Two decades after it was released by Square for the Playstation in 1998, Xenogears is still touted, and remains critically acclaimed, as one of the best stories in JRPG history. Due to its reputation and its cult following, it goes without saying that the question in the back of any potential player’s mind would be – Will it live up to the hype?
True enough, Xenogears does boast an extremely ambitious story on a great scale for its time. Despite being notorious for its rushed pacing in Disc 2, it has to be noted that Disc 1 does have a gameplay time which may extend up to forty hours. One can only imagine the scale of the game if the developers had the resources of time and money.
The game certainly takes its time with the narrative, but remains gripping. It catches hold of the player as things happen one after another as they put themselves into the shoes of the character Fei, allowing the player to truly understand the confusion of the main character as the events occur around him. What Fei knows is what the player knows. Throughout the game, I truly felt that I was Fei, in the middle of a great adventure, despite not knowing where I was heading or what lies at the end of the road with no clues in sight.
With its reputation, the inevitable question does haunt me – is this really the story that was praised to high heaven? Nevertheless, the nature of the story allowed me to keep playing. And playing. And playing. And then it happened. When it reaches its climax and the revelations happen, everything starts fitting in place and the story was firmly etched in my mind as truly one of the greatest stories told in video gaming.
Unfortunately, while having a powerful story is Xenogears’ major plus, the storytelling, notably the inconsistent pacing does not do it justice. Without even pointing out the rushed pacing in Disc 2, Disc 1 is also littered with pacing issues, where Xenogears stalls and hours are spent with little progress. Meanwhile, notably in Disc 2, information continues flowing in even as you feel that you have reached the quota of your mental capacity for the day. As you are reading text most of the time, it must be mentioned that the text speed in this game is excruciatingly slow, with no way to speed it up in-game. It was slow to the point that I only lasted 10 minutes before I resorted to googling a method to speed-up the text in game. I can only shudder thinking of how the game was originally meant to be played.
The pacing issues are further amplified by the gameplay. The combat feels fresh at first, and exciting as players are treated to two different battle systems, one in Gear Combat and one on foot. However, the euphoria is short-lived as one quickly realizes that there is hardly any depth to the combat. While inputting different sets of buttons will allow the player to learn deathblows, it eventually descends into mindless repetition of using the strongest deathblows again and again in order to defeat enemies on foot, while on gear it is also a repetition of using the most efficient attacks in order to end the battle quickly. Furthermore, dungeons merely feature 3-4 different groups of enemies. Coupled with repetitive combat and a disgusting encounter rate, it merely serves as an artificial extension of gameplay time. It doesn’t take long before dungeons merely feel like a roadblock between one part of the story and the next, with one screaming in frustration as they run into a dead end as they are forced to run into one random encounter after another.
And then there’s the lack of gameplay in Disc 2. Although the linearity in Disc 1 was covered up by players hoping to get on with the story as they run into some of the worst designed dungeons in JRPG history, Disc 2 makes you wish that you have some time to yourself to take a break from the information overload, albeit not to the extent of the most obnoxious dungeons from Disc 1. To sum it up, Xenogears’ gameplay is a colossal failure in acting as a complement to the amazing story. Instead, it serves to amplify the game’s pacing issues instead.
The characters are a mixed bag. On one hand, the protagonists, antagonists and several side characters are developed very well as they experience the events in the game. Their characterization and motivations throughout the story are very understandable, allowing the players to empathize with them and put themselves in their shoes. A few very positive surprises will allow you to look at certain characters in a different light as the game delves into their mind, with some revelations being extremely thought-provoking.
On the other hand, the other characters rounding off your party feel extremely out of place as they have little to no relevance outside their character arcs, and might even be better excluded from the whole story. After their mini character arcs, they are ignored and most of them speak less than 15 lines for the remainder of the game (this is only a mild exaggeration, mind you!). Besides the protagonists and two side characters, there is no camaraderie between the other members of the party, as they have no interaction at all with one another and have no place in the story.
Now that the worst of Xenogears is out of the way, it’s time to move on to some of its other positives besides the story. The graphics of the game remain endearing even after twenty years, with some distinct and memorable character designs. Furthermore, it complements the mecha aspect of the game with the gear designs. The various animations for the deathblows, gear attacks and enemy attacks are smooth and enjoyable to watch. To add on to that, the music complements the mood and atmosphere of the story very well, and is pleasant to listen to throughout the game. Yatsunori Mitsuda delivers once again with his simple but extremely catchy and memorable tunes. Despite the lack of exploration and a rather underutilised world map, Xenogears does have some good world building, especially when depicting the lifestyle of the various inhabitants of Xenogears’ world in Kislev, Aveh and Solaris.
Xenogears is a unique experience. Its themes of existentialism, the function of religion and developmental psychology is definitely not something that one will dismiss without a second thought after completing the game. The story is ambitious, multi-layered and most importantly, does not fail to deliver at its climax, perfectly balancing between having a complex story and being unnecessarily convoluted. The main characters are extremely memorable and while not exactly iconic, there is a special place in my heart for them. However, tedious gameplay and terrible pacing might make the potential player think twice. While I can proudly proclaim that it was definitely worth it at the end of the road, it will certainly make you question yourself on whether it might be worth it throughout your journey. Perhaps, just perhaps its true potential could have been better drawn out in another medium of fiction instead of a JRPG.