For a long time I've heralded Xenogears as having one of the greatest narratives of all time in games. I first played through this game when I was 13, but even at that young age I remember being extremely surprised and impressed with how complex and believable the characters were.
A few weeks ago Xenogears came up in discussion with a friend who had far less stellar impressions of the game than I did. He had tried to play the game much later than I had and thus asserted that the only reason I held such a high opinion of it was due to nostalgia. This got me thinking - I hadn't played the game through to the end in over a decade, and truth be told the details of the last third or so of the game were a bit hazy to me. Was this game that I have long maintained as a pinnacle achievement of narrative in gaming really as good as I remembered?
With that in mind I decided not only to dust off my old copy and play it through but to be as scrutinizing as I could be of the game. I realized that after more than a decade of singing this game's praises I'll never be able to have a truly objective point of view, but I felt the need to get as close as I could. Having just finished the game I feel that it's time for some analysis and retrospection.
I'm going to split this review into a few parts. The first part of the review will be dedicated to my overall impressions of the game and a broad discussion of some of the themes presented in Xenogears. This section will be free of any major or late-game spoilers. In following parts I will go into detail about a couple aspects of the game that really stood out to me that cannot be fully discussed without major spoilers. If you haven't played this game and have any plans to in the future I strongly encourage you to only read part 1.
With that out of the way, onward to the game!
Part 1: Overall Impressions
Let's get some of the bad out of the way first. This game is far from perfect, even for its time - and there are aspects that haven't aged particularly well either. These are some of the issues that I felt were particularly noticeable and actually impacted my overall opinion of the game.
Gameplay and Combat
The gameplay is extremely similar to other JRPGs of the time - you control a character that runs around to interact with the world combined with random encounters in dangerous areas. You can also jump, allowing for a bit more freedom than other JRPGs of the time and introducing a few platforming elements. Unfortunately this occasionally comes at odds with the graphics - your characters are 2D sprites while the environment is in full 3D, making it difficult at times to know exactly where your character stands in the environment. The camera could also only be rotated into 8 different positions, so jumping anywhere not in a perfect line matching up with the compass quickly became frustrating.
|That barely visible line is a 2D rope sprite that you need to jump onto. No, you can't get a better camera angle. I will end this jump.|
The combat tries to mix things up a bit compared to traditional JRPG battle systems. The combat was split into two parts – character combat and gear combat. In character combat rather than having a single “Fight” attack your physical attacks were split into 3 different types (light, medium, and strong) that each required different point values to execute. You started out with only a few points per round and slowly grew over time, allowing for more variation in attack combinations. Additionally there were special combos that characters could learn called deathblows – particular combinations of attacks that would result in a special more powerful attack. This was interesting at first, but actually learning the deathblows required a lot of grinding of specific attack combinations, becoming tedious rather quickly. On top of that the animations for the deathblows became longer and more extravagant as you progressed, which was very annoying toward the end of the game. This problem is compounded with the fact that random encounters are extremely frequent in dangerous areas, and as a result you will probably spend more time in random fights than actually running around exploring in dungeons.
The gear combat is better in some areas and worse in others. Gears only get one attack per round normally, but then build up attack levels to execute deathblows. Gears also have fuel, which is used to execute all of your attacks and special moves (including healing). Healing your gears is extremely costly for fuel, so in gear areas combat feels much more like a war of attrition. This becomes frustrating at a few parts where there is a particularly long section without refueling stations, but in general it isn't a deal breaker.
Overall I really liked some of the basic concepts of the combat systems but felt they were executed rather poorly. There were a decent number of different options for actions but ultimately throwing deathblows out was almost always the best option for both character and gear combat, resulting in a fairly shallow experience where combat is concerned.
If there is one thing the Xeno series is infamous for it's having pacing issues, especially Xenosaga. For what it's worth I think that Xenogears is the best in the series in terms of pacing, but it isn't without issues. It’s not uncommon to have upwards of an hour of plot dump via dialogue followed by a dungeon with random encounters every 30 feet. There is also no option for dialogue speed, so text will always scroll by as if someone were frantically typing it in front of you. Through most of the game this isn't a huge issue, but there are some areas where there is a long plot dump immediately before a boss with no save point in between, so dying results in cursing at slow moving text for 20 minutes. because this is PS1 era most of the plot is delivered in dialogue rather than cutscene, so there's never option to skip. I played this game on my PS3 but more than once wished I'd played it on an emulator to give me a fast forward and quicksave option.
Translation / Word Choice
The translation wasn't terrible, and through most of the game it wasn't even obvious that it was translated. There are a few times when the lines are slightly awkwardly worded but it's rarely unclear what they mean to say and more often just good for a chuckle. Unfortunately there is one part of the game where the wording is so bad that it turned this into a real issue all on its own. Very broadly, in a key part of the plot the game will refer to 4 separate entities with only 2 names. Worse still, the entity that each of the names refer to changes based on who is speaking with almost no specific context to help differentiate.
For what it's worth I was able to follow just about everything they said (I think?) but I was already familiar with the concept they were alluding to. I still think that most people really thinking about it would understand it well enough, but they certainly could have been more clear at such a critical point in the plot development.
This is less of a complaint and more of an observation, but the story in Xenogears is really complicated. Like some other JRPGs of that era it suffers from getting a little crazy toward the end, introducing more twists and turns than I feel is really necessary for the narrative. This can make it a bit hard to follow at times, but it didn't actually introduce any serious plot holes or inconsistencies that I noticed.
Rushed to Release
And now for the elephant in the room... this game was rushed to release in a pretty obvious way. The last quarter or so of the game is presented in a completely different style where rather than running through the world to advance the plot you literally had characters sitting in chairs floating in space narrating over pictures in the background.
|I'll bet you thought I was exaggerating.|
From this point on all the story sections are carried out in this manner while the dungeon sections (now even less frequent than before) function as if you assume control halfway through the dungeon, play through to the end, then teleport back to space to have more narration thrown at you.
This is by far the biggest issue in Xenogears, and I suspect that several of the other issues I addressed stem from the fact that the dev team simply didn't have the time to finish the game in they way they originally envisioned. While I realize that this was a deal breaker for many people I do believe that this is an effective means of condensing the game once it became obvious that they didn't have time to finish it. It still feels as if all of the major plot points were covered in the new format, and some may even prefer this method of presentation if they were getting tired of the combat (although the real solution in an ideal world would have been to fix the combat rather than cutting most of it out of the last part of the game).
Ultimately while I agree this was a huge issue of the game I don't think that it ruins the aspects of the game that really shine. So without further ado let's take a look at the strengths of Xenogears.
While the overall game wasn't as flawless as my nostalgic mind remembered I was actually quite surprised at how well done the strong aspects of the game were. There are actually several aspects that I feel were done even better than I remembered them, usually having to do with more broad metaphors or implied context that I was too young to catch.
Despite the story becoming a bit unwieldy toward the end I found myself genuinely interested from start to finish. I can't really think of any works (that I know of at least) that are particularly similar to either the plot or setting of Xenogears. There is enough variation in the events to always keep you guessing, never suffering from common traps (such as the characters always succeeding or failing) resulting in a persistent feeling that anything could happen at any time. There is consistent and satisfying pacing in the broad story arc despite the pacing issues between the gameplay and dialogue. The world itself is also extremely well crafted and detailed, with actual backstory and motivations given not only to characters but countries and political/religious factions.
This is where the game shined most in my nostalgic eyes. In the past I have repeatedly claimed that the character development and characterization in Xenogears is easily in the top 5 games I've ever played, and I was happy to discover that for the most part this holds up to my modern scrutiny.
|A game where the main characters aren't getting off on the desire for combat? Preposterous!|
Not every character received the polish and explanation they deserved, but I believe the few that did sit among the most human characters in gaming. Not only did these characters have fully fleshed out motivations established but the motivations developed and matured alongside the growth of the character. Throughout the game these motivations would come into conflict with the plot, external expectations of the character, and even other conflicting internal motivations. Rather than dismissing or ignoring the conflict the characters would have to stop and work through them, forcing growth and adaptation of the character to the extraordinary circumstances thrust on them.
To me the characters alone make this game worth playing despite the flaws.
If you've played any Xeno game you know that they are packed to the brim with references and theming. Some key themes are explored in every game in the series while others are specific to each game, but in either case they feel intimately tied into the game. Xenogears had several themes that were integral to the game, but I'm only going to go over a few that were most meaningful to me.
- God and Religion – The Body and Soul
God and religion have been one of the most prominent themes in all of the Xeno games, but interestingly enough every game approaches this theme in a different way. In Xenogears this was approached by an exploration of symbolic representations of the body and the soul and how it related to a god figure. I have to say that this game made me far more interested in researching religion than I’ve ever been before, and after you decipher the symbolism in the game it has quite a bit to say on the subject. It is certainly one of the most meaningful explorations on the topic that I've seen in a game, but I must admit that it's a little unfortunate that most of it only comes to light after you do some non-trivial research to connect all the references and unravel the metaphors.
I'm not going to go into extensive detail on it here, but if you're looking for a very well done (and spoiler filled) explanation I recommend reading through this. That guy clearly did his homework, and my hat is off to him.
- Morality and Violence
When, if ever, is it acceptable to use violence on or kill another human being? This theme is most explored in the first half of the game as you are meeting all of the main characters. Almost every playable character you find is an individual exploration on this question. Most characters have already made their decision to fight and part of getting to know them is learning their reasoning to that question.
The major exception to this rule is the main character Fei, who himself is an exploration of a character thrown into situations where he is forced to choose between fighting (which he initially believes is almost never warranted) and giving up something dear to him. His peaceful nature is routinely put at odds with his situation and the inexplicable power that surfaces from within him.
- Part Unification
This theme ties in deeply with the body and soul theme discussed earlier, yet I would argue it is a distinct theme on its own as it is present in many areas that fall outside the religion theme.
What's that, a theme within a theme? It's themecep-
We interrupt this terrible joke to bring you a public service announcement. “Inception” is an instance of beginning, and in the movie refers to the concept of implanting an idea rather than the concept of being in a dream within a dream. The movie isn't called “Dreamception”.
Umm... sorry, where was I?... Part unification, right.
As I was saying, while the religious themes have a lot to do with the unification of the body and soul the unification theme can be found throughout the game. Generally it is presented in a manner where the parts of a whole discover they are too weak to overcome obstacles until they have united into a single entity, becoming more than the sum of its parts. This theme is represented from kingdoms and cultures to individuals and even the self.
|Hold on... I think they might be onto something...|
While the basic message of this theme is fairly simple and consistent (parts must form a whole to overcome obstacle) the range in methods of exploration keeps this theme interesting every time. This theme is also used as a method of foreshadowing, alluding to future events by presenting you with the separated component parts long before joining them becomes an explicit objective.
While certainly more flawed than I'd remembered, Xenogears is still a masterpiece in my mind. The masterful execution of the story, characters, and themes more than make up for the other flaws it had in the game mechanics. I would strongly recommend this game to anyone who loves stories or characterization in gaming.
That said, this game isn't for everyone. There are real issues with the game that can make the game slow or frustrating to get though from time to time. If you're not big on narrative driven games I can't really recommend it (or most other JRPGs for that matter) but if anything I said piqued your interest I strongly encourage you to give it a shot and try to push through to the end as it is very worthwhile.
I can’t help but shed a tear for the missed potential stemming from the game being unfinished, but we have to take it for what it is rather than what it could have been. Besides, there’s no guarantee that greatly expanding the game would have improved it - my play through clocked in at nearly 50 hours, and I can only think of a handful of plot elements that I feel would have greatly benefitted from being expanded. Excessive length is also what kept me from finishing Xenosaga, so perhaps the game being cut a tad short isn’t the worst fate it could have suffered.
|Seriously, this trilogy takes close to 120 hours just to finish and an estimated 24 hours of that is pure cutscene. (That 24 hour figure doesn’t even include dialogue sections, only cutscenes)|
And for all those who have played the game or have no intentions of actually playing but are still interested in a detailed discussion, stick around and check out Part 2 of my Xenogears retrospective!
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