When I first heard of this game, I was in college and some buddies were finishing it up. At the time, it looked cool, but I made note of it for later, as I had much more on my PC I wanted to get to. But I never forgot the game, so when I found out the prequel games were coming out for PS2, I decided to start there, but that proved an utter mistake as I found the game used the strategy guide as an extra-expensive manual. Still, that did not mean I didn't want to play this one, so when I could get it on PSN, I jumped. Now, as I’ve finally played through the whole 90 hour adventure, I have to say… I’m glad I did, but I’m not to sure everyone should.
Story: Fei Fong Wong is a man without a past. He in fact remembers nothing before waking up in a bed provided by the family who adopted him, cared for him, and made the village of Lahan his home. So far, despite this rather abrupt entry into their world only three years ago, it has been a very peaceful life. At least until the village was attacked by a squad of humanoid mechs called Gears. While trying to get people out and to safety, Fei finds another gear that appeared abandoned nearby and in a last ditch effort to save those he cares about, he climbed in.
The results were catastrophic. Fei was able to use the machine to fight back against the attackers, but when he saw his best friend killed by them, something happened. What, he has no idea as he blacked out, but somehow this mech destroyed the attacking force, what was left of the village, and many of the people he has come to love while living there.
Now feared and hated by many who saw him kill everyone in the machine, Fei is forced to flee, rejected by the remaining people. In his plight, he goes towards the land of Evah where he can start anew and leave that gear behind to never cause so much trouble again.
But of course fate would not play this way. What started as a desperate escape from those he didn’t want to harm will expand to a globe-hopping adventure starting with an attempt to prevent two major world powers from destroying each other and everyone in between to shadow governments trying to finish ancient wars and even the fate of humanity… but the scariest parts of all of this could well be Fei’s past and how entwined he really is with it all.
Xenogears is an absolutely epic tale that starts with incredibly humble beginnings, as you might expect from a JRPG of this nature. But where it falls into the generic “save the world” play we see in just about every one of these games, the scope is both large enough and dynamic enough to make you sit up and take notice. And it does this without missing a beat in it’s own story, letting you deal with the more personal events of Fei’s endeavors only for their influence to hit like a wave as the next layer of how deep and how far it all goes hits you… at least that is the case for most of the game. Then you get to disc 2.
Disc 2 is going to be a common complaint in this review so fair warning, and it should be, but we will get to that in each section we have to. In just about every point it can, the difference between playing disc 1 and disc 2 is beyond jarring. For the plot, we go from a smooth moving plotline that compliments the gameplay incredibly well, to walls of text (no voice acting) that reading outloud (as I did since I was streaming this) took 45 minute and more to tell you about the heroic events in summary rather then let you experience it like a game should. The story itself doesn’t change so much as the delivery goes INSTANTLY sour as you now watch a pendant swing rhythmically next to a backdrop with a single character sitting in a chair spewing these walls of text. It makes for a very divided experience in just how well delivered this plot really is.
Graphics: Xenogears is an original Playstation title, and as such can not help but look primitive compared to today’s standards. However, considering the limited hardware this game ran on and what other games were able to get out of it, this is a very impressive title. Rather then the rather blocky cities you would expect in most games, you will find actually crafted places with multiple layers, bridges, rounded roofs, and a ton of moving characters, shops, signs, and general life in town. And vehicles (including mechs you will use in game) show a surprising level of detail both in combat and in cutscenes (which are mostly done in the in-game engine).
However, to use nothing but 3D rendered models would probably tax the console this game was made for too much, and as such the humans and human-sized (or smaller) creatures are still 2D sprites that carry the distinct air of the 16/32bit era of gaming, meshing the two styles of graphics surprisingly well.
But it still might well show just how taxing the detail can be at times, as while playing there were a few times I experienced serious slowdowns, particularly in the second town where when I went to the busiest areas. At these times, the game slowed to an absolute crawl that made even just traversing town a challenge. Thankfully, this is the only time it got even nearly that bad and most of the game managed the combination remaining smooth as butter.
Sound: Let me get the biggest disappointment out of the way: despite being a multi-CD game on the original Playstation, there is almost no voice acting in the entire game. In fact, the only words voiced in the entire game are in the very first and very last cut-scene and the singing in the end credits. So if you came in here looking for even bad voice acting to laugh at, you are simply in the wrong place.
Nor are the sounds going to wow anyone. The 16/32 bit era of games tended to have limited sound effects that described what was going on well enough, but were clearly not exact due to the limits of the machines hey were playing on, and Xenogears is no exception. The sounds are good enough, but not spectacular.
Music, on the other hand, is a lot stronger in this title. Most of it fits absolutely perfectly, setting the tone at every moment, keeping key tunes memorable. For example you will find the combat theme hitting your mind from time to time well after the last time you hear it.
But the pinnacle of the sound track will be the last reward the game gives you as the end credits play out to an absolutely gorgeous and fully recorded rendition of the song the game uses for the more tender moments, complete with an absolutely gorgeously voiced singer. Spectacular.
Gameplay: Much like the story, the gameplay of Xenogears is a bit divided, primarily between disc 1 and disc 2.
While you are still in disc 1 (which will be the majority of the game) it will play a lot more like you would expect an RPG to. You will spend most of your time between a world map and locations you can enter be it towns, dungeons, or your ship you will have from time to time as the plot allows. Navigating both is fairy similar to each other and intuitive, but unlike most JRPGs of the time you will be required to do some light platforming from time to time by jumping between platforms or reacting to something unique in the environment you are currently in, which actually works fine for the most part. However, random encounters can sour this from time to time, as when they are about to happen you lose the ability to jump for a moment prior. While normally not a big deal, maps requiring you to climb by jumping between platforms with the risk of falling can become hair-pullingly frustrating due to this.
And those random encounters themselves come in the form of two combat engines that mesh together for one cohesive, if uneven package. Most of the time, you will be on foot and playing one of the best combat engines I have seen in a game like this to date. Timers will decide the order of combat, and when it’s one of your character’s turns, they will have the choice of using magic, straight up combat, items, guarding or trying to escape like you would expect, but combat is spiced up quite heavily. When you attack, you will be given a certain number of “attack points” (which vary depending on what point of the game you are at) and a selection of light, medium, or heavy attacks. You can make any combo you want provided you have the points left to keep going, or stop and save them in an AP pool. Experimenting with these moves will unlock super moves that once learned, a specific combo of attacks will unleash every time.
Furthermore, if you save those points, you can use an option called Combo which will let you spend your spares over the fight on a chain of the combo attacks you have learned to do insane damage in a single turn, and you can expect there are enemies for one reason or another that will require you to do this, both bosses and regular. It all makes for an incredibly dynamic and flexible fighting system.
Unfortunately you will not always have the option to be on foot, as there are monsters in this game that are just too much without your gears to back you up… and that includes fighting other pilots armed to the teeth… so you get the lesser side of this hybrid: gear fights.
These fights due away with the flexibility completely as you your attack is now reduced to one or two moves. When you choose to fight, you will have the same choices of light, medium, or strong attacks, but now you will get to do only one initially. After each turn, your gear will gain an attack level and if you have learned corresponding combos on foot, you will also gain access to that level’s super attacks: If you are at attack level 0, you will not be able to use any. If you are at 1, you will be able to use any of the light ones by first doing a light attack and then burning that level and returning to 0 next time. Medium will do the same with 2 levels and heavy with 3. And while these are powerful, you always have to remember in this combat form, there is a timer on you. Your gears need fuel to move, and it does not refill between fights. Overall, this makes for a much clunkier combat system that frankly sucks compared to when you are allowed to be on foot. But thankfully, these are limited to later boss-fights…
Until you reach disc 2. Like the flow of the plot, this disc changes up gameplay severely at this point. You will no longer have a world-map until the absolute end of the game for a few last side-missions if you choose. Instead, you will wade though walls and walls of text to explain the plot until you are pretty much put in either a small map with a few corridors and a boss or two at the end or a straight up boss fight with nothing else… and then the next wall of text. Gameplay-wise the flow is absolutely destroyed and most of the game from here on is mech-based, so enjoy those few moments on foot while you can.
Seriously, I have seen many chat goers, forum posts, and even a friend on facebook joking tell me to “enjoy disc 1” and after playing through the whole game I understand completely. Disc 1 is awesome overall with a few fustrating parts due to a little glitchyness in the map-mechanics. Disc 2, on the other hand, is an absolute slog you better put the hours aside for on any given session if you want to complete it. Add to this one of the bosses is arguably the most annoying gimmick bosses I have ever had the displeasure of facing (no I am not exaggerating… this boss fight involves waiting for him to hit himself enough to let you finish him in a single fight and hope you do not run out of fuel before he decides it’s ok to die) in ANY RPG and it greatly sours the total experience for a less then stellar finish to an otherwise exceptional title. Thank god it’s only the VERY end of the game.
Bugs: Overall, this game ran great, but there are two very specific bugs around random encounters that will on occasion annoy the ever-loving shit out of you.
- Can’t jump, won’t jump: As mentioned during the gameplay section of this review, there is an odd issue where about 5-10 seconds before you hit a random encounter, the jump button stops working. This is a small issue for the most part as there isn’t actually a lot of platforming elements in this game, but on those few maps that demand it to climb cliffs or maneuver around moving parts, this can both ruin your forward momentum AND drop you to have to reclaim most of your progress. Fixing this bug alone would have made disc 1 of the game shine arguably as bright as anything from the era.
- Saves? Who needs them! This bug hit me a couple times and the first I was convinced some asshole in development thought it would be funny to place a fake save that spawns fights. If you hit a random encounter while trying to use a save-point, the item will assume you succeeded and cease to work until you at the very least open and close a menu. Thankfully this rarely happened, but it is incredibly annoying to run into.
Overall: Xenogears is a very good RPG overall. Do not get me wrong. It really is. But it ends on such a bad note compared to how it starts that it’s simply unbelievable. It’s almost as if the developers spent all their time on disc one then were told they had a hard deadline to release the game and rushed through the rest of the content they wanted to do. It’s such a shame, because the story they tell really is a good one with lots of detail they could have explored and made you experience. As it stands, the ending of this game does not let me give the game the same glowing words so many have in the past due to this, but it really is only the ending and the journey to get there is actually really damn good. As such, if you can put up with the disappointment at the end and like JRPG games, go check it out. You will enjoy most of what is here. But if you are like me and the ending can ruin a great game for you (or in this case, at least muddy it really badly) you might want to just walk away.
Source: Playstation Store