Possibly the greatest RPG of all time
I consider myself an experienced RPG gamer, having traversed the fields and caverns of Final Fantasy V-XII as well as dozens of other J-RPG's, most notably the Chrono series and that recent masterpiece, Dragon Quest VIII.
Above all else towers the original Xeno game for the PlayStation. Conceived as only a part of an ongoing saga (hence Xeno-saga on the PS2), Xenogears is a unique game that knows no equal. In fact, its later installments, the three episodes on the PlayStation 2, while undoubtedly good, are nowhere near the magical perfection of Xenogears.
My attempt is not to provide an in-depth look at the gaming mechanics, storyline or art style of the game. Any wikipedia article will fill the reader in on that. Instead, I wish to offer some reasons why this game, after all this time, deserves to be played and remembered as one of the pivotal RPG games of the 90's.
The answer is deceptively simple: the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. The game combines everything that a good RPG needs into a streamlined whole, but it does this, not in a syncretistic way like DQVIII, but in a way that creates something new in the process. So, the sum total of its battle system, musical score, art style, character development, cut-scenes, level design, story arch etc. is a game of utmost individuality. Not one bit of it feels forced or fake. This game proved to me that videogames could, indeed, be considered art.
For someone who doesn't know much or anything about the game, it follows the Final Fantasy model of turn-based battles, dungeon exploration and town visitation. Its story is equally large scale as the best parts of FFVII or Chrono Trigger, but it goes one step further, I think, by the ambitious nature of its program. It offers a damning critique of the corruptibility of power, of organized religion, of individual vanity, of doctrines of hereditary superiority... More than that, it offers a very personal story of journey and redemption. Its cut-scenes are already legendary for their length and scope, and no gamer should approach this game without trepidation and stamina. However, the results are more than fulfilling. In fact, the story only deepens as the story goes on, and at no point does the "deus ex machina" principle, so often resorted to in the final fantasy series, of plot twists for the sake of plot twists, take the place of meaningful development of the basic underlying themes of the tale.
That said, the one weakness often pointed out, and a true weakness it is, relates to this very issue of wrapping the story up. No spoilers here; just a warning that the second disc is a little underwhelming. This is true. However, the gigantic scope of the story is brought to a satisfying conclusion all things notwithstanding. In fact, just like many of the cut scenes resemble sci-fi anime episodes and space opera, so does the latter half of the game resemble a good novel or an illustrated epic poem.
The gameplay itself is wonderful, the battle system works, whether when playing as people or as a giant robot -- oh yes, did I mention you get to play as gigantic mechs? The game has an epic, gargantuan scope, and this is reflected even in these "super-sized" vehicles you get to board and steer.
There is so much to say about this game... The 15-minute to 45-minute cut scenes, telling the story graciously and beautifully, from drama and tragedy to epic lyricism and even comedy. The sceneries are beautiful, level design superb, the item system satisfactory, musical score legendary (thanks to Yasunori Mitsuda's breathtaking work), game structure bold and unusual... At some 80 hours of length, this is one hefty mother.
Xenogears is not perfect, but for its innovation, bold structure, epic scope, beautiful art style and lyrical narration, it deserves to be called one of the best RPG games of all time.
In my list, it is up there with Final Fantasy VII as the best RPG of the PlayStation era, and indeed of the '90s.
A game so daring, majestic and epic comes once a decade - at best. Not to be missed.