Xenogears - Review

The Cherry on Top

By: Zohar Gilboa

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 8
   Interface 9
   Music/Sound 10
   Originality 8
   Plot 10
   Localization 8
   Replay Value 5
   Visuals 8
   Difficulty Normal
   Time to Complete

60-80 hours


Title Screen

   Xenogears is one of the more controversial games Squaresoft has created. With a heavy religious theme, it managed to upset a couple of people when it came out in 1998. For example, the appearance of the evil Ethos (simply called "Church" in the Japanese version) who, while having many churches around the world, uses the people for its own purposes. Regardless, it remains one of my favorite RPGs right up there with Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy Tactics, mainly because of its excellent storyline.

   The battle system is interesting, though some find it tedious. It's turn-based battle with a twist - there are actually two battle systems in the game - the gear one and the human one. When in human form, you have three types of attacks differing in strength. You can do combinations of attacks in a way that is similar to the battle system of Legend of Legaia. Your limitation is your "AP" which rises as you level up (to a maximum of 7 APs). Your APs are recovered fully each turn, you can accumulate APs over a few turns to act out powerful chains of combos. A weak blow is 1 AP, medium is 2 APs and a strong blow (which can miss sometimes) is 3 APs. In the gears you can charge your attack power until you're able to execute a powerful move. The gear battles are restricted by fuel, which runs out slowly as you fight. There are also various spells each character has, in human as well as gear form. I believe that the inventory is limited, but I never had to use all of the available space. Also, all three characters in your party may use any item. You can equip a weapon for a character (unless the character doesn't use a weapon) as well as three accessories. Some accessories can affect your gear status. The reason why I don't find the battles bothersome is that they are acted out quickly and effectively. I, at least, learned in no time a simple way to beat each creature.

The only trouble were bosses, most of them aren't too tough. It is difficult to die in Xenogears, your only problem is fuel management when you are in dungeons designed for gears. I don't think the game is too difficult. There are a couple of battles that are tough and can be beaten with a little bit of strategy. At worst, you can log onto the net and read an FAQ.

   Xenogears' gameplay is excellent. It was the first game ever to give me a real feeling of being in a town when I entered it (using sprites over 3D polygons, much like many strategy RPGs). Never before have I been able to roam through a crowded desert city or an industrial capital. The menu system was interesting-looking, however the load time of the memory card is too long, and there are no configuration options (except for mono or stereo sound). One of the bigger drawbacks of the game is that the text speed is slow (you can't change the text speed). In dungeons you have random enemy encounters. There is also a compass to help you go through complicated areas. You gain money simply by winning battles. Sometimes you get rare items after battles which you can only sell in certain towns. Those are usually the fastest way to gain money. Even though the gameplay lacks in some areas, it excels in the navigation through towns, which is why I gave it such a high rating.

   The music in the game is fabulous. There are a few main themes repeated throughout the game but it doesn't sound repetitive at all. It is worth listening to on its own. The game also has an arranged CD (not in the actual game), which is one of the best I've ever heard. The sound is fair. Nothing spectacular but it is much nicer to concentrate on the battle animations than the various sounds.

   The story is one of the most complicated ones I've encountered in a video game (or any other medium, for that matter). It includes issues of god, your "self", the identity of a person, the importance of truth, etc.

Just a street
Just a street  
It is all explained by the end, so don't despair if you don't understand anything at the beginning - you won't. All the way to the end of the story you'll be struggling to understand it, making up theories to try and get a clear picture of reality. Don't let anyone spoil this game for you. The hero of the game is Fei, a young man who is striving to find out the truth about his past. He's been living in a remote village for three years with no recollection of his life prior to the night when he was brought to the mayor's house by a mysterious character. He is swept into his great adventure when he witnesses the battle between two gears in his village. The game is even correct with its psychological explanations, as far as I can tell.

   The graphics are quite good. The sprites get pixelated when the camera zooms in on them, though. The actual 3D landscapes are well done. The game has high quality anime cutscenes when there are humans involved, CGI cutscenes when there are gears, ships etc. In battle you also have sprites over 3D backgrounds, but the angle doesn't change. Some of the visual effects are stunning.

   I've played the game twice already. I think that going through it at least twice is important so that you can understand the whole story better. It's like watching a good suspense movie again to see how it all fits together. You could say the replay value is average. Some might be discouraged by the sheer length of it. The game took me about eighty hours the first time through and sixty hours the second. The translation is done well. I can't remember any big mistakes. The only change I seem to recall is changing the name of the religious organization from simply "church" in the Japanese version to "Ethos" in the English version. As far as originality is concerned, there's much of it. While the battle engine isn't new and is basically a new coat of paint to the old turn-based system, the is the first RPG I've seen to use sprites over polygons (aside from strategy RPGs which don't offer much navigational freedom at all).

I want my Pokemon cards!
"I want my Pokemon cards!"  
Of course, the story is original as well as the depth of it.

   All in all, it's a great game. It has a few drawbacks such as the text speed and the sprites that aren't that detailed. What I forgot to mention before is that while the first CD offers a lot of freedom to explore, the second CD of the game is made up mostly of cutscenes and is about 5-10 hours long (depending on your speed and if you're going through the couple of subquests in the game). Though some may find this annoying, I find it more a piece of theater. The reason why the overall score is so high is that, to me, plot is the most important element in a RPG. If you're playing the games for the story, you must get Xenogears.

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