Xenogears - Reader Review

All watch and no play makes Fei a dull boy

By Fritz Fraundorf

Review Breakdown
   Battle System5.0
   Replay Value6.5
   Time to Complete60 hours 

    Ask anybody what games they'd most like to see a sequel too and you can be sure Chrono Trigger will be right up at the top of their list. While the chances of a sequel are unfortunately almost nil, the team behind CT is still alive and well, and their latest game is the game you see here, Xenogears. While the legacy of what many consider to be the greatest RPG ever is obviously going to be hard to top, it doesn't even seem like they're even giving it their best effort here.

    First, the battle system. In an effort to be different, Xenogears has come up with a truly unusual battle system that gives new meaning to the phrase "If ain't broke, don't fix it". Basically, you press different buttons to combine weak, medium, and strong attacks. If you've learned the appropriate skills, you can activate them by pushing the buttons in the right order... but almost all the skills just do damage, so you always just keep using your best skill. At least, that's what I understood -- the whole thing is just vague and confusing, and you're never exactly sure what you should be doing. When you're in your Gears, each attack consumes Fuel, so there's a bit more strategy, but most of the battles are still pretty easy. Some of the bosses can be fairly challenging and actually require a couple tries to beat, though.

    A far better innovation that the battle system is the ability to jump, which lends itself well to XG's 3-D environments. There's actually quite a bit of platform-hopping, which was easily my favorite part of the game -- don't worry if you're reflex-uninclined, it's pretty forgiving. The requisite mini-games are here too, of course, and while most of them are pretty generic, there's one that stands out: the Battling arena in Kislev, a fighting game using your Gears. Not only is really fun, it's actually *better* than the main game, and it's almost worth buying Xenogears for -- but, unfortunately, you don't gain access to the full game until the very end of Disc 2.

    And while we're on the topic, it should be noted that Square was very generous to include a free coaster with the Xenogears logo on it with every copy of the game. Oh, wait, that's not a coaster, that's just Disc 2... could have fooled me. You've probably already heard about the infamous Disc 2, but if you haven't, it consists almost entirely of narration with the occasional boss fight about every half-hour or so. Yawn... wake me up when Dragon Quest 7 comes out, okay?

    On the positive side of things, the visual presentation in Xenogears is unmatched -- the graphics are consist of hand-drawn sprites on extremely detailed polygonal backgrounds. This allows for a variety of camera angles during the cutscenes, creating a more cinematic presentation. The battle graphics are equally good, with even the simplest attacks accompanied by impressive special effects.

    Unfortunately, in all this graphical splendor, something far more important is forgotten: usable camera angles. Fei seems to have the vision range of one of the guards in Metal Gear Solid (i.e., he can see about two feet in front of him), plus objects in the foreground don't disappear when they should, blocking your view of the characters. This forces you to constantly change camera angles, which leaves you really disoriented and confused.

    Music-wise, Xenogears features an encore perfomance by Yasunori "The Chrono Trigger Guy" Mitsuda, who, yes, composed Chrono Trigger's music. Although still excellent, it's not quite up to CT's standards, as it's rather repetitive -- you keep hearing the same 10 or so tracks over and over. That's a fairly minor issue, though, and the music is still good.

    So what *is* the draw here? The story. Xenogears certainly has the most complicated story in any game... there's a huge cast of characters, and the relations between them are innumerable and complex. Despite its complexity, though, you actually have a good idea what's going on, and although things are (intentionally) confusing at first, by the end of the game, everything is clear. This is due in part to the translation, which, while still far from perfect ("Marshal Art's", "judgement", and the whole Shitan/Citan debacle), is certainly better than some of Square's recently other efforts, and is actually comprehensible. On the downside, the Dual Shock support is mysteriously absent from the English version, which just makes no sense. Aside from that minor quibble, the translation is good, and the plot flows well from event to event. And therein lies the problem.

    You see, there's simply too much dialogue in the game, and, worse, there's no way to change the text speed (in fact, there's no customization menu at all). You end up forced to sit through scene after scene of slow-speaking characters, and the lines between "RPG" and "Alan Greenspan's Congressional testimony" start to blur. I seriously almost fell asleep a couple times playing this game, conjuring up frightening memories of Panzer Dragoon Saga. And let's face it, if a game isn't fun, why bother playing it?

    It's not that Xenogears is really a bad game, it's just not good enough to compete with games like BOF3 or FF Tactics. If all you care about is story or eye candy, Ithen you'll probably want to check out Xenogears. It certainly gives you your money's worth lengthwise; it's one of the longest RPGs ever made, clocking it at at least 50 - 60 hours. If you're looking for solid gameplay, though, there's plenty of other games that are more worth your attention -- you simply spend too much watching in Xenogears and not enough time playing.

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