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Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra (PlayStation 2) artwork

Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra (PlayStation 2) review

"I enjoy fighting in Episode III, and I couldnít be more pleasantly surprised. But the fighting wasn't what I came for. I came for solid characters and a solid plot held together by a solid science-fiction setting, something that the first two episodes delivered in spades. The finale doesnít simply meet expectations; it exceeds them in every way. "

I hate the Xenosaga series.

It's not like I love all other RPGs. I don't like Star Ocean 3. I don't like Suikoden V. But, typically, when I'm playing an RPG and I find it's boring, I stop playing it. That simple. I dislike them and I'll pour that out in a bash review, but I don't care enough for hatred.

Xenosaga, however, has garnered my hatred by subjecting me to five years of torture, spanning two painful installments. The battle system was inane. The dungeons were repetitive. The story and characters had unparalleled depth, and the plot intrigued me enough to keep playing, butÖnothing was ever revealed. Questions, dozens of questions, were asked and only few were answered. Speculations, guesses and message board ramblings; that was all a Xenofan had to go on. And I kept playing with the belief that it would all pay off, that the final Xenosaga would roll around someday; that the revelations would blow my mind and every minute slaved would be worth the pain.

It was. Xenosaga is finishing strong.

"Welcome, weaver of the eternal circle of Zarathustra."

Many people gave up on Xenosaga long ago, and I don't blame them. The series has been many things, but it's never been something for the average gamer. A slow battle system plagued with useless attacks, aggravating enemies that took advantage of your pathetic attacks, and exhausting dungeons that only exacerbated the first two problems. Annoying as hell.

Episode III eschews all that X, O, O, X button combination crap and opts for a system similar to most RPGs; you have an attack command, a tech command, a command for ether spells and, of course, the all-important special attacks. Very simple, very accessible, and while you might think that taking the button combinations out makes things monotonous, you'll change your mind once you actually get some experience; characters learn new attack and spells every other level. Not fast enough for you? Then all you need to do is spend the skill points you earn after battle, using them to advance each character down a branching path of skill sets. Every fighter's going to know every attack sooner or later, but you control how that process pans out. You decide whether MOMO's going to be a healing master or a spellcaster extraordinaire, whether KOS-MOS becomes a damage-soaking sponge or a damage-dealing powerhouse.

It's a lot of tinkering, but it's all worth it when the pressure's on and the fight's heavy and you have just the attack you need. Unlike most RPGs, all the little status-changing spells and blocks actually work. You can poison enemies and lower stats, you can freeze their boost gauge and keep them from using extra turns, you work with elemental weaknesses instead of that CABC pattern nonsense Episode II brought in, and they've even added a new Break system to the mix; enemies and allies have a Break gauge, and when that Break gauge fills up, they get knocked out for two turns. Adversaries, bosses and regulars alike, take advantage of the Break gauge on every opportunity; they've got attacks specifically designed to max it out. But, then, so do you, and one of the tightest thing about a battle in Episode III is that it comes down to choosing between killing them the usual way or wearing the Break gauge and then lowering the boom, all the while making sure you don't fall for the same fate.

But all this, all the customization and the streamlined system, it's for nothing if there's no style to back it. Episode III exudes style.

I'm not just talking about the tech attacks, where Ziggy snaps necks Sam Fisher style or Jr. becomes a one-boy firing squad or Jin slices an entire row of foes clean in half. Stuff like that is sweet, stuff like that is plentiful, but stuff like that doesn't come close to the all-important and all-consuming special attacks. Ziggy blows targets away with his rocker launcher, Jr. unleashes his true power and turns the field into scorched earth, KOS-MOS covers the screen in a blazing barrage of blue light from which there is no escape; they're every bit as effective as they're dazzling, but using them requires you to drain away your boost gauge. So it comes down to a choice: Keep the boost gauge full and have some extra turns just in case, or empty it out for a heavy blow? Tactics. All about tactics.

I expected the battle system to fail, and I expect the mech battles to fail even more; the first Xenosaga let you pilot giant robots, the second Xenosaga forced you to pilot giant robots, and it was boring both times. Tiresome, repetitive, boring.

Not anymore. E.S. battles are an intuitive frenzy, not just because they let you control three mecha at a time instead of the previous installment's two, not just because you're given a variety of weapons and armors to choose from, not even because you can wipe the entire screen clean of enemies with the incredible special attacks, but because it takes more to win than just pressing the same button until the bad guys drop. Each E.S. has a certain amount of energy. Each attack takes a certain amount of that energy. Instead of just selecting one attack and moving on to the next E.S., you get to pile on as a many attacks as the energy bar allows, letting you use combinations and giving battle a more fluid feel, like real combat. You can have an E.S. attack with ten missiles barrages. Or one beam blast and five missiles barrages. Or two beam blasts. Or five missiles barrages and a sword slash. Mix it up.

I enjoy fighting in Episode III, and I couldnít be more pleasantly surprised. But the fighting wasn't what I came for. I came for solid characters and a solid plot held together by a solid science-fiction setting, something that the first two episodes delivered in spades. The finale doesnít simply meet expectations; it exceeds them in every way.

Loyal fans would be hard-pressed to forget the first Xenosagaís database, an exhaustive index of information that oddly went missing in the second installment. Itís back, itís bigger and itís much better than before. Not only does it carry a detailed summary for the entire series, not only does it offer a wealth of information on every last aspect, but it gives you a glimpse of a universe weíve only seen the smallest fraction of. It chronicles planets, people and events that youíll never see, but still play an integral part in the overall plot. The design history of the imitation humans called Realians, the creation and integration of a massive government spanning over 500,000 nations, the nuances of every major organization and business and hundreds of other facts that would never work in the main story. Itís all just text, true, but itís a glorious testament to the time and attention thatís been put into this series.

And itís not like all that detail goes to waste; Episode III lets you see more of the universe than ever before. Watching Fifth Jerusalem from space and then descending in an orbital elevator, walking the streets, going where you please, taking in every facet; clubs, bars, hotels, everything youíd expect to be there and many things you wouldnít. When you walk through the ruins of decimated world, it actually looks like the ruins of a decimated world. Abandoned cars litter the streets, buildings are caved in, the sound of battle echoes in the distance and you almost believe the fight could come your way. No repeated textures. No area looks like any other area.

Itís staggering, but like the revamped battle system, itís nothing if it doesnít have style. Every characterís story needs to come to a definite conclusion. Every plot point needs to be tied; every secret needs to be revealed. The real identity of the mysterious entities called Testaments, the true agenda of Wilhelm, the nature of KOS-MOSís divine aura and a dozen other mysteries need answering; five years worth of tangled plot threads ache to be unwoven..

They are, and theyíre done in grand style; Episode III is the sort of RPG that continually keeps your mouth open in awe. You can hardly go an hour without something happening that defies description; either something reveals itself or a plot twist comes out of nowhere and changes the whole scheme or you get to watch any of the gameís sweet fight scenes. Watch as Shion and Jin put their martial art skills to the test, as the E.S. slash and blast through hordes of weaker machines, as KOS-MOS brutally engages in mortal combat against her new and deadly rival, T-elos.

Ah, T-elos.

T-elosí presence alone would override any blemishes in Episode IIIís scheme. She looks vaguely like KOS-MOS with a darker color scheme, was designed for the same purpose, has similar functions. But where KOS-MOS is calm and logical, T-elos is extreme and crazy; the antithesis of her blue-haired counterpart. She smiles. She taunts. She shares KOS-MOSís voice, but with a dark, seductive, sinister tint. And while she makes relatively few appearances, itís okay, because every time she shows up you know that somebody is about to get the beating of their lives. A dark goddess with cruel and unbridled fury, all driven by an insatiable and irrational hatred of KOS-MOS, making for some of the most intense battles ever to grace a TV screen.

And T-elos is only one of the additions that make Episode III such a satisfying experience. Thereís Citrine, Jr.ís Ďolder sisterí, a young girl whose quest for purpose highlights her little brotherís. Thereís Abel, a young boy who seemingly appears out of nowhere and adds a new set of mysteries to the massive pile. And, of course, thereís Doctus, the smart and smart-aleck leader of the criminal organization called Scientia, constantly speaking in Latin with a voice that Ghost in the Shell fans will recognize as that of our beloved Major Motoko Kusanagi.

The best thing about all this? It comes with a cutscene viewer. You can watch any event, any time.

Episode III garners my affection because itís the true culmination of the series. Not only does it strengthen its already-strong storytelling, but it finds more power in its former weaknesses; combining the combat systems from the first two episodes, adding in new elements, improving every problem and making battles that are finally on par with every other aspect. I look for some downfall, something to disappoint, something to hate, but I find nothing. Thereís no aspect of Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra that does not amaze me.

I love it.


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Staff review by Zack Little (September 13, 2006)

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