Genre: 1-on-1 Fighting
Publisher: Square Electronic Arts
Date: Oct. 1998

This game's designation as a 1-on-1 fighter in the space above is likely to provoke a bit of head-scratching. "But wait," you say, "it's an RPG!" But I ask you: is it really? One of the major pivotal events in the game (an event spanning MANY HOURS) involves the Battling Arena, which is frequently referred to as a fighting mini-game. But I have some inside information which suggests that due to a mistake on behalf of Square Electronic Arts' marketing department, Xenogears was actually a fighting game that was misrepresented in the press as an RPG. This would go a long way in my opinion to explain why the RPG aspect was so bad, and would also result in a better score for the game, since it makes a better fighting game than RPG. Of course, it's not a very good fighting game, either.

The real mistake with Xenogears was that Square completely misrepresented it to the public. Calling Xenogears an RPG is like calling Tekken 3 a volleyball sim. The truly mystifying part of this is that RPGs are a terribly unpopular genre in the states, while fighters sell through quite well. But I guess it's not too big a problem for Square-EA; any money lost from missed sales will probably be made up with next year's minor tweaking of the Madden games.

Xenogears looks pretty awesome... for a Jaguar game. For a 3D Playstation fighter, released to the market after games like Soul Blade and Tekken 3, its bland textures, limitless arenas and meager animations are pretty embarrassing. And while the music is nice, there's only ONE theme. In a way, I can see why this was marketed as an RPG - if it was an RPG, at least, the hideous graphics wouldn't be as glaring.

Xenogears manages to jump on about every Japanese video game bandwagon short of monster breeding and horse racing, and really the bizarre focus of this game was inevitable. After all, 1-on-1 fighters have been offering "extras" for quite some time now - most of them feature either mini-games or RPG-style training modes to add depth to the game. And hidden features to unlock are almost a given for fighters these days. And so the day that the entire fighting game was locked away behind an RPG-style minigame was bound to come. The result is lackluster, but at least it's not an Acclaim game.

I r e m e m b e r s o m e o f t h o s e o l d N E S
g a m e s w h e r e t h e t e x t s i m p l y c r a w l e d
a c r o s s s c r e e n. T h i s i s t h a t b a d a s w e l l;
b u t w i t h t h o u s a n d s o f p a g e s o f s c r i p t
t o r e a d, t h e t e x t s p e e d d e s e r v e s
s p e c i a l c o n t e m p t. P t o o! I s p i t o n
y o u r s l o w t e x t s p e e d!

Xenogears is fun as a novelty, but it falls sadly short as a fighting game. The RPG minigame is mildly entertaining as well, but it tends to drag on and bears an uncanny resemblance to Chrono Trigger and Neon Genesis Evangelion, both of which are far more entertaining. If it's good 3D fighting you want, I recommend any of Square's other offerings, such as Tobal, Ehrgeiz and especially Bushido Blade.

On the plus side, while I like the Evangelion anime better than Xenogears, this game is far better than any of the Evangelion licensed video games. That counts for something, right?

Alternate review:

Square was quite receptive to gamers' complaints about Final Fantasy VII. People complained that:

  1. The Materia system provided too much flexibility and not enough unique character traits; they claimed
  2. The focus on FMV and graphics detracted from the gameplay; and they griped that
  3. The story was too sketchily plotted and loosely paced.

So Square created Xenogears, a game with:

  1. No customizability whatsoever;
  2. Poor graphics and sparse FMV to place attention firmly on the spotty gameplay; and
  3. A totally linear, non-interactive story told in excrutiating detail.

This is referred to in some circles as "chopping off your nose to spite your face"; in other circles it's referred to as "the best RPG I've ever played!"

One of the first things you'll notice when playing Xenogears (once you get past the scene where Captain Gloval tries in vain to evacuate the civilians from SDF-1) is the fact that the chosen graphic style for this game is "extreme pixellation." While reminiscent of such graphical masterpieces as Doom for the SNES and the Mode 7 zoom-in Flammie scenes from Secret of Mana, there's one telling blow against Xenogears' graphics - the blocky little anime-style sprites are thrown into sharp contrast by the appearance of actual anime throughout the game. It's like the developers were determined to remind you just how blocky those sprites really are. Everytime you start to get used to their grainy little actions, a hand-drawn full-sized Elly appears to taunt you. Then she shrinks back down to a little walking thumbnail. Such cruelty.

I'm not alone in noting that the crux of Fei's personal crisis, like that of most major Square heroes before him, is basically his being wishy-washy. And despite the game's magnificent handling of multiple-personality disorder, there's still not much compelling about the boy. Hey, Fei, I used up all my pity on your loser predecessors, like Shinji Ikari and Cloud Strife. Now get out of the way. Of course, Elly's presence in the game proves that looks do count - she certainly doesn't love Fei for his decisive mind or strength of will or the chemistry which never seems to develop between them, so she's obviously after his body. This notion is proven in my mind by the fact that she becomes a whole lot more interested in him after they practice their parallel parking in the hold of the Yggsdrasil.

Once upon a time, the biggest control issue in RPGs was the fact that movement in the world was confined to tiles and cardinal directions. Not in Xenogears - no, Xenogears is truly an innovative RPG. Especially when it comes to control frustrations. Nothing like stiff platform jumping with an awkward, non-changeable key set-up onto objects with sloppy collision detection. And to top it off, certain critical jumps can be interrupted by attacking enemies. Meaning, of course, that entire battles are fought suspended in mid-air; once the battles are completed, the magical suspension wears off and Fei and party plummet to the ground to tackle the stupid series of jumps again. Of course, that's provided you can keep your bearings in the spinning, repetitively-textured and blandly-built dungeons.

When a game focuses almost entirely on its story, it had better possess a darned good story. If only that were the case with Xenogears. While the plot is certainly intricate, "complexity" should not be mistaken for "quality." There's a reason why most people consider Back to the Future II the worst of the bunch. Enough has been said about the other series Xenogears tends to "borrow" from, but not enough has been said about the greatest problem with the plot: the game's pacing and the ridiculous foreshadowing/symbolism. Thanks to the incredibly clever names in the game such as "Id" and "Soylent" (and the fact that Grahf appropriately looks just a BIT like Darth Vader), an intelligent player will manage to deduce most major plot points hours before the game decides to "reveal" them. Of course, these revelations might have come about a little sooner if there was any sort of even pacing to the story, but instead the game flows like this:

  1. 2 hours of dungeon crawling
  2. 20 minutes of exposition
  3. Repeat
    (note: the times are swapped for Disc 2)

If the Xenogears development team can be credited for one thing, it's hiring Yasunori Mitsuda to compose the music. It's almost like they said to themselves, "Hmmm. This game isn't coming together right. Lets smooth it over with some awesome music and hook the gamers that way." If the constant looping of the Yggsdrasil Theme and those horridly dubbed voices weren't there to detract from the overall experience, the sound quality would be totally blissful. ("JERK!") But nevertheless, the music is quite addictive. Playing Xenogears is sometimes like a root canal, but playing the soundtrack is like... um.... eating ice cream.

...hey, look! My metaphors and symbolism are as deep and meaningful as Xenogears'.

While my feelings about the the game are not so extreme as to suggest that this game appeals only to bleating -Lambs- I do think that with a little more effort it could have been something wonderful. Instead, it's a cruel taunt to remind us what could-have-been. Square certainly isn't the only company to do that; Capcom frequently does it with their Street Fighter games. The difference there is that you can be sure Capcom will release a remake in the guise of a sequel in order to smooth out the rough spots remaining from the previous go-around. Not so with Xenogears. We have Street Fighter Alpha, Street FIghter EX Plus and even Alpha Weltell in EX Mode - so howsabout letting the game play up its 1-on-1 elements with a Xenogears EX Plus Alpha? I'd buy that for a dollar!