Recommended: It's clear that Takahashi planned some great things for this series back then, that never came to fruition. Nevertheless, Xenogears is an epic sci-fi saga that will delight any fans of stories that are just a little bit more intelligent than those posed by games these days. Despite its age, the game holds up surprisingly well, and will be a welcome addition for anyone who isn't easily offended by alternate religious beliefs.
Xenogears is a turn-based JRPG developed by Monolith and Squaresoft and published by Squaresoft. Everyone knows by now the story of Xenogears, but since this is a very old game, I'd like to give readers a brief overview of a fantastic title they may have missed out on. Way back in 1995 when the new Final Fantasy game yet to be announced was Final Fantasy VII, a whole bunch of concepts were put forward to be the next one in the well known Squaresoft series. One of the concepts suggested was a story steeped heavily in Gnosticism and an alternate take on the idea of creationism from more modest methods. Primarily drawing from classical works such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and to a lesser extent Jacques Lacan, and Sigmund Freud, what later became Xenogears was pitched as a work about anthropology, philosophy, psychology and different ideaologies. It would also contain a smattering of biblical references.
This did not sit well with Squaresoft executives however, and the ideas present within the story were deemed far too dark and complex to be part of the well known Final Fantasy series. Fortunately, the project wasn't scrapped and was allowed to go ahead, just under a name and proposed series of its own; Xenogears. It was not smooth sailing for the developers though, and lead writer and director Tetsuya Takahashi started to realise the grand saga he'd planned for the series (Xenogears being game 5 out of 6 in the planned series chronologically) would not come to fruition, as Final Fantasy was Square's main focus. It's generally believed that the ideas in disc 2 of Xenogears were incomplete due to budget cuts, and Squaresoft putting the heel in, in order to have it ready to ship. Nothing has ever been confirmed regarding this issue though, and the next year in October Takahashi left to form Monolith and work on the spiritual successor, Xenosaga.
Sadly, I was too young, and unaware of this game's existence back when I thought Final Fantasy VII was the holy grail of jrpgs. My country never managed to classify this game, and so it never received any sort of commercial release in Australia. As it is such a well known classic, I have taken it upon myself as an adult to track it down via unconventional, but entirely legal means (US PSN) in order to see how it measures up to the games industry now. Has it aged well? How far ahead of its time was it? Were there parts that were cut due to time restraints or possibly budget issues? Join me now, as we dissect a legend of the gaming world and attempt to answer what really happened. My personal opinion in my older age, is that Square backed the wrong horse. Let's see if you agree with me.
The take on Biblical verse in Xenogears is quite strange
"I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End." This verse of the Bible from revelations 22:13 is the first sentence you are shown upon starting the game, and is pivotal to the overall story, but not in any way you could imagine it to be. The story of Xenogears is quite unique in that it sets up many ideas and concepts early on that are not answered at what you'd call an expedient pace. Where the game begins is vastly different to where it ends and by the time these older ideas are expanded on and revealed for what they are, you will have long forgotten about them, before being violently and suddenly confronted by it once more. This is one of the game's strengths.
The story starts off like a pretty generic role playing game. You play as Fei; a retrograde amnesiac. Unaware of his past up until now, he resides within the village of Lahan, along with his best friend Dan, Dan's sister Alice, and her fiancee Timothy. Timothy and Alice are to be wed and there is much joy and celebration within the small village, though Fei is somewhat reluctant. Alice and him have known each other a long time and have always exhibited feelings that were never acted upon. All that Fei recalls from his past is a shadowy figure leaving him on the doorstep of the village elder's house 4 years ago. Cut back to the present and it seems that the village has been the unfortunate stage of a battle between large robots from different political factions. One of the pilots falls out, leaving the colossal machine "Weltall" untended.
An unpleasant event occurs involving Fei and he is exiled from the village. Alienated from the only home that he has ever known, he is left to wander in the forest until he finds safety or starves to death. This is when the game really begins, and really starts to pick up. Xenogears has a rather odd story-line in that the first couple of hours take a lot to unfold, and the game is quite slow to start off with. Anyone willing to put in the time and effort to progress past the sewers however, will be privy to an epic sprawling role-playing game that, with the exception of some "applied phlebotinum", for the most part makes sense story-wise, without too many plot-holes. Even then, a majority of the plot-holes can be somewhat hand-waved by the fact that the second disc clearly didn't include all intended information within it's confines. Sadly, due to this the story does suffer somewhat. While the first disc is filled with rather acceptable cut-scene lengths smattered in among dungeons, hubs and and boss fights, the second disc mostly does away with this.
Either because of lack of resources, or time—or perhaps a mixture of both— Disc 2 of Xenogears shifts focus and design quite substantially. Rather than there being lots of towns, NPCs, and cutscenes to gnash your teeth on, the game becomes somewhat of a visual novel, laying out the groundwork of the plot as the characters sit in a chair retelling the events. It can be a little jarring to be honest, and it's unfortunate that quite substantial pieces of the game seem to be missing but, fortunately by that time you're already invested enough in the engrossing story that you will bare the few hours or so cutscenes in among minimal gameplay sections to reach the end.
Gameplay is somewhat unique compared to other JRPGs
The gameplay for Xenogears is an unusual mixture of turn based combat, exploration, button sequence presses and a mishmash of platforming. To be honest at times it feels a bit cluttered, like the developers tried to put too many ideas into one game. One thing this provides however, is a large amount of depth. The start of the game initially only gives access to the player characters, allowing you to engage NPCs, and fight in turn based battles. The term turn based isn't entirely accurate in regards to Xenogears though, as it uses the well known active time battle gauge and different aspects of combat to keep you on your toes and quite engaged. The first thing you'll notice upon the initiation of combat is attacks are executed through combos using three of the Playstation control's buttons. With a certain combination of button presses, immense can be dealt, but only if enough AP is present.
Attacks are split into three categories: light, medium and heavy. Light attacks require 1 AP to initiate, while Medium attacks take up 2 AP to activate. Heavy attacks while dealing the most damage, also take the most usage of AP points, requiring three to utilise. At first attacks are weak, and all can be cancelled at any time in order to build up combo points. Combo points can be stored in order to release powerful attacks later on, but only if your characters have unlocked Deathblows. The combat is quite in depth, and the usage of Deathblows depends on your character's learning rate. Each move has a progress bar that grows as different button combos are used. Most Deathblows follow the exact same patterns, and require a combination of heavy, medium and light attacks to learn. They are scripted attacks and will usually inflict devastating damage in comparison to normal attacks on their own. The key to learning these different powerful attacks is experimenting. Some button combinations will yield results and others won't.
The other important aspect of combat involves the pilot characters accessing huge mechanical constructs called gears. These devices while central to the plot, are also essential to combat and have their own Deathblows. Each of the three categories of attack no longer use up AP. Instead they require the use of fuel, and the gear Deathblows can only be utilised if an attack level of 1,2,3 or infinity has been built up. At a certain point in the story, a special type of attack mode will become available. This is all dependent on how long you stay at attack level 3, how much damage you've taken, and how much damage you yourself have dealt. This is referred to as hyper mode and deals out incredible damage while keeping fuel consumption low for only three turns. Gear Deathblows require great expenditure of fuel but are the main method of dealing damage in the game, and fuel can always be recharged during a turn. Fuel will also charge at ten times the rate in hyper mode. Very useful indeed.
While pilot characters can equip different items to affect status and help level up, gears can too. Gear accessories can be pivotal to most battles, along with any upgrades made. While accessories can be bought to power up a gear, the machine itself can be powered up and refueled at certain shops. The Frame's hp level, engine output (fuel) and armor can all be upgraded, and this is crucial. Most battles throughout the game will be won in one of two ways. The main aspects of gear combat are dependent on what upgrades you make to the machines, as well as just the brute force ability to outlast in battles of attrition. More hp means more survivability, more fuel means less recharge time, and more armor dictates whether some enemies are even able to scratch your gear.
Another important aspect to both gear and pilot combat is Ether. Ether is scattered throughout the world and the humans have learnt how to channel them into amazing abilities. Ether abilities range from status effects, to healing, to offensive and defensive capabilities and is essentially the magic ability of this game. Learning what types and when to use them can often be the difference. "The Wild Smile" ether ability is your best friend for most of the game and also belongs to one of the most useful characters in the game. Ether points can be expended, or even drained by certain enemies. Certain items replenish EP but they are few and far between. It's important to ration ether, as the variety of enemies means it's not uncommon to occasionally come across one type that is totally immune to physical damage. Bottom line is, don't waste ether.
Some of the mechanics
can require experimentation and are janky
Enemies are like everything in this game, quite unorthodox in their execution and like the deathblows, it's all about experimentation. Some enemies will heal you or refuel your gears. Some will only respond to physical attacks. Other types can only be killed by certain elements, ether, or even healing items. You never know what to expect when encountering a new enemy, and it's this aspect that makes combat in Xenogears so thrilling. Bosses all have these evil little gimmicks as well. Some will damage themselves, some will counter when attacked during specific times, and some will be immune to different types of damage. The key to defeating bosses is once again experimentation. If the enemy deals an insane amount of damage you can't survive, it's likely you've missed something. Having trouble? Try equipping that shiny new accessory of gear armor you got from a random enemy. It may just negate enough damage to keep you alive.
Platforming is another aspect of exploring the world and has some issues. While some sections require pinpoint accuracy to get to secret areas, the jumping often feels very clunky. Add to this the fact that random battles are constantly initiated, whether climbing up a ladder, jumping a ravine or even while falling. It's not uncommon to attempt an important jump, only to find you can't jump at all. This is because the combat timer has been activated, and in about 2-3 seconds, a battle will begin. Another annoying aspect is that once you have ended combat, all inertia gained from trying to jump is lost and you plummet back to the ground. There's no fall damage, but it is really annoying at times.
Obviously, the visuals for Xenogears haven't aged well. The game fumbles along with two-dimensional sprites within a 3D world. Nothing is particularly detailed, and the style is very blocky and somewhat hazy. The graphics for the time however were very high quality and even today, it has a unique aesthetic charm to it. The gears look amazing, with each one sporting its own special, but equally cool design. A lot of effort was put into the gear designs, to clearly differentiate them from other gears in both your party and as adversaries. Most cutscenes are rendered through the game engine, with the occasional CGI cutscene pre-rendered. Adding to this is the crafted 80's style anime animations that rarely pop up now and then. While they look quite good, it sadly dates the game, giving it an older feel.
The machine designs, character designs, and boss designs are all separate from each other. Each bit of technology echoes the last, without being identical. Gear and boss models look great, and are the most intricately designed. Not that everything else looks bad in comparison. It all fits, it's just really easy to see the majority of effort went into the gear and technology designs, with other assets left less detailed. Set-piece and level design is quite good for the most part, with the exception of disc 2, as it starts to drop off some, even using two different sections from the same dungeon twice. Some set-pieces cause slowdown at particular times and camera angles can be finicky, often refusing to budge. Many areas are maze-like and reward exploration through both platforming and trial an error. Some areas can be tricky to progress through though, as the textures aren't always detailed enough to let you know when there's a switch in front of you.
Sound and voice design are quite solid
The sound design, like the rest of the game is excellent. The soundtrack spans many different genres, and many of the tracks are catchy. This can be good and bad. Most tracks are reused quite a few times and this wouldn't be an issue in itself, if it weren't for two examples: the main theme of Xenogears and the combat theme. Both are played just a wee bit too much for my taste, and it really softened the impact of such an incredible piece of instrumentation, after hearing it for the thousandth time. Any moment of tension or danger—regardless if it leads to a boss battle or not—will play the main boss theme, and after a while it drags on a bit. The normal combat theme similarly will grate on you after a while, because as deep as the combat of Xenogears is, there are just too many random battles, and it feels like it occurs far too often in comparison to other games of the same era.
The small sections of voice acting in Xenogears weren't too bad, despite some of the supporting characters voices being too cliche or obvious. The voice of the main characters sounded fine, even though the visuals failed to lip synch with the vocals in anything even approaching to close. In comparison with the music, there were times the vocal mix could also have benefited from some gain. Due to the music overpowering voice, some small plot details can be easy to miss in the animated cutscenes, and that aspect was occasionally annoying. For the most part though, Xenogear's audio is full of the same quality as the rest of the game.
So what's the verdict? Do you think Squaresoft backed the wrong horse? In terms of content, Xenogears is very long. It's got barely any side-quests, and you won't find yourself even grinding all that much, except maybe to acquire some cash. Most of the game is very linear and all plot. The side-quests it does have will take maybe a few hours at most, but there's a lot of optional, and even missable content (I never discovered the metronome mini-game) if you take the time to look. It's a very rich game, with perhaps too many ideas thrown into it. Your playtime by the end of Xenogears will likely clock over 100hrs, and that's on the story alone. There's no optional bosses sadly, and if I'm honest, not a whole lot to do once you hit Merkava on Disc 2.
Nevertheless Xenogears is definitely one for fans of old school in-depth mech anime. The story is very much hard science fiction, and may take several play-throughs to penetrate fully the level of symbolism and real world analogues to events that occur within the game. It is not one for the faint of heart. There are some really horrific plot twists, devices and characters in the game. Anyone who is deeply religious may want to give this game a miss. For any other science fiction fan though, it's a hell of a ride. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Xenogears, even this many years on. As for the gaps left in disc 2 for anyone interested, here is a link to the Xenogears Perfect Works translation scan. It may help you fill in the missing pieces. Enjoy.