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Capsule Review - Xenogears

Title Xenogears
Developer SquareSoft
Year 1998
Platform PSX
Capsule Rating starstarstarstarstar
Capsule Review: SquareSoft's 1998 opus Xenogears stands as probably the most willfully difficult RPG ever created, in good ways and bad. For starters, it boasts a creative and interesting gameplay system - then almost completely ignores it in the second half in favor of a truly bizarre format. But its most prominent, and most controversial aspect, is its immense, multi-faceted storyline, which has gotten its loads of flak from the Witty Urbane Writers of the Internet.

The talk of the plot often overshadows the game's technical accomplishments, which by and large are, believe it or not, quite impressive. The biggest of these is the 3D environment - all of the dungeons are fully rotatable, which makes the medium-difficulty mazes quite a bit more challenging (especially in a place like the Nortune Sewers, where every turn looks the same, and rotation makes for confusion). There is also a jump function. These two things, when combined, make for gameplay that requires much more precision than most RPGs - Babel Tower has (not entirely fairly) gone down in history as one of the most difficult dungeons ever because of its numerous complicated jumps. The game actually has two distinct combat systems - one "normal," the other taking place in huge mecha. The latter kind is far more difficult, given that you have a limited supply of fuel, and actually requires quite a bit of strategic planning (since it's impossible to win in it using the traditional level-building). The graphics are detailed and well-drawn; the only caveat is that the camera sometimes zooms in on things, causing some heavy pixelation, though this mostly happens briefly in transitions between scenes. The sound, though, is nothing short of amazing. We all know Yasunori Mitsuda as "that dude who worked with Uematsu on the Chrono Trigger soundtrack." Well, he comes into his own fully here. There's a good deal of filler in the soundtrack's 50+ cuts, but the high points are some of Mitsuda's absolute finest work, and surpass even Uematsu's aural wizardry in Final Fantasy VII. Babel Tower takes on a completely new feel when complemented with the thunderous beats and sonorous bass of "Omen"; Billy's revelations in the Ethos are added urgency by the speeding ambient rush of "Fuse." The soundtrack adds immensely to the game, and is good enough to be purchased separately on CD.

But the game's plot is undoubtedly its foremost aspect. On the surface, it seems to be only a collection of devices from various (bad) anime flicks. It certainly has more than its share of cheeky sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, and several times its share of religious references. But that's merely the surface. The storyline becomes so complex and mostly so well-executed that such complaints become idiotic and trifling. And even the religious references, which draw 99% of the Witty Derision from the aforementioned Urbane Writers, are actually for the most part used appropriately. (And often, even powerfully - the recurring symbol of the two angels in Nisan's cathedral, for instance. Imagine that!) The mood is thoroughly dark, and grows more so as the game progresses. The game maintains it flawlessly, through the numerous cutscenes, dungeons, innovative camera shots, and so forth. (Nortune, for instance is second to only Final Fantasy VII's Midgar in its oppressive feel.) But the moroseness is very rarely just cheap melodrama, due to the game's biggest accomplishment: its unforgettable cast. It includes what may be some of the most three-dimensional people ever created in a video game. Although Fei, the protagonist, is often rather clunky as he experiences wild mood swings and bewildering bursts of amnesia (the translation problems don't help with this, either), his struggle between his desire to help his friends and his pacifism is entirely believable. And regardless of the criticism the "Freudian elements" of the game have drawn, they are certainly extremely original for a video game, and what's more, pulled off very well. There is genuine suspense and drama to Id and his relationship with Fei. And even if you disagree with that, the female lead comes closer than any other video game personage to being able to pass for a real person. (And even though the game's artwork is certainly anime, Elly is portrayed without any of the standard "kawaii anime babe" features. Her portrait's beautifully melancholy expression may well be the most memorable thing in the game.)

The game's twists are actually unpredictable, for once. Sure, in hindsight the various scenes following your return to the Ethos may seem like obvious developments, but unless you spoiled the story for yourself, you will not be expecting them when they hit. And what's more, Billy Lee Black's reaction to them as his world comes crashing down around him is genuinely poignant. Likewise, Kahran Ramsus seems like your typical "recurring baddie" type when you first meet him, for all his moodiness - but when you see every step of his slow descent into an almost frighteningly real insanity, you really do grow to feel sorry for the poor bastard. In fact, the villains in the game get a great deal more development than they would in any other - the result is that they become realistic people too, and the usual black/white "good/evil" cliches simply cease to apply. (And when they do apply, they seem like more than cliches - Bishop Stone is just SO goddamn evil that you will veritably hate him.) Similarly, when a tired, old plot device is used, there is still enough force in it to make it seem original. And at the end of all of this, you'll start to realize that the people and their relationships in this game are actually far more complex than any RPG fare to this point. And as if all that isn't enough, the game also pays very commendable attention to small details. At the beginning, you get so many of them thrown at you that you'll start to ignore a good deal of them as irrelevant - and then all of them will come back later. That's actually another of Xenogears' great strengths - although you'll feel very bewildered for the first third or so, not only is JUST enough information given to you to make you want to keep going, but all of it will later come together and lock into place perfectly. But even the smaller details that don't progress the storyline do enhance the game - for instance,in one scene, you're visiting a city that long ago lost a war to someone else. This is typical RPG fare...except then you see that the citizens chose not to rebuild one of the destroyed houses, to remind themselves of the horrors of war. (This was actually done in real life by the Japanese in Hiroshima.) And then you go inside and see that the shell that killed everyone in the house hit a child's room. There are hundreds of small, easy-to-overlook details like this in the game, and all of them are used to great effect.

There are countless other high points not mentioned above, but to take them all in you can only play the game. It's quite long; not since Final Fantasy VI have we had an 80-hour-epic. It's often gloomy, sometimes dour, sometimes bewildering and sometimes thought-provoking, and with a number of flaws, but it's never very short of gripping; three years later, it remains the most visceral, unparalleled and unforgettable experience the PlayStation and the entire role-playing genre have to offer.

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