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Neon Xenogears Evangelion
After recently completing Xenogears, I sat befuddled for a moment. Not because of the multi-tiered story’s ending, no; time (and many MANY internet fan sites) helped me understand the bulk of the plot. You see, this momentary lapse came as a result of me attempting to assess what I had just finished as either a game or an altogether different experience.
Many would belie this and say that videogames are an experience in and unto themselves, and they are right in a whimsical sort of way. If that’s the case—and it is—then maybe, just maybe I’m trying to say something else: Xenogears, for all intents and purposes, does not function well as a game but as a story, one that should be WATCHED as opposed to PLAYED.
Now before anyone curses me to the depths of, well, closing this document, hear me out for a moment. The story is the ONLY reason you, as a player, would continue to play this game (well, that and the glorious music). The battle system—BOTH battle systems—lose their luster less than halfway through the game. You get tired of rotating the blasted camera and jumping aimlessly in the massive, long, and repetitive dungeons. And if I would have had to spend ONE MORE HOUR in Nortune in Disc 1…Are you starting to get my point? Any area of this game were you actually have to play is completely overshadowed and made up for by the scenes that you merely have to watch. So now that my underlying point has been established, on with the review proper:
In an unconventional move, I’m going to begin with Originality. This game features many innovations, yes; especially since it pays homage to virtually every anime series that has featured a giant robot EVER, and then some! Giant mecha with souls, heroes with identity crises, cities floating in the sky; this game is a veritable bowl of otaku soup, but it’s a tasty one that I don’t blame too much for doing so. In this sense, Xenogears is wholly original in the way it presents all of these concepts in one product.
Interaction with the game is solid: a few balks, but nothing alarming to the code red level (e.g. NES Dragon Warrior or Phantasy Star II). The worst thing in this regard is the agonizingly slow speed at which the text rolls, and the fact that there is no way to customize this option. I understand that the developers of the game (probably) wanted to make sure everyone read everything the game had to say, but in games this text-heavy there really should be an option to speed things along. While I’m still complaining, jumping is a really fresh idea for RPG’s, yes, but if I want to guess the probability and whatnot of jumping blindly from platform to blasted platform I would play a Mario or Sonic title, thank you. On the plus side, menus are very conservative, showing armor/weapon upgrades, utilizing optimize/remove functions, and all and everything else that one has come to and should expect in RPG menus by now.
The graphics too are solid, though interestingly enough. Its kind of like taking Final Fantasy Tactics’ characters and putting them in Final Fantasy VII’s world, complete with a fully rotatable camera. The game certainly does have its own unique feel, and with the numerous locations that pop up and disappear you truly do feel that you have become immersed in its very world. The anime scenes are wonderfully drawn, albeit badly dubbed and voiced (Bart comes quickly to mind). The FMV scenes on the other hand leave a little to be desired, though there seems to be a method to this madness: it seems that FMV scenes were used in accordance with technology (such as with the gears), and the anime scenes were used in accordance with humans (such as the characters). Just so you would know…
Many praise the dual battle systems, especially for being fresh and ‘fun’. The battles are not fun. I repeat: when you’re walking aimlessly through a boring dungeon, looking for a turn you missed because it looks EXACTLY like the turn you just took, and you get into the FIFTH battle since you’ve been backtracking for that turn—that’s not fun. That’s tedious. As critics will proclaim there are two battle systems: one with the characters on foot and one with the characters in gears—both have their perks and pitfalls. Character battles start out fun, but due to the presence of deathblows (powerful skills that are learned as you level up) they quickly become monotonous, as you watch the same animations over and over and over again. And magic (or ether/arcane/chi/whatever) is useless. Gear battles fare marginally better. They are far more strategic and rewarding—until they come into preeminence later in the game, where they become just as monotonous as character battles. Honestly, I really do not see how people say they actually missed this game’s battle system as opposed to Xenosaga’s. That game, for one, has something that Xenogears sorely lacks: polish.
As for the music…this is one area where Xenogears cannot be faulted—except for in the fact that there isn’t enough! Yes many songs repeat, but when they’re this good who cares? Mitsuda established himself as a big-time composer with this one (this proved that his work on Chrono Trigger was not just some ‘beginner’s luck’ fluke), and there are so many great tracks that they make the times when you have to play the game bearable (well, except that Nortune bit in Disc 1…that song, and Nortune itself, just plain suck). I will use this opportunity to once again comment on the voice acting: its average. Since the animated scenes are so few and far between I really didn’t fault the quality, but once again I must say that Bart’s voice is so out of place and unnatural that you could SWEAR there was something wrong with your game…it’s that bad.
The story though; this is Xenogears’ crowning achievement. And not just because it takes a whole lot of philosophical/religious/mythological names and sticks them everywhere (which it does: naming a submarine after the World Tree of Norse myth? Come on, there’s nothing ‘deep’ about that at all). Its because—as convoluted as the story starts out; as much nameless (and some faceless) faces are dumped at you per hour; as many tepid hours you spend in Nortune in Disc 1 (yes, I just won’t leave that alone)—the story comes out whole in the end. The biggest fault you can credit this game with from this angle is that it tries to explain too much—which it does, but it does a fine job at that. Granted, there are some points that feel incomplete, and many things take obscene amounts of digging to find (let alone correlate in the context of the game), but there is a reason. This game was rushed, definitely; and I’m going to take a stab and say sometime in the development cycle (right around, say, Disc 2) mastermind Tetsuya Takashi told his crew to approach this game as a ‘rough draft’ of sorts, and focus on finishing the product as opposed to ‘polishing it in the grand scheme of things’. Those who have played Xenosaga can note: these two games really do not have much in common, besides the Xeno- prefix in their titles and the Zohar object.
And let me elaborate on Disc 2—for what it was, I liked it enough. As opposed to going through hours and hours of RPG’s equivalent to the Herculean task of cleaning the Augean Stables (most of Xenogears’ dungeons) in Disc 1, you just read about them instead! Sometimes a character would narrate, other times you would actually see the scene. Now this was done like this (obviously) because the game was rushed, and many (rightfully) argue that this destroys Xenogears’ gameplay element; but since I made the point that this game is to be watched instead of played…yeah, I for one would have rather read about (or watched) that hideous Babel Tower dungeon than have to do it myself, going from platform to platform with jumps that would make Pitfall Harry cringe. Disc 2’s biggest problems would have to be that at some times too much story is dumped on you to digest at one time, and some characters just fall by the wayside (namely Chu-Chu and Rico, but no one cares about them anyway).
My suggestion? You can take Xenogears, polish its tarnishes a little, and release it as an anime set, complete with episodes and everything. That, I believe, would be the proper medium to experience this game’s story in. As pretentious as it is, its just too boring to play through some parts (need I mention Nortune again?). Naysayers can say what they will against this proposal, but the proof is there: the fights with Grahf and Ramsus; the awesome gear showdowns; Cain’s talks with the Gazel Ministry—this is prime anime stuff. I for one, though, am glad that Monolith Soft is starting over completely with this franchise, and doesn’t feel the need to reference everything that was done or said in this game as devout canon. This was a decent start, but it is hardly the ‘great’ game that it is made out to be, or that the Xenosaga games have and will become.
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