airship until almost the end of the disc! Even then you can only goto a few places, and can't return to most of the past dungeons and towns that you went to on the First Disc.
Why is it like this? Well it has never been officially stated as far as I know, but It's speculated that the game's budget and time to make it were cut short by Square in order to concentrate more on Final Fantasy. Which was exploding onto the scene with FF7 and they wanted to get working on FF8 as well as FF9. Back then Square wasn't exactly the financial Beast that it is today, and they weren't going to take any risks. Especially with the extremely high controversy surrounding this game.
Xenogears is an experience unlike any other. From the controversial themes, to the super deep story.. it's one amazing ride. If you can tolerate the shoddy combat mechanics and strange absence of gameplay on Disc-2, you are going to be told (what I feel to be) one of the best RPG stories of all time. If you haven't yet, I highly suggest you at least give this game a fair chance. Play about 2-3 hours and if you can't get into it, maybe it's not for you. But it is Definitely worth a shot, for any RPG fan.