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Xenogears: A Retrospective

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As I mentioned yesterday, Xenogears is my favorite game of all time.

Back in the late 90s, Square was a powerhouse, releasing great game after great game, not all of them with "Final Fantasy" in the title. Games like Brave Fencer Musashi, Bushido Blade and Parasite Eve. Xenogears was released in North America in October 2008, one year after Final Fantasy VII. It didn't receive any hype and only sold a couple hundred thousand units, but quickly became a fan favorite, thanks to its wonderfully diverse cast of characters and MINDBLOWING story.

The game is standard JRPG fare, with overworld exploration, random encounters and Square's standard Active-Time Battle system. Graphically, the game presented a full-3D game world with rotatable camera populated by 2D hand-drawn sprites. It holds up terribly by today's standards, but at the time it was vibrant and beautiful. The game even featured a few short full-anime sequences.. Sound work is top-notch. Granted this was before the time of full voice acting in games, but the music is some of the best you'll ever find.

As previously mentioned, battle takes place in the same Active-Time Battle system as the Final Fantasy games of the era. However, the similarities stop there. While Magic is useful, it plays second fiddle to the physical combat here. Your characters have a given amount of Ability Points which are used by selecting your moves. X Attacks use 1 AP and are weakest, up to Square Attacks for 2 and Triangle Attacks for 3 AP. You can chain these attacks together, using your available AP to create combos. Use these combos enough, and you'll eventually learn very powerful Deathblows, which have amazing animations in addition to massive damage.

Wait! That's only half the gameplay. Larger enemies require you to step inside your giant mecha, called a Gear. Gear combat follows the same "X, Square, Triangle" style of basic combat. However, instead of AP, you're limited by Fuel, with the more powerful attacks using more Fuel. Instead of chaining together combos, you only use one attack per round, with each attack raising your Attack Level. With each Attack Level, you unlock various Deathblows, based upon the ones your characters have learned through the on-foot battle system.

That's all great, but an RPG can have the greatest combat in the world, and it won't matter if the story is weak. Well, Xenogears has story to spare. You start out as Fei, your traditional JRPG hero with funny hair, a dark past and hidden power. Fei's village is destroyed in a military attack, sending him on a long voyage. He will overthrow a government, break out of prison, become a fighting champion, travel to cities floating in the sky, learn the entire history of the universe and eventually save the day. This is a severe understatement of the game's plot. I could make a career out of blogging about this game's story. It delves heavily into the subjects of reincarnation, destiny, love, loss, conspiracy, deception and manipulation, while heavily referencing many religions, myths and practically teaching a course in psychology.

Fei Fong Wong is the central character of the story. Based upon the famous Chinese martial artist Wong Fei Hung, Fei is a master with his fists. Living in the village of Lahan after being found as a child with no memory, Fei leads a happy life until he is pulled into a global struggle. Through his adventure, Fei will uncover the secret of not only his life, but his entire existence. Fei pilots the Gears Welltall, Welltall-2 and Xenogears.

Elhaym Van Houten, or Elly, is an officer in the Gebler military. Her unit was actually responsible for the destruction of Lahan. After being found in the forest by Fei, Elly feels a connection to him and wants to help. Elly and her Gear, Vierge are the only "mage" type characters in the game.

Citan Uzuki is the doctor of Lahan. The closest thing Fei has to a father, Citan sets out with him after the village's destruction. Citan is harboring some huge secrets, not the least of which is the fact that he's a master swordsman. There's a reason he's been living in Lahan all these years. Citan pilots Heimdal, and later Fenrir.

Bartholomew Fatima is the heir to the kingdom of Aveh. When you first meet Bart, he is a Sand Pirate, sailing the desert in his ship, Yggdrasil. Fei helps Bart reclaim his throne, and Bart joins Fei in his quest, lending the use of Yggdrasil and his whips. Bart starts piloting the gear Brigandier and is the first character to obtain an Omnigear, Andvari.

Ricardo Banderas, in addition to looking like Blanka and having a completely awesome name, is a prisoner in Kislev. Rico, however, is a prisoner by choice. Rising through the ranks of the Kislev fighting circuit, Rico lives a better life as a prisoner than a demi-human such as himself could ever hope to live outside. Of course, Fei turns everything upside down and earns Rico's respect and strength. Rico uses a variety of wrestling moves, both himself and in his Gear, Stier.

Billy Lee Black is an Ethos Priest. He runs an orphanage where many children including his sister live. Billy is not an ACTUAL priest, though. He is a member of the Etone, the offensive branch of Ethos. His holy mission is to rid the world of the Reapers, horrid humanoid monsters. After learning the truth about the Ethos and Reapers, as well s his estranged father, Billy joins up with Fei's crew. Billy is a marksman with a variety of guns. Even his Gear, Renmazuo, specializes in ranged attacks.

Maria Balthasar is the daughter of a famous Gear designer, and granddaughter of one of the Three Wisemen. She defends the nation of Shevat using her massive Gear, Seibzehn. Seibzehn is autonomous and does not require a pilot. Instead, Maria has a sort of mental connection to is and can issue it commands from safety. Maria is immensely weak in battle. Rather, her "magic" abilities call Seibzehn to devastate her foes.

Chu-Chu. Her name is Chu-Chu and she's awesome. Initially thought to be a stuffed animal, Chu-Chu stars in one of the most epic moments in the game, after many hours of just... being there. With some creative stat-boosting, Chu-Chu can actually become one of the best characters in the game. When maxed out and "full grown" she can easily match the damage of high-end Gears with no Fuel cost. On foot, however, she still doesn't stack up to the rest of the crew. Every game needs its cute mascot. It's rare that you find one actually USEFUL.

Emeralda Kasim is not a "person." She is a colony of nanomachines given humanoid form. When first discovered, she seems to remember Fei from her past. Emeralda is the last character to join the group, and is just a blast to use. Without being constrained by a human body, she is able to morph her body into various weapons. Also, proving that you don't need arms to be awesome, her gear Crescens is easily one of the best in the game. Its speed is unrivaled, and can deliver two attacks to others' one. There is even a sidequest late in the game to let Emeralda grow up from her child form, further increasing her stats.

While that is an amazingly varied cast of characters, those are just the playable ones. The supporting cast is magnificent, and the villains even more so. As a matter of fact, your enemies are even better characters than the heroes in some cases.

Unfortunately, the game is an unfinished masterpiece. Even though the main quest clocks in at a life-breaking 75 hours, it could have easily gone over 100. Once the second disk starts, the game comes to a crashing halt. The development team just completely ran out of time and money, and had to release the game they had or shelve it permanently. Many story segments of the second disk consist of nothing more than the characters sitting in a chair TELLING you what happened, while pictures of the dungeons you should have been exploring scrolled by. In some cases, you can even see the save points! While the gameplay may have suffered from this, the story does not slow down at all.

This game consumed most of my senior year of high school. I played through it twice completely, just to get a better understanding of the story, and avidly searched out message boards and fansites to fill in the gaps. If you like your games heavy on story, you will find none more saturated with it that Xenogears.

Sadly, you're pretty much Ebay bound if you want to play it now. Additionally, it will only run correctly on the first Playstation. There is a certain attack the final boss uses that will crash the game if played on PS2 or *cough* emulation. A downloadable PSN version was released in Japan last year, but there has been no word on an American release.

Anonymous said...
July 25, 2013 at 11:26 AM  

I played this game the first time a few months ago, and I can't believe how amazing it is.

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