For me, all of my entries in my “Greatest Games” subcategory have been building towards this one. My intention with the series was to present some of the games I felt were among the best I had ever played while shying away from the obvious choices. After all, plenty has been said about A Link to the Past or Super Metroid. While I made entries about Chrono Cross and Twisted Metal Black I was constantly looking ahead to that one game I preferred above all others.
Xenogears arrived during the RPG boom of the late 1990’s. Developed by Squaresoft under direction from Tetsuya Takahashi, the game was originally supposed to be Final Fantasy VII but it became too dark and too sci-fi in nature to continue as such. Takahashi was allowed to continue with the project as opposed to seeing it outright canceled but at a much reduced budget (more on that later). Many Final Fantasy collaborators contributed to the project including executive producer Hironobu Sakaguchi. When the game was complete, most of the staff would go on to develop Chrono Cross before eventually departing Square with Takahashi to form Monolith Software.
Takahashi was nothing if ambitious when creating Xenogears. It was conceived as being just a part of a much larger narrative and is in fact titled as Episode V in the game’s credits. The narrative focus of the game is epic in scope with a lot of talking points and several cut scenes, some of which are done with CG and others in full animation. It’s a long game, one that will take most players around fifty hours to complete on the first play-through. It’s story focuses on the young Fei Fong Wong, a typical RPG lead in that he has no family and knows very little about his past. The plot will see Fei discover his true purpose, which is of course a significant one, as he journeys across the globe with a cast of characters out to save the world. The story is nothing new in setup, but how Xenogears approaches it helps to differentiate it from the flock. There are many religious undertones to the game’s narrative, some of which nearly scared Square out of an international release. The game takes itself very seriously and though there are moments where comedy is utilized they’re not frequent. The game has been criticized for being too pretentious, but it is a fairly enjoyable experience even if it can be hard to understand.
Part of the reason many consider Xenogears to be so pretentious is due to the fact that it tries to be too many things. There are elements and themes taken from classic philosophy as well as modern sci-fi conventions found in the likes of Blade Runner. The plot of the game seems to bounce around in focus with lots of twists and turns. It’s fairly common for games in this genre to start off with one goal and finish with something completely unrelated, but Xenogears takes it to a new level. The game does a good job of remaining interesting the whole way through but perhaps it would have benefited from a tighter structure.
The gameplay for Xenogears incorporates a lot of genre staples but also introduces some new concepts. Players travel from town to town either on foot or via transportation and can talk and engage with non-player characters along the way which is often necessary to advance the plot. Battles are initiated via random encounters on the overworld map or in dungeons. Once a battle is commenced, the player takes control of a party of up to three individuals chosen beforehand or dictated by the game. From there it’s a variation of the Final Fantasy Active Time Battle system where a speed score dictates the order and frequency of each character’s attacks. When it’s the player’s turn, the options are also fairly straight-forward and include attack, defend, run, item, or magic. The magic command is usually called ether or spirit but functions in the same way as a typical magic attack in most RPGs would. When the player selects a standard attack is where things change.
In Xenogears, each character has a certain amount of attack points that can be used per turn. At the beginning of the game there are six per character, but it increases over time. Each face button on the Playstation controller corresponds with an attack command and has a point value: triangle is one, square is two, X is three, and circle cancels or ends the attack. A player can combine the buttons in any way up to the maximum available or use as few as one. Certain attack combinations will trigger deathblow animations where the character will execute a more powerful move. Performing the necessary sequence over and over is the only way to learn them but the game keeps track for you in the menu so you don’t have to guess. The buttons do not have to be entered with any sort of speed so it’s not like a rhythm game or a fighter. If the player chooses to use fewer than the available attack point total then the remainder goes into a bank for the rest of the confrontation. As the player accumulates additional attack points, combos become available. Combos basically allow the player to chain deathblow attacks in one turn allowing for a massive amount of damage to be unleashed. As a result, most encounters (particularly boss encounters) end up being a balancing act where the player has to decide if it’s better to go all out from the start or build a character (or characters) up to unleash a giant combo.
That’s just one half of combat as Xenogears’ main feature is that of gear combat. Gears are giant robots piloted by the game’s protagonists and allow the player to take on much larger foes. Each character has access or will gain access to a gear during the course of play. The gears basically mirror the character they’re paired with so the ones effective at dealing out the most damage on foot will be the same in their gear. Even certain magic attacks are unusable by the gears while some are only usable on foot. One of the more unique characters in the game, Billy utilizes guns and so his gear does as well. On foot, each attack button corresponds to a different gun and the same is true in his gear, though it uses different ammunition. Gear battle is very similar to character battle but has some notable differences. For one, the player can only use two combinations of attack buttons but instead of having attack points each gear has a supply of fuel. Each attack consumes fuel with triangle attacks consuming the least and X attacks consuming the most. As a gear attacks, its attack level goes up. At level one, triangle deathblows can be used. At level 2, square deathblows become available, and so on. There are four levels a gear can reach: 1, 2, 3, and Infinity. Infinity is the most powerful and only becomes available late in the game. It’s also not attainable simply by performing four non deathblow attacks in succession. Instead, there is just a chance a gear can reach infinity when in level 3 and certain gears have a better chance of doing so than others. Infinity opens up the best deathblows and lasts for three turns so when a gear is able to reach it it usually swings the tide of battle.
Gears also present some challenges not felt when fighting with the human characters. I mentioned the fuel already which can run out. If a gear runs out of fuel then it can’t attack, which presents a problem. Each gear can use a turn to charge which replenish fuel but not a significant amount (unless the player equips a gear with charge-boosting items) and is not something one wants to rely on. Gears also cannot replenish their hit points easily in battle. Gears can be equipped with restorative items but they consume a lot of fuel. Often times, this will cause the player to wait as long as possible to use such an item but then they find themselves in a situation where the gear is now low on fuel exchanging one problem for another. Basically, the game forces the player to think a little differently when engaged in gear combat and that helps keep the game fresh. The game is pretty much divided into equal parts gear combat and non-gear combat which does help to keep things interesting.
Outside of combat, character customization is pretty standard. Each character can be equipped with stat-boosting items and armor with the best items becoming available towards the game’s conclusion. Only some characters utilize weapons in combat just as only some have magic attacks. Most will fit into the attack role or the support role with a few select characters performing adequately in both roles. The game does do a good job of making the characters feel different. I mentioned Billy earlier as one such character due to his use of firearms. Another, Maria, always attacks with her gear even while on foot and another character has no gear at all, she can just grow to tremendous heights instead. As character participate in battle they earn experience points and level up, in turn becoming stronger. Gears do not receive any benefits from their pilot leveling up. Instead, they can be upgraded through-out the game with better equipment including engines and frames which increase the gear’s stats as well as its hit points.
There are other things to keep players interested in the game. Outside of battle players can search the world for players of the game Speed. Speed is a real-world card game (when I was a kid we called it Spit) where the determining factor of who wins is who plays the fastest. Defeating these players will often net a useful item and certain secret items can only be obtained via this mini game. Another mini game is a gladiator type of coliseum where the battles take place in real-time. The player can select from basically every gear in the game and compete in a fast-paced one on one battle. It kind of reminds me of the Dragon Ball Z fighting games in that the characters zip around pretty fast and alternate between melee attacks and long-range energy projectiles. At any rate, both mini games offer decent distractions and are entertaining in their own right.
Visually the game is a fairly solid performer given its era. The designers opted to use sprites for the characters instead of polygons and while they animate nicely they are quite pixellated. Backgrounds tend to be on the sparse side and the texture mapping is average. Backgrounds are a hybrid of 2D and 3D and most areas can be rotated via the shoulder buttons on the controller. It’s a bit odd watching the game try to rotate around a 2-dimensional character but it does help for timing jumps (something else that helps differentiate the title from a typical RPG, albeit in a minor way). When the game transitions to gear battle everything becomes rendered in 3D. The gears are fairly solid-looking and each has its own visual personality. Attack animations are pretty understated when compared with other games from the genre. There’s very little in the way of “wow” moments but nothing is really off-putting either. If anything, the sprite-based approach helps in the long run as many games that opted to use polygons look woefully dated by today’s standards. The score is quite good and on-par with Final Fantasy’s best, though some of the sound effects are a bit lackluster. The FMV and anime sequences are not numerous but that helps give them added impact when they do show up.
There is one other thing I have yet to mention about this game that many view as a glaring negative. I mentioned how the project was an ambitious one but I have yet to mention that it was so ambitious it went over budget. If a Final Fantasy game runs over budget at Square it’s probably not that big of a deal but when an unestablished title does it presents a problem. Since there was no money left a large section of the game had to be cut, but since the title is so narrative heavy, it could not just be annexed from the game. Instead, when the player reaches the point in the game where the cuts took place (early in disc 2) they’re treated to a mostly black screen with the exception of Fei seated in a chair. Here a seemingly endless amount of text is displayed as Fei takes on the role of narrator and explains to the gamer what took place next. Other characters speak as well, but the presentation remains the same with the exception of a couple of gameplay rendered shots. The scenarios being described were supposed to be playable but unfortunately are not. And this section goes on for a good 45 minutes or so. I remember the first time I reached this point of the game (I’ve played through it multiple times) it was really late at night and I just wanted to go to sleep but had to keep going and going to get through it. The game does give you the option to save a couple of times so at least there’s that.
As a result, the game feels like it never got what it deserves, which is what every game deserves: to be completed. Xenogears sold modestly well but with the creators behind it all leaving to form Monolith it basically ended the possibility of there ever being a true sequel. Xenosaga was initially conceived as being a part of the Xenogears lineage, but either legal decisions forced that to change or an artistic change was made. Xenogears presents a pretty open and shut story with little room for a natural sequel, but I would love to see Square return to it as a remake. The game could be left as is or it could be cleaned up completely with an all new engine. Some pacing issues could be addressed, but most importantly, the portions of the game cut could finally be restored either thru a new gameplay section or via fully animated cut scenes. Since Takahashi no longer works for Square, it would have to be done without him but considering the ground work has been laid already it wouldn’t be that difficult. Xenogears deserves to be experienced the way it was initially conceived and I would personally prefer to see it remade over Final Fantasy VII, a remake many people have been hoping for. Maybe it will happen one day (though probably not), but even if it never does Xenogears remains my favorite game of all-time. I know it’s not the greatest game ever made, but it doesn’t have to be in order to win me over.
For those who have never played it, second-hand copies of Xenogears can still be found fairly regularly on auction sites like eBay. Square-Enix also released the game onto the Playstation Store so Playstation 3 owners can experience the game that way.