If I had to list off the best games ever made, of course Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI would sit near the top. Every list of best RPGs or best SNES games and even a bunch of best-game-ever lists pick one or the other. Still, an often overlooked gem for the Playstation wins out over both of them: Xenogears. But I played it recently, and with 75 or so hours of game play, I doubt I’ll come back to it soon. Plus, while I can play Chrono Trigger over and over without getting bored with the story (and watch Back to the Future for days straight…must have something to do with time travel), overplaying a finely crafted drama like Xenogears tends to devalue the story. Fortunately, the list of people who love the game begins with the team who designed it, and thanks to their endless quest to make lightning strike as often as possible, they’ve hoisted the same battered rod used for Xenogears and Xenosaga, and enough metal remained that it channeled a trickle of electrons into an NDS game called “Sands of Destruction.”
From the beginning, the story clearly strives to lead the same life as big brother Xenogears; both games focus on the exploits of a twat with a personality often found only among the most noble and kind-hearted sacks of flour, who accidentally annihilates his entire village and everyone in it. Both protagonists learn they have the chosen power to do something that generally sounds like a bad idea; Xenogears’ Fei has the strength and technology to slay god, while in Sands of Destruction, a clutter of fliers reveals to Kyrie (Greek for “Lord”) that he has the power to destroy the world and should promptly join the World Annihilation Front and get on that. Then both Kyrie and Fei get taken prisoner on a sea of sand by a kind-hearted, whip-wielding pirate, et cetera, et cetera, then they kill god.
Unfortunately, Sands of Destruction doesn’t come close to the 75 hours that Xenogears had to develop their story. As much as I surrounded myself in rosaries and doused myself in holy water when I learned I had to slay god, by the end of Xenogears, I knew I needed to exterminate the sick bastard and started combing eBay for a cheap Ghostbuster proton pack. In Sands of Destruction, the WAF distributes orders like it desperately wants you to see its band perform, but for all the confetti you pick up by the end of the game, no one has given you a single reason why you need to put the world down. It certainly doesn’t feel like an impending apocalypse; no one points out frogs going extinct, polar bears balancing on ice floes, the dead rising from the grave and the virtuous ascending into heaven, or polar vortexes ruining an already cold Minnesota summer.
Rather than spending time developing character, conflict, or even asking the pretty young girl who rescues you from jail why the world sucks so much, the game sends you on one pointless task after another so that you run into the beast lords, twelve anthropomorphic rejects from Winnie the Pooh, mowing them down one after another without any real idea of what they’ve done to oppress the human population or ruin the world. In addition to the beast lords, Kyrie crosses paths with primal lords, titanic gods who appear to govern the whims of nature. These primal lords accept the inevitable apocalypse with a positive spirit and a chipper attitude, but still attempt to re-decorate their houses with his bowels to show the ungrateful brat a lesson about what happens to him if he ignores his chores to go gallivanting around not destroying the world. That’ll teach him! The story plays out entirely without any motivation for or investment in the quest at hand, and in the ending sequence after you kill god and find out that “creating your own world” means making everything exactly the same except for replacing all the sand with water, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone really had to do anything. I mean, no one really seemed all that thirsty before, and the sand ships seemed to work just fine. Any mystique or meaningful interpretation behind the story becomes flimsy and transparent to anyone with a few weeks of Beginning Latin under their belt. Only one character kept my attention for any length of time, mostly out of the novelty of a teddy-bear bounty hunter with a gruff, middle-aged, man’s man voice. He joins the party because he wants to take in one of the characters for her bounty, then just sort of goes along with all their plans and quests without any real explanation. Also more of a novelty interest, one of the early villains speaks in the angriest, most self-absorbed gay lisp I have ever heard. I might suggest playing the game simply for the voice acting, except for the long, unskippable pauses between lines of dialogue.
The game really likes to make you wait. Much like in Xenosaga, characters get two attacks per turn, sometimes earning an extra attack through–as far as I can tell–pure fucking chance. Enemies, however, can chain together about as many attacks as they feel like, often not quitting until at least one character dies. Factor in useless animations where they spasm like a raver in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s, and enemy turns become useful moments to get stuff done around the house. Go make a sandwich. Vacuum the floor. Do your taxes. Eat that sandwich. Don’t worry. Your characters won’t take their turns any time soon. You won’t miss anything. The battles display a turn order like in Final Fantasy X or Xenosaga, but not with enough accuracy that it lets you plan out a strategy or anything. Nope. Enemies can cut their way into the sequence whenever they like, certain characters will forget about their turns entirely, and every so often they’ll even trade order, making the display more of an annoying distraction than useful information.
It feels like Sega developed and published this game at gun point; as if they pounded out a rough draft and never bothered fixing any of the problems with it. Kyrie attacks as if I equipped him with a pair of used chopsticks, while a few of the other characters can deal about 100x the damage that creatures can take. They try to balance this out by giving enemies obnoxiously high evade rates, which I’ve said before only turns battles into endless sessions of watching battle animations like you have to remember them for a test. Similar to Xenosaga and Xenogears, attacks correspond directly to buttons, with X delivering a single hard-hitting attack, and Y dealing a flurry of blows, each one dealing as much as a single X attack, and a system of magic attacks, fully powered up, allows characters to expend SP to almost deal as much damage as a single X attack. I advise you to tape down the Y button and open up a bag of chips to eat with the sandwich you made during the boss fight.
Character customization had potential, allowing the player to power up attacks at the expense of accuracy or accuracy at the expense of attacks. Magic attacks traded off power and SP cost. Still, only ever using the one attack, I didn’t feel any sense of urgency in strategizing how I’d level them up. I hit the attacks I used and then just dicked around with the rest of my customizing points to keep them from piling up. Furthermore, by the time I got to advanced magic spells, I started noticing that players simply can’t use certain attacks that they learn. At various points during the game, players learn “quips,” short phrases that they can repeat in battle. Unlike most useless battle cries, these have effects, usually support statuses, that can actually make a difference. Each character learns a total of five, and can equip…four. Again, the game doesn’t really press you to make the difficult choices.
Most dungeons consist of only a few screens, padded out with all the tedious puzzles they could think of and enemy encounters so frequent that the Toyko metro system during rush hour has more breathing room. And that serves as a good metaphor for this game. It has a lot of good things in it, but not enough elbow room to use it for anything constructive. Most of this game only exists to pad out a handful of interesting ideas into a full-length (about 20~25 hours), marketable product for the NDS, and tedious methods for making a game feel longer without actually giving us a reason to play it tend to amount to an Asian train ride; you may have gotten somewhere, but only at the expense of an unpleasant journey, and you get off feeling like someone either owes you an apology or dinner.