Xenogears - Retroview

Gundams... Squaresoft Style

By: Tommy Moo

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 8
   Interface 8
   Music/Sound 8
   Originality 7
   Plot 9
   Localization 10
   Replay Value 6
   Visuals 4
   Difficulty Hard
   Time to Complete

50-65 hours


Title Screen

   Three years ago Squaresoft grit their teeth and translated this gem. Xenogears has marked itself as having, if nothing else, the boldest and arguably most powerful story since games have been made. Not shying away from the taboo areas of religion and social discrimination, it's a wonder that more controversy hasn't arisen in the US. This is not a game to be missed.

   Xenogears follows the story of Fei Fong Wong, a well-liked martial arts instructor and artist with a seeming case of amnesia. From the beginning this tale comes across as light-hearted, but quickly grows serious as a wave of thirty-foot tall invading mechs, or Gears, descends on the peaceful hamlet of Fei's residence, devastatingly changing the course of the young fighter's life.
   Fei's first encounter with XG's random battle system comes on his hike to the peak of a local mountain to visit the good doctor Citan. Fighting is at first extremely simple; each character is given three "stamina points" per round, with which to attack. Fei and company each have three levels of attack: weak, strong, and fierce, which consume one, two, or three stamina points accordingly. As the characters level up, eventually their capacity increases, allowing them to chain together more attacks per round. The true weapons of the team, however, are the deathblows learned through repeated attacks in battle. This allows for strategy, especially in the difficult boss battles, as one or more of the three-person-team can be devoted to relentlessly building up stamina for a lethal combination of deathblows. Fighting in the gears is similar, except that a new variable, fuel, must be taken into consideration. The battle system works well to cater to the beginner, and learning new special skills is sufficient motivation to keep fighting.

She Looks Familiar
She Looks Familiar 

   Dripping water, distant howling wind, and eerie silence haunt most caverns of the world of XG. Towns quickly come to life with appropriate mood-setting tunes. The music of Fei's world is well-orchestrated, but overly reused. It seems that diffusing a few additional tracks throughout the game would have helped. The Yggdrasil theme and heart pounding boss music in particular quickly become old hat, and eventually irritating through repetition. Character theme songs (especially Grahf's) are where the soundtrack shines the greatest. Various shouts emanate from the fighters while executing special moves in battle, and for a laugh, lose a card game with each member of the team (especially Bart.)

   Mechs are not a new creation in either video games or anime (which bears heavy influence on XG). The originality of this game lies in the connection between these mechs and the intense storyline. Square dared not to place the Gears in an ultra-futuristic society, instead opting for a new twist. The world spans from a seeming pre-industrial bazaar to floating cities, and can easily appeal to fans of any school of RPGaming. Think Escaflowne meets FFVIII.

   Plot is unquestionably XG's featured element. As previously mentioned, Square censored nothing in translation of the retelling of the Christian story. Of course, the game takes several liberties, and branches wildly off of where the Bible concludes. I wanted to give this game a 10; I really did. It goes to say, however, that the plot is rather slow at some points, especially the beginning, and consists mainly of microelements, not macro. In other words, most of the game is driven by small objectives that are immediately solved. At no point in the first half of Disc 1 is an all-encompassing problem or seemingly omnipotent villain introduced. On several occasions the party had accomplished everything. Game over? Not yet. Something else has to happen. Go visit Billy and thank him for helping fight some monsters. This is a key plot element sadly necessary to drive the story onward. I'm nitpicking. Invest 10 or 15 hours to get through the less than incredible beginning, and once this storyline picks up, you'll be in for a show easily worthy of the big screen.

Where Did You Get Those Awesome Frames?
Where Did You Get Those Awesome Frames? 

   The single greatest aspect of the writing is character development. Everyone will immediately find a character to like (it was Billy for me). Each member of the crew has a manner of speaking that sets him or her apart from the rest, while building their engrossing stories (though Citan overwhelms the others in terms of contributing to the central plot). The player cannot help but to be sucked into the minds of these cute people, and overcome alongside them the demons of fear, betrayal, jealousy, and even drug addiction. The characters have a meaning for existence, and teach a thing or two about our existence as well.

   While most random encounters can be won comfortably throughout the game, there are very few such boss battles. This makes for a healthy amount of game-overs and a great sense of accomplishment. This game will exhaust you, but like Fight Club, the plot demands a second look. You'll want to play twice, but probably not more than that.

   This brings us to the Achilles heel of XG, and the topic that to this point I have aggressively avoided: graphics. Not merely are the facial expressions of the squat character sprites difficult to see, but gesticulations are limited. FFVI for the SNES had more lifelike cinema scenes and more animated characters. The irritating camera never seems to be able to be rotated to an effective spot in most of the precision jumping courses. As if this wasn't enough, foreground images often frustratingly impede the action from view, and in several locations, the camera can be rotated only partially, or not at all. But the horrific embarrassing "How the heck did this make it through quality testing" error comes in the anime cut scenes, reminiscent of poorly dubbed black and white Japanese movies, except to the tenth degree. Characters stop speaking long before their mouths cease to move.


   Buy this game. Laugh at the terrible anime movies. Cry at the storyline. Pump your fist in pride as you kill Redrum on the third attempt. Shout at Dominia as you fight her twice in a row without refueling. Had this been made a few years later with Square's current capabilities, we might have been looking at the greatest game ever.

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