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Xenogears should in no way be confused with Xenosaga, although I hear that Xenogears has some kind of tie to the chronology of Xenosaga.  Xenogears almost never made it to western waters, but when it finally hit, rabid Square fans eagerly elevated it to a status equal to Final Fantasy VII.  The reason for both?  Heavy religious content.
Straight out the gate, Xenogears threatens to become just as obnoxious as Final Fantasy VII.  Main hero Fei has a "dark mysterious past", the villagers shun him, and everything gets blown to hell by a nuclear force explosion.  Yawn.  How many times have we seen elements like these being used before and since this game came out?  Thankfully, Xenogears slowly picks up until it becomes a regular tour-de-force that puts Final Fantasy VII's sloppy, incoherent story to shame.  Like Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears dabbles with an oppressive, Orwellian system and not messing around with nature.  Unlike Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears trims away unnecessary extraneous bits, leaving only what's important while still offering up excitement and drama worth every dollar.  Some elements will sicken you, and the plot twists will make your jaw drop.  THAT'S the measure of a true RPG, not fancy graphics or a slick battle system.
But speaking of graphics or battle systems, no way are they average in Xenogears.  Unlike Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears uses anime-style hand drawn sprites for the characters and even some anime movies.  Both are gorgeous.  The battle system is more inspired than Final Fantasy VII's.  Every character has a different fighting style, and instead of a time bar, Xenogears has a system that allocates a set number of points to each character.  You fight by pressing three different buttons for light, medium, and heavy attacks worth 1, 2, and 3 points respectively.  The trick of the system is to know when to save your points so you can pull off deathblow moves.  It's really fun watching your character tear into the enemy with stylized fight sequences instead of the standard "one button press, one slash" routine.  And the more you experiment and level up, the more exotic and lengthy your combos become.
The polygons are saved for the game's trademark mechs, which are called Gears in the universe of this game.  Up until recently, when the Xenosaga series came out, I was amazed than an RPG would even attempt at incorporating giant robots into a genre normally marked by fantasy elements.  Yeah, I've played Final Fantasy VII, with its futuristic steampunk influence, way before Xenogears, but even Final Fantasy VII had dragons and spells.  And let me tell you, the futuristic theme makes a lot more sense in Xenogears.  But enough about that.  The mech battles have their own combat system and are usually saved for times when you have to fight big monsters are the enemy's own mechs.  Like the on foot combat, the mech combat has a system of points and combos, only the combos aren't as elaborate and the mechs use up fuel to attack.  But like the on foot combat, you can save up for special attacks, and mechs can charge up to regain fuel.  You can also buy upgrades for your mechs like better weapons and bigger fuel tanks.
Like most games, Xenogears has its share of problems, not the least of which is the rather unbalanced way it presents its story.  As excellent as the story is, most of the story is in the first disc, told through encounters, combat, dialogue, and anime movies.  When you switch to the second disc, the game is suddenly "hurry up and get this over with" as the story rushes to wrap up loose ends and resorts to a lot of sequences where the characters are sitting around on chairs actually narrating to the player summaries of what's happening.  Rubbish!  There is also a sequence in this game that will make you snicker in which several of the enemy bosses' mechs combine into one in an animation reminiscent of Power Rangers.  Of course that snicker will fade when you realize you've struggled to beat them seperately and now they're going to proceed to hand your butt to you on a platter.  There is also a minor issue with the anime sequences.  Put simply, they're gorgeous and tell the story well.  There's just not enough of them, no matter how much the cover tells you how many minutes worth of anime are in the game.  The final issue I have with the game is that the magic system is simply the most boring and useless I have ever seen in an RPG.  Thankfully the martial arts more than make up for the dippy magic.
Despite these issues, Xenogears unfolds well and finishes brilliantly.  It's a long and lavish affair, and I'm amazed at how well it tackled the religion issue.  No existing religion was ever praised or demonized, but familiar names and terms pop up throughout.  And like The Matrix, Xenogears doesn't make religion its sole theme, nor does it get heavy-handed with religion.  To describe Xenogears' plot would be to spoil it, but its a series of heavy drama, thought-provoking issues, head-spinning plot twists, and even a hint of schizophrenia.  It is several things at once, dark and dramatic, but is leagues above Squaresoft's most popular 800 pound gorilla, Final Fantasy VII.
Grade: Excellent

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