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

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

"We’ve come to expect three things from the Xenosaga RPGs: a deep, epic plot, an insane number of amazingly well-done cutscenes, and terrible gameplay. Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, for those unfamiliar with Nietzsche) is the long-awaited finale to the series, bringing the series-spanning storyline to a conclusion, and it meets about half of these expectations. This is both good and bad. "

We’ve come to expect three things from the Xenosaga RPGs: a deep, epic plot, an insane number of amazingly well-done cutscenes, and terrible gameplay. Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, for those unfamiliar with Nietzsche) is the long-awaited finale to the series, bringing the series-spanning storyline to a conclusion, and it meets about half of these expectations. This is both good and bad.

The storytelling, of course, remains the series’ main draw. Xenosaga is space opera on a tremendous scale, encompassing half a dozen planets and organizations and many more varieties of artificial and semi-artificial humans, each with its own deep history, unique characteristics, and niche in the rich and complex plot.

Being a Xenosaga game, of course it has cutscenes in plenty, about eight hours’ worth in total (roughly the same as the previous games, if you were wondering). But while they were mostly pre-rendered CGIs in previous installments, over half of them are of the banal “stand around and push X” variety in Xenosaga III. While they’re still all voice-acted (and the voice acting is for the most part stellar), this is an acute disappointment for fans of the series who’ve fallen in love the gorgeous, compelling movie sequences that are the series’ trademark. Although their scarcity is something of a letdown, those that are present are executed as brilliantly as ever, and they’re absolutely indispensable in bringing to life the most moving, dynamic scenes.

However, Shion is still the epitome of the annoying main character; I found myself wanting to strangle her almost every time she walked onscreen. She’s weak-willed and narcissistic, incapable of feeling empathy for the problems of anyone but herself, and her whiny, overbearing voice actor from the first game has returned to boot. Luckily, so does KOS-MOS’s; her original VA sounded cold and businesslike, a far better match for her personality than the girly-sounding woman who voiced her in Xenosaga II. Everyone’s favorite battle android finally gets some screen time and character development, mainly through her conflicts with T-elos, a more sophisticated model based on KOS-MOS’s experimental data and whose connection to her runs far deeper.

The game’s real strength lies in its subplots, though. There are four or five that have been running throughout the entire series, and each one comes to a stunning climax as pasts are finally revealed or characters’ struggles come to a head. Characters I’d previously been indifferent towards were suddenly alive and human, with real conflicts and emotions; even Shion has her moments.

The caliber of storytelling Xenosaga III displays at these times makes it really tragic that things don’t tie together in the end as well as they might’ve, as most of these subplots end up having little to nothing to do with the Big Revelation, to its detriment. If not for that, the series might’ve had a fantastic, genre-defining storyline, but as it is, it’s a narrow miss. Part of the problem is that a lot of material got cut when it was decided that the series would end after three games instead of the original six; the result is a backdrop that’s thin in places and a vague feeling of rushed work in general, particularly towards the end. Random references to Christianity don’t help, either.

Luckily, there’s more to the game than the storyline, and while the defining feature of the Xenosaga series has always been its plot, this installment actually doesn’t eschew fun in its favor. Yeah, you heard me: a Xenosaga whose gameplay doesn’t make you want to gouge out your eyeballs ŕ la Oedipus.

Gone are the random battles that stretch out for five minutes, the ridiculous loading times, the attack animations that are three times as long as they need to be. Apparently Monolith finally realized that people do not play Xenosaga for the fights, because Xenosaga III utilizes a solid and inoffensive but fairly standard RPG battle system. It doesn’t distract from the focus of the game, and it works even if it isn’t particularly revolutionary. It’s less strategic than Xenosaga II’s, but it’s much better for two critical reasons:

1. Enemies die within a reasonable timeframe.

2. The designers understand the concept of reward.

In all of the Xenosaga games, the boost system gives your party extra turns by means of a gauge that builds up when you deal damage. In this installment, however, you can also spend your boost charges on special attacks, and if you kill enemies with them, you get more experience and skill points. Suddenly dungeon crawls aren’t as much of a chore, because not only does stuff die faster, but you can pick up cool skills sooner without an irritating amount of effort. It makes you pay attention to random battles because you want to, not because you have to, and that little bit of satisfaction really does make a big difference.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some strategy involved, however. The break system has returned, but instead of the stupid break zone thing of Xenosaga II, you have special techs that fill up an enemy’s break gauge in addition to dealing damage. When it’s full, they become stunned for two turns and take more damage than usual, giving you an excellent opportunity to boost in and wail on a boss.

Xenosaga is also known for its giant robot (E.S.) battles, and while they were the worst part of the battle system in previous games, they’re no longer slow and clunky – in fact, they’re actually more fun than regular fights. Normal attacks vary with your equipment, which adds some refreshing variety, and you can pull off two or three attacks in a turn. Because you face large numbers of weak enemies instead of a few strong ones, these two or three attacks will often off foes in one hit, so you mow through large numbers with ease; at the same time, however, they can do quite a bit of damage to you in a large group, so the battles aren’t totally mindless. The upshot is that you feel like you’re making progress every time you attack instead of slowly whittling down a powerful enemy’s HP over the course of several turns. The special attack system is implemented in E.S. battles as well, except now it’s even better because you can wipe out five enemies in one hit.

The dungeon design, too, has undergone massive improvement. Again, this is due primarily to two reasons:

1. The combat doesn’t totally suck.

2. There’s actual, like, variety. What a concept!

That’s right: dungeons no longer look exactly the same from start to finish! The scenery ranges from slick, utilitarian sci-fi environments to trippy medleys of color and shape that look like LSD-induced hallucinations, but they’re uniformly bright and eye-catching. In Vector’s secret base, for example, every area looks different. In one zone, you navigate winding paths of glowing hexagons that hang in midair, curving around tall, geometric towers, while ripples of deep blue light pulsate in the background. In the next, intricate data displays fill the background; brilliant orange text scrolls rapidly down invisible windows; large, multilayered circles detailed with complicated tech stuff slowly rotate; arrows of yellow neon lights march along the vermilion pathway.

When you get bored of dungeon-crawling, you can play Xenosaga III’s addictive little minigame, HaKox (whatever that means), which is almost a game in its own right. It’s played on a 3D field consisting of a series of blocks and ledges. Up to four selectable characters from the game can appear on the field at one time, automatically walking along available paths, and the goal is to maneuver them from their starting points to their corresponding goals. You press buttons to move colored blocks that correspond to the X, O, triangle, and square buttons, changing the topography of the level, opening some paths and closing others, shoving your characters to the side, vaulting them into the air, even carrying them to different places on the field. If you screw up, your characters fall into the infinite void below the ledges, and their yells as they die are often rather amusing. There’s nothing quite like hearing Albedo, the insane hardass, wail “My existence is innnnnnnnfinite!” as his voice dwindles into silence. The further you progress through the levels, the more HaKox tests your reflexes as well as your ability to think on your feet. In one level, you have to lead two characters simultaneously through a maze of gimmicks that’s constantly changing as you mash buttons, and as though that weren’t hard enough, you have to make sure they both reach the goal on the other side at the same time.

But then you get back to the story. And while for most of the game things develop swimmingly, and all of the plot elements are fascinating and well-done, you play with the assumption that everything is going to tie together in this profound and mindblowing finale – because you’d simply expect nothing less from a game like this. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t quite happen.

Yes, I was disappointed, but not nearly as badly as I could’ve been. Whatever its flaws, Xenosaga III is the best game in the series. Its most crippling flaw is its ambition: the premise is so incredibly high-reaching that anything less than perfection is a letdown, and, well, it’s not perfect. But that doesn’t change the fact that, all things considered, it’s pretty damned good.

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Community review by viridian_moon (January 16, 2007)

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