Gear up for some heavy gameplay.
Remember that Simpsons episode when Otto walks out of a housewares store called, "Stoner's Pot Palace"? He walks out shaking his head and says, "That's blatant false advertising, man!" Well, if you believe the hype on the box of Xenogears, you'll be taking your ass down to Electronics Boutique, shaking your head and saying the same thing.
You'll notice the box art is heavy on "Gears," the giant robots you can pilot in the game, as well as several anime drawings and screen shots. "Over 20 minutes of stunning hand- drawn anime..." the text proudly proclaims. The facts: Yes, the anime scenes are absolutely spectacular and stunning and yes, they appear to be hand-drawn. However, most of the anime cut scenes come at the end of disc one and the rest are presumably on disc two. For about the first 10 hours worth of gaming expect about 4-5 anime-style cut scenes each lasting about 7-10 seconds or less, not counting the spectacular opening sequence which lasts a few minutes. There are absolutely NONE after that until you get to the end of disc one. Nada. Zero. Zilch. Man, those marketers really know how to be wildly optimistic about hype. Oh yeah, you also owe me about 14 minutes of stunning hand-drawn anime cut-scenes, too. But I'll take a pound of the marketer's flesh instead.
All ranting aside, Xenogears is an excellent game if you stick with it. Playing this game is kind of like getting into a good book. The first few hours may be boring or even painful, but once you get into it, you'll be up until the wee hours of the morning flipping pages (or pressing buttons) trying to find out what happens next. And let me tell you - the story is first-rate and the plot gets thicker than a pint of Guinness straight from the tap. There are so many twists and turns and loads of new characters popping up that you'll need to get Cliff Notes just to keep everything straight; not to mention delving into every character's mysterious past. It's all here, folks; loyalty, friendships, betrayals, a deposed ruler in hiding, mysterious figures, aliens, genetic experiments, and an Orwellian neo-Nazi government. So you get the picture: this game is long! Disc One alone is about 45-50 hours worth of gameplay.
The basic premise of the plot involves the main character, Fei, who seems to suffer from amnesia. Unwittingly, he is caught in the crossfire between two warring cities, Aveh and Kislev. He climbs into an unmanned Gear and proceeds to destroy not only the enemy forces but the entire town he was living in, too! Ostracized by the surviving citizens, Fei begins a journey to find out more about his past. On the way, he becomes hopelessly entangled in the power struggle between Aveh, Kislev, and numerous other factions, not to mention various political and religious organizations.
Far and away the best element of Xenogears is its excellent plot, which means you'll be spending a lot of time reading. There are tons of people in each town that you can talk to, some giving helpful advice and others revealing bits and pieces of the story. You're not required to talk to each and every person but sometimes you have to find that one specific dude who'll let you advance farther in the game. The humor in the game is also done very well and you may find yourself laughing out loud on occasion.
Gameplay is pretty easy and most gamers won't have any trouble decimating the enemy. Figuring out what to do/where to go next is pretty straightforward and intuitive, although there's also a lot of times when you have to play "hide and seek" - a member of your party leaves for some reason and you have to search the whole town to find him in order to advance in the game.
The game also has a bizarre affinity towards drunkards. They're all over the game saying stuff like, "Drinking Bartweiser in broad daylight. Thash my favorite part of feshtivals!" At one point, your character can drink a beer and as a result, the surroundings start going in and out of focus. A million laughs.
There aren't really any side areas to explore and the game progresses in a strictly linear fashion. New cities or areas open up only when you've done the proper actions to advance in the game. There are a few mini-games here and there, with the best being an interpretation of the card game "Speed".
Xenogears features up to NINE playable characters. The last three characters don't show up until late in the game, but once you get to disc two, you'll have plenty of opportunities to choose between all nine to form your familiar party of three. Each character has unique abilities, adding to the depth.
Combat uses a unique "point" system. Your character has a certain number of points during each of his turns during battle. You can select a 1, 2, or 3 point attacks or combinations of the three to thrash on the enemy. After achieving certain levels, you also learn "deathblow" maneuvers which do massive damage. Any unused points at the end of the turn go to your "Action Point" meter. Saving enough AP's allows you to pull off deathblow combos which are real handy to put down those boss characters. Fighting in a Gear is much the same as regular combat except for the strange omission of combos.
Gear combat also brings up a host of other aspects to the game such as power loss, fuel leaks, camera damage, and engine shutdowns. There's also a mini-game where you can take your gear and participate in some real-time combat. It's no Virtual On, but it's pretty fun nonetheless.
Xenogears could benefit from more variety in the enemy library. On a lot of levels, you'll be tooling around fighting the same three types of baddies for an hour or so. Boring. I've never been a big fan of random enemy encounters either and searching an area can get downright frustrating in some places as enemies show up every three steps.
Character graphics look much better than in the reigning RPG champ, Final Fantasy 7. They're still midgets, but at least they look a lot more realistic without those blocky bodies and bulging forearms. The lower level spell graphics look decent but the more powerful ones look great (though nothing close to the "Summon" spells in FF7).
Square added a new "jump" button to the controls to expand your range of exploration. A nice touch is seeing the midgets' hair or ponytails flying around as you jump your way around. The rest of the graphics tend to lean toward the boring side, with none of the majesty and inspiration of FF7. The majority of cut-scenes are graphically the same as the rest of the game. There's no 3D rendering here and as I've stated earlier, the anime scenes are extremely sparse.
The most aggravating part of this game is that there is no Options menu! You're pretty much stuck with listening to the same tunes all through the game and getting bogged down reading the agonizingly slow-scrolling text. On the up-side, there's actually some speech in this game. During gameplay, it's mostly limited to single-word exclamations, but the longer anime cut-scenes feature full speech. Unfortunately, the lip-synching was done so poorly the character's mouth will continue moving for a full 10 seconds after saying something simple like, "What?" I kinda get the feeling that the anime scenes were ripped off from some Japanese movie and the guys at Square took the liberty of cutting out scenes that pertained to the game and stuck them in as an afterthought. Sloppy.
While Xenogears may not have the depth or sheer magnitude of items/materia in FF7, it's still pretty respectable. As I mentioned at the top of the review, its strong point is its fabulous storyline. Both the gameplay and story take a while to get going, but once it starts building up some momentum, you'll find it hard to put down the controller.