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Xenogears
Review By: Jared Black
Developer:    Square
Publisher:   Square EA
# of Players:   1
Genre:   RPG
ESRB:   Teen
 

"I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last" flashes upon the screen. Quickly, the viewer is shown a spaceship traveling through space. All seems well...then suddenly everything goes to "code red". As an evil presence overtakes the ship, the captain does all he can to save the ship. The words "You shall be as gods" fill up on the ship's main viewer. The crew struggles futilely to fight the evil presence. Finally, seeing no alternative the captain orders the ship to be evacuated. Once that is done, the captain then takes a final loving look at a picture of his family, and pushes the button that will seal his fate forever. As the camera pans over the wreckage of the ship, it zooms in on a young woman. Despite standing over the wreckage of a just fallen ship, her eyes seem to convey a sense of hope. What exactly was the ship carrying? Who is this woman? Is she a survivor or an observer of the crash? More importantly, why is she naked? It's with these questions that you begin your trek into the engrossing world of Xenogears.

I have always been a huge Squaresoft fan. In fact, I think it could be said that Squaresoft is easily my favorite game designer. Squaresoft has a remarkable magic--the ability to develop games that manage to tackle extremely big and complex issues with style and grace, all the while being able to keep their games fun to play. However, I must admit that their recent releases had spooked me somewhat--I definitely got burned by SaGa Frontier, Parasite Eve was extremely short, and even Final Fantasy VII was a bit of a let down for me. So, I went into Xenogears a bit wary.... would it be yet another disappointment? I must admit, for the first hour or so it seemed that way. After the amazing opening scenes, the player is thrown into the game world with little or no backstory. The 3D world was somewhat hard to navigate, and there's a sense of "lostness" at the start, even after reading the manual. Luckily, this all changed after the first hour. I became accustomed to the controls, the story started picking up, and I began to realize that I definitely made a great buy.

First off, let's start with the plot. Honestly, Xenogears has perhaps the greatest plot EVER in an RPG. The whole way through the action in the plot never slows down. Political dealings, emotions, inner struggles....this game has it all. The thing that makes the plot so great though is in the way it is presented. Some game designers assume that some of their audience is....umm...somewhat uneducated...and so they pretty much spell out the whole plot for the player. Xenogears takes a different approach--the player actually gets a chance to figure things out for themselves. The characters offer enough insight so the player is never lost, but they *don't* give away the plot. The events are presented to you, and you get a chance to figure everything out yourself. By not pointing things out that are obvious (ex: That town was blown up! I bet everyone died!), the game manages to draw the gamer in even more by making it feel more like a real world.

Also, the plot is one of the most original I've ever seen in an RPG. Yes, there is the typical "you vs. the evil empire/villain/society" type thing, but the gamer quickly realizes that the plot is MUCH deeper than that. Another thing I like about the plot is that it actually centers around the characters themselves. Unlike some games where you're sent on random quests for seemingly no reason, you actually have a personal motivation for doing the things you do. Yes, once or twice Xenogears does fall into the "do it because it's the right thing to do" trap, but not often. Again, this lends credibility to the world in which you play. Overall, Xenogears has one of the most complex and engrossing plots ever (maybe even better than the mighty Final Fantasy 3), and I guarantee you that your jaw will drop on numerous occasions (especially in the second disk!). I could rant on and on about the plot, but I'll just tell you that if plot were one of our scoring criteria it would get a 20.

The characters are also very well developed. There are some typical stock characters in there, but for the most part they're all unique. The main characters are shown to the gamer very deeply, especially the character development of Fei. Each character has their own unique history, feelings, and motivations for doing what they do. Even the secondary characters are explained pretty thoroughly, and you'll have no doubts about why they do the things they do.

Now let's move onto the graphics. This is perhaps the only area where this game is less than perfect. First off, let me say that there are some amazing graphics in this game. The anime movies shown at different points in the game are very well done, and really help to move the plot along. The environments are also very well done, and the town of Nisan is one of the most impressive that I've seen in an RPG to date. Every polygon is rock-solid, each area is extremely detailed, and throughout 64+ hours of gameplay I never found a single graphical glitch. However, this extreme detail comes at a price. For instance, Blevadik (the capital of Aveh) slows down horribly in the main square, and a few other areas also experience slowdown. However, this is very minor because it doesn't hinder gameplay at all.

The in-game battles are also very well done. The majority of your time will be spent fighting in Gears, and these just look spectacular. These huge mech-like fighting robots are very detailed, and each has its own unique look. They are impressive, with detailed attack animations and extremely impressive special moves. When fighting without a gear, your characters are very nicely animated. Each performs their own variety of moves and spells, and very nice graphical effects accompany these. There is one other small complaint I have about the graphics though--the sprite based models of the main characters. I have nothing against sprite based characters, but a couple of the characters are just plain ugly. Bart Fatima looks like a horse from one angle, and some of the other characters are blurry. Again, this isn't really a problem (I can still tell who they are), but it is annoying. Overall, this game is very strong in the graphics department.

The sound...oh man, where do I begin to praise the aural aspect of this game? The music is excellent, continuing in the Squaresoft tradition of always having an amazing soundtrack. No matter what is happening in the game, it's always accompanied with the perfect music. I've found myself humming the tunes almost everywhere I go--they're that impressive. In fact, I'd say that the soundtrack also rivals the one found in Final Fantasy 3, which I've long thought to be superior to any other game. The sound effects are also top of the line. Each character has their own exclamation when battling, and each move in battle is accompanied by the appropriate sound (metal Gears clang, fists "oomph", etc.). The only complaint I have about the sound is in the anime clips. The characters are very "Godzilla-esque", as the words almost never match the mouth movements. This is extremely minor though, and understandable given the vast differences between Japanese and English. No game really comes as close to aural perfection as this game.

The overall gameplay experience is extremely well done. Although the enemies are random (similar to the FF series), they don't appear enough to make it annoying and ruin the experience. There's a nice mixture between fighting and exploring, and the enemies advance in difficulty at seemingly just the right pace. You also generally learn enough as you advance, meaning no annoying "leveling up" found in some games. And at around 60 hours of so gameplay time (assuming you explore a lot like I did), there's plenty of bang for your buck. Xenogears also features a few nifty extras too, including a very fun card game and a surprise appearance by a character from Chrono Trigger. However, I must warn you of one thing. In game story sequences can get VERY long, with one clocking in at around an hour. I would recommend that you don't plan on playing this game in short sessions, since save points are also often distanced. Even if you are extremely impatient I still recommend buying this game though, as the story itself will be enough to keep you interested.

Bottom line, this is the best RPG on the Playstation. The story far exceeds anything found on any system (with the possible exception of FF3), the graphics certainly hold their own with any other RPG (especially since there are no annoying Summon movies...), the soundtrack is just amazing, the story and extras are enough to give this tremendous replay value, and most importantly the game will never fail to grab your attention and amaze you. It's almost scary that due to the controversial content we almost didn't get this masterpiece.  Yes, I know that there are a couple glitches...but I still think that as one of the best games available for the Playstation (and certainly the best RPG) this game deserves these scores.

Overall: 10


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