Xenogears (PS1) Review: The Most Ambitious JRPG Story Ever Written

Xenogears playstation 1 cover jewel case art
Xenogears is a classic PS1 JRPG

Six years later, and we are still waiting for a true FF7 killer. A lot of RPGs have come and gone since then, some were good, some were bad and a few of them had dared to reach greatness only to fall short of it. In my eyes, the greatest attempt at surpassing the great FF7 has been the tragically under appreciated Xenogears.

For starters, I cannot say that Xenogears has the greatest story ever told, but what I can say without second doubting myself is that Xenogears has the most ambitious story ever written. I dare to say that this statement does not only apply to video games, but maybe to movies and books as well.

What do you get when you mix religion, gundams, reincarnation, love, clones, space ships, sentient computers, split personality disorders, and pirates (yeah you heard right, pirates) into a game? You get Xenogears.

Now, I don’t want you to think that the aforementioned topics are all that there is to Xenogears’s plot, because in truth, it truly goes much deeper than that.

The game starts with an impressive FMV that shows a giant space ship called the Eldridge. Something or someone seems to have taken over the ship, and thus the ship crashed landed on an empty planet, and amongst the wreckage a naked woman arose.

Presumably, this is how humanity entered the game’s world. This is one of the main mysteries that you will have to solve, as you play the game. From that scene, you are immediately taken thousands of years into a future in which two kingdoms are at war; Aveh and Kislev. The situation between the two is briefly narrated in text boxes before you are, yet again, taken into a different setting.

The setting is a remote and isolated village called Lahan. In this village, our protagonist, Fei Fong Wong is inside a gear fighting a group of enemy gears, the village is on fire. From there the scene switches abruptly into a different one showing Fei drawing a picture on his room in the peaceful village. So, you as the player naturally assume that the image of the burning village is just a taste of things to come.

The game starts simple enough with Fei being the usual hero who has a serious case of amnesia. He can’t remember anything that happened to him before he was brought to the village three years before the start of the game.

This sets the stage for a story that literally surpasses time. The plot develops very slowly after that, keeping everything from the crashing ship, to Feis mysterious past, well hidden.

Four hours into the game, as you meet new characters, you will completely forget about the ship in the opening video, because every character you meet in this game, has also like Fei, a serious past and issues that as you go along you must resolve.

The story develops in such way that it constantly throws new things at the reader (player); new villains, mysterious gears, and so forth. In short, just when you think you are finally getting the hang of the plot something new and out of nowhere appears that completely destroys your expectations.

There in lies the hook to this story, it makes you want to play more, it leads you to believe you are getting somewhere and boom, you start back at zero. The plot rises so many questions, that I have just finished the game and I still would like to believe that I understood everything because I probably didn’t. It’s a convoluted mess and I loved every second of it.

Then there is the love story between Fei and Elly, which develops slowly like the rest of the plot. I was amazed at the end of the first disc in how much all of the cast had grown (emotionally, not in numbers) and matured. Especially in how far the relationship between Fei and Elly had come. Of course, it is not until the end of disc two that you fully understand their amazingly impressive love story. But I won’t spoil that. I must mention that the first disc has some cleverly added humorous moments which I truly enjoyed.

When the first disc of Xenogears ended, only two things could have held it back from greatness. One, the translation and the other the length of that first disc.

xenogears town screenshot
Xenogears is one of the more detailed looking PS1 RPGs.

The translation isn’t incredibly awful, but its bad for a game with such an ambitious story line. The translation just doesn’t do the game justice. There are some grammatical errors here and there, as there are some spelling mistakes. But what bugs me the most about the translation, is the fact that there is no emotion what so ever expressed by the characters.

It’s like my mind told me that there were definitely some incredibly powerful emotional moments between Fei and Elly, and yet, the way that they spoke to each other just left me confused about what I should feel, because while I was shocked, and surprised many times after the plot twists, I never felt truly sad about how badly things had gone for them, and that was a bit troublesome for me.

The game had some emotional moments, but it was the great musical score that drew any kind of feeling out me; not the dialog. The translation does not hurt the main Sci-fi-fantasy plot, but it does hurt the characters individuality and their own sub plots. For example; Fei and Elly’s relationship.

In other words the translation was one of the primordial reasons why I don’t consider Xenogears’ story as a whole the most powerful one that I have ever read or played.

Xenogears is a Lengthy Quest

Now for the length of the first disc. It was long, in fact, it was 50 hours long. The only flaw that I saw in this fact was that, like I stated before, so much stuff goes on in the story that some minor important details could be easily forgotten.

Other games with lesser plots have featured a notebook to keep track of stuff when it wasn’t necessary. In Xenogears case, however, such a nice addition would have been more than welcomed. But even with these shortcomings, disc one managed to impress the heck out of me.

Now for disc two; this is were ambition takes its toll. I heard somewhere that Xenogears had some problems with its budget. Whether this was true, or not  I don’t know, but Square either decided to cut the game’s budget when the developing team started working on the second disc or the game was rushed to make it out into store shelves before FF8.

Disc two manages to answer all of the question marks left in the plot from disc one, and even manages to bring up new situations. All of this takes place in about, give it or take, 15 hours. Now, as you can see while the plot in the first disc took its good 50-60 hours to develop itself, and develop its characters, on disc two all of that careful and detailed planing gets thrown out of the window.

Disc one ended in greatness, but left out a lot plot holes so disc two was truly a necessary part of the game, disc two started exactly were disc one left off.

In other words, disc two for the first hour or so, is very good. Then it all crashes down when the game falls into this simple pattern: After cut scenes, you are either immediately thrown into a difficult boss battle, or a frustrating dungeon, and rinse and repeat.

xenogears gears battle dialogue screenshot
The gears in Xenogears are giant mechs and an integral part of the story

The cheapest part of all is that some of the key moments in the plot are told with a character sitting on a chair, and narrating these scenes in short paragraphs in 3rd person.

So, this does not allow any dialog between the characters and this hinders their development. This was bothersome, especially since I got accustomed to the first disc’s slow pacing.

It is clear to any one who plays this game through its conclusion that the developers were in a rush to get it over with in the second disc. A rush that did not seem apparent at all on the first (disc).

Many factors could have contributed to the self collapse of the story on the second disc; maybe the story was so long that the developers themselves didn’t want to spend more time with it. But, I lean towards the possible fact that Square was putting all of its resources into the development of the sometimes mediocre (yep you heard it right) FF8.

Xenogears’s plot had the potential of carrying it to the highest pinnacle of RPG gaming. Whether it was for monetary or time reasons, its ambition and potential were never fully realized.

With everything that goes on in disc two, 15 hours of rushed plot simply doesn’t cut it. In a perfect world that second disc should have been at least as long as the first. Translation and a rushed disc 2 holds the game back from achieving true greatness. Even with these shortcomings, Xenogears’ story as a whole, is one of the best that I have read or played.

A Masterclass in Visual Design

Visually, this games stands even today, as a PS1 graphical marvel. The fully rotable 3-D environments are quite possibly the best that I have seen on the system, with the possible exception of Grandia, which also employed the same style in its visual presentation.

xenogears dialogue screenshot
Don’t worry, you’re supposed to hate that little *$#@^%

The environments are smooth, or as smooth as can be rendered on the PS1 hardware. The world map itself is reminiscent of the one found in FF7, with a little less detail.

The characters are made up of finely animated sprites, ala Grandia. The battle Graphics are simplistic featuring the same animated characters sprites and enemy sprites, with a flat 3D background to fight in. However, the battle graphics take a major over haul when the Gears come into play.

The gears’ design in this game is simply outstanding, they are very good looking and are almost perfectly rendered in 3-D for the battles, and the in game engine cut scenes.

Ah yes! The cut scenes! This game is full of them, and they are done in full polygonal glory except for the characters which remain sprites. The most impressive cut scenes happen when Gears (giant mechs) are involved.

Many people ( Myself included), praise Zelda Ocarina of Time for being first game to get real time cut scenes right, but I think that Xenogears at time is up there with it.

Considering that its cutscenes were done on less powerful hardware, it is mighty impressive deed that developers accomplished here.

The very first FMV scene in the game, and some very few short ones during the play through were done with CG graphics. The rest of the cut scenes were done in impressively hand drawn anime. There is about 20 minutes of it, but be warned that 95 percent of those 20 minutes of animation probably take place in the ending scenes.

Not that this was much of a problem, because the anime scenes had the worst (I’m being dead honest) dubbing in the history of any dubbed Anime that I have ever seen. Again, that could be blamed in part to the horrible translation.

Visually nothing is on its level except Grandia and quite possibly Breath of Fire IV in spots.

Yasunori Mitsuda is a Musical Genius…

The music on this game is powerful; it doesn’t have all of the high budget pieces that the FF series uses these days, but Yasunori Mitsuda is such a genius that his compositions rival anything that Nobuo Uematsu has come up with, and then some.

The only flaw to the score here is that while there is variety in the tunes, sometimes they get a little repetitive because for a game this long there seems to be a shortage in the number of tracks.

Of course, this is only nit picking because chances are you won’t notice this issues, as the compositions are so good. I was greatly pleased that the ending theme song “Small Two of Pieces ” was translated to English because its truly a beautiful song, and the lyrics were clearly inspired by the story line of the game.

I must add that there are some songs scattered through out the game that contain choral pieces which sort of reminded me the heavy religious themes that are present throughout the entire story. The “June Mermaid” song (Emeralda’s theme song) is my personal favorite track in the game.

Xenogears is Not Always a Smooth Ride

Gameplay wise the game is a mixed bag. The exploration is pretty much straight forward, ala Final Fantasy. However, once in a while you are asked to solve some puzzles, which by the most part are frustrating, and in the end meaning less.

As an example, there is one dungeon in which you are asked to figure out a combination of numbers, if you don’t know what to do, then you could be stuck a long time trying to figure out the number combinations.

There are some mini games, most notably the Battle Arena in which two players can play. The battle arena is cool at least for a little bit, and then there is a Card game also. However both of these mini-games seemed unpolished, and were really added there for variety’s sake.

The battles in the game are not that difficult as long as you level up regularly, and you learn most of the Deathblows with the most used party characters. The combo system is enjoyable, pressing different combinations during battles helps you learn the ultra useful death blows. Hand to hand combat never truly became a burden during the 67 hours that it took me to finish the game.

However, Gear Battles are another matter. How well you do in a gear fight solely depends on how well equipped it is. Keeping that in mind, the last boss in the game is incredibly tough, because I had to fight for ten hours straight, just to get enough cash to suit my gears with the best possible Equipment.

The last boss battler has many stages. You are given the option to fight the boss on a stage by stage basis, or to just go straight ahead to fight the core. If you destroy the parts then the core becomes easier, but by that time you will have most of your gears destroyed. So I am give this advice; as long as you have the most powerful equipment on the three gears you plan to use for the final battle then, just go straight ahead and fight the core with boosters on.

The fact that the second disc relied on simplistic dungeons with frustrating puzzles, and a long stretch of battles take the other wise good gameplay down a notch. In short, on the strength of its story alone Xenogears will keep you captivated as long as it lasts, but expect some rough, less than polished moments in its gameplay.

Xenogears is the Most Ambitious JRPG  Ever

Xenogears is the classic example of how ambition and a low budget can ruin a game. Xenogears is still a classic, but it could have been much more had disc two been developed at the same pace of the first disc, and if the translation would have been stronger. The game these days is hard to find, but if you can find it, buy it. Its story alone makes it one of the best RPGs ever.

Gameplay: 7.0 — Toughness and pace of the second disc hurt the score.

Graphics: 9.0 — Only Grandia looks better.

Music: 10 — The musical score gives FF’s music a run for its money.

Story: 9.5 — The most ambitious ever, if only the second disc had developed as slowly as the first maybe it could have clearly surpassed FFVII’s.

Replayability: 8.0 — The minigames are simple and not rewarding, once the game is finished you might want to play it again for the story.

Overall: 9.5 — One of the best RPGs ever, but it has flaws.

Recently, we took another look at Xenogears in our Throwback Thursday weekly series.

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By Samuel Rivera

An avid video game player and book reader, Samuel has been playing video games for the last 31 years. He has played nearly every PS1 JRPG known to man, and loves Ocarina of Time more than any other game.