great game, but only for the hardest of the hard core
With storytelling reminiscent of The Watchmen, and... OK--I'll stop right there. The Watchmen? Really? Look, I'm among the first guys to call Cloud emo, Tidus gay, and Advent Children ridiculous, but hear me out: Xenogears is one of those few games you can really nerd out on. I've heard a rumor, but haven't actually seen it, that the game's main bad guy actually has pseudocode written for him in a companion book to the story arc. Pseudocode is sort of a flowchart that maps out how a programmer is going to write a program. Think about it for a moment. Someone actually wrote a fake program for a bad guy as kind of a plot device. That should give you some idea of how insane the world this game takes place in is.
Fortunately, you don't need to be a programmer to understand the story, but you might need to be a philosopher. Indeed, perhaps the star of the show is actually the story more than the gameplay. Perhaps Xenogears was Metal Gear Solid 4 before MGS4 where the line between videogame and interactive book and/or anime got blurry and one could levy criticism as a result. You're going to see a lot of reviews singing the praises of the plot, and probably recommending it simply because it spins a good tale. Which it does.
But the question is: is it worth your money? JRPG fans will find plenty to love about this game. People who like their games more, y'know, gamey like me...perhaps not so much. I loved all the giant robot action, as many quasi-otaku guys do, but the game remains inexorably a JRPG, which I don't necessarily like. The game is so interesting, however, that I picked up the strategy guide and plowed my way through to the bitter end just because I wanted to know how the story concludes. Had this been any given Dragon Quest game I would have thrown it in the trash within a couple of hours.
One of my nerdy gaming fantasies is this game redone as a Devil May Cry-style action RPG with cel shading, or a series of manga. Honestly, I don't view this game as a game, but a think piece. And I think that's the crunch: how much damn sitting around reading dialogue can you tolerate? How much of a difference is there between playing the game and reading the game script? The gameplay seems like an interruption of what would otherwise be an incredible experience, even though I love some of the dungeons (Tower of Babel, anyone?) and I generally like the combat, thus the 4/5 stars. But I just can't push it over that 4-star mark because as awesome as this game is, it's just not awesome enough.