Xenogears - Retroview

The Biggest Epic on the Face of the Earth

By: Phillipe Richer

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

60-75 hours



   Hailed by fandom as one of the greatest RPG ever, the mere mention of the word Xenogears instigates controversy around the net in the gaming community. Obviously, a game of the sheer magnitude such as this cannot appeal to all and the fact that the emphasis was placed on the story detracts others as well. Before you venture into Xenogears' universe, be forewarned; Tetsuya Takashi, the game's writer, has a story to tell, and those absolutely opened to it and ready to hear him out will never quite be the same.

   The game starts out innocently enough. After some early foreshadowing, you'll assume the role of Fei, the protagonist. Fei was abandoned while he was still young in this village of Lahan, surrounded by the war-torn kingdoms of Aveh and Kislev. War has taken a drastic turn as it is now waged by means of Gears, giant humanoid walking robots excavated from ancient ruins. As both camps struggle for power, a unit from Aveh led by Solaris agent Elhaym Van Houten steals a special prototype from the Kislev forces. After being tracked down, both units make an emergency landing on Fei's village, an event which will unhinge the cogs of fate of the entire planet. Let's get things straight: while many, many games pretend to have a story of epic proportions which usually lets us down, Xenogears stands above them all, millions of miles away.

   As you progress through the game, you will of course be thrown in numerous battles. Xenogears is very unique in this department as it introduces 2 totally different battle systems: hand-to-hand fights and Gear battles. In both cases, an ATB gauge will determine characters' turn. In hand-to-hand fights, 3 of your characters will trounce their way though many enemies with different combinations. The triangle, square and X buttons all serve as triggers to initiate an attack, be it weak, strong or fierce respectively. A weak attack uses 1 AP, strong 2 AP and a fierce one 3 AP. You start the game with 4 AP per turn, and by the end you'll have 7. By combining those attacks into sequences ending with X, you'll be able to perform deathblows, stylish combos inflicting major damage on the enemy. You learn more deathblows by performing the sequences in battle. You can check your progress on soon-to-be-acquired deathblows in the menu. Once the gauge reaches 100%, your character will be able to perform that deathblow. You can also stock up your AP, using a minimum of 1 per turn, and unleash multiple deathblows in a chain using the combo command. This is particularly useful on enemies who tend to heal often. Characters can equip 1 weapon and up to 3 accessories to boost whichever stat you fell needs a lift. You may also use items and cast spells, acquired automatically when you level up, at the cost of EP. This setup allows very fast-paced and entertaining battles.

What does 
this ship have to do with anything? The truth may be too much to handle.
What does this ship have to do with anything? The truth may be too much to handle.  

   Gear fights are a whole different ball game. When faced against larger enemies you will have to call on your Gears power to emerge victorious. Gears all have a set amount of fuel. Once you run out, you won't be able to attack, and the only way to refuel inside of battle is by "charging", which recovers a small portion of fuel. A weak attack consumes 10 fuel units, a strong 20 and a fierce 30. The Gears' deathblows are determined by which deathblows its pilot has already learned. The availability of deathblows in battle goes in accordance with the attack level which starts at 0. If you attack once, your attack level will rise. Once you reach level 1, you can perform either one of two combos, reducing your attack level to 0 once again. If you attack and cancel once more, your attack level will reach level 2, allowing you to perform a level 2 attack or two level 1 attacks in consecutive turns. There are three attack levels, and one ultra-powerful Infinity attack level, only usable towards the end. You can use spells, the same as in hand-to-hand combat. You may use special commands with big fuel consumption, obtained either after plot points or by equipping items. There's also a booster that increases agility at the expense of fuel on every Gears. To refuel Gears, simply visit the Gear shop nearest you. Gears also have equipment, including engines, which determine both the attack power and the max fuel, and various accessories which use is often shrouded in mystery.

   A big drawback of Xenogears' menus is the lack of explanatory notes regarding accessories. Many times you will discard an item that is actually quite powerful because you didn't have any idea what it did. When equipping items, for both characters and Gears, you will be able to see the stat increase/decrease, but some stats such as response and evade % aren't even represented. You'll often have to read between the description lines to guess what the item's use might be. Other than that, it's very solid. Everything from selecting items, to talking to people, to rotating the camera is executed without much effort. The game is often slowed down considerably in certain areas due to the amazing number of NPCs in towns and such. Xenogears also gives you the ability to jump around freely, in towns, houses or dungeons. Most of the time jumping isn't a big deal since you can just try again right away, but in some areas, such as the dreaded Babel tower, a single mishap can cost you 5 minutes. It could've been more polished by including target areas to jump from, but then it wouldn't really be free-jumping anymore.

   The music was done entirely by Yasunori Mitsuda, the god of music himself. Mitsuda-san stated that he wanted to create a soundtrack that would be as enjoyable to listen to in the game and on its own, but he failed. In fact, he created more than an enjoyable soundtrack, he created a masterful symphony by which all future soundtracks have been and will be judged. It is exquisite. Every town, every character, every important event have their own special feel, thanks to the music. The blend of Celtic instruments such as the flute, the low whistle and the harp with electric guitars, percussion and a varied chorus create tracks that are out of this world.

   You will remember parts of the stories simply by the amazing piano arrangement or the heart-pounding beats of drums. The ending song, Small Two of Pieces, is a gorgeous song. Not only is it great musically and vocally, it's also expertly written to remind you the entire feeling of the game. Out of the 44 tracks on the OST, you really get the feeling that none of them were rushed, and that Mistuda-san took the time to get things completely right. If you buy only one game OST in your entire life, it has to be Xenogears'. Sound effects are also as impressive, with great sounding attacks and amazing mood sounds in towns and dungeons. The battle voices are great too. Although they consist solely of battle cries, they're very well done, adding a great dynamic to already thrilling battles.

Stunning lighting effects.
Stunning lighting effects.  

   The game also features over 20 minutes of stunning anime sequences, perhaps the best ever in an RPG. The voice acting in English is great, but the lip-synch work is disastrous. The blame goes to the localization team, which fortunately re-wrote the script in a very impressive way. The amount of text is monumental, but during my four playthroughs, I have only noticed four typos. Every NPC has something interesting to say, be it directly related to the story or not, and even though towns tend to contain a huge amount of characters, (more than 40) you'll still want to talk to everybody. The key dialogues are easy to understand and contain great amount of expression and intonation. Some sequences tend to be very long, but I appreciate the fact that the story writers wanted to make things clear without leaving traces of confusing in the narration. The one low point is the relatively slow pace at which the text appears on the screen, but it forces to read things carefully instead of just zipping through.

Visually, it's a mixed bag. The battle animations are superb, and so are the 3D landscapes. Unfortunately, you often get slowdowns, as mentioned before, and whenever there is a dramatic close-up on a character, you can almost count every single pixel. The color palette and the free flowing movements of every little character are dazzling. Gears also look incredibly stylish, and the polygon rendering is very impressive for a game released in 1998. The lighting effects in battle are great, and environments are all soothingly engrossing. There's also a huge variety of mini-games, some of which I have never found out about myself. And once again, the PS2's texture smoothing option does wonders.

The plot is out of this world. It deserves a rating that has not yet been acknowledged. It is so complex, so intriguing, so dazzling and awe-inspiring that your mind won't believe it. The whole story is so strong that it almost renders every other RPG as benign. Xenogears is actually just the fifth episode of an enormous 6 episode series. What starts out as a simple escape situation turns out to be the story of a whole world through thousands upon thousands of years. The amount of important sequences and plot points is so huge that you'll have to play a second, if not a third time to actually grasp the entire complexity of the story. Takahashi-san incorporated events from other episodes as well, seemingly placed throughout the game to create this great impression of hugeness.

Look at the size of that city.
Look at the size of that city.  

Even better are the little things you have to complete during the game. From the start on end, you get the feeling like nothing else that every action you take, every move you make to progress through the story has a purpose. You don't just visit a new town to by equipment as in other RPGs. When you get to the various cities, you'll spend many hours there either trying to rescue someone by devising a sneak-attack, or rescue yourself by battling fighters in the Gear arena. There are also parts which include some of the most touching poetry ever, told in a very poignant way. And while the second disc has been trimmed down greatly, either for time or budget constraints, it is still my favorite part of the game. The pace switches to a more narrative one, and the way the game delivers the story goes right to your heart. You won't get the chance to explore vast cities or talk to NPCs, but the plot twists unfold continually, forcing you to bring that tissue box closer and closer.

In sum, every part of the script has a legitimate purpose, a special way to keep you interested and glued to the TV. For me, it even came to the point where I had to play 45 minutes of Xenogears before going to bed, in the complete dark, just so I could sleep with that feeling of satisfaction, of great accomplishment that only Xenogears could provide. It's the kind of game you wish would never end, and even if you might end up spending more than 70 hours in it, you'll have to go through that again just to understand better and to re-live the experience. It attacks your mind on so many levels that you will have to surrender the fight. It's the greatest love story and the most impressive, most immersing epic ever, filled with deep psychological questions and huge religious overtones.

I am not the same man ever since I have played Xenogears, for many reasons. From that point on, I have searched frantically for a story as engrossing, as huge in scope and as philosophically challenging as Xenogears, only to be brushed aside empty-minded. It is far from being the greatest game ever, but the way it engraves itself upon your soul is unimaginable and indescribable. I only hope that Xenosaga, the upcoming first episode in the great Xenogears universe, will be as astonishingly unforgettable.

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