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
So, how many Xenosaga fans are out there, reading this review? I’m assuming that if you are reading this review, you’re a fan, waiting desperately to find out whether the last installment of the series is worth purchasing or waiting for (or even playing at all!). Well, the bird has the word: go get it.
Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra picks up six months after Episode II left off, with Shion having quit Vector, joining up with an anti U.M.N. organization called Scientia, and running stealth missions against her former company to uncover a conspiracy. Fans of the first two titles in the series might find this a little odd, seeing as how Episode I and II followed directly after one another. In fact, from the very beginning of Episode III, I got the feeling that there was a whole other game that should have been between Episodes II and III with the sheer amount of fleshed-out backstory that is presented from the get-go.
You see, apparently right after the end of Episode II, some wacko from old Earth days named Grimmoire, and who was apparently still alive in the U.M.N., used a program called Lemegeton to cause Gnosis to appear and attack cities all over the Federation. Shion and Jin were able to put an end to Grimmoire and his so-called “Gnosis Terrorism,” but not before finding out that their father, Suou Uzuki, had done some very naughty things. Shocked by this discovery, and having learned that Vector had some part in it, Shion resigns from her position at Vector.
While Episode III’s story is very good, and essentially comes to a somewhat-conclusion, the fact that they make constant allusions to events as if they’d actually happened in a previous game make some of the situations awkward, especially since the closest Monolith came to providing extra games was Xenosaga Freaks (and Pied Piper, but that’s a mobile game and automatically doesn’t count). Note that both of these side-series titles never left Japan.
Moving past that, however, Episode III explores issues of the meaning of existence, the moral ambiguity of right and wrong, and the very nature of man’s ability to control his own destiny; in other words, nothing that you haven’t found in other RPGs to this point (‘cept maybe in space). I really got tired of the corny “why do I exist *angst angst angst*” that most RPGs throw at you in spades. The whole “I have nothing left so I will fight you” thing also blows chunks, and I really can’t get into it anymore. The big plot twist, revealed at the end of the game, comes out of left field and keeps running.
So what saves the story? Well two things, and neither are really up to the task. The first is that we get some sort of resolution (though not a complete one) at the end of the game. Yes, it will still leave room for another game if Namco Bandai is willing to invest in it (which they probably won’t, considering series sales, as well as announcements that this will be the final title in the series). But the best thing about the story is the Japanese’s bits-and-pieces understanding of Christianity. WARNING: Christian fundamentalists, this game will shake the foundations of your faith on the scale of The DaVinci Code (all other Christians will just snort and shake their heads at silly Japanese people). I’d love to tell you more, but there’s nothing I can reveal without it being a spoiler. Overall, the story is tolerable, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes hackneyed, but it ends the story, and I did want to find out how the story ended. This game granted that wish and threw in the longest ending I’ve ever seen.
Let’s start with the battle system. For all those worried that Monolith was going to pull an Episode II and make everyone learn a new-but-not-new battle system, don’t worry. Gone are event slots! Gone are button combos! Gone are double attacks! Due to either public outcry or sheer laziness, Monolith has streamlined the battle system so that it’s like any other Turn-based RPG. You have your regular attacks, your tech attacks, your ethers, special attacks (which use the boost gauge to execute), items, guard, change character, and escape. The only addition is the break gauge, which is interesting. Certain types of damage cause the break gauge to rise, and when it hits max, the character (or enemy) enters break state, in which they can’t act for two turns and take critical damage more easily. There is enough room for strategy, but not nearly as much as was required from Episode II.
You improve your stats by gaining experience and buying stat upgrades using skill points. There is a skill “tree” or, more accurately, a skill fork with two lines that let you grow your character in one of two ways (i.e. support skills or healing, ether attack or physical attack, etc.). You can increase the number of skill points you get by executing finishing strikes, which basically means killing enemies with a special attack. It’s a simple skill system, and that’s how I like it.
The E.S. units are back too, and this time around there’s more combat to be had. These giant mecha can now be equipped with different weapons, frames, generators, CPUs and disks. Each weapon takes a set amount of energy to use. Each generator provides a set amount of energy each turn. You can use weapons as many times as you have energy for, and what you don’t use goes away. It’s pretty simple, really.
Or is it? See, each weapon has a different elemental feature and accuracy. The more accurate you are, the more hits you score. The more hits you score, the more extra damage you accrue with each hit, and the more likely your teammates are to lend their support by shooting the target as well. So sometimes it’s better to use weaker attacks that are more accurate to build up a bigger combo.
As for the rest of the E.S. side, frames provide HP, while CPUs provide slots to install disks. Each disk confers a special ability, such as removing status effects when charging, and takes a certain number of slots in the CPU. The more slots, the more and better disks you can equip.
Finally, there is the Anima gauge, which builds as you do damage, and which you can use to unleash special attacks, akin to the character battle boost gauge. All in all, I actually found E.S. combat to leave me in more precarious situations than character combat, and I had to redo more than one E.S. battle where I was smashed outright: definitely nice to see.
The other bits and pieces of gameplay should be familiar to series regulars. The segment file is back, as is the EVS system. Returning from the first game are money/weapons/armor/accessories and the database. Oh. Lord. The database feature makes up for its absence in Episode II by being longer than War and Peace. It really is important to read, however, as it explains a lot of story elements that the characters take for granted but which, if you haven’t played the game that Monolith didn’t make, would be very confusing. And then there’s this fun/aggravating puzzle game called Hakox, which you need to play to get certain useful, albeit optional, items. So yeah, gameplay was fun, and it was one of the two redeeming features of the game, which brings me to the other…
Yuki Kajiura can now firmly be put up in the realm of the great game music composers. If her Opening Theme from XS2 didn’t pull at your heartstrings, you have no heart! Seriously, though, the soundtrack for Xenosaga III was excellent, ranging from the jazz theme which plays when Shion is infiltrating Vector, to…well, the rest is orchestral and chamber, so maybe not the widest repertoire, but excellent nonetheless. The only thing I did not like was the ending vocal song, which was pretty bad. Otherwise, the music was always fitting and properly emotional.
The voice acting was also decent, and actually featured improvements from the second game. The Shion and KOS-MOS from Episode I are back, while they kept the chaos from Episode II (a much better choice, IMO). And of course, Ziggy, Jr., Allen, and Jin are all the same, as are Margulis, Wilhelm, and Juli. Poor Helmer, though, got a really sucky new VA, and doesn’t sound as dignified.
Of particular note, however, were the VAs for Voyager, Dmitri Yuriev and Sellers. They did the best Voice Acting jobs in the entire game, and are probably some of the best in any game around, aside from Kingdom Hearts and such.
I’ll be surprisingly brief in this section; I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse. The CG movies seemed to just be using the in-game engine, albeit with a slightly higher resolution to the models. The environments were very “clear plastic futuristic,” although there were nice underground caves and ancient ruins to explore, providing a nice juxtaposition to the sci-fi setting. And of course, it’s always fun to revisit the Durandal, the Elsa, and Miltia and see areas you know so well, just a bit differently.
I was a bit disappointed to see that some enemies did the palette swap thing, but it wasn’t too frequent, fortunately. And the “how skanky can we make bathing suits” competition must still be on in force at the Monolith Soft offices; chaos in a bikini *shudder*. But in the end, the graphics get the job done and are better than a lot of what’s out there that isn’t Square Enix.
At first, the control was horrible. There’s no button to hold to walk; you have to really ease up on the analogue stick to slow down. EDIT: I have been informed by a reader that it actually IS possible to walk holding L2. But after you get over that, the controls function quite well. Menus are easy to navigate, and aside from Hakox, control never becomes an issue. And Hakox isn’t so much of a control issue as just having to manipulate so many buttons at once. Ugh!
So how does Xenosaga III stack up? Well, in the story realm, not too great, but at least the game comes to a conclusion. The graphics may not be the best, either, but they’re definitely above average, and the control provides little problem.
Where this game really shines, though, is in the fun gameplay and excellent music and voice acting. For that reason, it wins the coveted title of “not last place.” So all you fans of the series that have been playing through to reach the end, at least this one won’t make it feel like a chore. At least, I had a good time with it. Pick it up today!