There was a time when I thought that telling a good story meant slapping together a pastiche of elements from all of my favorite books, games and movies, altering everything just enough to make it fit into some kind of cohesive overall narrative. This time was when I was about ten to twelve years old. I've since managed to grow past it, as most people usually do, but apparently both game designers and gamers tend to get stuck in arrested development for long enough in their lives that it is possible to sell a million copies of a video game using this formula.
There's more to Xenogears than the story, of course, but the story is the key element, the one you see praised to the skies by fans and sneered at viciously by detractors. Personally, I find nothing in this universe more useless than the reviews section of GameFAQs - the only thing worse than the inevitable cadre of 10/10s mindlessly worshiping a game while willfully ignoring all the flaws are the inevitable cadre of 2/10 and 3/10s where the reviewer clearly picked up the controller determined to hate the hell out of the game (or didn't even bother playing the game at all) and repeats a litany of shallow complaints that reads like a political "talking points" memo.
In the interest of avoiding both of those paths, I tried very hard to come into Xenogears giving it every benefit of the doubt. I tried to accentuate the positive - for one thing, the very good soundtrack by my favorite composer Yasunori Mitsuda, and for another, the fast battle system that offered a little more interaction and gameplay than the usual FF-style menu-based fare.
There's a crucial problem that there's just no two ways around, however; the fact that it was nowhere near complete when it was ordered out the door by Squaresoft, and this incompleteness creates a lot of issues that grate away at the player over the 60-70 hour course of the game.
Let's begin at the beginning. Xenogears is an RPG, conventional in some ways, but experimental and innovative in others. More than that, it is seriously attempting to be some sort of Literary Epic of Major Dramatic Proportions. Apparently, the designer's vision was too grandiose for the budget and the production schedule, and when Square finally had enough of the wanking over the project and ordered it finished or scrapped, the decision was apparently made to hastily finish it with a lot of compromises.
You play as Fei Fong Wong, painter, martial artist and amnesiac. Fei lives in the peaceful, geographically isolated village of Lacan, where he was brought all covered in blood three years prior by a mysterious masked man, and has no recollection of his past beyond that time. Life has become pretty good for Fei, however, until a couple of brigades of giant mecha (Gears) from the perpetually warring nations of Aveh and Kislev decide to fight it out in the middle of his village. Fei compulsively jumps in an abandoned Gear to help out, Mysterious Cutscene ensues, and when we get back to the action the whole village has been wiped out in an Asplosion somehow caused by Fei.
From here the plot spirals off into sixty hours of increasing complexity that cannot be quickly summarized, but most of which you can probably end up guessing anyway, since it is taken from so many other popular sources. The game primarily keeps going to the Giant Mecha Anime and Eva wells for its material, but there's a healthy dose of Star Wars in there, as well as a hodgepodge of other stuff the writers apparently happened upon in their formative years - Street Fighter, Voltron, even Soylent Green makes an appearance later on in the story.
When the player isn't watching cutscenes - which constitute at least twenty hours of the gameplay, probably more - they move about the game world on a map very similar to that of Final Fantasy 7. The improvement of being able to rotate the camera 360 degrees has been made, which is nice, but by itself does not compensate for the fact that you cannot pull the camera any farther out than the immediate surroundings, and that 90% of the game areas do not have a map available, making navigation often way more confusing than it really needed to be.
When the inevitable Random Battles occur, they are fundamentally the same as any other turn-based RPG, but you can learn "attack combos" that can be executed via combinations of button presses. The combat is a bit zippier than what you would expect of a Square game of this period and actually starts off fairly pleasing. Inevitably, the party gets kitted out with Gears of their own, and when this happens one often gets the choice of fighting either in a Gear or on foot. Gear combat is the same as regular combat, except the Gears have a limited amount of fuel of which more is burned by executing more powerful moves.
There's also a slew of mini-games you encounter throughout, a la FF7. Most notable of these is a Gear Battling Arena, which allows you to participate in fights that sort of resemble a simpler and more clunky version of Sega's Virtual On. If I recall correctly, later in the game, or after you beat the game you could do this in two-player mode with a range of Gears from throughout the game, which was a nice touch even if the gameplay for this wasn't fantastic.
The rundown on the graphics is - very nice terrain with some very pretty backdrops, the giant Gears generally look pretty good, the character portraits and anime cutscenes are passable if not inspiring, and the 2D sprites are just butt-ugly and so low-res they look jarring compared to everything else. Aside from the sprites, however, the game certainly looks pleasant enough.
The game is at its best for about the first twenty hours or so, and after that, you can really see how the budget and time crunch starts to gradually deteriorate the overall quality, eventually culminating in the notorious Disc 2 (which consists of about ten hours of characters sitting in chairs under spotlights - another blatant Eva swipe - narrating the remainder of the story in text with still screenshots with only the occasional boss battle or small dungeon area thrown in.)
The production schedule is responsible for a lot of this deterioration, but not 100%. A big part of it is that the game is at its best in the early going because you simply haven't had much of the story revealed to you yet, and the writer thus hasn't yet had the opportunity to shift into Tin Pot Philosophy/Couch Trip mode. During this time, the center of the story is more Bart Fatima than Fei, a cliched but likable desert pirate who is actually the Prince of Aveh who had his throne usurped from him. The game is at its most human, and most fun, as you truck about with him through the world on a "micro" level, actually exploring different towns and interacting with everyday people and such, and the game's Tatooine-meets-Arabia theme during this point is pleasant and unusual. It even has a somewhat light tone and a good sense of humor at this point. In fact, I dare say the first 1/3 of this game is better than all of FF7, FF8 and possibly FF9.
There's a quantifiable point at which the game really starts to begin hardcore deterioration, which I call the Billy Line. Billy is a character you get about 30 hours or so into the game, and the ruining of the game is not his responsibility - in fact, he's a pretty cool guy who doesn't afraid of male prostitution, and is actually a really useful character in battle. It just happens to be the point at which he joins your party is about the point where seemingly everything else starts to really go downhill, and the production rush starts to become really visible in all aspects of the game, until you are inevitably deposited at the tedious and frustrating Disc 2.
First of all, at the Billy Line it seems they sort of gave up on the localization and translated everything through Babelfish, or had a Japanese guy with little English experience just sit there and literally translate everything using a Japanese-to-English dictionary. This does produce some seriously lulzy quotes later on, but for a game trying so hard to be Serious Business and Zomg Literature, the effect is crippling.
But that's just specific to the English version, you say. Well, there are plenty of other problems. Most of the dungeons at this point turn into copypasta'd Technodrome hallways with tons of random battles to pad out the fact that they are unimaginative, simplistic mazes and absolutely nothing is going on in them. "Gear Dungeons" also become a bigger part of the story at this point, and what these are are basically Xenogears' ill-advised attempt to become Mario 64 and put you through clumsy jumping contests for extended periods.
Even Yasunori Mitsuda's excellent work suffers. Even with two discs full of songs, the soundtrack still feels like it was written for maybe 60% of the game at most, and the other 40% they just threw in existing tracks to cover the balance. This leads to even really good songs being repeated so often you get sick of them, and songs just kind of thrown into scenes where they really aren't appropriate.
But in the end, we have to come back to the story, simply because the game leans on it more and more as the game becomes less and less interactive. And, unfortunately, as the game becomes less and less interactive, the story shifts more and more into Eva clone mode. This is where it pulls out from the "micro" to the "macro" method of narrative, becoming less concerned with telling a good story and developing sympathetic characters than with ramming its superficial, survey-course-level take on psychology, spirituality and philosophy down your throat (while also trying to cram in as many pirated concepts from Eva as it can manage to make fit.)
Now, if you read the last review I wrote here (for Metal Gear Solid) this all might initially seem a little hypocritical, as with that one I made the claim that even if "mature" game stories from this period were juvenile, pretentious and ultimately more an illusion of depth than actual depth, it was still important to make the effort, because gaming was in its adolescence as a medium and had to take baby steps forward to better things, in just the way writers and artists tend to progress intellectually through their own adolescence and awkward teenage years.
The difference between MGS and Xenogears is that MGS not only demands fifty hours less of your life, but that there's actually a fun game in there with a lot of innovative and enjoyable concepts. Xenogears is basically nothing but an overlong fart of melodrama mixed with the regurgitated basic concepts of Freud and Jung, meaningless religious references and heavy-handed pretension.
I'm hesitant to even try to articulate the game's basic philosophy, because it's so jumbled that I don't think even the designer has a coherent idea of what he believes. It is definitely repugnant and shallow, though, or at least what substantial elements of it you can pick out (like bits of corn out of vomit) are.
You tell 'em, Blanka.
The Thames, easily the most enjoyable part of the game
Taking it on in depth is not something I'm going to go into, however, because for one thing, all it really does is rile up the ardent fans of the game anyway, without providing anyone else with anything of any real worth. I'll just say this in summary - if you don't like being forced to watch long non-interactive cutscenes (and sometimes being forced to re-watch them when you lose a subsequent tough boss battle or the game just decides to glitch and freeze), this is definitely not the game for you. If you like story-driven games, and don't mind long cutscenes so long as you are getting adequate entertainment and perhaps even insight in return ... you won't like this either, unless you happen to be a 13 year old boy or melodramatic goth who thought the gory, soulless ending of Evangelion was "deep" and "profound".
Don't feed the yaoiers, Billy.
If you do any regular reading at beyond, say, the English 1A level, you'll see right off how jumbled, messy and intellectually shallow the whole thing is. This goes double if you have enough experience with anime, games and cinema to see how wide-ranging and shameless the ripoffs of content and ideas are.
It wouldn't matter so much if the gameplay carried the weight, but with the game in such an unfinished state it really doesn't. By the time you get to Disc 2, unless you're somehow in a head-space where this sort of pop-philosophy wanking really gets you off, you'll just feel like you've wasted a colossal amount of your time with nothing to show for it in return but boring series of repetitive battles, annoying dungeons with irritatingly vague puzzles, a plot that is almost insulting in its ham-handed insistence on being "profound" yet pirating and mangling just about all of its material from other surface-level sources, and a story that leaves you with a cast of characters that it is very hard to give a damn about. As it stands, it is not a testament to story in gaming, but a testament to how immature gaming is as a medium that a story this clumsy and bad can be considered so good by so many.
Special guest appearance by Charlton Heston!
* Gameplay Video