Some people love Xenogears. Some people murder other people with axes. The point is that there’s a lot of subjectivity in the world when it comes to what is and isn’t good, so what follows is probably going to be an opinion that not all people share: I don’t find Xenogears to be a good game. At least not overall. I can recognize how incredible it could have been—the characters are interesting, the story is insane and deep, and a huge amount of the game just “clicks” the way the best old-time jRPGs did. That being said, it’s a great example of the damage monotony and bad pacing can do to an entire game.
Those two things are really my only qualms with the game, and they were enough to torpedo my enjoyment right out of the water, turning what should have been a magical experience on par with Chrono Trigger (my personal benchmark for amazing jRPGs) into a painful experience that I desperately wanted to be done with as soon as humanly possible. What should have been an experience complete with fluttering butterflies and pixie dust floating around me as I played soon turned to butterfly-killing rage and endless strings of four-letter profanities. The fairy dust simply didn’t stand a chance against the yelling.
The first problem—and this is the big one—is the delivery of the story. Not the story itself, mind you, because the actual story driving the game is really good. The problem is how that story is presented, or to be more accurate, not presented. The first disc consists of running around and doing random things that don’t seem relevant to anything, and the first disc is a huge amount of the game. It’s fluff. Filler is the name of the game for the first several hours, and it doesn’t let up for a long time. Meanwhile, the few meaningless things you understand are occasionally cut into as you see the “bad guys” talking, but they talk in code. Nothing they say will make any sense, and the whole thing is so abstract that the number of possible explanations makes it impossible to deduce anything of worth by analyzing what they say. Rather than a slow information drip that elucidates the complex overall plot, you’re constantly left in the dark, offered nothing but hints and comments that you won’t understand until you play the game over again.
Disc 2 is a joke. You’ll learn more about the world and story in the first 30 minutes than you’ll be given in the entirety of the first disc (which is something like 30 hours long), and rather than being comprised of playable sections, disc 2 begins with a huge number of text sequences, followed by battles, followed by more text, repeated for what feels like an eternity. To call it an information dump is to completely understate just how much information is randomly piled on you; while some games have points where you’re flooded with a ton of information, they don’t completely change the way the game plays when they do it. Xenogears goes completely on-rails, so to speak, while flooding you with so much information that it’s hard to take it all in at once.
This is completely unnecessary, too. The story is so complex that revealing things here and there during disc 1 would have been a much more natural and interesting way of revealing the story. Instead, you’re given almost no information for a huge portion of the game, only to have it hit you in the face at a hundred miles per hour. The information dump is so large and complex and unexpected that many things come across as completely random, as though the developers suddenly ran out of money and tied everything together without thinking. Though this isn’t actually the case, being hit with so much information devoid of gameplay does come across that way rather than everything coming together coherently. For example, there are little writeups that explain what’s happening in the world and what your characters are going to do about it. “Awesome,” you think to yourself, “I’m totally going to infiltrate that base with those characters. Finally, real gameplay.” Wrong. The entire thing happens during the cutscene, requiring absolutely nothing from you. As a result, it seems like a lazy way to avoid having to design another area rather than the strong story point that it probably should be.
This brings me to problem number two: tedium. The first disc is overlong, and finds cheap ways of padding the length of the game. There’s a sequence in some sewers, for example, where you have to find a door. No big problem, though a bit annoying because the camera can spin all around and makes it easy to get lost in such areas (especially for those as prone to getting lost as I am), and you’re getting hit with random battles while exploring. Eventually you find the door, and guess what? It’s locked, and you have to backtrack to find the key. The door being locked has no story-related significance, serving only the purpose of being annoying padding. Another example: There are some platforming sequences that require precise jumps, which is difficult given the awful camera. You fall, you have to climb back up, probably getting hit with a random battle in the process (the random battle encounter rate is actually really good in most of the game, though for some reason the annoying sections hit you with far more random battles than they should, to the point where I actually once triggered two random battles at once, having to fight them back-to-back). There are also some puzzles that are completely pointless, either being frustratingly misleading or so pathetically easy that they shouldn’t even exist in the first place.
What makes both of these irritations so game-destroying to me is that they’re completely unnecessary, and they could have solved both of them by simply replacing all of that padding with little bits of information about the world and characters. Just enough to where you’re prepared for all of the information that hits you in disc 2, because as it stands, you really don’t know enough about the world to understand its limitations, which makes understanding the motivations of the villains nearly impossible to comprehend. By slowly revealing details related to the events in disc 2 (details that aren’t in f&%*ing coded language for no f*&^ing reason), the tedium would be removed, the info dump would be tolerable, and the entire game would be one of the greatest jRPGs of all time. As it stands now, it’s nothing but a missed opportunity, a testament to the dangers of bad storytelling.
So much of the game is incredible, though. The art is colorful, and though the characters and world are comprised of ugly sprites (some of the worst I’ve seen, honestly), a large portion of the game manages to be pretty through its usage of colors to set the mood. Music is also good, capturing the “ominous” side of things really well. Combat takes a little getting used to, especially since you’ll be fighting both inside and outside of giant robots called “gears,” but it’s something that you quickly get used to. Everything but the two problems I highlighted is a good thing, and it’s a shame to see a game with so much promise completely fail to deliver because it fell victim to easily-avoidable pitfalls.
Here’s what you should do: