Warning: Being a direct sequel, this review contains unavoidable spoilers of Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht and Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose
The gaming industry has learned an important lesson: unlike television shows and other forms of media, it is a very bad move to announce a multi-part series and expect to bring it to completion. We first learned this with Shenmue, which essentially got canned after two titles. Tetsuya Takahashi’s ambitious Xenosaga project was originally announced as a six-part series (some news sources said five-part). The problem with this announcement? Sequels are dictated by sales.
Though the first episode, Der Wille Zur Macht, sold relatively well, its sequel was considered a flop (despite the fact that I enjoyed it a great deal). With dwindling sales, developer Monolith Soft and publisher Bandai Namco recognized that they had to bring the series to a close. This presented an even bigger problem: Tetsuya’s six-part series now had to tell the last four parts in one game.
Well, they did it. They took some shortcuts along the way, but as the advertisements for the game say, every story has an ending. Also Sprach Zarathustra provided the most satisfying conclusion to a game, or series, or even story that I’ve experienced in my life as a young adult.
Of course, as it’s presented in game format, the story isn’t the only aspect worth considering. Let’s save the best for last and look at the other parts of the game first.
When comparing the first episode to the third, it’s clear that Monolith has made major graphical improvements during the PS2’s lifespan. However, comparing Xenosaga III to rival RPGs of this present year shows a lack of impressive visuals.
Cutscenes come in different forms, with different graphic engines running. There is in-game dialogue without character movement, in-game dialogue with character (and camera) movement, and the full motion video sequences. The latter, of course, are the most visually impressive. However, unlike the first two episodes, these sequences were prone to low frame rates and choppy animation, possibly due to load times. This came as a surprise to me, as Xenosaga I and II both had very fluid motion in their action sequences.
Another point is that, compared to I and II, Xenosaga III had fewer action sequences in general, though they were lengthy and quite enjoyable. However, if the powerhouse known as Square Enix had been part of the visual team, Things could have and would have looked a whole lot better.
As for in-battle graphics, there are a limited number of enemy designs with plenty of palette swapping. Character designs are decent, but again, not necessarily spectacular.
Overall, I’d have to say that the graphics were the weakest point of Xenosaga III. Fortunately, this weak point isn’t all that weak in the first place. I award graphics an 83%.
Much like the Aladdin trilogy, the main characters of Xenosaga had a return of original voice actors. Xenosaga II replaced the voice actors for Shion, KOS-MOS, MOMO, and Chaos. Of these four, Shion and KOS-MOS have been restored to their original voice actors from Episode I. Most fans ought to appreciate this; I know I did. As for chaos and MOMO, they both pull out better performances this time around.
(For those that don’t get the reference, Robin Williams played “Genie” in Aladdin and the direct-to-video third film “The King of Thieves.” The second film, “Return of Jafar” had Dan Castellaneta, known for playing Homer Simpson, portray a rather lackluster Genie.)
Voice acting is top notch throughout the game, with plenty of appropriate emphasis and understanding on the part of the actors. I don’t think I would have enjoyed this game half as much without the excellent cast of actors.
Similarly, Yuki Kajiura’s score for the game is the most emotionally stirring soundtrack I’ve heard in years. One song in particular, a theme regarding KOS-MOS entitled “Hepatica,” has literally moved me to tears on more than one occasion. In the previous Xenosaga, Kajiura only scored the “movie” scenes, and Shinji Hosoe did all the in-game work. Most fans hated Hosoe’s contribution, and even those who were sympathetic recognized that his style did not fit the game as well as Yasunori Mitsuda’s and Yuki Kajiura’s styles had.
I will also say that I felt Kajiura attempted to “fill Mitsuda’s shoes” in the second title, thus creating an imitation at some points rather than a genuine, heartfelt score. This time, Kajiura only had to look back on her work in Xenosaga II and improve upon that in comparison. She did a fantastic job, and I believe the soundtrack is one of the more worthwhile imports of the year. Beyond this, the music was so absolutely fitting at every moment of the game, I was simply shocked at how it all fell together. Truly, Kajiura’s score helped to make Xenosaga III more than entertainment. To use the high-brow and refined term, it is art.
I don’t know how it could have been improved, but the lesson of this series, hope in the future, prevents me from giving sound 100%. I only hope Kajiura and other composers will create even more impressive scores, and voice actors will strive harder to bring their characters to life. I give sound a 95%.
I have to, as I have done in all the other sections, compare Episode III to previous titles. The battles in Episode I were simple and not particularly challenging. In Episode II, they were extremely complex, making every battle take a fair amount of time to win. This turned many gamers away from the series. To those who want a somewhat simpler system, the battles of Xenosaga III much more strongly resemble that of Episode I. However, in my opinion, the battles were still challenging, requiring either incredible preparation or a fair sense of strategy and intuition to succeed. Even this, in my opinion, added to the game’s beauty.
Emphasis on the E.S. battles made the game especially fun and challenging. Fighting in an E.S. and fighting on foot involved two entirely different ways of thinking and planning. Particularly, the way the “boost” gauge was employed in each made for very different battle systems. In boss battles, which were always lengthy and regularly challenging, I found that E.S. battles were a completely different experience from on-foot battles.
Character growth is an interesting thing to consider. It essentially combined the skill tree of Episode I with the skill chart of Episode II. There are eight levels of skills, each costing a different number of skill points. Within each level are four options; to progress to the next level, you must learn all four. These four “options” can be traits, status boosts, ether abilities, or techniques. The “tree” comes into play in that there is an “A” and “B” path that each character can take, with a master skill at the end of each path. By the end of the game, I had each of my characters clearing one path and about halfway through the second. I had also spent some skill points on “EX” categories, which are placed above and below the “A” and “B” skill lines and feature special abilities that do not unlock any further possibilities but are oftentimes worthwhile in and of themselves.
Exploration is typical to most RPGs nowadays, but the puzzles in many of the dungeons were fantastic. My least favorite puzzles were the overused “hit switch and backtrack” puzzles, but even those had elements of creativity that many RPGs today lack.
Subquests and mini-games were few, which is to be expected for a game so absolutely linear in scope. The chief mini-game was “HaKox,” which I found to be extraordinarily difficult. I didn’t get far in it, but I imagine that it can be quite an addictive experience. As for subquests, the use of the E.V.S. (Environmental Simulator) is back to allow you access to places you’d visited in the past (they generally get destroyed after you go to them, if they even existed in the first place).
Even if the storyline were crap (which it’s not), the game was enjoyable enough on its other merits, particularly the fair but challenging boss battles, which were quite frequent in a game that uses enemy models in place of random encounters. The gameplay gets a 90%.
For many Turn-Based RPGs, it’s tempting for us reviewers to simply give Control an “N/A.” However, there is still plenty to say about button configuration, user interface, and things of that sort. Generally, the buttons of the PS2 controller all had a function, and these functions were all handy in exploration and combat. That is a big plus.
However, like the other Xenosaga games, the player is unable to control the camera. As we all learned from early Resident Evil titles, controlling a third-person character in a 3D environment without camera control is grossly unfair. The lack of camera control in an RPG of this nature, however, is somewhat irrelevant to exploration. It actually allows the designers to hide treasure chests and other secrets simply by making the camera go where they want it to go. It’s a cheap tactic, but I can’t entirely blame them for it. Besides, with a game that feels almost like a movie, one would expect the creators to take control of the perspective.
Regardless of the rationalization, the lack of camera control is mildly disconcerting. For this, I’m giving Control an average 85%. Now let’s get to the meat of this game.
At the end of each Xenosaga, I’ve wanted to rant and rave about how much I enjoyed it. Of course, there have been fewer and fewer people following the series as time has gone on, thus fewer people to discuss the series with. It’s too bad for me when someone either says “don’t spoil it for me” or “I don’t care.” But no matter how bad it is for me, this feeling is overshadowed by the warm and beautiful feeling I get when thinking about the utter perfection of this winding tale.
In the past, I have witnessed some validation for the argument that Tetsuya Takahashi and the rest of the Monolith staff have chosen to randomly throw in religious symbols for the sake of seeming deep and thoughtful, without actually making any sense of it. To anyone who subscribes to that argument, play this game and get educated. It all comes together perfectly; the use of religious and philosophical concepts are genius, and they work with virtually zero plot holes.
As I said at the beginning of this review, Episode III had to compensate for a planned four titles. Two of these four titles, I surmise, are told in the game’s introduction and through reading the exhorbitant database (a feature I loved in the first episode that was cut from the second: this time it’s back and it’s about three times larger). The “missing” episodes tell the story of one Grimoire Verum, a consciousness that existed within the U.M.N. (Unus Mundus Network) that found a way to summon Gnosis and perform what became dubbed by the public as “Gnosis Terrorism.” Shion learns of a connection between Verum and Vector, and as such she chooses to resign from Vector, and begins to work covertly with Scientia, an “anti-U.M.N.” group that fears the truth behind the convenient and easily-accessible network is one that could destroy the universe. All of the other main characters take care of Verum, and they also wrap up some personal issues, and the truth seems to become paradoxically more hidden and more unveiled. I should also note that the game, through the database and other story sequences, gives all the details regarding the cell phone title “Xenosaga: Pied Piper” that tells Ziggy’s story when he was still a human being called Jan Sauer. As Americans, we are fortunate to get this part of the story revealed. With this, we find that every character in the main party plays a significant role in the story.
The game opens with Shion, Miyuki, Canaan, and a new character named Doctus storming a U.M.N. secret database in virtual space. They’re still trying to learn about the nature of the U.M.N., its connection to Vector, and any other secrets that may help to learn the truth behind these powerful organizations and people. Among other things, they learn early on that the founder of Vector, a company that started over 4000 years ago on Lost Jerusalem (Earth), was also apparently named Wilhelm (Vector’s current president).
That’s the opening. I’m not going to tell any more to you in detail; rather, I demand you play the game and find out. If you didn’t play Episode II (or even Episode I), the database includes detailed story synopses that will help you catch up. You owe it to yourself to see the conclusion to this epic.
Why am I so excited about this game’s storyline? The better question would be: what’s not to be excited about? Here are some things I’ve observed that may sell you over to the idea that this game is worth completing:
1) The use of archetypal plot devices and character interactions. They are used in a way that is fitting rather than shallow or contrived. Offhand, I would say that the themes and events of Xenosaga make reference to varying stories such as Pinocchio, Star Wars, and of course, Xenogears. Sacrifice and redemption are all a major part of the story, which fits nicely with all of the religious symbolism. Though there is plenty of originality to Takahashi’s master story, every story uses standard plot devices. The difference between good and bad stories are that good ones use them in a way that is either fitting or surprising, whereas bad ones just use them and pretend they’re not borrowing from the past.
2) The incorporation of historical places and events. This falls in line with the use of religious symbolism, particularly in relation to Jesus (as a side note, it’s worth remembering that Takahashi had this story mapped out before The DaVinci Code). Anyway, its use of historical events in its sci-fi futuristic universe makes the story all the more relevant to this generation.
3) A solid grasp of modern science. The difference between good science fiction and bad science fiction is generally that bad science fiction relies on either outdated or simply ludicrous concepts. While it’s true that many astro-physicists still hold a strong interest in black holes (something Xenosaga barely addresses), other concepts such as heat death, higher dimensions, and possibilities of traveling faster than the speed of light are all used well. Along with the science aspect, cultural references are high throughout the game, and this is demonstrated most clearly by carefully reading the database.
4) The most intricate plot build to a conclusion I’ve experienced in a video game. It’s amazing how well thought out this game’s plot is, yet how natural it feels. Certainly, plenty of the story’s revelations were predictable to the intelligent folks who paid close attention. However, even the most astute follower of the Xenosaga series could not have predicted everything that happens throughout the third title. Tied to this is the fact that nearly everything is made relevant, and everything feels important. Even the Professor and Scott, former side-quest characters, play a significant role in this game. No one is left out: everyone and everything matters, and that is a beautiful message.
5) The most satisfying ending I’ve ever seen. Before this game came out, I spent hours at night wondering what would befall Shion and her friends. Not only does this game clear up all of the confusion and unanswered questions from the past (though many questions are only answered implicitly), what really matters is the future. Again, I have to gush about the importance of various philosophical themes. Two are extremely relevant: the fear of death, and the meaning of existence. These are questions that Nietszche himself wrestled with (hence the frequent nods to Nietszche in the game, including the subtitles for each chapter of the series). The interesting thing is that Takahashi’s answer is both fresh and honest. Acknowledging human weakness through this form of art is a difficult but important thing to do in an industry where the chief goal of nearly every game is to acquire more power.
I could rant for another fifty paragraphs about the beauty and, dare I say it, perfection of this story. Its value is incredible to all people, be ye religious, secular, optimistic, pessimistic, it doesn’t matter. A friend and co-worker of mine commented that it’s a shame Takahashi didn’t simply write a book. I don’t know if that’s the case, though I know this story would be more accessible to many of my friends if it were a book (or a film). Fortunately, the game can be shown as a film since all the cutscenes are unlocked for viewing after completing the game.
The point is that this is the kind of story worth telling and worth hearing. You may recall that speech Sam gives in The Lord of the Rings about the stories that are worthwhile, the ones that you remember your whole life. Call me crazy, call me biased, call me obsessed, but I think this story is one of those memorable ones. Honestly, I think it is the most intricate, beautiful, awe-inspiring, and simply enjoyable story I’ve ever seen in this genre of art (and I must emphasize that it is games like Xenosaga that allow me to call videogames a form of art). The only more worthwhile story I can imagine is the one that is happening as we speak, from day to day. To that story, I would have to award an 100% because as a human I have nothing else with which to compare experiences. Life is the standard, but I dare say that Xenosaga’s story has made my life that much more precious to me. I don’t mean to spiritualize or overplay this point, but I don’t know how I can say what needs to be said without coming across that way. I’ll stop rambling now and do what I’ve been meaning to do. Xenosaga III: Also Sprach Zarathustra earns a 98% in the story department.
If I could transform this game into a woman, I’d become polygamous and marry her. Seriously. This is my favorite game of the year. I doubt that even Final Fantasy XII will dethrone this game. If you’re not big on intellectual topics, if you’re not interested in culture, or you simply don’t like for games to take you to these weighty topics, stay far away. For everyone else, you need to play it. Complete the Saga for yourself. I give it my highest recommendations and a 95%, the highest score I’ve given a game yet at RPGFan.