I have such a wide range of interests that extend far beyond just movies (the primary focus of this blog) that I’ve decided to expand the ambitions of this blog a little bit and start writing about things other than movies. One of the primary reasons that I went on a three week hiatus from updating this blog at all was that I was so hell bent on beating Final Fantasy VII that I wasn’t going to let anything distract me from it. And while movies will continue to be the raison d’etre for this blog, I wouldn’t mind putting digital pen to digital paper on my other hobbies as well (music, TV, and video games particularly). So, to inaugurate this little experiment, I’ve picked the video game that I am playing currently, the PS1 cult classic, 1998’s Xenogears. With games like RPG’s (or really anything that’s going to take me a good long while to beat and not just a couple of sittings), I’m going to do reviews in progress and then reserve my final score for the very end. I’ve been playing this game for a couple weeks now to give you an idea of how far in I am and I’m at about the 16 hour mark.

Xenogears is made by the same group of producers and writers that were responsible for the SNES master-piece Chrono Triggers and later cult classics Chrono Chross and Xenogear‘s spiritual successor, the Xenosaga series. What this translates to for the unitiated out there is that the game has a really damn talented team behind in it, and as early into the game as I am, I can already tell that it shows. Like I said, I’m only about 16 hours in, and I can already tell that the story is both absolutely fantastic and seems like it’s going to get pretty complicated (which is fine by me).  The game takes place on the planet of Ignas, where two kingdoms, Aveh and Kislev, have been at war for centuries. The violence escalated when remnants of a past and technologically superior civilization are found. The remnants are giant robots called “Gears” that are used for fighting. Currently, the kingdom of Aveh is winning the war because they are being supported by a mysterious military force known as Gebler, which is far more technologically advanced than either of the two nations (and their ultimate motives have yet to be spelled out where I’m at in the game).

So far, at least, the main protagonist is a man named Fei Fong Wong, an amnesiac (i.e. the most common characteristic of a protagonist of a Square RPG), living the life of a painter in a small rural village. One night the village is caught in the cross-fire of two different groups fighting in the giant gears. Fei feels compelled to step into one of the gears to help defend his home but ends up awakening an inner power that destroys the entire village and kills many of its inhabitants. One of the survivors of the attack is his mentor, Citan Uzuki, who seems to have a past layered with more secrets and intrigue than a cast member of Lost. Citan and Fei eventually cross paths with a member of the Gebler military named Elly, that Fei seems to have known before he lost his memory. Also, they meet with a sand pirate named Bart, who is actually the long lost prince of Aveh who is in hiding because his family was ousted when Gebler invaded. Without wanting to ruin too much of the plot, I’ll leave it there, although needless to say, I’ve only begun, as a player, to unravel any significant amount of the different backstories and conspiracies at work in this game, and I can’t wait to keep going further and further in the plot.

Graphically, this is a PS1 game so by today’s standards, it looks pretty ugly, but unlike, say Final Fantasy VII, it has a fairly distinct art style that manages to keep it interesting. For one thing, it’s cut scenes don’t use pre-rendered 3-D graphics, but instead rely on beautiful, hand-drawn anime style cut-scenes, and each time that you are rewarded with an anime cut-scene, it usually means something awesome is about to happen, and they all look fantastic. Also, in a complete rarity for PS1 games, the cut scenes actually have voice acting, and by the day’s standards, the voice acting is pretty decent. The in-game engine uses 2-D character sprites in a 3-D environment/world. Think Final Fantasy Tactics. Honestly, this choice looks so much better than a lot of PS1 games that I’ve gone back and played that used 3-D polygon character models where the characters barely have any sort of distinguishing characteristics and just look like giant blobs.

The combat system is absolutely fantastic. While you still have to deal with random battles and it is your classic active time bar, turn based strategy combat, the game is fresh in that it utilizes a combo system (whether on foot or in one of the gears) where you combine strong, medium, and weak attacks to create character specific combos that do extra damages, as well as the different ether based attacks, whether that is chi or arcane or whatever each character uses. Even if each character takes pretty much the same combination of button presses to do their combos, all of the combat looks absolutely fantastic and saving up enough AP to unleash a huge flurry of combos on your opponents to kill them in one hit is always spectacularly satisfying. It is as much fun to kick your enemies’ asses on foot with martial arts, swords, whips, etc as it is to beat the living shit out of them with your giant robots.

I’ve still got dozens of hours left to put in this game, but I can’t wait to jump right back into it as soon as I can. I am honestly enjoying this game so far more than I enjoyed going back and playing Final Fantasy VII. It’s got the flaws that pretty much every JRPG has: random battles, excessive level grinding, mini-games that are a huge time sink for questionably useful rewards, etc. Yet, the surprisingly mature story combined with the awesome combat system and cool art direction make this an RPG that I believe I will actually finish on the first try, which as someone who has put over 60 hours into two separate Final Fantasy XII files without ever beating the game, is a rare feat.