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What It Is To Be Mind Blowing In Super Slow-Mo
By: Noj Airk
In the early, early days of recording technology, a man of an unknown name created what is today a miracle for boring movies that we simply own because either the leading lady grabs our attention and doesn't let go, or the final climax is out of this world. This invention was the fast-forward button. This little control device has saved many of people, be they impatient or in a hurry, from watching the unimportant parts of a movie that simply run too long and too slow. This invention was never created for the videogame arena, however, and with a game like Xenogears, it's for once a real shame.
Like the best of the Final Fantasy's, Xenogears has a plot and narrative that blows one's mind, to say the least. With the plot being twice as complex as any of the great Squaresoft flagship RPG's, one would guess that it would be several hours longer. However, because many normal RPG's lengths' are strictly gameplay, one wouldn't hope that the amount of gameplay itself wouldn't be doubled as much as the story would be. Well, after five long years, I've finally just beaten this RPG giant, and looking back, all I can say is: "Oh my God! That game was mind-blowing, but it was by far the slowest game I've ever played!"
The game on the outside works nicely enough, luckily, which is how many good stories fall apart when told in games (like in Shadow Madness and the Parasite Eve titles), so playing through such an ungodly amount of play time isn't asking as much as one might think. The interface is stuffed to the gill, the battle systems are fun, the script is great, and the musical score, courtesy of Yasonuri Mitsuda, is phenomenal.
The battle system sorta works like in Final Fantasy X, where agility of heroes and villains judge when their attack turn will be, but when it comes, they have forever to decide which course of action they will take (although AI controlled will act immediately). Much like in Legend of Legaia, battle is comprised of mostly basic attacks, but these attacks aren't simple "Attack", but rather a sequence of smaller attacks, which when composed in certain formations can trigger a certain type of combination attack of deadly power. Also, like Legaia, as well as games such as Front Mission 3, these "Action Points" (AP) can be used in small doses so that the next round will have additional unused AP to use later. With these built up AP, you can unleash a series of deadly attacks in one turn, decimating the types of enemies that can either easily block most attacks, or who heal themselves after attacks. True, this is highly cool, and quite creative, despite that it does take away any believability of the battle sequences, as there's also lots of the stereotyped "enemy grenade does less damage than a hero's punch" type of material as well.
Different almost entirely are the Gear battles. The gear battles are structured almost exactly like the battles in Xenosaga. Unlike Xenosaga they can be both quick and painless...or take place during a big boss fight. As such, they're almost never boring. Because metal is stronger and more durable, like in real life, a boss fought in gears is arguably thousands of times easier than the same fight would be on foot. This is because the monsters encountered range in only two sizes: small, where they take a beating on foot, but are ultra-weak pushovers compared to the gears, or large, which are almost impossible to defeat without at least one in your party. While much more limited in scale and execution, these gears are also able to build up a few stronger attacks to unleash upon the larger, tougher thugs. And also, with some larger enemies being more agile in nature, because metal is also slower than flesh, commonly stronger attacks will miss such foes, leaving them another chance to strike, and you the player more frustrated, as you probably spent the last 20 minutes trying to reach that far. All in all, while not as quick paced, these gear battles are more realistic, and since fuel and HP are very difficult to restore within a gear battle, these can commonly be the more intense.
The interface is nice and large, with lots of additional tidbits to it, such as the ability to buy produce, or get tipsy from drinking a beer or two. However, the interface isn't as interactive and malleable as one would hope, especially for a 70-hour game. For examples, you have little ability to control what abilities you learn and when, and the only, limited method the game uses to gain these abilities point by point is commonly no longer in effect until a while later. Also, the entire second disc, which is the final 10-15 hours, is almost completely void of interface, as it's nothing but story and battle...except a few times where you walk around; sorta like Xenosaga. And lastly, taking the cake, commonly the objective are 100% unclear, and is simply a series of walking into random places and meeting random people for half an hour, while during this whole time, the text moves at a very, very slow pace. It is because of the player's clueless-ness of either the objective or the methods of achieving it that I stated that the game could take an upwards of 5000 hours...yeah, that's over the top, but to get it to take insanely long your first time through, without a walkthrough to help, is rather likely. Some of these advancing points are in neither place I would expect, nor in places I could see unless I accidentally had the camera facing the correct way.
I would say that that greatly reduces replayability, but to me, this game's replay value is quite high. It's for several reasons. The first is that these hassles in the interface are greatly reduced the second time through, as you have some kind of idea as what to do this time, albeit you'll still probably get frustrated here and there. This game's plot is also the only one that I couldn't grasp much at all until my second time through (well, to the second disc), because like any good RPG, there are constantly unanswered questions; only here, they come in overwhelming amounts, and with some symbolism that isn't explained for upwards of fifty or so hours. Also, this game is chock full of action and war, and features some great objectives and adrenaline-pumping sequences, which are always fun to do again. And lastly, the game is beautifully well written, from some nice lines here and there, to the overall mesmerizing storyline, to the amazing cinematic use of either suspense or symbolism. Like I've said many times before, it is reasons like that that make me play through a game...usually.
The game's actual presentation is epic, but not what I would call clean. The sound is a good example, where the sound effects are seldom, and either sloppy or just plain garbage. They sound like, if such a thing were possible, like good sound effects, but the sound waves got covered in mud, and came out extremely filthy. The only good sound effects, apart from a few mechanical hums and amazing ambient tracks, are the fighting sounds, which consist primarily of whacks, magical whistles and grunts. They're very solid and clear, while not quite as good sounding as those found in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The music is, IMO, also inferior, but don't let my words fool you; if I had to make a list of the best game soundtracks of all time, Xenogears would easily be on the top ten, if not the top five.
I'll be frank when I say that I wasn't impressed with the musical score for Chrono Trigger very much at all, and having never listened to the soundtrack of Tobal No. 1, also composed by Yasonuri Mitsuda, I was only looking foreword to Xenogears' soundtrack as "another Square soundtrack" (remember that around that time also came masterpieces such as Final Fantasy's VII & Tactics, so that wasn't a bad thing). However, from games like Chrono Cross, Xenosaga, and mostly this game here, whenever I hear that Yasonuri Mitsuda is being put up for the position of composer, I'll put some serious thought into getting the game, even if it looks to be a bad one. The emotion fits the settings of the game perfectly, the emotional tracks can get one's blood stirring alone, and the tracks each seem a bit longer than those composed by Nobuo Uematsu (but the game's nature makes the music repetitive). The music is very cinematic, very well layered, and has a very high synthetic quality to it, making it sound like real orchestra as much as a synthesizer...we should all get together to celebrate this new technical era of visuals and sound!
However, if we do indeed celebrate visuals along with sound technology, Xenogears is a game that we'd want to keep as far from us as possible, unless we want to show what not to do at any cost. I am being perfectly honest when I say that Xenogears is among the ugliest games I have ever seen. Imagine a standard 3-D PlayStation game, only take out half of the polygon complexity of the locations, and remove the characters with mediocre at best sprite characters. The FMV that Squaresoft is so well known for is not only in much smaller quantities, but also only marginally as good as the stuff they were creating around that time. The gear battles look weakly layered, while the normal battles are only a tad better, as they're smaller, feature better animation, and some reasonable SFX. The only thing Xenogears' graphics have going for it is that I can easily enough understand what's being depicted, and so I never ask: "What just happened?"
Well, the graphics didn't, but much of the story did...in both a good way and a bad way. Not to say that overall the story for Xenogears isn't great. Actually, being about twice the size of any Final Fantasy, and almost twice as complex, as well as just as original and creative, I truly consider Xenogears as the most plot-powerful game currently in existence, with the best Final Fantasy's next in line. It's very detailed, very creative, and comparably as emotional. Honestly, I think the reason why the original author of the series liked Xenosaga way over this, is simply because there were parts in this game that actually did make sense.
The story plays out a lot like Final Fantasy where it's full of twists, emotional sequences thrown in here and there, enough comedy to keep it stable, and with some phenomenal characters. The writing in this game is sharp, as in both somewhat cleverly philosophical and realistic sounding. Each character is slightly differently written, but it doesn't fall into the category of stereotypical differences between characters, like it was in painful amounts in Chrono Cross. A story like Xenogears is one of those great ones because you can say either that it's purely plot driven, or that it's character driven; personally I'll go with character driven.
The actual plot is so amazing, however, that it easily warrants another play through simply because of the complexity, which is where the weaknesses of the game would most likely hit you hardest. The story revolves around several aspects, slightly changing overall as the story goes along, to the point in which every ten hours or so, your overall perspective the world is entirely different. You could be fighting some enemies for tens of hours, only later to have them help you out, either because they see the light, or see the true evil nature of those fiends above them, living in the shadows. And it isn't like FF's VIII or IX, where you end up fighting a foe that you know nothing about…you know the evil very well by the end.
Overall, Xenogears, for a plot-driven RPGamer, is an absolute must have. With a strong narrative, nice moments of fun, incredible score, and probably the most detailed story in RPG history, Xenogears is sure fire, just with a price. If you're like me, who puts plot, narrative, and music over primarily all else, then there is honestly no reason why one shouldn't pick up a copy of this game. Just bring some strong caffeinated drinks, and maybe some Ritalin pills.
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