Video games can be anything, there is a lot of possibilities that can be done. In a way, anything can be possible and any concept could be tackled as long the game’s aspects work. The concept, gameplay, music, controls, and even visually can work together to create a compelling game to play. What if only one aspect is focused more than the others aspects, does it mean the game will fail? My opinion is that it depends on the player’s preference playing the game as each person has his/her own play style. Not to mention, these types of games can be done right as long the execution of this works overall. But what does all of this have to do with this game? Well this game is really one of it’s kind, a type you don’t normally see everyday. A game that really depends on the preference of anyone playing it. This fascinating, but flawed game in question is Tetsuya Takahashi’s “Xenogears”.
For some background on the game’s history, this was originally a concept in the development of Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft however was against the idea due to it being complex, but eventually let Takahashi work on it as a stand alone project. Square wasn't sure on doing a localization on the game due to the plot and the themes on religion, but thankfully, it got a release in the US while it never got a release in Europe for some reason. This game was supposed to be part of a series that’s about six episodes with this the fifth game. But it never happened due to that Square made a deal saying that they continue the series if this sells million copies worldwide. This came close but it didn't reach it.
The plot revolves around the main character Fei Fong Wong who lives in the peaceful village of Lahan. He was brought here one night three years earlier by a mysterious mask wearing person. However Fei has no memories of anything in his past. Recently everyone in the village is getting really for the wedding of Fei’s best friends Alice and Timothy. On that day, Fei went to get camera equipment from the village’s doctor Citan for the wedding. However things began to go horribly wrong as robotic like things called gears start attacking the village. While getting everyone to safely, Fei notices a gear with no one inside, so he take control of it to take the other gears out. This goes well until something terrible happens to everything around Fei. Okay, this is as far I can go without getting into even more details. This is one game you should experience without knowing the major things about it. Let’s just say this game dives into religion, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and psychology using the ideals of both Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.
It also helps that this game has one of the most unusual plots to be ever made for a video game. For what it is, it’s really good. You can tell they put a lot of effect on the story with many concepts like the gears, the locations, the characters, and the good amount of research on religion, philosophy, and psychology. Each characters has their own personality and moments ranging from likable, wait the heck, and times you want to slash someone with a sword. It helps that most of the main cast is developed on the most part even if their character arc ended earlier. Heck even the minor characters who don’t have a lot of screen-time ends up being very memorable that makes you wish they had more screen-time. If there's one thing worth replaying “Xenogears” is for the story. There’s a good amount of foreshadowing at those moments you didn't caught at the first time, but going through it again. It reveals more about the key characters and the terms they use become more understandable adding the element of finding something new each thing you play the game or look up the story online for more research. I’m not going to lie, but this game has a lot of awesome moments when taken down a force of gears, seeing a sweet moment unfold, and those “the heck” moments that are ridiculous, but sometimes ends up being unintentionally hilarious. Overall the story is Xenogears biggest strength, but it kind of suffers during the second disk which I will get into later on. Also the translation can be a bit off at times. It’s understandable since the game as translated by only one person and that would be really difficult to do especially a game like this.
Another thing that really compliments the story is the music. Composed by Yasunori Mitsuda who did “Chrono Trigger” and later on “Chrono Cross”. Mitsuda did a amazing job on the music here. Each tune is memorable and really fits to any moment in the game. There’s a good amount of variety of themes from the theme of Lahan, the beautiful “The Wounded Shall Advance to the Light”, and the engaging boss theme “Knight of Fire”. It immerses you to their world and sucks you in for an interesting ride.
Now on to the gameplay part of “Xenogears”, it has a usual RPG set up of going to towns, dungeons, going through cutscenes, traveling through the world map, and doing one of the few sidequests. In the towns, you get to explore the shops, talk with countless NPCs, playing minigames like a card game named Speed in certain location. In the shops, its has the usual items like healing, equipment, and most important on some shops are the Gear parts needed to upgrade your Gear. In most towns, there are some items that are easy to miss, and some are important in getting a better item later on in the game. The world map also like your usual RPG map with random encounters, traveling by walking or using any sort of transportation you get later in the game.
In the dungeons, you travel through out until reaching a certain part of the dungeon after doing a few objectives among the way. The dungeons are huge with puzzles in the mix that makes it some parts straightforward or tedious at times. You have a compass at the bottom right of the screen showing which is north, south, west, and east where your at. There’s two types of dungeons, the ones with just human characters, the other uses gears to get around. Like some RPGs of that era, this has random encounters that might not be liked, not to mention that the rate can be high at some areas making it kind of annoying.
Now I get into the jumping and the camera aspects. You can jump anytime you want in towns and dungeons. The dungeons has platforms to jump through to progress deeper. This works fine mostly, but has an annoying flaw. When you jump, you still have a chance of a random encounter appearing. Right as you about to jump or even during a jump, it doesn't register as the screen changes to the battle. This is annoying since if that happens as you jump, you fall meaning you have to go all the way back to do that jump. On the camera, you can rotate it around to get a feel of where you at. It also works fine upset at some moments, the camera doesn't help on getting the right angle somewhere that can be confusing especially when planning that good jump on some certain locations.
There are two types of battles, the human fights and the gear fights. The human battles use a active time battle system. Like any battle system, you get the usual commands to attack, defend, using items, ether(magic attacks or chi in this game), and escape. You also get other commands like combos and calling out your gear in any case. Unlike other battles systems, you get to chose three different types of attacks. The first is the weak attack , the second called strong attacks, and the third called fierce attacks. These attacks cost AP which you might use when thinking of a combo. To get more points, you can cancel your attack anytime like if you have four AP and used weak attack. You have three points left since you cancel your attack. To use combos, you must learn any deathblows as possible. Deathblows are important as they do a lot of damage and plays a huge role in gear fights. You can learn deathblows by choosing random attack patterns until it shows up on the status with a percentage on how close you are on learning it. In a way you spam deathblows a lot since they do a lot of damage, but its actually fun. It’s fun on trying out different combos and the difficulty is about just right. Some bosses can be rough, but with updating equipment, gears, and leveling up, it wouldn't be a issue.
The gear fights plays out similar to the human fights. You get three type of attacks, special options, ether attacks, and items. If you learn deathblows, you can use a gear version of any deathblows you known to deal out damage. To use deathblows, you have to attack once to increase your attack power. Once its at a certain level, you now can use any deathblow you know at that level and it resets back. A huge difference between both styles is that most actions by gears consume fuel. The gears fights focuses of choosing your moves wisely or you run out of fuel. Thankfully there are ways to recover fuel. One is using the charge option in battle to recover some bit of fuel. Second is finding a recovery bot somewhere in any dungeon. Another huge difference is the equipment setup, you need to buy lots of equipment to update your gear’s power and defenses. Like in human fights, they are status effects so you might consider which one to build a resistance for. In the end like human fights, you spam the heck out of deathblows to deal damage with fuel to consider. I have to admit, I have fun using the gears. There’s something fun about using gears when crashing small enemies with one attack and battling a boss. It’s straightforward, but at least the combat isn’t tedious and boring to do.
Okay now let’s talk about the infamous last one-third of “Xenogears” or in other words, disk two. To talk about it without spoiling anything, here’s how the overall setting is like. You see a character seating on a chair telling us what happens, basically a summary of key events with a picture of that event on screen. Sometimes, you get to experience a small part of that event usually a boss, a dungeon or a key moment. Even the world map is nonexistent until you have access to the final dungeon. On the positive side, this part has a lot of really juicy story elements that may redeem this, and the pacing moves quicker compared to disk one. The negatives aside from less gameplay is not being able to fully experience these events. At times, I really wanted to explore the key areas, but can’t. Another negative is some of the more tedious dungeons are present in disk two that aren't fun to go through.
The reason from what I heard on why disk two came to be is due to budget cuts and time issues. Others say Square cut funding on Xenogears to focus on the development of Final Fantasy VIII, and other say something else. This part is one reason that really depends on the player’s preference as the gameplay style changes, and things are rushed to finish the game before the deadline. I can see why people may not like this while I did like the story parts of it. There are some parts that bothered me like the dungeon bits and the not experiencing the full event. I must really wonder what the game could be like if the whole budget thing didn't happen, could be interesting. On a bright side, at least they didn't straight out cancel the game during development.
Lastly on the visual side, the visuals looked good for its time. At times, it can look blocky, but it at least works. The locations looks good, the gears are detailed, and the character animation looks fine. Unlike other RPGs of that time, this has full motion anime cutscenes during key moments. The animation does its job and the voices in the dub at least decent, but the lip sync is awful. At times, the mouth moves with no talking at first, and then talks quickly to end with the mouth still moving despite there’s no voice. The lip sync can be decent at times, but some scenes it's very noticeable that it takes you out of that moment.
Overall “Xenogears” is really one of its kind that really depends on the gamer’s view on a gameplay and story standpoint. People that enjoy really good stories would like this. People who valves gameplay over story may not like this. Personally this game is really interesting. Yes, there are noticeable flaws that I won’t deny, however it was one heck of a experience. The story really made me consider my past actions and motives behind them, and I learn a pretty powerful lesson I can’t mention since it spoils the whole game. If you interested for a different experience, this might be the game for you.