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Tedious and Wonderful at the Same Time
Even when taking its PSX comrades like Final Fantasy 8 into consideration, there probably isn't a single game that has generated as much controversy as Xenogears. It's a classic example of "love-it-or-hate-it" entertainment, and most people place themselves so far on one side of that spectrum that discussions of the game tend to be more like battlegrounds. But what of the many who haven't played it? It's difficult to navigate through all the message-board strife to find opinions that reflect both the good and bad aspects of the game. That sort of opinion is what I'll try to present here.
To start it off, Xenogears is not a well-rounded game. The game focuses on one section of the typical RPG experience above all others: the plot. Not only are things like gameplay and visual presentation subordinate to the story, but they seem stuck in more for tradition than for any enjoyment they provide or any way they help tell the story. The core of Xenogears is the pages upon pages of textual dialogue. In the end, Xenogears is basically a novel you read by using your PlayStation. Granted, you'll spend many hours in gameplay segments, but those segments were never the point, and they basically serve as nothing but breaks from the plot.
And what a strange plot it is. Attempting to describe Xenogears' storyline is a difficult task, because I have many conflicting feelings about it. For one thing, the pacing is terrible. After the long, intriguing intro FMV, the pace slows down and doesn't start back up again for at least the next twenty hours. The game's first half dawdles around, expositing minor details of dull subplots and going from one uninspired anime-esque event to the next without any of the mystery or emotion that makes a traditionally good story. The script is ridiculously overwritten, and the characters' endless banter combined with the slow, unchangeable text speed often made me want to murder scriptwriter Masato Kato. There's also the problem of the localization, which appears to have been done by a small group of non-native English speakers. At its best, the translation makes lines awkward; at its worst, it makes them incomprehensible.
But near the end of Xenogears' first disk, something happens. Bit by bit, the game's massive backstory begins to be revealed. The exciting mysteries of the first few hours pop up again, flanked by even more riddles. The narrative machine starts moving, and once it starts, it never stops. You begin to learn more about the characters' pasts, and their stories are emotional even through the mask of the abysmal translation. By the time I reached the end of the first disk, I was utterly enthralled.
And it only gets better from there. On the second disk, the plot blossoms into something truly incredible. It's simultaneously epic and personal; it not only depicts one of the most awe-inspiring scenarios I've ever seen in science fiction, but shows the impact of that scenario on the people of its world. It explores what can happen when religion meets technology in a way that's immediately depressing, yet ultimately uplifting. Disk 2's presentation, however, is strange and unappealing; it feels more like a low-budget theater production than a video game. Sadly, this blinded many people to the incredibly powerful story Disk 2 presents.
Xenogears' naming scheme is another point of contention. The developers took names from what seems every intellectual field they could think of, most prominently mythology and psychology, and slapped them onto characters, locations and concepts near-randomly. While some of these names actually cleverly describe the in-game items they're applied to, most are just inexplicable, like kingdoms named after Hebrew months or an energy source named after a Jewish holy text. It's really a shame that the developers felt the need to use the names, since they provide such a convenient base from which to wrongly bash the game. I've seen the same argument iterated countless times: The Xenogears developers just used the religious names because they wanted to be 'deep' but didn't have a storyline that actually was 'deep'. The thing is that the plot does have messages about religion and concepts based on religious philosophies like Gnosticism...you just have to look beyond the random nomenclature to see them.
I could almost end the review there, considering how the aspect that makes or breaks Xenogears for a person is the plot. But you'll actually spend a lot of time doing things more active than pressing X over and over again to advance text. And, frankly, those things aren't all that great. The Xenogears dungeons, for example, are generally fairly typical RPG fare, though their designs tend to be a bit more irritating than the average. A few of the dungeons, however, involve platform-game-style jumping puzzles that prove extremely frustrating. For some reason, the developers seem to really want to make you work to see the plot they've created.
Xenogears has two battle systems: one for fighting normally and one for fighting while in gears, the game's variety of giant robots. Both systems are fairly simple, and both are flawed. On foot, it's easy to win by simply repeating your best deathblow attacks over and over again and occasionally using a healing spell. Gear combat is a bit more complex, since each attack depletes your fuel and you need to attack several times to use deathblows, but it shouldn't take anyone too long to figure out the trick: since your less-powerful deathblows are the most cost-effective in terms of terms, it's best just to use them repeatedly. None of the game's fights are too unbalanced in the difficulty direction, so you should be able to get through most of them without much trouble; a godsend in a game where all you really care about is seeing the next cutscene.
Visually, Xenogears is merely average. It takes an approach that's the opposite of most Square PSX games: rather than 3D characters on 2D backgrounds, it features 2D character sprites in 3D locations. It's an odd choice. Though the 3D backgrounds allow for a fully rotatable camera in both gameplay and cutscenes, the tiny sprites become extremely pixellated when the camera is zoomed in, and the fact that they only have frames stored for each 45-degree rotation means that they rotate jerkily as the camera moves. The technical aspects of the graphics aren't exactly impressive, even for the time Xenogears was released, but there are some nice visual designs. The gears designs are beautiful (if unrealistic), and some of the locations later in the game do a perfect job of complimenting the "epic mystery" feel. There are also a few nice-looking anime-style and CG FMVs, which are unfortunately marred by hilariously poor lip-synch and voice acting.
The Xenogears soundtrack is a microcosm of the game as a whole; it's not particularly polished and it has plenty of flaws, but underneath that there's a lot of talent and heart. Composed by the acclaimed Yasunori Mitsuda, the tracks aren't all that well-synthesized, and certainly don't make as good use of the PSX's sound capabilities as Mitsuda's later work with Chrono Cross. Also, some of the compositions just aren't all that great, like the boring battle theme. But at its best, Mitsuda's artistry shines through, and the best of the score perfectly compliments the plot. As an example, a certain melody appears in the intro movie, where you'll barely notice it. Then, hours later, the melody appears in another track that's played during several scenes to subtly tie them in to the intro. Near the game's finale, the melody reiterates itself in one last track, and it is all the more powerful when you know the meaning of all the events it previously accompanied. Probably the best tune is the beautiful ending theme, which takes a simple melody from early in the game and turns it into a moving vocal song with lyrics that bring back memories of various scenes from the game.
So, should you try Xenogears? I think you should. Yes, it's an experience that will often bore and even frustrate you, but if you follow it to the end, it will show you one of the best plots video games have to offer.
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