I suppose one would have to live under a rock in order to have played console RPGs and have not heard of Xenogears. Since the first announcement of it coming stateside, I've heard nothing but excitement for this game. One person hails it as the best book he ever played, another couldn't stop telling me how original it was. Original? By then I had been playing RPGs for some eight years and it was becoming difficult to get excited about it. I had such high anticipation of Lunar: Silver Star Story and felt a tremendous letdown when I finally got to play the remake. Final Fantasy VII was okay. The plot sounded like it would be big, but when it came down to it, I found it even smaller than I ever would have imagined. By that's neither here nor there. Xenogears came, and finally in 2001, some years later, I get around to playing it. The best game ever? No. But at times I feel it was worth the ride.
Xenogears has the dubious distinction of being the game I most have a love-hate relationship with. The story has overwhelming potential. At times I loved all the Biblical allegory they put in it (though there are things I would have done differently regarding the naming of certain characters). Other times I was annoyed because they would follow the "rules" they set up so strongly to a certain point and then drop it and not answer why they deviated from what they told the player. For instance, each Animus (male) is paired with an Anima (female). These are literary terms as well as being a person and a relic in the world of Xenogears. The Solaris Elders were each Animus meant to be united with an Anima relic. So how was it that Sophia's Gear was an Omnigear? Sophia, being a woman, should not have been able to unite with an Anima relic since she's female. True, maybe a man originally piloted her Gear and united with the Anima relic, but that's doubtful since the Gear looks so "girly". In any case, there is no explanation why and bringing up the topic was entirely avoidable. Sophia's Gear plays a very minor role in the story and could have been removed entirely without any harm to the plot. In fact, it's removal could also safely take out another plot hole where Citan refers to Elly having a strange reaction with a Gear in Shevat, a scene that never happened, but must have been a result of Elly meeting with Sophia's Gear.
It's things like that, that bother me about this game. I think the story could have been so much better if they didn't leave so many things hanging. As another example: how was Rico Sigmund's son, especially since he's a mutant? It's brought up perhaps a third of the way through disc 1 and then is never mentioned again until partway through disc 2 when Hammer spews a line or two about it. Still no answer, just a confirmation that he is.
I suspect that the designers ran out of time, money, or had some other constraint that prevented them from realizing their full vision. Maybe that's why the Xenogears Perfect Works book has so much text in it--to explain everything there that they couldn't in the game. Either that or they were sloppy. I think that a good game should end with a player feeling satisfied. When I'm left thinking "But they still didn't answer that!" for a dozen plus questions that I feel were important, that's not a good sign. When the story is at its best, it's great, but most of the time I was left slogging through frustration.
Moving on... For me, more than anything, story and characters make the game. I've said what I wanted for story, so on with the characters. Usually, even among a cast I largely don't like, I'll find at least someone to tag along with that I like. I've rarely been fond of main heroes, but since most of them are fairly quiet, they're livable... which brings us to Fei.
Before this game I never thought much of how important a decent main hero is. I remember Arthur, from Shining the Holy Ark , who did and said absolutely nothing. But I liked him anyway. I remember Chaz, from Phantasy Star IV , who is arguably one of the most chatty main heroes we've ever seen. And then there's Fei, who has so many problems thrust on him due to multiple personalities, god, and past incarnations of himself. Not to mention a terrible inferiority complex. He manages to overcome it all (and save the girl), and yet somehow I can't seem to care. And that's bad. If the player can't sympathize with the main hero, especially when he's as important to the central conflict as Fei is, it's tough to cheer him on. I honestly don't think I ever have. Most of my battles have been along the lines of "Hurry up and die," instead of cheers for whupping arse. My goal became to plow through the game and finish it, because taking my time was painful. The first point where I wanted to slow down and just enjoy was when Billy first joined the party. Fei was blissfully knocked out for the next couple of dungeons and I just got a new party member who I had come to enjoy quite a bit.
The rest of the cast besides Fei and Elly (the latter of whom I actually liked quite a bit) unfortunately got marginalized for the most part. Half of them (Bart, Billy, and Maria) had fleshed out subplots and resolution. The other half (Chu-Chu, Rico, and Emeralda) got the short end of the stick. Citan may have been the only other character besides Fei and Elly to have gotten plenty of screen time. Unfortunately, I liked him even less than Fei (he was nosy, evasive, and a know-it-all) so that didn't count for much with me. Ramsus, quite arguably the villain who changes the most throughout the story, is left a self-pitying mass of worry at the end, and we never learn whether or not he finally gets the guts to stand up for himself and be the man that the Elements believed in. Krelian was a fairly decent main villain, but I think his character would have been helped along by more flashbacks, perhaps of him and Graff, how he came to Solaris, etc. In the end he is ultimately a tragic character, but as players we never see enough of his journey to truly sympathize with him.
Overall, I found Xenogears to be a mixed bag. The story varied in quality, the characters were largely lackluster, I found the towns boring and the dungeons frustrating, and when the story was good it could be elevated beyond all that, but it just wasn't that good often enough. The battle system is largely tedious, I don't care for the Deathblow system at all, it just seems to make everything take longer. Basically, if you'd willing to put up with a lot for a potentially good story, playing this game might be worth it, but the 15-20 hour entrance fee to just when the story starts to get "good" to the 60+ hours it will take you to beat it, that's a pretty steep price to pay.