Welcome to week six of Re-Play! A ten-week series where we go look back in time to visit some of the greatest games of the past, give them an honest review, and see how well they still hold up today! This week we are rolling the clock back twenty years to visit a cult classic from the PlayStation 1 era: Xenogears!
When Squaresoft was brainstorming ideas for the now legendary Final Fantasy VII, a unique idea was brought up. It was a tale of men and women saving the world both on foot and in giant fighting robots. It had dark mental and religious themes underlying in the story, so Squaresoft decided to pass on this idea being used in one of their mainstream series games. However the creator, Tetsuya Takahashi, decided to continue to pursue the idea with Squaresoft. Eventually, they caved and allowed this story to be fleshed out into its own entity. There were problems attempting to get Xenogears localized to North America due to the religious story elements within the game, but Squaresoft pushed to get the game released while keeping the same message within the game and eventually in October 1998; Xenogears was released in North America.
I have said in the past how the key to making a great Role-playing Game is to have a great story packed inside it, and boy does Xenogears have a story. This two-disc epic follows the timid amnesiac Fei Fong Wong as he leaves his quiet village after it has been destroyed in a battle by giant robots. These giant robots are known as Gears, and they allow people to ride in and control them to conduct massive battles. Fei’s journey of self-discovery leads him and a unique group of characters throughout the world, and eventually, they wind up on a mission to save the world from destruction by God.
Yeah, I said God. Xenogears does not shy away from the heavy subject matter at all in this story. Characters deal with drug addiction, mental breakdowns, and suicide just to name a few things. The narrative as a whole venture into many intense theories as well such as Jungian Psychology and Freudian concepts in addition to the underlying religious messages. These concepts are sometimes addressed subtly, making the player think without seeming to try to. However, some are blatantly in your face about it such as some of the villains of the game being described as a party member’s Ego, Super-ego, and Id. The incorporation of these concepts really makes the story of Xenogears unique, and unlike anything that had been seen at the time.
The story is only part of the gameplay in most RPGs however, and at the core of any good one is good combat. Xenogears continues Square’s trend of turn-based combat while also adding its own unique flair to the mix. Combat is broken up into two different types of fights: on-foot and fights in your Gear. Starting with the on-foot battles, characters take turns with the enemies trading blows or executing special attacks. Players are allocated a certain amount of Ability Points (AP) at the start of their turn. These can be used to empower their normal attacks against enemies. Each face button on the controller uses a base attack, with a different button for 1, 2, and 3 points respectively. The more points a player uses to attack, the more powerful the attack will be. This is interesting enough as it is, but players can choose to “bank” their points for use on their next turn, and then do multiple set button inputs to execute combo attacks. These combo attacks are grossly more powerful than normal attacks, and often have devastating extra effects added to them.
Once the characters or the player choose to step into their Gears, however, things get a little more complicated, but a lot more fun. These giant mechanical marvels have their own unique special attacks, but instead of AP to power their normal attacks, they consume fuel. Each Gear starts the fight with a set amount of fuel, and once they are out they stop moving. In theory, this means that the player only has a set amount of turns based on their fuel consumption to win the fight. It rarely seems like a stressor, however, as the Gears feel and act like powerhouses. Their special attacks are devastating to watch, and eventually, they learn combo-attacks of their own which do massive damage but often cost a lot of fuel.
The art and character design within Xenogears are top-notch as well. Characters are shown as sprites in an isometric 3D world. These environments throughout the game are both beautiful and diverse, with no two areas looking the same. The sprites are also animated masterfully, often allowing these small collections of pixels to portray emotions. The Gears are animated through a now-crude looking 3D modeling, however, they have a charm to them. The blockiness of old 3D models lends itself well to the giant machines, as one would imagine giant robots to have sharp edges and corners to them. Cutscenes in the game are rarely done with CGI, which Squaresoft had become famous for at the time of release, as Takahashi wanted a more traditional approach. Most of the cutscenes in the game are drawn anime-style, added another beautiful uniqueness to this already unique game.
Lastly, the music of Xenogears was brilliantly composed by the legendary Yasunori Matsuda. This was his first work after Chrono Trigger, and he was given free-reign to compose how he wanted for the game. Matsuda has claimed to have based all of the music for the game from his own imagination rather than from a certain genre or country for inspiration. The score for Xenogears is heavy and dark more often than not, echoing the subject matter of the game. The ethereal tones of voices in many of his tracks make the player feel stuck in the characters’ minds as the deal with the issues presented to them. The soundtrack is rarely lighthearted, but when the story calls for it, Matsuda makes you feel like these happy times are just moments of respite in between the terrors of this world. The whole soundtrack for Xenogears helps wrap together this crazy journey from beginning to end, ending with the very first vocally sung track with lyrics on a Squaresoft game during the end credits.
HOW DOES IT HOLD UP?
Xenogears has a cult following for a reason. The serious and dark subject matter held within its story is reason enough to recommend playing this game, as there is not another quite like it. Normally, you go into a game for the story or the gameplay, and that is why you stay. However, Xenogears executes both so perfectly, that you are not going to want to stop playing. The combat is fun and intuitive, and the story is so full of introspection and twists that both are going to pull you back in as soon as possible. The way the game incorporates the Gears into the story and gameplay is constantly engaging and feeds into every gamer’s desires. I mean who doesn’t want to pilot a giant robot and beat up giant monsters?
Xenogears is available now on PSN for PS3, PS Vita, and PSP.