Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 11/13/2018 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
Xenogears is the one game in the “Xeno” series that I don’t have, but with my new attempt to embrace digital games, I decided to buy it on PSN and dust off the ol’ PS TV. I was SUPPOSED to be playing this in tandem with Colin, but as usual, he flaked out on me and decided not to play it. -insert sadness-
Xenogears is, in a lot of ways, a perfect example of Square’s late 1990s JRPG offerings – it’s too long, the story is convoluted to the point of confusion, and it’s so much damn fun that you can’t just quit. The BASIC story (and this is a bare-bones synopsis) is that a colony ship of some sort crashed on this planet 10,000 years ago when some superweapon went haywire and blew it to pieces. Human survivors established an advanced civilization until some major war destroyed a bunch of it 4,000 years ago, and then some other giant war destroyed even more stuff 500 years ago. There are like three specific people whose souls are apparently so important that they get reincarnated infinitely, and their memories get passed down as well, and then there are some split personalities, and there are giant robots, and somehow the giant doomsday weapon is god but also god doesn’t exist but at the same time god is core to everything and…yeah. It doesn’t make any sense. Unfortunately, it’s also a perfect example of what ruins a lot of otherwise good games – plot holes, huge leaps of logic, and cut funding that led to a rushed and frankly terrible second half (or, in this case, last third). Imagine if the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential campaign were a JRPG. On paper, it should be amazing and a hole in one. Certain aspects of reality, however, force it to crash and burn. I love games that incorporate ancient Judeo-Christian mythology into their story. I don’t love it when it’s done poorly and doesn’t many any sense whatsoever.
The tragic story of Xenogears’ production is that it was originally intended to be a four-disc game as several other Square JRPGs were. The first disc is a long and epic 40-50 hour adventure full of world-building and character development, and if the game were judged just on the first disc, it would be a great game. Unfortunately, when they finished the first disc, they were out of money… and only about a third of the way through the story. So the rest of it got slimmed down beyond the max and crammed into one disc with the bulk of the story either skipped entirely or relegated to boring vignettes between boss fights with the occasional dungeon or two (compared to the dozen solidly fleshed out dungeons in the first disc). There’s a ton of potential there, and had the story elements in disc two been given the same treatment that the first disc received, it would probably be remembered as one of the best JRPGs of the era. As it is, however, the second disc totally sucks and ruins the game.
The game’s visuals are largely so-so in my opinion with a decent 3D world but 2D sprite characters. Character attack animations are cool, but the game overall fails to match Square’s Final Fantasy offerings of the era (probably because of the cut funding). The music, however, is quite good. Again, not on the level of the PS1 Final Fantasy games, but it’s a solidly second tier soundtrack. The piece of the presentation that really falls apart, though, is the anime cutscenes. There are some full anime cut scenes, but the English dub is like something straight out of a 1950s Godzilla film; you’ll see mouths moving a mile a minute with no words whatsoever, and you’ll hear talking when no one’s mouth is moving. I understand that it’s extremely difficult to get English even half synced with Japanese animation especially with a depleted budget, but regardless, the effect is that it just looks sloppy and half-assed.
Xenogears is a Shakespearean tragedy of game development; the first disc is SO exceptional and well done in almost every regard that they blew their whole budget and were left with a second disc that tries to do way too much with way too little to work with and, as a result, ruins the overall product. I really can’t overemphasize just how soul-crushingly disappointing that second disc is. It truly does ruin the game for me and leave a bad taste in my mouth for the whole game. I honestly have a hard time recommending this one just because of how much of a let down the last 20 hours or so are, but I’m going to err on the side of a recommendation simply for how excellent the first 40 or 50 hours are. If I were rating each disc on its own, disc one would definitely get a 4/5 with disc two being given a 1/5. Unfortunately, that’s not how multi-disc games work. The experiences on each disc may be of RADICALLY different quality, but it’s still one single game.